Serial Killers


David—prompted by Daniel—suggested that one of us might take a stab at thinking through the trials and tribulations of writing a series or serial, and I volunteered because this has been much on my mind of late. I’ve just turned in the second in my middle grades Darwen Arkwright series. The first book isn’t out till October 2011 but I am contracted to turn in a third book in the series next year. Whether there will be more books in the series, however, I don’t know. Publishers are understandably wary of committing to long series (unless the author is very well known in the genre) without sales numbers to back up their hunch so I’m unlikely to know whether mine is a trilogy or something longer till after the first book is released.

This leads to my first point and it’s one that builds on something David has said before about what series are and their differences from an extended arc novel. If you haven’t read this yet, you really should. The short version is that a series is comprised of individual, self-contained stories whose characters continue into subsequent stories, while the extended arc novel or serial is a single story broken into parts which absolutely depend on each other for coherence. The Two Towers, for instance, is not and was never intended to be, a stand-alone novel, but is the middle section of the Lord of the Rings. It seems fairly obvious that in terms of both writing and selling your work, you need to know which you are writing.

But the distinctions between the two can get pretty tricky. Since I’m writing a middle grades series let me take a familiar example from that genre. The first Harry Potter book is a stand alone novel, as is the 2nd and the third. From that point on, however, they seem to require a larger frame more insistently than do the first books, and there is a sense that even the earliest books of the series are coy about supplying total closure. This is a key element of both serials and series: the persistence of the prime villain or negative force. The difference is that in a series though some future continuity of the larger story is possible, even anticipated by the story, there is still a feeling of completion. But wiggle room is possible. The fact that a series has to be made up of self contained units doesn’t mean there isn’t progression along a larger axis: characters grow, new mysteries appear that can’t be completely solved in one book, the narrative landscape at the beginning of book 3 is subtly different from what it was in book 2, and so on. This is probably as it should be. In fact, let’s add a term to our serial/series lexicon: a SEQUENCE, by which I mean books which are part of a series (not an ‘extended arc’ style serial), and which are stand alone as stories but which progress through a larger arc over the course of the books and should therefore, ideally, be read in sequence. The Harry Potter books, I would say, are a sequence. My Darwen Arkwright books are too.

Part of the reason you have to figure out where your books fall (series, sequence or serial) is that publishers are understandably wary of serials by unknown authors. They want the option of determining how many books there will be based not on internal matters of story but on sales numbers, and know that they will incur the wrath of their readers if they pull the plug before the larger narrative has been wrapped up. Also, I suspect the reading public is more distractible than they used to be. Even a legitimate serial can lose market traction when its books roll out twelve months apart. This means that the erstwhile staple of fantasy fiction, the trilogy, and other extended arc books, can be a tough sell for new writers. As has been said before on this site, if at all possible, think of your serial as a series/sequence and your odds of a sale get better.

I sold the first of my current middle grades WIP as a two book deal. This was extended to 3 books, but the first book won’t be out till October and so I’m about to start thinking about book 3 without a clear sense of whether there will be a book 4 or more. Obviously I will need to know as soon as I can whether I should be wrapping up the series of continuing to let it develop. And in truth the difference between them is not as great as people might assume. Take the Harry Potter books for instance. Any number of them could have ended with a show down which defeated Voldemort once and for all, including book 1. That they didn’t is a credit to their popularity but if, in some alternate universe, the publisher had determined that the series end at book 4, it could have done, though the larger story is certainly richer for the other books. If you approach a publisher (or an agent) with an overview of a series which requires seven complete books to tell the story, I think you’re going to have a very hard time. But come up with a story where, in spite of resolving all the key issues in a single book, questions and possibilities persist, inviting rather than demanding a sequel, and you are on much firmer ground.

So what makes for a good series? Characters, certainly, and the world or setting of the books. Tone too. Much of what books feel like is about the way their story is told not just what the story is. You want the reader ending the book feeling that they’d like more of the same or, better still, more which is slightly different, slightly more revealing of those things the reader liked in the first place. A series or sequence is like a pub: somewhere you want to come back to spend time with the people inside.

I’m not sure if this answers Daniel’s original prompt. If more questions come in, I’ll do a follow up post next time.


16 comments to Serial Killers

  • AJ, I never understood where my own books fit into the series/serial market until now, and it’s because I write purely in neither, falling outside of them both. I write a Sequence with occasional Serials between certain books. The first two books of the Jane Yellowrock were pure Series. Yet, Blood Cross began a Sequence to be ended by Raven Cursed, with Mercy Blade and Raven Cursed as pure serials. Oh my. I may be confused again. 🙂

    Thank you! This was lovely help. And at some point, I must read Harry Potter. *Sigh* So many books, so little time.
    Or — so many Chihuahua Killers, so little time.

