Help! It’s Gone Stale!
Somewhere around book 5 or 6 of the series, you start feeling like every idea you come up with is either more of the same thing you’ve already written, or so over the top, trying to outdo the last book that . . . it just isn’t working.
There’s about four different types of series. More or less. They sort of blend, but for discussion purposes this’ll do.
The first kind, I first heard called a hyper-novel by Eric Flint. It’s the Wheel of Time, the Game of Thrones . . . a single over arching story that simply can’t be fit into a single cover. Or a dozen. If it’s feeling stale, think about the over-arching problem, the one that is important. Lost track of it, did you? Stopped making progress toward solving it, did you? You have my sympathy, now go make some progress. And don’t neglect character development of some of your cast of thousands. Pick a new focus character for the new story, look at the big problem from a different angle. But show some movement on the Big Problem.
The second kind is quite similar, but there’s a very strong subthread that each book, or pair of books, deals with while progress on the over-arching series story progresses more slowly. David Weber’s Honorverse stories are of this type. And again, if it’s gone stale, maybe you’ve neglected the bigger picture. Or character development. Throw in a story with a twist, with a new character, or an old secondary character.
In the third kind, the individual book threads dominate, and if there’s a series-long problem, it’s definitely in the background. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series falls into this group. Every book is a complete story. The over arching problem is “Life of Miles.” Or perhaps “Four generations of House Vorkosigan.” How do you deal with Miles getting stale? You write Ivan’s hysterically funny romance. Or swing back to the very start, and check up on Cordelia coming to terms with losing Aral on the planet where she met him. With a Universe, you’ve got room to expand and go somewhere unexpected. So do it. With a family or friend, or secondary character, if you insist on a strong tie back to the main series arch.
The fourth kind is almost not a series. But it’s stories all in the same world/universe/alternate history. And using Lois again, her Five Gods stories have a few repeat characters between the first two, but the third is completely divorced from the others in time and space. Then the Penric and Desdemonia stories in a yet different country, a different time. How do you get stale when each story is so different? And if you do, there’s the rest of the universe. Go find a whole new place and problem.
If you’ve invented a whole world, galaxy, universe, multiverse—don’t let yourself get stuck in one place, one time, one set of characters. Look around, and see where the cardboard settings and characters are, and go adventuring. Make them real and three dimensional. Visit the evil empire, and see it not for the monolithic threat, but a complex society with both good and bad people.
If you’ve got a long term, multi-book problem, either make progress on it, or, if you dare, make it worse. And it’s even better if solving the obvious single book problems is what made the big problem worse. And then do some work on the big one in the next book. You’ve got to solve that puppy sometime.
Now, look at your plots. Have you got a reasonable number of try-fail sequences for the length of the work? Do your characters all seem to fall into the same pattern of try-fail? Diagram it out. Make the falls deeper. Make them the fault of the MC. Make the characters sweat harder to recover from each fail.
How about the story problem? Too much like others you’ve done? Throw your characters into something completely different. Give them something to adapt to, something to force them to change. Or amuse your readers while they try. Stuff the barbarian into a tux and make him play diplomat. Strand the Metrosexual vegan on a planet full of hungry carnivores, where he has to learn to kill to survive, and eat what he kills. Let the honorable lady slip up, or the rogue find a reason to try to redeem himself. Yeah, yeah, it’s been done. But have you done it to _your_ characters?
Tell the next story from the POV of the Bad Guy. If the bad guys have just been faceless aliens, well, about time they got their POV heard, right? He’s too evil for that? Then pick a less important person trying to balance his or her ethics (or the survival of his family) against the demands of the Evil Overlord. Take the Boogieman and make him the hero. Look at Larry Corriea. Just look at what he did to Agent Franks! So just do it. Grab a Bad Guy and kick him good and hard. See what happens.
And then there’s romance. Whether it’s falling in love, losing a loved one, being pursued by someone . . . do something different, that you’ve never done before.
How about your personal style? You like a single POV? Try several. First person or third? Break an old habit.
And even if you prefer a specific genre, there are always secondary threads that can bring in aspects of other genres. A murder in your SF story, a fast paced thriller story in your fantasy world. A romance thread _anywhere_. Comedy. Make some of your old characters’ children or younger siblings the POVs and write a YA story. Add a cat or dog. Or a bright green slave girl.
If it feels stale, do something really, really different. Write a Trump, instead of another Clinton. (Wait . . . well, Okay, so long as you wash your hands afterwards and . . . are we actually doing this in the real world? Gah! Mind boggling absurdities belong in fiction, not the real world.) Even if that means abandoning your series and writing something completely unconnected. You can go back to the series later. Honest. And hopefully with the old habits broken, and fresh ideas in your head.
And for the obligatory advert: Check out the first story of this collection, where I take a break from the previous serious save-the-world stuff and introduce the kid who’s about to take over the series.
Growing Up Magic