How Not to Write a Series

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I probably shouldn’t tell you this but, way back in the ’80s, I didn’t set out to write a series. When I had the first inkling of the story that became the first Nightrunner book, Luck in the Shadows, I thought I was writing a stand alone fantasy novel. But that book turned out to be two books, a duology, and then my editor asked if I’d do another one in the series—apparently it was a series now, with the beginnings of a following—and I said yes.  I knew at that point that I wanted to write more about this cast of characters, and said as much in the foreword to Traitor’s Moon. But I was a bit drained at that point, too. I didn’t want to crank out another book without inspiration because I knew it wouldn’t be a good book and I felt the series deserved better.

So I did a stupid thing. I took a few years off to write a trilogy—OK, nine by the time everything was in print— and then I came back to the first series refreshed and wrote two more books—another duology—the second volume of which, The White Road, is coming out on May 25,  and now I have contracts for two more free standing books and . . .  Well, you see how it goes.

Why was that a stupid thing to do?  Because ideally, you write the books in a series back to back, one a year. Get them out fast, keep it in the public eye, keep the momentum up. I didn’t do that. Did it hurt the series? Yes and no. Yes, in that I let enough time go between books that the sales numbers dipped and that’s never a good thing. But that was in the short term.  I wasn’t a book-a-year writer. Anything I turned out in a year would have been crap and that would have hurt me a lot more than time.  I have gotten faster over the years, which a good thing because the market has gotten a lot less forgiving.

But the good news is that the series is alive and well and doing fine. Luck in the Shadows, has been in print continuously since 1996. It just went back to press for the 15th time and at last count there are over 100,000 copies in print. The rest of the series follows suit. No, I’m not a best seller, but in a business where book longevity is often measured in weeks or months, that ain’t bad.  With seven, soon to be eight books in print and two more under contract, I take up respectable real estate on bookstore shelves.

So, given my whole bass ackward approach to series writing, how did it survive? I think one reason was due to its structure. Many series are made up of long story arc told over a number of books. My Tamir Triad is that kind and no way could I have taken a nine year hiatus in the middle of that and expected to have any readers waiting when I came back. But the Nightrunner series was inspired, in more ways than one, by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon; a collection of related adventures starring a regular cast of well-established characters. Stories are completed, new adventures begun. You aren’t left hanging book after book for the end of the story. For that reason, character is particularly important. Not that it isn’t in any book, but when you don’t have an ongoing plot to pull the reader along  you have to instead instill the desire to see what the characters are going to get up to next.  In my case that’s what keeps my readers coming back. I know that because they tell me so.

Another advantage of an episodic, as opposed to a single arc series  is that you have short term goals—short being a relative term. You can tell a whole story in 140,000 words, with a beginning, middle, and an ending that gives some closure. The tricks are to 1) leave the reader wanting more and 2)  reintroducing the world and its denizens without bogging down in repetitive exposition.  This becomes doubly difficult when you realize that you’re probably going to have some new readers jumping into later books without having read the earlier ones. How do you give them enough back story without boring the socks off your long time readers?  It’s a juggling act. As I write the sixth book of the series I have to ask myself, “How much of the back story matters at this point? What needs to be restated?” Locale descriptions, significant secondary characters, political or cultural systems, are all important, but perhaps the best measurement is “What does the reader need to know about these characters’ histories to engage their interest and have this story make sense?”  This usually involves writing too much detail and paring it down in rewrites.

These days I’m trying hard to be a book-a-year writer and keep up the quality. It’s tough and I still skid past deadlines, but so far my editor has been sympathetic. She wants my books to be good, too. But the extensions have gotten shorter and warnings more stern. If I was breaking in now, as the writer I was twenty years ago, I probably wouldn’t make it. My advice to slow writers wanting to break into the business? If possible, write the first two books and sell them as a package, along with an outline of future books, if possible. (I generally don’t  have a clear idea of what the next book will be until I finish the one I’m working on.) That will give you some breathing room to get the third in the can.  Of course, that all supposes that you know you are writing a series.


