Hi, Folks… I just got in from Utah yesterday, and my animals and garden are hollering for attention. (Jim is not hollering, because he went with me.) I’ll wait to write about our trip for next week.
Meanwhile, here’s something I wrote in advance. It’s an update of a piece of the same title that I wrote for Tor.com in 2008.
Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve noticed a funny thing. I’ve had close on twenty-five novels published since late 1994 when my first novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, came out. During that time, no one has ever come up to me and heartily thanked me for writing a stand-alone novel.
Seriously. You’d think someone would have done so, given the lack of respect that series, especially fantasy series, get. But no one ever has.
Although people tend to think of me as a “series writer,” I’ve actually written quite a lot of stand-alone fiction, both long and short. There have been plenty of opportunities for people to praise me for writing just that one novel. However, usually the response is the opposite. When I say, “No. I don’t have any plans to write a sequel to Child of a Rainless Year” (or whichever book is under discussion), I immediately hear why I need to write more about those people and that place.
By contrast, while I’ve never been praised for writing a stand-alone, I’ve had a lot of requests for sequels – and not only to novels, but to short fiction as well. When I finished the Wolf Series (which starts with Through Wolf’s Eyes and ends with Wolf’s Blood) I had copious e-mails asking if I was really, really done. Now, eight years later, not a month has gone by without a request for more about Firekeeper, Blind Seer, Derian, and all the rest.
Some kind folks even pointed out minor elements I had left open. I felt genuine appreciation that these numerous someones could put that much energy into picking apart something I’d written. However, I also pointed out that, short of blowing up the world and turning out the lights, there is no way to absolutely, categorically end a series.
So it seems that readers like Fantasy and SF series. Yet, apparently, the fastest way to fall from grace is to write one. Reviewers sniff. Books in series seem to have a lower shot at award nominations. Later books in a series seem not to get reviewed as often – although I think this last is changing.
Why, then, are Fantasy and SF series the girl everyone wants to date, but no one wants to take home to mother?
Here a few thoughts on why, followed by my own approach to avoiding these pitfalls.
Fantasy and SF series are too often an excuse for writing one novel that spans several volumes. Unlike Mysteries or Thrillers, which have a set goal, Fantasy and SF series can go on and on without closure.
Why did this become acceptable? Partly because, when more complex Fantasy and SF stories began to be told, the market simply wasn’t ready for Fat Books. Lord of the Rings is one story. So are the first five Chronicles of Amber (and the second set, too). But in the age of the skinny paperback these complex stories had to be split up, and readers became conditioned to the “weak middle book,” lots of repetition, and all the other things that can make series weak.
Another problem is the time lag between books in a series. I know that I almost didn’t read the second Chronicles of Amber because I’d noted a five year lapse between the copyright dates of volume four and five of the first set. When an excited friend called me to tell me that there was more Amber, my reply was “I’ll wait.” (Then because of a camping trip, I didn’t wait, but that’s neither here nor there).
Then there are the books that become a series, but were never intended to be such. Some of these work out very well. Others read like what they are – an attempt to capitalize on an unexpected success, but showing that the author really lacks the fire and organization to make subsequent books live up to that first golden one.
I was very aware of these pitfalls when I started the Firekeeper Saga (aka the Wolf Books) – which was my first project I planned as a series.
(Aside: Changer was not planned to have a sequel. I was open to the possibility, even had ideas in mind, but it was not sold as part of a series. By contrast, the Firekeeper Saga was conceived and purchased as a series.)
To deal with the first part of the problem, I decided to take one of my favorite mystery series: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels as a model. In each of these novels, Peter has a problem to solve: a body in a bathtub or whatever. While he solves that, he also must deal with personal challenges: unresolved romantic attachments, post-traumatic stress disorder, his relationship with his immediate family. By the end of the novel, we know who the body in the bathtub was, but the personal problems may or may not be resolved.
I like this approach. Although my novels aren’t murder mysteries, I try to pose myself a question at the start of each one, a problem that will be resolved by the end. This isn’t always easy, and I don’t think I quite managed with the end of Wolf Hunting but, overall, I’m happy with what I did.
I tried the same tactic with the “Breaking the Wall” series and my new “Artemis Awakening” series. In both cases, I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that Powers Beyond My Control insisted that the novels be shorter than the Firekeeper books. For the “Breaking the Wall” books, I managed by giving the problem a tighter focus. However, for the even shorter “Artemis Awakening” books, I had no choice but to make some serious changes in my previous series format.
One change I made was limiting myself to two point-of-view characters for Artemis Awakening. (By contrast, Through Wolf’s Eyes had at least three major and several lesser.) Another change was that I had to leave one major plot element – a certain door – unresolved.
For those of you who have read Artemis Awakening, I promise you’ll get the answer to where that door leads in Artemis Invaded.
On the author’s side of the equation, the problem of delay between volumes is solved by applying fingers to keyboard and tail bone to chair. And working – hard.
However, the author is not in sole control of when a book will come out. Even if she turns her manuscript in on time, scheduling is in the hands of Someone Else.
As an aside: I’ve talked to several self-published authors. Although they have somewhat more control over scheduling, wild cards (health problems, complications over some element in producing the book itself) can mess up even the best intentions. In fact, since most self-publishing operations narrow down to one person, a problem with that one person can lead to more, not fewer delays…
Most of my work has been traditionally published. Although release dates have varied, I will say this: I’ve missed one deadline. That was when my father died. Even then, I was only six weeks late turning in the manuscript. I really try not to disappoint my readers.
So… How do you feel about series? Avoid or anticipate?
Also, any questions about the complexities of writing series? I’ve had a request from a “ghost” reader of these Wanderings that I talk more about how I approach it… I’d love to include your questions, too.