Avoid or Anticipate?: The Problem of Series

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.

Three of My Series

Three of My Series

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.

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9 Responses to “Avoid or Anticipate?: The Problem of Series”

  1. Jay M. Says:

    tl;dr I avoid series unless episodic or really special; questions at the end

    Wow. Lots of complex thoughts in my head. Let’s see if I can organize them.

    As a reader, I dislike the “I’m publishing an unknown number of books and you have to read them all to get one complete story” series for two reasons. The first reason is that too many of them have books which are just part of a story, with no resolution at all, and requiring detailed knowledge of previous books. (I started one series in which the first 3 books all take place in two weeks of the protagonist’s life, but came out over the course of 2 years, and there were going to at least another 3 books before the story ended. I hated that. I never finished that series.) The second reason is the uncertainty of the author finishing the series (or the publisher actually publishing the final volume if the sales numbers slip). In both cases, I prefer to wait to see if the series actually has all the books published before I read it, which of course hurts the author because I’m not buying each new book as it comes out.

    I prefer the Lord Peter Wimsey model listed above, although I’ve never actually read those books. Now I have to. That was the style of the Garrett, P.I. books by Glen Cook, too. I like it when each book has a stand-alone plot, but series readers who keep coming back get something extra by reading the whole series. (I like that mode of television as well, although F&SF TV shows seem to have gone either for purely episodic or purely my-gods-is-this-ever-gonna-end models.)

    In spite of all the above, I’m actually buying one nine-book series as it comes out right now, and the wait of a year or more between books is starting to aggravate me. It started episodic, but now, in the home stretch, it’s turned epic and the author (more power to him in his career) is taking on other projects in between finishing the last few books of that series.

    So, for the most part, I avoid. A big-story-across-many-books series has to be really special for me to invest that much time in it, especially before the whole thing has been published. I am more likely to pick up an episodic series with bonuses for series-followers *IF* I know it’s episodic.

    As for questions about writing series:

    When selling a series to a publisher, do you have to know how it’s going to end? And if you tell the publisher “5 books with ending A” and you need to change to 4 books … or 7 books … or ending B, can you?

    When writing a series, how do you deal with a new editor who might not have read all of the previous books, and who doesn’t understand why character A can’t fall in love with (or kill) character B?

    Is there even a major publisher who WANTS to publish a stand-alone novel these days? Or are they all looking for novels with “series potential” even if they haven’t bought it as a series?

  2. Sally Says:

    I do like stand-alone books. You know you’ll get from beginning to end without endless waiting for the next installment. They’re a nice change of pace from the sweeping epics, as well.

    I miss Firekeeper. I would have enjoyed more, but the last book set things up at a good ending point. Firekeeper stories, in general, had a nice pace. I wasn’t dying for the next book, fearful that I’d forget too many details to go on, and yet I’d sit down and read the next one as soon as I could. It was like catching up with old friends.

    Some series I’ve had to go re-read the first books before I could read the last, because so many details had been lost over the years. There’s several series that I waited until all of the books came out before starting them, just to avoid this problem (I keep putting off Game of Thrones for this reason, and will have to start all over again if/when Rawn comes out with her last Exiles novel).

    I’ve read series that seem to have jumped the shark (can you do that with books? Or is it a different phrase?). I usually continue to read them, just to know what happens at the end. But that’s unsatisfying. I like authors who tell their story and move on, even if it means saying goodbye to characters that I really liked. As for series – I either need them published on a regular basis, be episodic, or have a quick review at the beginning of the book so I can recall what was going on to go forward.

    And that’s my 2-cents.

  3. helixredeemer Says:

    I actually really appreciate this post a lot. One of the things I discuss with my friends about certain books I read is where an author could have continued it and where they should’ve just given up (perhaps that’s rather harsher than what I meant).

    I do enjoy series because it means that there is more room to explore a world where we have invested for at least one novel. If the novel is well written, then stand alones can work well. I felt like Through Wolf’s Eyes could either have been a stand alone if necessary or continued (as happened). There are other such novels where people continue the stories and make the reader want to bang their head against the wall (ie Hunger Games series) because the story feels much more forced than the natural flow of what was happening. Things feel stretched, convenient rather than natural and gives the reader an excuse to roll their eyes in annoyance saying “of COURSE that would happen” vs “while I knew the potential for something like that to happen, it came along with the story.”