Lynn Flewelling

http://otterdance.livejournal.com

http://www.sff.net/people/Lynn.Flewelling


Thanks to David Coe for inviting me to be an occasional contributor!




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31 comments to How Not to Write a Series

  • Lynn,
    thanks for this. It’s particularly helpful for those of us in the midst of multiple series and trying to figure out how to prioritize our workload!

    Cheers

    AJH

  • Welcome to MW, Lynn. Thanks for contributing. Your experience, particularly the more recent aspects of it, tell a lot about the way our dear publishing business has become. Seems to me there’s going to be a breaking point where the pressure to produce quickly is going to plummet the quality of books across the board. Yes, some people can produce several books a year with good to high quality but I think the majority take at least a year and many take longer (especially since most authors have day jobs to pay the bills). It’s a tough, crazy situation, yet it seems like more and more people want to get into this messy business. Anyway thanks for sharing your story.

  • Lynn, we were thrilled when we heard you were willing to be a guest contributor here at MW. (Long-time-fan. Hear the fangirl squeals!)

    My AKA (Gwen Hunter) was in the position you were in — not intending to write a series — back the mid-90s. I thought the life of a writer was uncertain back then, but it seems a lot less certain now. And you are so right that the numbers of people wanting to get published (for the first time) seems to be rising every year.

    All this leads to 2 comments.
    Comment 1.: A writer with a following and a proven track record of finishing projects can write 2 books and reasonably expect to sell them. Maybe with a 75% or better chance of a sale, all depending on past sale numbers.

    Comment 2.: A not-yet-published, and slow, writer who writes 2 books to sell as a two-fer deal, might have only a 20% chance of making that all important first sale. And I am being optomistic. If the 2 the books don’t sell at all it is a crushing blow.

    Trying to form some sort of plan from the two comments leads me to this…

    While writing faster might be impossible, do you think it might be wise for the slow writer to try to sell the first book while writing like mad on the second one? Keeping an eye on other projects one might want to write in the event of a non-sale, of course. I’ve known writers to have several books in the hopper before that first big sale, and then they pulled from their very own slush pile to fill in between series books. Do you have thoughts on this?

  • Lynn Flewelling

    Thanks, everyone, for the warm welcome! I really like Magical Words and I’m honored to be here.

    Faith, I think you’re absolutely right, if two book deals are tough to get now. “Back in my day” (I hate being able to say that) the more books you could offer, the better, assuming the editor was hooked by the first one and the continuing idea. Thinking back, I got the two book deal, but the second book was not quite done. Nowadays, does the editor buy one and see how it does in sales before they buy any more?

    As for multiple projects, that is a very good idea. My problem is that I get so consumed by one project that it’s difficult to even think about others. That’s another thing I’m working on. I’m putting together the idea for a new project as I write book #9, but it’s tough going. I know people who have ten projects going at once and I am in awe of that! But the bottom line for me is “What do I need to do to write a *good* book?” Better one really good one than five OK ones. That’s *not* to say that people working on multiple projects aren’t writing good books; I just have trouble doing so myself.

    Those of us trying to make a living at this are forced to put out as many books as fast as we can, and that’s certain to affect quality if things keep getting tighter. It’s hard for people writing my kind of fantasy. Readers still expect big books in which they can submerge for a good long ride. My last one was shorter than usual and I got complaints. Some genres have shorter books, and let’s face it, you can write those well in less time.

  • Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for joining in the fun! We’re tickled to have you!

    Nowadays, does the editor buy one and see how it does in sales before they buy any more?

    I don’t know how common it is, but this is what happened with me. My agent attempted to wrangle a three-book deal, but my publisher offered a one-book hard-soft instead. Which was just dandy with me, since I wanted to sell the book, but now I wish we could have held out. Not so much for the assured money (although that’s a large part of it) but because I’ve learned that I write much faster and more efficiently when there’s a concrete deadline. And making up my own deadlines doesn’t work the same way for me. I get more done when I know someone else is sitting there tapping her fingers on a desk waiting on me. I hate for people to have to wait on me!

