Series (and Parallel): When Books Get Out of Hand – Alma Boykin

Series (and Parallel): When Books Get Out of Hand – Alma Boykin


Tap tap. Squeeeeel. Sorry. Someone left this thing turned up to eleven.

Anyway, since Sarah is a wee bit busy, I volunteered to write a little thing about books in a series. I’m the newbie, having only done this since late 2012 and been indie the whole way. I never planned to write three series of books and short stories. I did intend to release the Cat Among Dragons stories (which is why the first six books are collections), but got ambushed by several novels in the process. The Colplatschki books just growed, as they say out here, expanding from one book to three to four to eight to ten and probably 11 before 2016 becomes 2017. Something similar happened with the Alexi stories. How did this happen, and what do you do when you end up with a herd of books you need to sell?

As has happened with Amanda Green and a few others, too much material led to second, third, and fourth books. Elizabeth of Starland (originally titled Mayhem on a Mule) was about a third of the way to becoming a book when I realized that the story had expanded a great deal and would cover far more in-book time than I’d originally planned. This left me with two options: go big or go sequel. I could tell Elizabeth’s story in one massive tome, with all the problems and advantages that entailed. Or I could let the book be the length it wanted to be and just write another one (or two) to finish the story.  The advantages with a tome included pitching it to a publisher, because fat books seem to be the only ones on the shelves, having all the details wrapped up by the time the reader gets to the end, and only needing one cover/formatting/blurb and so on. And all the cool authors write fat books.

The story refused to cooperate. I do not enjoy tomes, and as much fun as I’ve made of Clavell, GRRM, Larry C., Robert Jordan, Mitchner, and other Writers of Huge Books over the years, I could not see Elizabeth’s story fitting into that mold. So she got three books and that was to be the end of it. I hear Sarah, Amanda, and a few other people giggling, because as strong a character as Elizabeth proved to be, and as long a life as her real world counterpart had, there would be one more massive adventure: Elizabeth and Empire. And thus endeth the series.

Except . . . the world of Colplatschki kept kicking out stories as I found more tales to steal from history. The one story that has no grounding in an actual historical person is Fountains of Mercy, about the founding events that led to Vindobona becoming one of the bastions of civilization on Solana/ ColPlatXI/Colplatschki.

The Alexi stories also began as a one-off, in this case a short story in a sub-genre I’d generally avoided (urban fantasy). The reception for that one story was so warm, in part because of the great cover art (more on this later), and the world so intriguing that three more stories followed. A fifth ambushed me this past spring and I wrote a much shorter 6th story for the omnibus edition. At that point, the ideas for what may turn out to be a novel began to germinate, so that will be a not-quite-series.

OK, you’ve got two or three or more books in a linked chain, either connected by characters or by location or something. Brandon Sanderson did a great job with this in his Mistborn world – the two, three-book sets are in the same world, but one is more fantasy and the other has a steampunk vibe, within the universe of the Mistborn’s magic laws. Sarah Hoyt has the Darkship series and the Earth Revolution books, which are officially part of the Darkship series but take place in parallel with Thena and Kit’s story. You have a series or two, possible different, possible loosely connected to each other. Now what do you do in terms of selling your treasures?

Are you going to advertise them as all part of one series? Yes? OK, do you want a “series look” to the covers and interiors or are you going to toss them out with the series number as the only hint that they are part of a group? I’ve done both. The Colplatschki books have two separate sub-series looks. All 7 thus far “in print” share similar fonts on the covers and include some kind of landscape element. The four Elizabeth novels all have art from her perspective, two with mule or horse ears, two from a commander’s-eye-view so to speak. The other three all feature heraldic devices used by the different protagonists.

The Cat books share similar fonts and general layout, but do not have a “series look.” Since they never had a series look to begin with, my cover guy and I opted not to try now. If I reissue all of them at some point and put the first books and story sets in print, then the covers will have a much greater continuity. Does the lack of visual recognition hurt sales? Probably, although not as much now as it would if these were print only. But you need to think about that as you are looking at selling a series.

As an aside, if you have books in a series that are not required in order for readers to make sense of things, you might make note of that on your web-page or sales copy. For example, the Elizabeth books are all linked. You can jump in at any point but there will be some confusion if you do not read #1. The other three books (Circuits and Crises, Blackbird, Peaks of Grace,) all stand alone, although the events of Circuits cause the mess that Blackbird attempts to resolve, and Blackbird hints at the Elizabeth books. The Cat books have become interlinked very tightly, but even so if a reader reads the first three and the story set that is number four, he can skip to A Cat at Bay without missing any critical information. Collections five and six (A Touch of Power and Between Flood and Flame) provide additional material but are not “without this you will be lost, doomed to wander” vital to understanding what follows. Ditto the Christmas stories and novellas like “Schree’s Rest.”  The two not really prequel novels Hubris and Renaissance are not series critical. They do share similar cover ideas, though, because they are part of the same “how’d the Azdhagi end up like that?” answer.

