Last week, we talked a bit about fantasy series and why I think they’ve come to dominate the fantasy landscape.
This week, I want to briefly go over some of the things I learned whilst writing a trilogy of my own, through the artless but useful medium of the numbered list. The series we’re talking about here are traditional fantasy series – i.e. continuous narratives across multiple books, rather than the more episodic Ernest Goes to Mordor approach.
The biggest challenge, essentially, is that series wear out their welcomes.
The three Moonlit Cities books, together, clock in at about 300k words. That’s a lot of time to spend in one place, and a 3-novel series is, nowadays, a tiny thing. It’s the purse-dog to George R.R. Martin’s husky and Erikson’s Fenrir, Eater of Odins.
This is a problem – perhaps just a challenge – for two major reasons.
The first, of course, is that readers really have only so much patience. Even Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which through some arcane artifice manages to be both tightly wound and sprawling at the same time, comes under fire now and again for how much space it’s come to take up. It’s so big that entire perfectly lovely self-contained books could be edited right out of it. It’s so big it needed A Feast For Crows to serve as essentially a 100k+ bridge between the first three books and the next however many there will be.
That’s a lot to ask of your readers, and while Martin’s readership is by and large willing to trust him with that kind of commitment, many other writers have fared less well.
The second problem is that writers have only so much patience. A series represents a commitment to playing in the same sandbox for years, and eventually you may find that your seventeenth birthday has snuck up, and the first-graders are looking at you funny.
And it is a commitment. Leaving a series unfinished is not nice in the special-hell way that jabbering your heads off at a theatre is not nice. (Though, of course, most abandoned series can be blamed on publishers or death, and not the authors in question).
That commitment can become a bit of an artistic straight-jacket, and it goes deeper than simply needing to follow around the same characters or the same setting; a series also demands a certain level of consistency in voice, theme, and framing devices. Lord of the Rings might have been totally awesome if Return of the King became a first-person stream-of-consciousness crazymajig (“We were somewhere around Mordor, at the edge of the Mere, when the Precious began to take hold.”), but alas, complaints would be inevitable, numerous, and … well, rather fair play, really.
With all that in mind:
1) Plot the whole damn thing out in advance, or – better yet – write the whole series before you submit or publish any piece of it. Outlines are negotiable, and no end result in the history of writing has entirely matched one, but the structure will certainly help. A series isn’t a set of disconnected books. It’s one book, split into pieces that are themselves (hopefully) books with their own beginnings, middles and ends. It’s a Matroshka of book.
The more you don’t do this, the likelier you are to fall into the I-need-eight-more-novels-to-wrap-this-up trap. Moreover, it’ll be easier to deal with continuity issues if you can see the whole thing laid out before you, and it’ll be easier to draw up links between the various books. Sometimes, a good idea may come out of book three’s left field, but it won’t be possible or practical to include it without more setup in the earlier stages of the series. If you’re still holding on to those earlier stages, that’s an easy fix. If you’re not … well, tough luck. The more complex the plot is, and the more conspiracies you’re hurling into it, the more valuable it is to hold on to the whole rather than disseminating the parts.
Now, obviously, this isn’t always within the writer’s control. Sometimes, the publishing world looks like TV, and a publisher may take on a project that was intended to stand alone on the condition that it be spun out into something longer, for business reasons. That sucks, but it’s a possibility for which one must leave a little bit of room.
Moreover, there’s the income problem. Sinking however many hours it takes into writing multiple novels before making any of them available is a big ask and may be impossible for simple pragmatic reasons. Still, the side project I’m working on right now will follow this model, and I expect the results to be excellent.
2) On that note, consider a side project. I didn’t realize the value of this sort of thing until a good way into my last novel. I came to realize that I had more time to write, but no particular desire to add to my already considerable daily word count … until I decided to put that time into a completely different project, with a completely different voice, different themes, and a different target audience.
The variety was energizing. The opportunity to do something I’d been looking forward to alongside my main commitment made me more productive in aggregate, and much happier as a writer. It doesn’t need to be another novel or anything of the sort (though I expect I’ll be writing two books at a time for the foreseeable future because it really works for me). Extra time could just as easily be funneled into short stories or articles to pitch to magazines. Variety is good not only for your sanity, but for your development as a writer.
Of course, this requires a certain amount of discipline, and we all know a would-be author who’s started three different novels of which not one will ever be finished. Also, a heads-up: trade publication contracts these days try to sneak in what are essentially non-compete clauses that shackle you to one work until it’s complete (and, in the worst cases, complete and published, an entirely unreasonable demand to which you should never acquiesce). A side project could very easily become a breach of contract if you’ve not done your due diligence on the legal front.
3) Consider … well … not writing series. Or consider writing an episodic series (such as, say, Brust’s Vlad books). There’s a huge amount of room in fantasy for stand-alone or mostly stand-alone novels that isn’t being properly exploited.
I understand wanting to leverage all the research and world-building into more than one project – it’s a lot of work, no question – but it’s perfectly possible to write multiple unconnected novels in a single setting, and doing that leaves you with a lot more freedom to toss in side projects than committing to a single overarching narrative does.
It’s also worth noting that this may force you along the indie path. The series is deeply entrenched, and fantasy publishers want to see it because it’s easy money. You hook a reader with the first book, they’ll buy the rest, or – in the worst-case scenario – as many of the remaining books as they can get through before lethargy sets in. Open-minded publishers do, of course, leave room for discussion, and that room grows bigger if you’ve built up a readership. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s predilection towards stand-alone novels owes a debt to some of the clout he built up writing a series.
Now that there are more paths to publication, fewer rules are imposed from above. If you don’t want to play along with the sprawling world of the series, there’s no better time than now to try something else.