  • Thanks for explaining the subtleties of series versus serial versus sequence. I’ve been pondering this issue a lot lately myself because I’m writing a trilogy. I want each book of the trilogy to stand well on its own, but I also expect that reading them out of order would be a Bad Idea.

    Additionally, if I enjoy writing the first three enough, I may do a second trilogy featuring some of the same characters (similar to David Eddings with his Belgariad and the books beyond that), but with a different extended arc.

    It sounds like each trilogy would be a sequence, and the relationship between the trilogies would just be identified as “A [main character name here] novel,” or something like that.

  • Okay, so what I’m working on then would be what you call a Sequence or sequential series. Now, in a sequence with a metaplot, how much of that metaplot or the overarching storyline needs to be fleshed out at the get-go, do you think? Can some of it remain fluid, malleable, or should it all be set in stone at book one? I sketched out the main motivations of the “big-bad” and key setting bits that need unveiling at the right time, but without knowing how many books you’ll be doing, it looks like a difficult task to weave it all in and make it possible to end the metaplot at each book if need be. Not impossible, just tough. After all, if the Harry Potter books would have ended early, it may have been possible, but I think for me, it would have left dangling questions, much like when TV execs force a TV series to end before all the plot points are pulled together. WHO IS BOOK!!!! err…yeah, I digress. You also need the protagonist learning new things in each book about his situation or surroundings, or on the verge of a breakthrough in a previous book to keep interest, and the metaplot needs to keep moving and evolving throughout. Seems to make for a huge juggling act, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. 😉

    I had asked because I really wasn’t sure how much had to be plotted ahead of time for a series and when I posted on my blog that I was considering a series a couple others became interested in the process and I thought it might be a good MW post, since there were at least three of ya working on series-like projects. 🙂

    I guess another question would be, should you have an idea in mind how many books you want it to run when you start or just leave that up in the air?

  • Faith (nice new pic, by the way: you look like Blondie! :)),
    Your sense of the series makes sense to me. I keep referring to the Harry Potter books because I assume everyone has read them! I guess not.

    I think what you are planning sounds good. The more independently the books stand, the better bookseller will like them, (readers new to a series are likely to be scared off if the one that catches their eye has a big number 3 on it), but the larger story may demand it. And a spin off series isn’t a bad idea either, though that really will depend on how well the first books sold.

    different authors will answer this in different ways, of course, but my instinct would be to keep things fluid. I’d be particularly wary of targeting a set number of books. What I would set in stone from the outset is the RULES of the series: the world, magic system, basic moral alignment etc. But even there things can be bent and reshaped. I think readers like everything in the series to evolve, complicate, so laying down a very straight line for the narrative like a railroad track at the outset can feel restrictive, and stops you from making discoveries along the way. Even the most careful of plotters are going to have new ideas over a multi book series which is going to redirect the whole and you want that flexibility built in. Most of the authors I know who have addressed this honestly admit that what LOOKS like it was planned from book 1 when it shows up in book 7 was really dreamed up much later and cleverly built in, and I include the Harry Potter books in this. You think Mrs. Fig was a squib planted to look after Harry when she appeared in book 1? No way. Nice to have her reappear and surprise us later though.

  • Thanks AJ. I *am* Blondie! *grins*
    The photog did a *very* good job.

  • Thanks for tackling this, A.J., and for giving us the term “sequence” to fill that gap between extended story arc and true series. I would actually suggest that aspiring authors be specific about the number of books in a project when pitching to a publisher. True, publishers are reluctant to take on multi-book projects from unknown authors, particularly if the project seems overly ambitious. But publishers do tend to like having another book in the works, just in case a first novel takes off. And they hate any proposal that seems amorphous. I think it’s prudent to have two or three self-contained books in a proposal. This gives the publishers three things they like: Potential additional books to make them more money; a finite scope to the project; and books that each stand on their own. My $.02. Your mileage may vary….

  • Thank you for separating out the differences between series/serials/sequences, AJ. It’s really got me thinking.

    So my YA WIP was originally one novel, but it turned out to be too big for a YA novel. So I found a way to split it into 3, and it definitely fits the description of “Extended Arc Novel”. I was told outright by a Tor editor that the first one needs to stand on its own for sales purposes, so that’s how I’ve arranged it. But if pressed, I could completely rewrite the next two books and make them into one. I can also think of other ways to take the plot after the story arc of the three books.

    Meanwhile, I have another set of ideas (set aside in the proverbial desk drawer for an extended time out) that started as one book, and I also realized that they could be teased apart and be made into something that better fits the description of “series”.

    So the moral of this post is, be flexible?