If you got lost in the preceding paragraph, you are not alone. I have trouble keeping track of which bit of information is where in the Cat series. Do not do that to your readers. I fluffed up and need to go through and re-work things. And we have not even talked about the problem of internal series chronology . . .

I have a bit of a problem facing me with the upcoming Powers novels. They are an alt-history of WWI through the 1930s in Eastern Europe, but are set in the Cat Among Dragons universe. They feature non-human characters, so they are “secret history” as well as alt-history. Marketing is going to be more of a challenge because they fall farther between genres than most of my books do. They are also parallel to the Cat books, in that a reader knowing nothing about A Cat Among Dragons won’t be missing any critical information. (For those curious, they are about Helmut Eszterházy’s grandfather and include Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg’s father-in-law).

If you are planning a series, I strongly encourage you to learn from my mistakes. Plan ahead if you want a series look, and think about how tightly locked to a template you can tolerate being (or your cover artist is willing to be). Think about how the series connects, and how you will market them. If you have two parallel series (or more, since the next three Colplatschki books take place on a different part of the planet but start only ten years or so after the end of Elizabeth and Empire) how are you going to sell them? Sarah’s Darkship books have series covers, and the sea cities books (A Few Good Men and Through Fire) have different series covers.

Tl;dr: Plan ahead if possible. Do not confuse readers. Make things clear for readers by how you number books and what the covers are like.

27 thoughts on “Series (and Parallel): When Books Get Out of Hand – Alma Boykin

  1. *giggles helplessly* Yep – been there, done that. The Adelsverein Trilogy and the add-on books were supposed to only be one single book; about the German settlements in Hill Country Texas, but by the time I had read up on it all – well, there was the Trilogy, which I wrote as one big honking story, but broke into three parts at a natural pausing point. They all have a unified cover design and main title in an identical fraktur font, as they were all released together and labeled as a trilogy. The two books which followed the trilogy in time are individual – very different covers and title fonts. They followed the lives and adventures of secondary or even tertiary characters. The two volumes which are a kind of prelude to the Trilogy have a similar design and the same title font, as they follow one character, who demanded her own story. Sigh. But I do tell potential readers that you don’t have to read them all in order to make sense. I wrote them all to be free-standing, individual stories, just linked by time and place. I’ve always hated the sort of series where you have to read every one in exact order to make sense of it all.

  2. Speaking JUST to the Elizabeth stories: every one of those books works as a stand-alone, while simultaneously fitting smoothly into the overall narrative.
    I reviewed “Elizabeth of Starland” (The Colplatschki Chronicles Book 1) on February 7, 2015, when I was just beginning to form myself as a reviewer. What joy (!!!!) to have this as one of my first books! I gave it five stars because I could not give it six, and like the experiences of a young child, this book was formative. It let me know that it was POSSIBLE to encounter excellent writing in indie work, and as a result, I have high expectations. Whether indie of trad pub, I believe writers who love their work will put in the effort to make their book pleasing to the eye.
    I could, literally, go on for PAGES about the marvelous Elizabeth and her killer mule Snowy, but let me condense it down to this:
    On more than one occasion, when slogging through self-assigned reading and self-imposed deadlines for getting the review written and the blog blogged, I gasp, wheeze, and shudder to a halt. And even though, with RARE exceptions, I only read things that I think I will enjoy, I sometimes realize that I am doing a literary equivalent of vacationing with the senior ladies’ Tic-Tac-Toe semi-pro team of Social Circle, Georgia, as they revisit the townships visited on the 1956 concert tour of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, with commentary for the hearing impaired, and it is then that I think, and often comment:
    Yeah. Her work IS just that good.

    1. *Blush* Thank you. Pat’s comment points out one of the joys, and fears, of a series writer: is the magic still there?

  3. Series. Shudder. Why won’t they ever leave you alone? And no matter how hard you try to make each book a stand alone, the universe is solidly in your head, and it is hard to get enough info about it into book fifteen that you don’t lose the readers . . . and not data dump and lose readers.

    And covers . . . if only trends in cover styles didn’t change. So I try to use the same fonts to visually ID series . . . and then _some person_ all casual like walks up and says “You know that font signals Gothic, don’t you?”


  4. Just had to link to this one, and comment:

    Now, I don’t anticipate having Alma Boykin’s problems, mind you – all of my series plans are already set up, and the novels neatly slotted in where they belong. On the other hand, I may simply be delusional.

    Let’s change that to “I am almost certainly delusional…”

    Question, though – when do you get out of “newbie” status? I was planning on only a year or two…

    1. I’m probably a year from not being a newbie in my own mind. I’m still learning so much that I’m not comfortable in my “pro” status yet.

