To Series or Not to Series (mailbag)

Time to open the ol’ Action Force Clubhouse mailbag and answer a question. If you have any questions, comments, random thoughts you’d like to share and perhaps want me to sagely comment upon then you can always send them to Hipstercthulhu@hotmail.com.

Also, I have a Buyacoffee page now. If you find the free fiction and humble insights I offer on this site entertaining, maybe stop by and toss me a few bucks now and then. No pressure, but very much appreciated.

Let’s get to the question:

Kent writes:

One of my biggest issues is that every new book I write automatically lends itself to a series. But after a couple of books I’m usually bored and ready to move on to another book and set of characters.

I’ve been rereading some of our books and noticed despite creating some of the most three dimensional and interesting characters that would be perfect for a series all of your books never produced a sequel. How do you do that? Is there a trick to it? Do you feel not having a series for your fans to follow has hindered you in any way? Helped you?


Thanks for the kind words. It’s always nice hearing people enjoy what I do. Nicer still when they have such complimentary things to say.

One correction: I have written a series. My last three books comprise the Constance Verity trilogy. But, yes, the ten previous books are not related in any way, and my current work-in-progress is its own thing with no plans for a sequel.

To Series or Not To Series? is a question every author runs across, especially in science-fiction and fantasy. It isn’t as straightforward as it might appear. Let’s break it down:

WORLDBUILDING:

Whether we’re talking full second world fantasy (where we’re designing the world from the ground up) or alternate history (where we’re tossing some fantastical concepts into our established world) or the dozens upon dozens of variations between, making up fantasy conceits can be hard work.

It’s understandable that someone would want to get all they could out of that hard work, and a series using those same established conceits is a good way to do that. It’s also a good way to keep readers interested if they like those conceits.

Incidentally, this is also the appeal of much of fanfiction. The writer doesn’t have to convince the audience to like the characters or explain the world. That’s already been done for them.

OLD FRIENDS:

We really like our favorite characters. We really, really like them. Both as creators and as an audience. That fondness is hard to resist. Some readers think that I don’t have that fondness since I haven’t revisited my characters in follow-up novels, though I do like catching up with short fiction now and then. That’s simply not true. Most every book I’ve written could lend itself to a series of some sort. I’m well-aware of that, and I’ve even considered returning to a familiar world and / or characters. But the motivation isn’t really there.

Money matters. If some publisher came banging on my door with a decent check to write a sequel to something I’d probably say yes. Not definitely. Some of my books have more series potential than others. But it hasn’t happened yet. Though many writers are eager to jump right into a series before they’ve sold their first book. No judgment. I’m just not one of those writers.

PRECIOUS IDEAS

Every writer, aspiring or otherwise, hears the question “Where do you get your ideas?” It is often assumed by people who haven’t tried writing that the idea is the hard part. And many new writers fall victim to this mindset as well.

I liken it to the concept of First Love. Whenever we experience our first love, it’s often overwhelming and intoxicating. It feels like something no one else has ever had. And when it ends, as most first loves do, it feels as if the universe comes crashing down on us. We eventually pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and go on to discover that love, while precious, isn’t quite so rare as that.

Just between you and me and anyone who stumbles across this on the internet I don’t trust writers who treat their ideas as precious. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve come to see ideas as useful and important, but also as nothing to take seriously. Ideas are all over the place, and once you start training your brain to have them, they pop up unbidden. I have so many ideas that I don’t have time to write them all, and that’s not unusual.

But if ideas were these rare and precious things, they still don’t count much without the writing behind them. I’m a professionally creative person, and I don’t think of creativity coming from an idea. It comes from fleshing out that idea and making it one worth exploring. Most importantly, I’ll always prefer an engaging story with an uninspired idea over a dull story with an original idea. It’s like pizza. You can put all kinds of toppings on it, but in the end, the best pizza tends to be a well-made one with good ol’ reliable toppings versus an badly made experimental one.

SO HOW DO I DO IT?

