When I go to a bookstore, if I pick up a book that looks good, it invariably turns out to be the third (or fifth, or seventeenth) in a series, the first of which is no longer available. If I like the series, the next book won’t come out until next year (or it never comes out). That’s because the imperative of marketing has put a huge pressure on genre authors to deliver a repeated, similar experience to readers.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s a reality.
We as readers feed the series machine, but how are we as writers to cope? How can we stay grounded and creative when we are expected to be a brand and to deliver a repeatable experience? Many writers these days do think in terms of series writing, but there are pitfalls to avoid.
A recent Philcon 2016 session discussed “Continuing Your Series after the Original Conflict Is Resolved.” The panelists were writer Jack Hillman, the audio dramatist Jay Smith, writer Jane Fancher, and writer J. Hunter Cassells.
Hillman wrote his first novel as a standalone book, but to his surprise, sold a trilogy. He found out in the process, he said, that “There’s always more to tell.”* Now his agent asks for a synopsis for “this book and for the next six books;” that sounds daunting, but he said can always change what he’s going to write later. He often builds on (unintentional) Easter Eggs in earlier novels. “You know it doesn’t work any more when the public stops buying the novels,” he said.†
Jay Smith writes what he calls “serialized soap opera,” and that kind of writing is by definition a series. Within the current story, he said, he introduces a secondary story that will rise up, and he brings supporting characters to the front. Character is key. Many authors believe the gimmicks are what sell, but gimmicks (he used zombies as an example) are boring.‡
To Jane Fancher, the advantage of a series is that your books already have their world-building, and as Smith said, an interesting character won’t stop being interesting. The disadvantage of a series is that in a standalone novel you can go back and revise to make the ending inevitable; you can’t do that in a series because your first book is already published. Look at it in three-book arcs if you are under pressure from publishers, she suggested, or consider writing a prequel, answering the question, “How did it get there?” Deliver a pitch to your agent that you’ll give them consistent quality.
Takeaways: To write a good series, make your characters strong but make them change, not only over the course of the book but over the course of the series. Build on secondary stories, bring minor characters to the forefront, and capitalize on Easter eggs. Don’t rely on gimmicks. Write prequels or parallel stories if you don’t want to prolong the current story past its natural life. Create strong plots that stand on their own but still leave possibilities for the next book. Be brave. Be original. Bring passion to your work. And be grateful if your most terrible problem is having sold a series.
We all know examples of series that don’t work. What examples do you have of series that deliver on expectations while still being fresh and original? Please let me know. I’m always looking for good models (and new reading).
Next: The science in science fiction
*A similar thing happened to me. When my first book was accepted, the editor gave me a contract for two books, the second to be delivered very soon after the first. My euphoria at acceptance (I cried and laughed) was matched by my immediate terror. Though the first book had taken shape over a very long period (and then marinated for a while), the second book had to be written in a prolonged sprint, and I had resolved all the conflicts in the first book. I got around that by putting the sequel in the same universe, around the same set of events, but with a different protagonist whose story arc intersected with the first novel’s events only at the end. It made sense to me at the time.
† Yes, that comment struck terror in my soul. I suppose if you’re an established writer with a publisher that has confidence in you, you can afford to take a series one book too far. Babylon 5 was actually cancelled a season early and then renewed, but according to its creators it was always intended for a fifth season; I don’t buy it.
‡ A series that didn’t work, he said, was Douglas Adams’s books, and one that did work was the Walking Dead series, in which both characters and threats continued to change. I take his point. At one time I could re-read Douglas Adams happily. I realized a few years ago that Adams ran out of ideas and relied on snark and panic for a very long time, not surprising when his most frequently quoted statement is, “‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” The panelists agreed that the Dragonlance books have no real connective tissues. However, there are plenty of series books that we hate which seem to sell anyway; as Jane Fancher said, “There is a readership and it’s not you.”§ A series that works is Pratchett’s Discworld books, which take place in his off-kilter universe; there are series within the series, like the Vimes books and the witch books. I can re-read those books indefinitely.
§ The group agreed that romance is the big exception to everything they said. In romance, characters don’t repeat, and the plot is always the same.