Six impossible things

Series Considerations

So I’m sitting here trying to think of a blog post for today, and I get an email from a woman who is preparing to sit down and write her first novel, but she has questions. I read a little farther, and it turns out that she’s thinking ahead. Far, far ahead. She’s not just planning to write a trilogy or an open-ended series; she has a five book series planned out, and then a six-to-eight book set of prequels focusing on different important characters. And she is naturally worried about how to market an eleven-to-thirteen book series, not to mention wondering which of the stories she should start with.

This is far from the first time I’ve run into someone with this sort of problem, and the first question I always ask is, how much of it do you already have written?

If the answer is “None; I wanted to know about the marketing part first,” the would-be author generally has some considerable misconceptions about how publishing works…not to mention how difficult the writing part is going to be. They are usually thinking too far ahead…or rather, they’re counting on needing to think like that. Most multi-book series — interlocking trilogies, trilogy plus spin-offs, main book plus prequels/sequels/spin-offs — got to be what they are because the initial offering (whatever it was) sold really well. Planning a three or six or twelve-book series is all very well, but if the sales aren’t there, you aren’t likely to get an editor to buy more than the first book or two, no matter what your plans are.  Publishing is full of horror stories about experienced authors who started something like this and had it canceled out from under them because the sales didn’t live up to the publisher’s expectations; this is even more true of first-timers.

Authors who have actually written most of a book or six have different problems.

About half the time, these authors don’t have a good feel for what their actual story is, or don’t know how to stay focused on it. They keep getting distracted by the cool background for Character A that they had to make up to explain that incident in Chapter Seven, or the neat subplot that is just so interesting and keeps expanding and maybe should be its own book. The other half the time, the authors have Tolkien’s Disease (aka Worldbuilding Syndrome), and they’re totally sure that their many pages of notes and history and previous tales and background and culture are going to fascinate just as many people as his did. Or they’ve fallen madly in love with their character(s) and can’t bear to write about anyone else.

The thing is, if you want to write a trilogy or a series, you have to have enough story to fill it. Not enough world; not enough characters; not enough background or history. Enough story. (You need the other things, too, but a lot of would-be writers fill their book with them, instead of with a story. And then they wonder why editors won’t buy their work … )

There aren’t actually a whole lot of stories that need 900 or more pages to tell them. Even if the author is trying to tell a detailed life-history of their highly-adventurous main character, there are generally shorter stories within it that add up to the person’s whole-life. And making each book a key episode allows for a lot more flexibility than beginning at the character’s birth and moving on until they die.

The other problem is that there really aren’t that many Tolkiens out there, and by that I mean authors who are perfectly happy tinkering with the same characters and world and worldbuilding for forty years. People grow and change and learn; the things they are interested in expand and alter. The world and the characters that are absolutely fascinating right now may not look nearly so interesting in five or six years, when you’re only half done with your planned interlocking story. This leaves the author with the choice of abandoning their work half-finished (which is not really fair to their readers), forcing themselves to write something they find more and more boring and/or stifling, or desperately trying to twist the world/plot/series into some new and more interesting shape (often by writing the sort of spin-offs my correspondent was already planning before she’d even started her series!). None of these are terribly satisfactory alternatives.

Furthermore, writing, like music and painting and most other arts, gets better with practice. Lots of writers have started off by writing a completely unsellable first novel. (Hardly anybody does this on purpose, but it still happens quite a lot.) If this turns out to be the case for you, and your first novel is Volume I of a trilogy, then the whole trilogy is unsellable — nobody is going to buy and publish parts 2 & 3 without part 1 to start things off. (There are ways around this, but they all amount to making each book stand on its own, rather than telling a continuous story over the course of three or four books as is commonly done in trilogies.) Even if the first book sells, it is highly likely that a first-timer will find Book 3 noticeably better than the already-published series opener, and Book 5 even more so. This is vastly disturbing to some writers.

On the other hand, passion counts for something. So my first advice to someone in this situation is usually “Do some thinking, and if you still want to try this, go for it. But go with your eyes wide open.”

Eyes wide open means:

1. Thinking hard and clearly about your story, and whether you actually have enough for five novels plus spinoffs, or whether what you have is two books’ worth of story and a ton of notes and appendices.

2. Considering how you are going to feel and what you are going to do if your massive five-volume novel-and-spinoffs don’t sell. As a first-time novelist, you’re going to have to write them on spec (meaning, without a contract). Are you obsessed enough with this story to spend years writing it regardless of whether it sells? (Yes, you can self-publish it on Amazon now, but the same question applies: will you be happy if it doesn’t sell?)