  • QUOTE: I’ve learned that I write much faster and more efficiently when there’s a concrete deadline. And making up my own deadlines doesn’t work the same way for me.

    Same here. If I have a concrete deadline that someone else is imposing, and especially if pay is involved, I’ll meet it. If I try imposing my own deadline I don’t end up keeping it.

  • Great to see you here, Lynn. Welcome to MW. For those who are less familiar with Lynn’s work — the Tamir Trilogy she mentions (THE BONE DOLL’S TWIN, HIDDEN WARRIOR, THE ORACLE’S QUEEN) is one of the finest fantasy trilogies I have ever read. A stunning, haunting concept developed with sensitivity and elegance, and written with some truly kick-ass battles. Great stuff.

    That you’ve been as successful as you have with the Nightrunner books, despite the hiatus, is testimony to the quality of those books as well. But I think you’re right that in today’s market it’s not exactly textbook marketing strategy. I am writing shorter books than I was when I began (not just shorter, but 100,000 words shorter!) and I’m churning them out faster. Now, I believe that I’ve managed to maintain and even improve the quality level. I think that, for me, shorter is better. My prose is tighter, my storytelling more efficient. And with more experience and a better handle on my craft comes increased output.

    But the rules have changed, too. Selling more than one book at a time is tougher now for those just starting out. The market is less forgiving, less willing to give an author the chance to build a readership. So my question to you, oh wise one, is what would be the right way to do this? Do you think story arcs or a series of stand alones would be an easier sell? What length would you suggest an author shoot for with his/her first book? If writing a story arc, how do you balance a satisfying ending with the “there’s more to come” strategy? And how much do these answers differ today from what they would have been 15 years ago?

  • Lynn Flewelling

    David said ” I am writing shorter books than I was when I began (not just shorter, but 100,000 words shorter!) and I’m churning them out faster. Now, I believe that I’ve managed to maintain and even improve the quality level. I think that, for me, shorter is better. My prose is tighter, my storytelling more efficient. And with more experience and a better handle on my craft comes increased output.”

    I’m finding the same, to a point, but one of the things the NR books depend on is multilevel plotting and that’s harder to fit in. But the actual writing? Absolutely. One comment I got several times was that my style had changed between the third and fourth books. I guess that’s inevitable, and to the good, at least for me. I certainly write tighter.

    As for marketing stratgies, hmmmm. If you try selling an episodic series and it doesn’t fly, at least you have a completed book and story out there, which, if it’s allowed to stay in print, might take on a life of it’s own and later encourage the publisher to give you another shot. That’s all pretty unsure, though.

    I’m not sure why they would buy only one book of a long-arc series. If the first book, which will be by it’s nature incomplete, doesn’t do well, then you’re out of luck and it will mostly likely go out of print much faster.

    Bottom line, if that’s the rules they’re playing by these days, I’d almost say write a stand alone book and see if you can get your foot in the door. It’s always easier to sell an idea with some success under your belt.

    “If writing a story arc, how do you balance a satisfying ending with the “there’s more to come” strategy? ”

    When I first wrote Luck—the manuscript that turned out to be Luck and Stalking Darkness— I sent it out to agents. The best advice I got, which I took, was to have a short arc in the first book that was completed, so that there was some satisfaction, but to also make it clear that there was more to come. I sowed the seeds of the greater arc thickly, and when the short arc was complete, the reader was left thinking, “Great, but what about x, y, z?” The Tamir books are a bit different. I didn’t intend any of them to be read as a standalone, and so the endings were more of an intentional “to be continued” cliff hanger.