  5. When I put out my Portals of Infinity series, it was planned to be a series from the start, and a fairly open ended one. There were a few story arcs that could go long, to develop over the course of the series, so if it did well, I could carry those on as I added more and more books.
    At this point, some of the original arcs have been finished, so I have picked up on other things I left ‘hanging’ along the course of the series, because you can’t cover everything at once, and I did want to leave things to ‘get back to’.

    The problems I’ve run into are: There were aspects to the story I wanted to explore but with the way it has gone, I’m not sure if I will ever be able to. Trying to write the stories of other people in the same ‘world’ as separate books is not as easy as I thought it might be. Anything that I write that is NOT in the series or ‘world’ is immediately panned by some people because it’s not another book in the series (which is all that I should be writing according to them). Numbering the books in the title was probably a mistake.

    I say ‘probably’ because while it does help to read the first couple in order, once your series gets over a certain size, you don’t want to force people to read book one before reading the newest one. The stories are standalone enough now that you can pick up any of the later books and enjoy it without having to read the earlier ones. The thing is, in a longer series you really want multiple ‘entry’ points to be able to bring in new readers. Which is why I’ve stopped putting the numbers in the titles. I do know that on the next series, I will probably not do that (numbers in the title that is).

    I do think now that there may be a ‘floor’ in the law of diminishing returns that isn’t zero. While my sell through rate was well above 80 percent on each book, (that is more than 80 percent of the people who bought one book, then bought the next) it looks like I have hit a plateau around book 6, as the sales numbers for 7 were the same, which is encouraging me to write book 8. I had planned to keep writing the series until the sales got below a certain point, where it would no longer be profitable to do the work. However, if the sales continue to stay above that level, I’ll keep writing them.

    There is also the issue of Titles when thinking of other books in the same ‘world’. How do you title it in such a way as to not confuse it with the other books, yet still keep the overall flavor? That may sound simple, but the simplest things often are not.

    The tough thing however is trying to catch the lightning I had in book 1 again in a new series. Book 1 to date has sold over 15K copies for me, which was a rather mind blowing event. It still sells 50 to 100 copies a month, and I also wonder is there anyway to re-capture that initial sales surge, where it was selling thousands of copies a month. That is definitely the kind of question that keeps you awake at night. It’s not just ‘why did it sell like that,’ but ‘why did it stop selling like that.’

    1. Anything that I write that is NOT in the series or ‘world’ is immediately panned by some people because it’s not another book in the series (which is all that I should be writing according to them).

      I think this is a common complaint whenever a writer manages to create characters that really capture readers’ liking. On various fora I’ve seen people complaining when Lois Bujold writes Vorkosigan-unvierse stories that aren’t Miles adventures, when Eric Flint writes 1632-verse novels that aren’t focused on Mike Stearns and company, and when David Weber writes Honorverse stories that aren’t Honor-centric stories advancing the “main” plot line.

    2. Because it’s not New any more. There have been hundreds of new titles in the same genre published since the initial release, and you’re competing with the Shiny, and the “New Releases” list.

  6. I too am aware of “story creep”. If something threatens to overwhelm, I might delay the project until I have a better handle on it, or split off the new idea into something else so it doesn’t take over my work in progress.

  7. Taking notes. I don’t plan well which is rather worrisome since I have several serial projects and projects in the same world, and more than one series in progress. (Accumulation of many years of almost first drafts that I’m now whipping into shape.) I’m hoping a detailed story bible will help me track stories in a given world. I’ve got 5 ‘sets’ of books that suddenly decided they were all in the same world. Fortunately they did so while they’re all at ‘nano draft’ stage, so I can keep everything consistent and figure out why magic works a little differently in each. (Turns out to be differences in 3 ‘forms’ of magic, but mostly how the locals tried to use it. Rather like different regions developing different flavors and kinds of music.)

  8. The biggest problem I see in a long-running series is the tendency to escalate to the absurd. If each book incrementally increases the abilities of the protagonist, the size of the conflict, and anything else that the author considers a core part of the series, then eventually you’re left with a god-like hero saving the universe from something even bigger. For examples, see any of the following: Dragonball Z’s super Saiyan god super Saiyan mode, the Lensman Arms Race trope, or Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. While Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series get a little over-the-top, he’s not even in the running with the biggest offenders.

    So if you started with one story, and it just grew until it was a trilogy, that’s probably ok. But if you’re adding to an existing story, watch out for escalation to absurd levels.

    On the other hand, Terry Pratchett and Mercedes Lackey provide great examples for doing a series well.

    1. I wonder if the answer isn’t a lineal story about a single or small group of stories, but doing something like what Angela Thirkell did with her set of Barsetshire novels – and also what Sir Pterry did with the Discworld. With various characters in a limited setting, picking up those who have been in the background of one particular story — getting their stories moved to front and center for a volume or two. And with particularly strong characters, one can circle back to them a time or two, and expand on their adventures. The best of two writing worlds, I think.

