The Horror of Series

Sorry I’m so late. I don’t really have an excuse today, except being annoyed at going to a con this weekend. It always makes me weird, because…. people! So I’m mentally uncoordinated.

But I actually had no clue what to write about, until this morning, when I got caught in a discord group, in a discussion about long-running series; how much you can change the character and the world; and things that piss off readers.

So I’m here to bring the perspective from the other side.

First I’m going to say I’m not a big reader of series. I mean, I read them, but even if they are the mystery type series, where you reset every time and have the character have a self-contained adventure, I tend to lose interest around book 10 or so.

It’s not the author’s fault. It’s me. ADD, I guess. Needless to say I’m NOT average, because most readers and most houses seem to love series/demand them.

BUT if the series is not the “reset and new adventure” it’s much harder to keep me on.

And if it matters, I can explain how difficult it is to WRITE.

I realized people were… confused on the subject when I read people complaining that Pratchett made Samuel Vimes a Duke and that Vimes kept winning against ever greater challenges.

You see, to an extent I get it: They came into the series and fell in love with the hard-bitten policeman. And then…. he kept getting better and more powerful.

The thing is, if Pratchett had kept him a hard bitten policeman who rarely had a win, they’d be complaining the books were predictable, and the character uninteresting.

This is the problem in series. I have the same problem writing them.

I found out that though generally most people liked Darkship Renegades better than Darkship Thieves, because the characters had grown up, I had upset a bunch of fans to almost lethal point, because I ‘broke’ Eden.

To me, the flaws in the system at Eden were self-evident. It’s not the libertarianism, but the “rule by tradition” and its being a very small, very closed society. Those will break when in contact with the outside (And yet, spoiler for books not yet written, Eden comes out of it stronger and more free. It just has to go through growing pangs.)

But to the fans, I guess it looked like I was messing with their politics, or something. And they don’t know where the rest of the series is going, so they got super-upset.

To be fair, also, the second book was written 14 years after the first, because the first took so long to be published, and there was no indie, and that’s always a risk. Part of the reason I’m so nervous about Bowl of Red. After all these years, I’m not even the same person. I mean, I’m still me, but — Writing is an intensely personal thing, and my personality and experiences are different.

Which brings us to the other part of why series are difficult for an author: What was pure and innocent fun to write at 25, you now see all the pitfalls in. Suddenly, at fifty you see why the parent was so furious at the kid who did something stupid. Suddenly you understand the dangers lurking at the edges of the “Whee, fun!” adventure.

And it drops into the fiction, whether you want it to or not.

It’s part of the reason long running series tend to get darker and darker.

The other part is that you have to keep challenging your character, and putting him through bigger and bigger ringers. And unless you had planned it from the beginning (Look, I didn’t even think DST would EVER get published, much less have sequels.) you will find yourself either inadvertently stepping down, or making each challenge so much bigger that by the end your character is more powerful than … anything, and not fun anymore. Particularly if you started out with a lovable, bumbling f*ck up.

But if you don’t up the challenge each time, and/or your character can’t solve it, it might be more like real life, but it’s not nearly as much like a fiction series.

So, what’s the solution? Well, in Darkships (or in the universe) I’m using a lot of side characters, both to tell stories Thena can’t and won’t know, and to give me a break from torturing the same characters. This should allow me to tell the whole story before getting too disgusted with being confined.

With BOR I’m rebooting Shifters, to start a probably ten book story arc that’s much bigger in scope and more interesting to the person I’m now. Will it work? Don’t know. But allows me to write more books in the series without slitting my throat, so….

And with the No Man series (the title is kind of a joke) in the schrodinger universe I’m writing right now (which will be released sometime next year) I have six books. It’s just six books. It’s the complete arc. And if it sells astoundingly, after I recover from the surprise (it’s a very odd series) I will write prequels or sequels with completely different characters, but NOT any more with those two characters, because the last book will have an epilogue with “In the garden of memory there are statues of the two of them” and “in the cemetery of the royals in Capital City, Britannia on high, there is a hologram of the two. They’re very young, wearing ice-nomad fur tunics, and grinning confidently as they face the fight.”

Both of those imply they’re sometime dead, and I’m not bringing them back to torture. There might be shorts or filler but not any more books once the six are done. Others, with their relatives, progeny or just the world are OTOH highly likely, as are prequels before first contact.