It’s not a satisfying answer, but I just do it. I suppose it has something to do with a peculiar aspect of my brain where I can like something, even love something, and not necessarily need more of it. I’m not quite anti-nostalgia, but I’m not crazy about something just because I had a fondness for it once. I guess that applies equally to my own writing.

It helps to realize that most good stories and characters have the potential to go on. And if that’s something a writer wants to pursue then go for it, but it should be something you want to pursue, not something you think you have to. It sounds to me from your letter that you are falling into the trap that you can’t leave a story alone when there’s more to explore, but there’s almost always something else to explore. Accepting that might help you approach the series-to-boredom problem from a different angle.

It also sounds like you enjoy writing more than one story, but then hit a wall where you no longer find the series as appealing. That’s okay, too. Give yourself permission to write and explore as much as you want, but with the knowledge that it’s not a lifetime commitment to that idea. Don’t frame your creativity moving in different directions as a failure, but simply as part of your process.

DO I THINK LACK OF SERIES HELPED OR HINDERED ME?

No clue. Really.

It’s probably hurt my popularity among general readers that I’m not known for one distinct character or series. It’s probably hurt my popularity, too, that I’m not even writing in a loosely connected universe where characters from one story can drop in and say hi. A lot of writers do that, and it works well for them.

It’s definitely helped me grow as a writer. It’s definitely helped foster a reputation for creativity among certain people, many of whom work in TV / film and occasionally, cough up a little extra money in my direction. That’s definitely helped during the lean years.

It’s also given me a reputation as a more prolific writer than I actually am, which I don’t mind.

Does this all balance out in my favor or not? I’ll repeat myself.

Not one clue.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It might surprise anyone who had read this far that after writing this many words on a subject that I ultimately have to shrug. Life is a chaotic mess, and I think too often we look at the end results and act as if we predicted it all or should have. As an author of some modest success, it would be easy to say that that success is due to my clever foresight and incredible talent. It’d be easy to say that more success is just around the corner. It’d be easy, but it wouldn’t be right.

All any of us can do is do our best and keep at it as long as we can. Success or failure are not simply the results of our actions, but of a thousand other factors, many of which we’ll never have any real control over.

One day maybe, I’ll tell you about the TV show that almost was, but not today.

My agent once said, “This business can turn on a single phone call.” That’s life with all its ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. While I’m indeed a wise man, I’m also often wrong. I just hope this long, long essay was helpful to someone out there.

In the meantime, Kent, keep at it. I’m rooting for you.

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT, WRITING THE GOOD WRITE,

LEE

3 Replies to “To Series or Not to Series (mailbag)”

  1. I really appreciate standalone books in fantasy and sci-fi. The books of yours that I’ve read have all been entertaining and I really dig the way they are encapsulated in one volume. I picked up my copy of Divine Misfortune from the shelf last year. It was a great read, and I was satisfied with the story being done when it was over.

    I’ve read a good number of series, and one of the things I really hate about a lot of trilogies specifically is the un-ending/cliffhanger ending you get a lot of times with book 2. So many times book 2 doesn’t work as a standalone story and you have to wait for book 3.

    The longer you have a series, the harder it seems to be for a good ending too. I’ve read about the right ending vs. the (potentially more) popular ending, and I applaud authors that go for the right ending, the ending the character would have, even if their readers might not like it.

  2. The thing I like about your stories is that your characters are allowed to have happy endings.
    Many times if a series keeps going, but the main problem was solved in the first book, it feels like the protagonist isn’t allowed to catch a break, or get a rest.

    And short stories and flash fiction are the answer to seeing our loved characters again. I get to see them navigating a minor hurdle on a page or two, and then get back to their happily ever after.
    If you do second editions of your books, there should be a section at the end, epilogue, or after the epilogue, where you reprint all the flash fiction you’ve written of them.
    I like peeking into “happily ever after” like that, with no real fear that they’ve ruined it or gone back to square one for my need to see them in another whole novel.

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