    2. Yeah, if you want to escalate constantly, it’s good to have an endgame in mind so you don’t get silly.

    3. Every once in a while you need a bad guy who will curb-stomp your hero and take him back down a few notches. Nuke the Batcave and the whole game changes.

    4. Shared worlds, following places through time, following families… All can be ways to keep from hitting the “Oh come on that’ too much!” wall.

    5. Pam Uphoff does a good job with this. The band of heroes is small enough (low 10s but growing slowly) and the list of bad guys big enough (2.5 entire worlds) that even super-super-super powers can be challenged by sheer numbers.

      I am a bit worried that my universe (still in my head) is going to go the way of Skylark or Stargate. Every hero needs an Achilles heel – obviously this is a very old plotting problem 😉

  9. I’ve long wondered whether successful series are written more often by planners than pantsers. I’m a sort of extreme pantser, in that I begin with a concept and just start telling the story that the monster in my right hemisphere is making up, presumably as we go along. This would make writing a linear series difficult. My guess is that if I ever attempted a traditional planner-style chapter outline, my storyteller machinery would just ignore it and tell some other story entirely. It would be an interesting experiment, since series are popular and every volume reinforces every other.

    The other, more serious issue with chapter outlines is that I often don’t know what’s going to happen in the next chapter until I write the one before it. It’s a weird, slightly creepy feeling to think, “Well, I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but I’m about to find out.” And then I do.

    I think it was Amanda who called this “gateway writing.” If anyone else here has any experience with that, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

    1. All sorts of writers have problem with series. The more chopped up they are, the easier it is, but it’s never easy to keep a whole series as a (semi-) unified work.

    2. Roger Zelazny’s five Amber books were obviously written as a single huge novel, then carved into roughly-equal chunks. His big trick was easing in just enough continuity to make each readable on its own without repetition or infodumps.

      As usual, I encountered and read them out of order, so it was an important thing.

      Granted Zelazny might not have actually written, or at least finished, the entire thing before the first volume hit the press, but he knew where he was going; the story bores straight through from beginning to end.

    3. Kate. And myself. I live with it. Which doesn’t preclude series. It’s like driving down a blind road, writ large.
      PTerry was an extreme pantser. I suspect Butcher is when it comes to series, for reasons.

  10. A Diabolical Bargain crept up on me by pretending to be a novelette and later a novella. Only in the end – after I had thrown out stuff trying to keep it short! — did it reveal itself as a novel. Took me two more drafts before I put in all the stuff I had stared with. And rather more before I really mastered the novel form.

      1. On the bright side — all my previous witting attempts had crashed and burned.

  11. I’m going to reference a specific series here — Smith’s Lensmen series. One of its books (Gray Lensman) is on the Hugo ballot for this year, and this may mean that some of you are reading it for the first time. There are spoilers here, so please ignore this post if you wish to avoid them. And this is not a recommendation for this work on the Hugo ballot — people should read all of the works and vote for what they prefer (and I am not disclosing where I’m personally ranking things).

    Smith’s Lensman series is the perfect example of a totally plotted series. Before starting to write, he described the series to the editor of the magazine where he intended to submit it, and got feedback indicating it was going to be good. So he took the plot, drafted the outline, and realized that it was likely to be too long for a single novel, and it grew to three, and then four novels — before he started writing any of them. And he knew how each novel in the unfolding plot had to end, in order to give a satisfactory ending — so that the readers of the novels as they appeared would believe they’d reached a satisfactory ending, and there was no more. And then, the next novel would appear, and the readers (and characters) would realize they’d omitted something — there really was more to come.

    So he’d had to work out how to have a self-contained series, without letting the readers know it was a series.

    He described the process in detail in his essay for the book, Of Worlds Beyond, which is a series of essays on writing SF from the major authors of the early days of SF (which is now available in ebook form, as well as the older, and hard to get, printed books).

    Note that, to further complicate things, when a book publisher suggested reprinting the entire series, but wanted it to be a bit bigger, he took an unrelated, existing novella, “Triplanetary”, and added bridging material at the beginning to fit it in to the series, and then wrote an entirely new bridging novel, First Lensman, to more closely integrate the earlier amterial in. And then he made minor tweaks (several hundred words in four novels, plus some footnotes and introductions) to the existing works, since he’d given away a plot point that had been concealed/revealed in the original works until it unfolded in them — so the reader knew something that the characters didn’t.

    It would be nice if someone reprinted the original four novels, but it’s not going to happen, since the series is now solidly in people’s minds as a six book, not four book, series. The only place to read the four books, as originally written, is in old issues of Astounding.

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