3. Think about leaving yourself space for you and/or your story to change on you. If you get to the middle of Book 3, where your heroine visits the dwarves, and you suddenly find yourself desperately wanting to write the story of what happens if she stays there, you are not going to be happy if you have locked yourself into the typical quest narrative that requires her to continue on her quest to defeat the Evil Overlord. If you develop a passionate interest in climate change, but you can’t write about it because the imaginary world you’ve invented doesn’t allow for that, you are likewise going to be unhappy. You can’t plan for everything, but you can deliberately leave yourself some wiggle room.

4. Think about an exit strategy. If you are writing a massive five-volume novel with a clear ending, and you get bored or grow out of it in the middle, you are up a creek. If you have nineteen individual adventures planned that take your hero from grad school through becoming Galactic President, it’s a lot easier to just stop at the end of one of the books.

If you have your heart set on a story that can only be told in many, many pages — well, do it. You’re far more likely to do a good job on a story you desperately want to tell (no matter how idiotic a choice it may be in marketing terms) than on something you’re just doing “to fit the market.” But if you are thinking of writing a trilogy or series because you see a lot of them out there, and it kind of vaguely looks like a good idea because maybe it would sell … think again. Tell the story you want to tell, and let it be as long as it needs to be. Worry about marketing it later.

17 Comments
  1. I resemble your letter writer in that I have a world I’ve fallen in love with. I have three only loosely linked novel-length drafts set there. I actually moved to write stories in other worlds to give myself more flexibility and freedom when publication started to look more likely. I’m afraid of putting out a story in my favorite world too early and having it not sell well because I haven’t gained some critical mass of skills or fans.

    But from this post, maybe I’m being foolish. Maybe I should write what I love best at this particular moment and pray that my first solo work sells well enough that I can keep revisiting the universe as much as I (think) that I will want to.

  2. I am the sort who never intends to write a series. I don’t want a series! I want to get my idea down and done, preferably in under 13000 words. But, of course, some stories are like nested dolls. You put one in and then it’s like, oh, but there’s some really complex history and backstory here, maybe this needs a prequel. And then I write the prequel, and it alters so much that it’s nearly impossible to fit the earlier-later book into the same canon.
    Ah well, one of the joys of writing on spec is that it doesn’t matter if the books actually fit together. They aren’t a series. Their need to link up exists only in my head.

  3. The real fun of series is that stories change and grow in the writing.

    So you have the choice between writing yourself into a corner in the first publishing book or writing them all and only then trying to publish.

  4. I agree with this post 100%. I also would maybe recommend writing a stand alone solo book first. My first book was complete and utter crap. So bad that I didn’t even want to take the time to edit it. My second book was just as bad. It wasn’t until my fourth book that I felt like I was getting to the “sellable” stage, and if I had tried writing a large series at first, I might have felt heartbroken to put that much effort into it only to have it languish on my computer.

  5. Eh, some people’s metier is short, others’ is long. My own metier is very short and it took me years of writing to work up to book length.

    If the writer’s metier is series-length, he may not have a choice.

  6. I’m a natural trilogist, so I’m coming at this from a slightly different angle anyway – and I hear this advice ‘go for the single volume first, until you’re confident you can sell a trilogy’ and when the stories that interest you are trilogy-length, that’s as much use as ‘write short stories first’.

    There aren’t actually a whole lot of stories that need 900 or more pages to tell them.

    From where I’m sitting, there are a lot. But a lot of them are not character-centered heroic adventures; they’re more likely to be epics which span a lot of time and space. And then there’s the roman fleuve, the series of interconnected novels in one world that chronicle a turning point for the world – something on so vast a scale that a single person’s story, a single group’s story – would not allow for it. (I have one of those in the works, and I occasionally revisit it. It has, indeed, the limitations of me having done the worldbuilding when I was fairly young, so it’s a relatively average renaissance-ish world with not overly imaginative magic, which is why it’s not my main focus – but ‘the story I want to tell’ lies, to a great part, in the combination of all the individual stories that make up the books and trilogies set in this world: a significant chunk of the social order gets dismantled bit by bit, shaken up, changed.

    I certainly didn’t set out to _plan_ this, but once it became obvious what I had on my hands, my interest in the world increased again.

  7. *prods the world*

    Heh. I wrote about 8 drabbles on my blog. I was incorriged (being incorrigible, you see) to make a full book out of them. It turned into… a number of things, and finally a fat, self-published, modestly successful duology. (It’s earned the equivalent to a small first-author advance, anyway, as well as paid for art costs. Modest success!)

