Help! It’s Gone Stale!

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

33 Comments

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33 responses to “Help! It’s Gone Stale!

  1. This is exactly why I decided to end my series after the fourth book. It was a hard decision, I had put a lot of work into building the world and had some very enthusiastic fans of the characters. But the story had reached its end and anything else I wrote would be at best epilogue and at worst filler. I don’t want to write “Abbott and Costello meet Catskinner.” Better to end decisively and move on to something else.

  2. My books are set in a multiverse. I’ve got science fiction, fantasy and a retro space opera (as Rowena Cory Daniells kindly blurbed for me.) They are all loosely linked. eg, There is a “crystal ball” (ie navigation computer) in one book and another book is set on the world where that computer was made, though there has been no contact between the two worlds for about 50k years).

    Hopefully it will never get boring. But it may limit the audience on who wants to go to those different places.

  3. So good I’ve saved it off for reference material. Thank you.

  4. Laura M

    Awesome as usual, Pam.

    I seem to be doing both the Universe and a tight series. The Ground Based universe is populated (so far) with stand alone science fiction works that can be read in any order. It’s confined to the next 150 years. In fact, the last thing I published is the earliest in time and is set just a few years from today (with today always moving, of course).

    The Waking Late space opera series just got its second book out, and starts a few days after the first book ends. Maybe it can fit into the long novel paradigm, but each book has its own adventure and separate plot. It does have an overarching problem, so perhaps it fits into your second category. Hmmm.

    I like these categories. Even if something falls outside of them, categories help you think about what you’re doing.

  5. I just finished #8 in a series. I’d like to add: No matter which way you extend it some people are going to be upset and not like it.
    I had one gentleman say I needed more violence and destruction, even though I had a nuclear bomb detonating in Pensacola and a duel to the death. I had a person complaining my main character had changed. Well yes, she is five years older in her teens. One fellow really liked the main character’s grandfather and was upset he didn’t make an appearance in this book.
    However, if your sales and reviews are still favorable, you can’t please everybody.

  6. garynealhou

    Note that Sequel Escalation isn’t one of the ways to fix this. It works in the short term, and a good series will have some escalation as part of a well built, long-term plotline. However, if you’re escalating in every book in the series, you can easily escalate to absurd levels, either breaking the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief or the reader’s comfort factor.

  7. I’d add filling in the gaps. Colplatschki was supposed to be three, er, four books about a particular character. Except . . . except . . . How did things get to be in such a fix for the Eastern Empire? Two more books. Where did the MC’s family get their stubborn streak? Another book. Why was the colony abandoned and what were the Great Fires anyway? Another book. What did so-and-so’s wife think about it all? Novella. What happens on a different part of the planet? Three more books (one of which will release this weekend [tap on wood]). This works best if you have allusions and holes in the original story, and can fill in back-story and characters.

    • But it’s a real PITA when you try to number the series. I’ve renumbered once . . . and still have two with the same number. This is one more reason to not let your series get too long!

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        As a reader, I prefer series books to be “numbered” in the order that they were written.

        Hopefully, there’s some indication at the beginning of the individual story about “when the story is set”.

        IMO this is easier for both the author and the reader. 😀

      • Agreed, Pam, and I’m using written order – with one exception. That exception is because the book wasn’t as strong as the others, or so it seemed to me at the time, and so I set it aside and published later works first. So the first-in-world book may end up being the last-in-series book, unless yet another story ambushes me.

      • garynealhou

        And then there’s Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series, which has a publishing order, includes the year of the book in most titles, and still need to provide an author recommended reading order.

        • It’s only gotten worse, hence there’s now a flowchart. Some are complaining that the flowchart’s not enough, because some chapters in book A happen between chapters in book B, or the shorts occur in between or at the same time, etc.

  8. I have a #1 and a #2 (sounds so dirty!) going right now. I view the second one as being like an anime–there are ‘stand alone’ problems, but the plot thread continues through the entire series. #1 has less individual resolution moments because The Plot is a single thread.

  9. Luke

    My main takeaway is that there are two books from Bujold’s Five Gods series that I didn’t know about.

    Thank you!

  10. Hmm … I seem to be doing two series – the loosely-interlinked set-in-one-world-with various characters coming front and center for their turn in the spotlights, over time. That’s starting to be a bit stale, so I had a notion to really rack back the setting of the next book to the period of the American Revolution. Eh – see how that goes.

    The other series is the first kind – one long rambling story, an examination of a certain place and the people who live in it and interact with the ostensible main character. He started as the ‘fish out of water’ – the lense through which all the rest of the story is seen, but he’s becoming an intriguing character in his own right. That one isn’t anywhere near stale, yet, as the ideas just keep popping up.

    • Or the Civil War? Or the aftermath?

      • Well, I could do one about Margaret Becker Vining Williamson’s sons, in Hood’s Brigade … but it’s kind of depressing, as three of the four die at Gettysburg.
        I did the aftermath in the third book of Adelsverein – so, nothing there.

        Sigh.

        My daughter advises – another Lone Star Sons set of adventures, and work on the fourth Luna City narrative,

        • I find it so much more fun to not be restrained by known historical occurrences. Well, that and I hate the kind of detailed historical research that is necessary to turn out good historical fiction.

          • Laura M

            You know what else requires a lot of research? Present day fiction, near future fiction, and anything set on Earth. I can do street names in Maryland and the District off the top of my head, but Virginia, which is just the other side of the river from me and a place I go at least once a week, requires me to Look Things Up. I put a garage in Virginia and that forced me to figure out which county was farther out, how long it takes to get from here to there, and all sorts of dull detail. For one story, I kept having to check that I had Venezuela in the right place.

            When even that little bit of data requires work away from the story, you learn to put empty brackets in, and look it up later.

            • You learn all sort of interesting things, researching them. I actually have researched _some_ history. Enough to convince me that the world was not ready for my Cadfael fanfic. But OMG! Was there ever some strange stuff coming up, that we’ll never see our favorite monk stick his nose into.

              And geography. You really do need a clue. I mean, Montevideo? Shouldn’t there be a mountain? I love Google Earth. Where else do you go to see what the arctic coast of Russia looks like?

  11. jon spencer

    The Liaden Universe does a good job of not going stale.
    There are different times, places, people and events.
    While some of the books and stories are barely connected, other books and stories are like a regular series with the same characters.
    However the authors do it, it works.
    For them anyway.