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.