Avoid or Anticipate?: The Problem of Series

I’ve noticed a funny thing. I’ve had over a dozen and a half novels published since late 1994 when my first novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls came out. During that time, no one has ever come up to me and heartily thanked me for writing a stand-alone novel.

Seriously. You’d think someone would have done so, given the lack of respect that series, especially fantasy series, get. But no one ever has.

Yet out of my nineteen novels, only eight are in series (two different series, actually). There have been plenty of opportunities for people to praise me for writing just that one novel. However, usually the response when I say, “No. I don’t have any plans to write a sequel to Child of a Rainless Year” or whichever book is under discussion, comes in the form of suggestions as to why I need to write more about those people and that place.

While I’ve never been praised for writing a stand-alone, I’ve had a lot of requests for sequels—and not only to novels, but to short fiction as well. When I finished the Wolf Series (which starts with Through Wolf’s Eyes and ends with Wolf’s Blood) I had copious e-mails asking if I was really, really done.

Some kind folks even pointed out minor elements I had left open. I felt genuine appreciation that these numerous someones could put that much energy into picking apart something I’d written. However, I also pointed out that, short of blowing up the world and turning out the lights, there is no way to absolutely, categorically end a series.

So it seems that readers like Fantasy and SF series. Yet, apparently, the fastest way to fall from grace is to write one. Books in series seem to have a lower shot at award nominations. Later books in a series seem not to get reviewed as often. (Please note I said “seem.” I haven’t done the math.) People will avoid novels with “Book One of the…” on the cover.

Why, then, are Fantasy and SF series the girl everyone wants to date, but no one wants to take home to mother?

Fantasy and SF series are too often an excuse for writing one novel that spans several volumes. Unlike Mysteries or Thrillers, which have a set goal, Fantasy and SF series can go on and on without closure.

Why did this become acceptable? Partly because, when more complex Fantasy and SF stories began to be told, the market simply wasn’t ready for Fat Books. Lord of the Rings is one story. So are the first five Chronicles of Amber (and the second set, too). But in the age of the skinny paperback, these complex stories had to be split up, and readers became conditioned to the “weak middle book,” lots of repetition, and all the other things that can make series weak.

Another problem is the time lag between books in a series. I know that I almost didn’t read the Second Chronicles of Amber because I’d noted a five year lapse between the copyright dates of volume four and five of the first set. I told the excited friend who called me with the big news that there was more Amber, “I’ll wait.” (Then because of a camping trip, I didn’t wait, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I was very aware of these twin pitfalls when I started the Wolf Series —which was my first project I planned as a series. For the first part of the problem, I decided to take one of my favorite mystery writers, Dorothy Sayers, as a model.

In Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Peter has a problem to solve: a body in a bathtub or whatever. While he solves that, he also must deal with personal challenges: unresolved romantic attachments, post-traumatic stress disorder, his relationship with his immediate family. By the end of the novel, we know who the body in the bathtub was, but the personal problems may or may not be resolved.

I like this approach, and although my novels aren’t murder mysteries, I try to pose myself a question at the start of each one, a problem that will be resolved by the end. This isn’t always easy, and I don’t think I quite managed with the end of Wolf Hunting but, overall, I’m happy with what I did.

I’m trying the same with Thirteen Orphans, the soon-to-be-released first novel in the “Breaking the Wall” series. These novels are shorter than those in the Wolf Series, so achieving this was harder to do, but I tried.

The second problem (delay) is solved—at least on the author’s side of the equation—by applying fingers to keyboard and tail bone to chair. And working—hard.

Okay. ‘Nuf said from here.

How do you feel about series? Avoid or anticipate?


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