    Hope I made those thoughts clear. Anyways, as for novels in general, whether or not I would prefer a series or a stand alone really depends on the author in question. I have read several authors who have skill in adapting both to fit the story they have crafted, and have seen poor attempts at writing one or the other when it wasn’t in the author’s skill set to be able to accomplish.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    I’m happy with Child of a Rainless Year. With Changer, and Changer’s Daughter, it kind of felt like there was a series there, but it got cut off due to lack of sales, so my reaction would be to prompt for more.

    I’d also suggest there’s another problem with SFF: world-building. It ain’t cheap.

    With SFF, it can take years to figure out how some world works, more so if you want to make it realistic. For example, I wrote a book set on a moon of a gas giant. Because I’m a nerd, I took a couple of weeks to unearth my high school trigonometry and work out what the gas giant primary and other moons would look like in the sky over the course of years, simply to get the sky right on a given day in the story. Then I ran my model by an astrophysicist I know to make sure I got it right (I did). Oddly enough, the book didn’t look like hard SF unless you were paying attention to what the phase of the gas giant was in the sky and how high it was above the horizon.

    When someone puts that kind of work into a story, whether it’s in the phases of the moons or dynasties, spell-books, pantheons, and history, is it even economical to send it out in a 100k word stand-alone book? Much better to amortize it over a series, I would think.

  5. Liz Bennefeld Says:

    I like series. If I enjoy the first book, I tend to pre-order the sequels as soon as I can. While it is frustrating to me as a reader when a series is canceled, I appreciate the longer time available to get to know the characters and worlds/places in depth and the more numerous and various relationships and interactions. I enjoyed the Wolf and Breaking the Wall series and have pre-ordered the next Artemis book.

    My favorite, though, is still Child of a Rainless Year.

  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    In my own limited experience, what matters is the story to be told. If the story spans multiple books, but doesn’t leave me hanging in mid-air or worse (looking at you “Catching Fire”, the book not the movie), it’s fine. Though dragging one element too long can dangerous. You get tired of it taking to long to be resolved. Thus you have to balance a consistent draw with reader tolerance of said draw.

    Oddly enough, your strategy mirrors the Honor Harrington books (at least, the ones I’ve read so far). Each one has it’s own problem to solve, but the relationships and world live well beyond each book. It’s almost like each book is an episode in some TV show. There are parts that carry over, but each one has something of its own to offer for a shorter time. Yet the character’s journey continues installment to installment, which can be just as fun as a constant problem.

    On the other hand, sometimes the story is just one book and that’s that. I saw no need to expand on “The Buried Pyramid”. It was a good story that I thoroughly enjoyed, but when it was over, there wasn’t anything more to be had. More would be forcing it, which is extremely risky, and rarely worth it. Though sometimes, a nugget plops out, and gives birth to more anyway (I.E. “Changer” and “Changer’s Daughter”).

    If I had one question on series writing, it would be this; Any thoughts on what to do when the story requires a regular or semi-regular be phased out of the main focus? They had their role, and readers are attached to them, but now they must take a lesser role, which may become almost or completely nothing. Something that could irk quite a few readers.

  7. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I haven’t read too many F/SF series because, as mentioned above, I’m never sure the publisher will let the author finish – although many classic SF “novels” back in the day originated as series stories in the magazines. I’ve gone through a number of mystery series where, in each case, the mystery part could be a stand-alone but the story also advances something about the protagonist (I’m thinking of Grafton’s “Kinsey Millhone” series, Parker’s Spenser – still being continued despite Parker’s death, as are his Jesse Stone and Appaloosa series – and even Patterson’s “Women’s Murder Club” which even lost one of its members along the way). I wonder how many F/SF books turned into a series after starting as a stand-alone, and how various authors pulled that off? Maybe like the sequel to “Changer”?

  8. Jane Lindskold Says:

    Thanks for the hints as to what you’d like to hear about regarding series. Feel free to keep the questions coming, because it’s going to be a bit before I can write the sequel to this post!

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