  • Fair point, David. Thanks. As Laura says, theey is probably being flexible. A series with legs, as they say, is certainly attractive, and everyone always wants to know what your next book will be when you sell one. I’d just be cautious of impklying that book 1 isn’t really worth anything without books 2 through 7!

    And yes, Laura, flexibility is key. If your story seems too big for a single book, focus on a part of it (it worked for the first Star Wars film, right?). I think the Tor editor is pretty representative of the industry right now. Everyone wants a stand alone first book, even if a series is in theorks.

  • Unicorn

    None of my ideas have ever decided to be anything more than stand-alone novels. I’ve hardly ever been tempted to write a sequel to a novel, maybe fresh ideas come too quickly.
    I think the Harry Potter books must be the best series I’ve ever read. More than anything else, I loved the way that Rowling foreshadowed the tremendous events in book 7. For some reason, though, I detest book 5. I think possibly because in my eyes Harry was being so dreadful in book 5. A lot of very important things happen in the book, though, and I always thought I didn’t like it because it was so grim, but book 7 is pretty grim too and I loved it.
    Eh, I’m rambling. I need to get some selep. I mean sleep.
    Thanks for the post, AJ.

  • Unicorn,
    actually, I think your “ramble” is very relevant. Book 5 is, to my mind, the weak link in the series, despite the appearance of the wonderfully awful Umbridge and some key plot developments. The problem is that its main plot is almost all about the larger story (much of it back story we kind of already knew). The book itself doesn’t have a coherence and self-containment that the others do (and I don’t think the writing is as good as book 6). She got away with it because we were all hooked by then, but if book 5 had actually been book 2, or (worse) book 1, I doubt teh series would have kept going.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    What is your opinion about very long series? Some series continue for very many books because they are popular, and so obviously the author is doing something right. On the other hand, when I really like an author I often look forward to NEW projects they might be working on. Do you think fans/marketing generally support new directions or really just sticking with the tried-and-true?

  • Hep,
    that’s a tricky one. Some authors get defined by a successful series whether they want to be or not. Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill of Sherlock Holmes because he wanted to write something new, but his fans demanded that he brought him back to life. I understand the desire to want to move on to new things but also the need to satisfy fans. In truth, this would be a very nice problem to have! Most of us will never have the kind of continuously robust sales numbers which demand more of the same. I suspect that some series just continue with moderate numbers however, and in those cases I’d be tempted to go in a different direction, under a pseudonym if necessary. But unless I was really sick of a series, I’d probably keep it going while writing new books which I was more excited about at the same time.

  • Tom G

    AJ said, “A series or sequence is like a pub: somewhere you want to come back to spend time with the people inside.”

    Enough said! That’s it exactly for me. It’s a place I want to go spend some time with the people there.

  • Flexibility is always good, but I’m shooting for a trilogy for very specific marketing reasons. 1) It’s hard to go wrong with a trilogy in fantasy. 2) The more books you have on the shelf, the more books you sell (this is true on a virtual bookshelf as well as a physical bookshelf), mainly because… 3) If a reader finds an author they like, the WANT more books by that author.

    I also want to know the exact number ahead of time because it will be much easier to lay out the “metaplot” as Daniel so nicely put it. [BTW Daniel, was BOOK a Firefly reference?] I also don’t want this thing to go on so long that I die before it is finished and leave a bunch of pissed-off fans like Robert Jordan did!

    Personally, I don’t give a hoot what an agent or publisher will say because I’m going to self publish [he says, dodging tomatoes]. I plan to sell the first book of the series for $0.99 (and may even offer it free at first/periodically), and the others will go for $1.99 or $2.99 in electronic form. Print versions will also be available (for a higher price of course) using POD.

    All that said, I pay very close attention to what you guys tell me agents and publishers want, because agents and publishers are smart cookies. They mostly know what readers want (the mass market anyway), and their standards of quality, while falling, are still the best in the industry. I want my books to be indistinguishable from what a publisher like TOR would put out, and better if possible.

  • @D.R. Marvello – Yeah, it was a Firefly reference. 😉 Though I hear they brought out a comic called The Shepherd’s Tale that reveals some things, but I haven’t managed to get a copy yet. It wasn’t the best example of forcing an ending (cause they didn’t give them time to try), that one goes to The Doll House, but even with the Serenity film there were some plot points left dangling.

  • Tom, glad you liked the pub analogy 🙂

    hmmm… well, you know what I’m going to say. I don’t think the marketing argument applies to self-pubbed e-books. I just don’t see how you draw attention to your books in a crowd of the 750,000 other self-pubbed e-books which will appear next year without some other built in draw which probably has nothing to do with content at all. I’d be delighted if you prove me wrong, of course, and wish you the very best of luck with it.