Same Playground, Different Games: How to Sustain a Novel Series
by Lynn Viehl
When you put in the time to find the perfect place where you and a group of friends you organize can meet and play games together on a regular schedule, you don't meet once and then never come back. Even if you play different games, you keep returning -- and that's a series playground.
This is not to say that the standalone novel is in any sense inferior; both types of books offer different challenges and appeal, and in their own respects both are very tough to write. I'm a career series writer so that's where lies the bulk of my author experience, but I've written a few standalones and believe me, they're no stroll through the playground.
In order to write and sustain a novel series you need to devote a lot of time, effort and creativity in building a universe and a cast of characters who can generate multiple book-length stories and inspire readers to keep coming back for more. No matter what genre you write in, there are some elements that are common to all series books. Naturally everyone has their own opinion, but here's what I think they are:
Multiple conflicts: your series should have at least one very large, difficult-to-resolve conflict, and many other smaller, easier-to-resolve conflicts. Usually this big conflict is what drives the series, connects the books and provides continuity. The smaller conflicts drive the individual novels within the series, often by spinning off or being related to the series conflict. While they don't have to be resolved in one book, they shouldn't eclipse the series conflict. They should also contribute something to moving along the big conflict before they're resolved.
Multi-story Cast of Characters: Your series cast doesn't have to number in the hundreds, but you do need enough characters to carry the story through several books. Generally I start with a pair of protagonists who are central to the series and the series conflict, and build other characters out from them. In my books, everyone has some kind of connection to the series protagonists. Other writers use casts of characters who are all related to each other (the family tree approach), or who work through chronological timelines (generational stories in the same setting) or who deal with episodic conflicts (as in mysteries where you have the same PI solving different puzzles in each book.)
Expansive World-Building: You don't tell the same story over and over in a series, but you generally do have to stay in the same universe. This is why it's important to build your worlds not only well, but craft them with the potential for expansion. This is not strictly about setting, either; you can invent one haunted house and use it as the setting for a dozen books -- but to keep your reader interested it had better be a complex haunted house, with lots of mysterious rooms and multiple ghosts and different conflicts that have to be resolved or you'll just end up telling the same story multiple times (i.e. a nice couple moves into haunted house, are scared witless, uncovers tragic secret, battles bad ghost, makes terrible sacrifice, barely escapes with their lives, etc., aka the cliché haunted house story.)
Another vital aspect of series writing is to build a universe that you as a writer want to creatively explore for years. This because unless you can knock out ten series novels in twelve months you may be spending years writing in this universe. If you lose interest, how do you think the reader is going to feel when you start phoning it in? One of my series continued for eight years, another took me twelve years with a four-year hiatus in the middle. Altogether between the two series I published twenty-seven novels and novellas, but thanks to putting in the time to creating universes I wanted to write in with conflicts that challenged me and characters who fascinated me, I never once got bored.
Series length is also something you need to think about in advance. I've written long, mid-size and short series novels, and the one thing I've learned is to always have a series exit strategy prepared. You may generate so many sales with your series that your publisher will let you write as many books as you want. For most of us pros, that doesn't happen -- eventually sales and new readers decline and a series plateaus or drops off the radar. Some writers are fine with not finishing series, especially when a publisher decides to end it before the author is ready to pack it up. I think series readers deserve closure, though, and I've always tried to give mine that when I know I'm writing what will be the last book in a series.
Nightbound, the third and final novel in my Lords of the Darkyn trilogy, is one of those stories. While I can't say I'll never write another Darkyn novel -- in Publishing, anything is possible -- I am putting the universe on hiatus for now to see if reader interest will sustain another trilogy. If not, I have my new Disenchanted & Co. urban fantasy series kicking off this fall, and yet another series currently in development. Which brings me to my final piece of advice -- don't grow too dependent on any series you write, but try to give yourself the creative space and permission to build new universes and tell their stories. You might find the games you play in your next series playground attract even more of a crowd than the last.
Lynn Viehl has been generous enough to offer a prize pack to one lucky winner. The backpack is from Target, and includes the three books which she'll sign for the winner, the green handmade journal and matching memo book (both crafted by The Book Whisperer on Etsy), and a fun sword-pen she found at BAM.
To enter, leave a comment.
Edited: Giveaway is now closed. The winner will be announced at Midnight May 5, 2013 MST.