    If I were breaking in now, I’m not sure what I’d do differently. I write the books that I write, because that’s how my brain works. Whether or not I could sell them? Who knows? They continue to find readers. Hopefully an editor would see the potential, as my editor did. Wish I could be more informative, but I think an agent or editor could better answer that question nowadays. Thoughts, Lucienne?

  • Lynn, how would you apply this advice to those of us with full-time day jobs? I wouldn’t consider myself a slow writer, per se, but Real Life does present an obstacle.

    Yay, another writer to follow. 🙂

  • Lynn Flewelling

    Moira, the writers I know who do have day jobs and successful writing careers are incredibly disciplined. They carve out their writing time and guard it jealously. They sacrifice other pastimes—tv, hobbies, family events—in order to make their word count. I wear a few other hats myself, with some side editing, and find I have to be disciplined about that or it gets lost by the wayside, too. It’s tough. I started writing before my kids were born, and actually got fired from one job for writing when I should have been doing other things. And that was years before the book was actually saleable. Later one I was a stay home mom/writer and had to snatch writing time from the maelstrom of that. You just have to decide how important the writing is, and weigh that against other things claiming your time. I interviewed Anne Rice years ago, and remember her saying that she spends months constructing her books in her head, the writes them in a few months, hardly getting dressed, skipping friend’s weddings, etc.

    The sad thing is, when you do write full time, for me at least, it’s harder to maintain that discipline. You could say that I have all the time in the world, but it’s unstructured by any outside force except contract deadlines and the necessities to keep life and marriage intact.
    I can write, or not write, any time I want, so long as I keep a sharp eye on upcoming events i have to budget the time for. For example, I have an October deadline for a book I’m 36K into. Should be plenty of time. But half of May is already gone, taken up by my younger son’s college graduation, which involves a week of travel and being away, then turning around a week later and heading off for another week for a writing workshop I’m teaching on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. (Tough life, right? Space still available if anyone’s interested, too!) The events themselves take time and need my attention and energy, in addition to being events I want to be involved in, but there’s also the getting ready to go time, which can be substantial, and the recovering when you get back time. I’m an extroverted introvert and while I love all these public activities, I come out of them drained and exhausted. I have to factor that in, too. And then there are the days when the brain refused to cooperate, or you have to rip out everything you did yesterday or the whole week because it was a wrong turn. Add to that all the time I have to take for self promotion and things like blogging and it all adds up against the writing time. It doesn’t help that I hate organization, but that’s my burden.

    I think the main difference between being a full time or part-time-with-day-job writer is that for me, my distractions are more of a choice.

  • Beth Collins

    Hi Lynn 🙂 I just finished reading Oracle’s Queen and I have to tell you, I think you are a genius! I loved that series as much as I loved Anne McCaffrey’s books.. you are a skilled world-builder.

    Thanks for your comments on writing while keeping a full time job. I have several friends to whom I will forward a link to your article. Thanks so much for your work!

  • Lynn,

    Welcome and great first post (this is your first post right? I think I saw that up in anothers comments.) Also, thank you for sharing your story. It’s nice to hear how you started out while so many of us are also starting out.

    Of course, as Faith and you said there are more of us trying to get published every year and that thought is a little breathtaking to think about. It’s overwhelming to think about especially as someone whose fresh into the writing biz as I am.

    Do you see any struggles for new authors trying to break into the writing world besides the other billion people they are fighting against? And do you have any advice to set oneself apart from the others?

  • besides writing to the very best of our capabilities… of course 😀

  • Hi Hinny,

    I think the biggest struggle right now is the shrinking of the markets. Once-independent publishing houses are being absorbed into others and editors are being laid off. That’s less people to read our work and decide on it.

    I’m hesitant to lay out strategies these days, since things have changed so much since 1995, and selling books is different once you have a few books in print and a relationship with agents and editors. Lucienne Diver is a fantastic agent (and I should know!), as well as a fantastic writer. I’d love to see her blog on this.