    Then I wrote another book in that universe. Which winds up being #1 of a trilogy (with, thank Bast, different protagonists in each book). And there’s 2-3 more of them eating my brain, and then another character ambushed me in the car this month (despite me screaming, “No! Shut up! I’m not finished with Trilogy Book 2 yet! There is a queue! And you are at the back of it!”).

    I am looking forward to getting the books out of my system enough to write some other ideas I have. So. Looking. Forward. To it.

    I so did not plan this. If I’d planned it, I’d have gotten the duology, 1-3 at least semi-standalone SF books, a bunch of short stories, and maybe then circled back. *headdesk* No, instead I have a bunch of this world’s stories, with their various characters eating my brain.

    *goes back to finishing Trilogy Book #2*

  8. Ah, but what if you didn’t plan?

    I’m currently working on the third book of something that actually started out as a short story. The story was published, as was the first book. It sold to a really small publisher, though, and I’d like someone larger for book 2. The rights to #1 have reverted to me.

    Second book’s written but not sold. I had thought it would be the end of the story, but no.

    I’m having increasing trouble working on book 3, though I do want my characters to reach what I now realize was the goal all along. It seems stupid to give up now.

    I wish the over-planner and I could meet and split the difference in our approaches.

  9. A.Beth – Aye, books do that. My first novel was supposed to be a one-off; I was sure I didn’t have any other stories to tell in that universe. Cue a double-dozen short stories, another novel in progress, and two more in the composting stage that are duking it out with all the other stuff in the queue!

    …it beats being short of ideas, I guess?

  10. I am one of those who love interconnected stories. I’ve actually just written — well, half-written — the very first totally *unconnected* story in over fifteen years of writing. (It was a strange feeling.) I’m currently planning what I think will be a long series of episodic adventures — more on the line of a mystery series with the same main group of characters than a single long story arc, although there will be elements of the roman fleuve as well. I have to admit I delight in planning out lesser arcs, but I do rather wonder about how my craft of writing will change … we’ll see.

  11. LizV: Aye, that it does! Though I wish I wrote faster. This one’s finally in the end-stretch for the first draft, and… I’m sick, the kid is sick and pathetic and currently narrating her trials with Active Cat Who Wants To Walk All Over Her Lap, and needless to say, this puts the kibosh on my “too sick to sleep; I’ll go write” plans. *sob*

  12. Interconnections. Yes, that’s the word. My brain loves to make connections. So even when I tried to write an episodic series, I ended up developing an overarching plot thread– in spite of not knowing what the first story would be when I started, or what the second story would be when I started that one. I hadn’t made plans, but they still ended up connecting. And the third story, should I write it, will doubtless connect up even more.

    But the thing is… I didn’t plan it. I don’t need to plan it. It will connect whether I plan it or not. Which is something I discovered about myself as a writer, and which is why I never bother to make plans anymore.

  13. You did it. You laid out the ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’ cleanly, coherently, and best, without talking down or discouraging those who asked. I’m bookmarking this post for when people ask me those questions.

    Every writer needs to find her place, her length, her scope – and then to be able to expand her conception of herself as a writer.

    We need facts – so we can make our own decisions. This kind of information about the consequences of choices is stuff that can take years to figure out.

    I don’t know if having it upfront would have made an iota of difference to me (we’re all special snowflakes, aren’t we?), but I found myself smiling as I read your ‘Advice to a beginning serialist.’ Good, all good. And well-written.

    Alicia

  14. I wonder, just a little bit, if what might be going on is that old classic “fear of success.” It takes a lot of confidence to plan on throwing something out there and if it doesn’t work, fine, but if it works that’s fine too, and I’ll figure it out as I go.

    It’s great to dream of being unbelievably successful but it’s sort of scary, too, and needing to have every detail of that success planned out before you even start, seems to me, might just be fear.

  15. Victoria:

    “fleuve”?

    Flow?

  16. Gene:

    River. as in Fleuve St Laurent, which would likely be marked as ‘St Lawrence River’ on you maps. Applied to watercourses on the grand scale that flow past many shores – and many, many stories – before they reach the sea.

    I’ll leave you to draw the analogy 😉

  17. A.Beth – I wish I wrote faster, too. I finally got my WIP out of the mire… and Life promptly attacked, determined to not let me have two consecutive days to work on it. (Days? Hah. How about five consecutive minutes?) Hope y’all are feeling better by now.

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