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