    As for billions of new writers trying to break in, that’s always been the case and always will be unless the whole industry finally collapses and expects us to work for free. And even then, there would be quite a few people who’d do it anyway. But you have to remember that new writers are breaking in everyday, and if you have the writing chops and are willing to do the hard work that getting published is, you can, too. But it’s work and an art in itself. Read all you can written by published authors on blogs like this and in magazines like Writer’s Digest. There are a gazillion books on the subject, written by authors and agents. Agent Don Maas has some great books out and I’d encourage you to check them out. If you can’t break in with the major houses, there are more and more small ones cropping up and putting out good books. I think as time goes on, they will really be taking up the slack for the shrinking house problem.

    Hope that helps!

  • Hey Beth! Great to see your pixels. 🙂 And thank you!

  • Thanks Lynn, I’m actually just starting on my researching phase, I love it here and I also like Writer’s Digest. I’ll have to check out Don Mass’ stuff too. I know he’s got some good stuff out there.

    As for hard work, that doesn’t frighten me. Writing is the first thing that makes me feel whole and I’m not going to give up on it anytime soon!

    Good luck with THE WHITE ROAD in May, and your next two venues!

  • Thanks Lynn for your insights into series writing. I have always dithered between what I wanted to do in regards to writing series (at least to try to break into the business)and your article helped firm up my thoughts on the subject.

  • hinny, I wrote an article on query letters that people have found helpful. It can be found at the SFWA website these days: http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/the-complete-nobodys-guide-to-query-letters

    There is a wealth of knowledge at the SFWA site available to non members, as well. Should have mentioned that earlier.

  • Hey, Lynn! Hi, all! Hinny, I don’t know if this helps at all, but I posted yesterday on my blog about “What it Takes” http://varkat.livejournal.com/154603.html. Yes, there’s a lot of competition out there, but those of us in the business are, for the most part, her because of our love of books, so even as busy as we are and as reluctant, sometimes, to add to our workload, we can help but become excited by something that really tickles our fancy. I’d say that what often distinguishes the good from the great is a truly amazing voice and compulsively readable style. Many times what makes something “compulsively readable,” aside from the pacing, is the attachments we form to the characters and the stakes that are set for them.

  • You know, I really should copyedit my comments before I hit “submit.” Sigh.

  • One thing I’ve seen that’s killed many a series is the loss of interest. Not on the part of the audience, on the part of the author. Hate to say this, but I just don’t see George Martin finishing A Song of Ice and Fire because the fire is gone. The Lord of the Rings took a long time to finish, but Tolkien’s interest remained high and it shows through out the book. You don’t get that feeling with ASoIaF. The impression I get is that Song has become a chore, and that is a story killer.

    So keep the fire alive.

    Second, know where you’re going. You don’t have to know exactly how you’re going to get there, but you should at least know where you’re heading. As an example of this (spoilers coming up) in Thomas Harlan’s Oath of Empire the story is a tragedy in which the protagonist Prince Maxian becomes (literally) the Dark Lord. Everything builds towards that. But, along the way an Egyptian wizard-priest who supposed to become Maxian’s adversary — the Gandalf to his Sauron as Tom has himself admitted — meets an Arab merchant by the name of Mohammed, and the course of alternate fantasy history is changed. The Egpytian is now doomed, to be replaced by a prophet and boddisvatta, Gandalf as angel and agent of God.

    So know how the story is going to resolve, and stick to that resolution.

    Finally, end the story. No matter how long it takes, end the story. Oath of Empire ends in tragedy, The Lord of the Rings ends in a melancholy triumph. What will A Song of Ice and Fire end in? I don’t think Martin knows, and that is the tragedy of A Song of Ice and Fire

    Were I to do a story, a series, it would be a transformative work based on John Wick’s original mythology for the world of Kara Tur for the RPG Legend of the Five Rings. A work in which the Unicorn Clan betrays itself to the dark lord Fu Leng; Kara Tur’s Devil and lord of betrayal and tyranny. A story in which the Unicorn Clan is brought out of the darkness by the Scorpion Clan and through self-sacrifice redeems itself in the eyes of the gods.

    But, there is a price. Having betrayed the gods the Unicorns must pay a price. Their old world is now forbidden to them, and they have lost the right to be human. The price they pay is that they become orcs, but as a reward of sorts for rebelling against the tyrant Fu Leng their steeds become unicorns; just not fairy tale unicorns.

    So I know where the story is going, it’s a story I’ve kept my interest in for some time know, and there is an end to the story. It is a tragedy, there is hope, and there’s the possibility of a sequel. And that’s how I would handle a series were I to pen one.

    And how might it start?

    Horses are smart at being horses. Which means they tend to have overactive imaginations. Especially yearling stallions, and this one was acting out in a manner typical of a horse with an imagination in full bloom. Fujima was working through his third fantasia of equinicide as the beast made his fifth circuit of the ring.

  • Thanks so much Lynn! I’ll check it out soon 😀

  • Lynn,
    Welcome to MW and thanks for the insight. I’m writing my second unpublished novel in a second world with different characters and already planning a third separate series. My hope is that one of them eventually sells and when my (future) agent and editor ask what else I’ve written, I’ll be able to present them with finished novels and outlined series. I picked this advice up from several authors, including C.E. Murphy of MW.

    I’d like to know your thoughts on differentiating the stories or series. Does each one need to be a new world? I’ve considered writing a set of stories a millennium earlier than my first novel, Shadowslayer, set in the same world.

    Thanks again,
    -NGD

  • […] How Not to Write a Series | Magical Words (Writing, Series, Advice) […]

  • Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. It’s better for those of us in the ‘wannabe-trenches’ to have our eyes wide open about our chances… It’s madness, but we have to try anyways(:

    Seriously looking forward to getting my copy of ‘The White Road’.

  • New Guy Dave: My two series take place in the same world, but 500 years apart and with separate casts. However, they compliment each other, as the Tamir trilogy is, in part, the “prehistory” of the world in the Nightrunner series, and there is a slim thread that starts in the trilogy and ends in the series.

    There’s nothing wrong with writing totally different worlds for each series, though. It’s a lot more worldbuilding, but if you enjoy that, then it’s more fun!

    One advantage I imagine for writing in different worlds is that if one doesn’t sell, you have something different to offer.

    Hope that helps!

  • There are just more and more awesome people showing up here. I really need to get to the bookstore and buy some stuff.

    It’s really nice to hear about the experience of writing the two different kinds of series from the same person.

    I guess I’m curious as to whether the book a year thing applies more to episodic series than to extended story-arcs. Of course, nine years is a lot either way, but do you think an episodic series would be hurt more by a year or two break, or an ESA? (Obviously it’s good to keep the fire burning if you can.)

    I mean, I don’t mind waiting for the next ASOIAF book that much, because there are so many other books to read in the meantime. (And because not enough money or time have carved the concept of delayed gratification into my tattered, oozing soul–but that’s another issue.)

  • *looks at Lucienne’s copy-edit comment and nods sadly*

  • Atsiko: I think a long hiatus would hurt an episodic series less. That being because for that sort of book, you spend some time bringing the reader back into to the world, whereas with a long arc, you can begin in media res. The expectation with the LA is that the reader is keeping up. Making them wait so long that they forget what was going on is a real problem. It is a problem with episodic to some extent, though; I hear from a lot of readers that they are rereading all or some of the NR books, getting ready for White Road (after nearly two years 🙁 Not entirely my fault, that—for once) but they seem to feel that it’s not too much of a burden. 😉

  • Hi Lynn, thanks very much for this article. I apologize if this is a difficult question to answer, but here goes: which of your books do you recommend most to people who haven’t read your works?

  • Moses: if you want high adventure, then Luck in the Shadows
    If you like dark fantasy, then The Bone Doll’s Twin

    The two series are related, so if you really like one, you might like the other, too.

    Thanks!