In Rhodes, while there’s an arc, it’s super slow, and the happy ending will finish the series, in about (planned) 20 books.

All of which remind me I should be making with the fiction. And I still have another blog to do today.

So feel free to duke it out over series in the comments.

See you on the flip side.

48 comments

    1. Interesting observation as the Lensman series is one of those that was planned as a four-book series from the very start, ignore the two prequels. Indeed, Doc is supposed to have written the climax of Children of the Lens FIRST. Now, if you said that about the Skylark series ….

  1. Reader here (Have not written anything yet). Speaking as such, I love series. But yes, if you don’t add fresh blood – new characters, maybe new locations – it’s impossible to keep from writing the same book over and over again. The challenge of keeping it fresh and familiar at the same time must be exhausting.

    The EarthCent series by E M Foner is a good example of this. The main character’s job keeps giving her new challenges, and the author has added new characters (plus her children grow up) but 20 books in, I’ve gotten to the point that I prefer the spinoff series. They are just more interesting.

  2. On Rhodes: Good. I love a good mystery series, but I also really want to see those two get to a happily ever after too.

    Bujold’s Vorkosigan series has done a pretty solid job of it, mostly because the characters grow old and have to reckon with handing off the torch to other characters. That said, I kind of wound down after Cryoburn.

    1. I haven’t felt all that strongly about any of the Vorkosigan books after Civil Campaign, not even Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance which, between the Indian-movie homages and the main character being one of my favorites, should have stood out for me.

  3. And thinking about it, the Xanth series held up pretty well, largely because it was more about the completely insane setting, and the characters came and went.

  4. I don’t know for series. At least, not yet I don’t.

    Because I’ve been writing Dr Z almost as serial pulp, each chapter very nearly stands on its own. There are mini-arcs that stretch across chapters- save the ‘X,’ find the ‘Y.’ And the main character *has* changed over the course of fifty chapters…

    The mess of the thing is I get readers that think the entire first long arc is horror. And others that think it’s adventure sci-fi. Still more that come for the post-apocalyptic sci-fi. But since its all that and a bit more, maybe the thing is trying to be too much.

    Who knows. Maybe I’ll have to split it up in pub.

  5. I have written two series – although one is more a sequence of historicals linked through the members of four different families. I couldn’t keep on writing about the same characters, over and over again – as they grew, grew old, married, settled down … so by the time of the fifth book, I was writing about the children of the first set of characters, or an independent adventure by one of the minor characters – allowing him to be front and center.
    The contemporary comedy series is a bit looser – as there are about a dozen main characters and another thirty minor ones … which are capable of having their own adventures.
    But yeah – you can’t keep writing the same characters with slightly different adventures, over and over and over again.

  6. Cozy/classical style mystery series I will usually read until it becomes clear the author has nothing left to give (Margery Allingham circa Beckoning Lady), or they get soapbox-y (the Cat Who and Goldie Bear mystery series), or I have at least skimmed everything the author ever wrote in genre and some of the stuff they didn’t (Hi Dorothy! Hi Agatha!)

    Scifi series: these usually end up being one or two arcs in a major setting that I really like (original Thrawn Trilogy, Meluch’s Merrimac books 2-4, Campbell’s Lost Fleet and its alien-chasing sequel arc) and then I lose interest in the other books in the same setting.

    Back in the days when I still read doorstopper fantasies out of the library, I tended to skim-read what was available (first three books in Song of Fire and Ice, first two IIRC in Symphony of Ages), and then drop it like a bad habit.

    Basically, an author has to make me strongly care about the characters or the situation to get me to read more than one of his books, and no amount of fond memories will make me try a different series if the plot summary and/or word of mouth don’t grab me.

    Writing in series: I have a lot of trouble forcing myself to write multiple books about the same core characters, or even to write past-protagonist cameos. I have two plans for trying to deal with this, dependent on which story idea wins out when I am done with current project. A: fantasy mystery series, with a sleuth or sleuths who can take a back seat to the drama among the suspects when needed. B: high fantasy serialized on Vella until I get tired of it and wrap it up. (And then figure out how many books it would be in regular Kindle format.)

  7. I just wrapped up a major series (as in last book went live this morning.) However, a secondary series will follow the next generation, and side characters. So readers who love the main series can 1) feel the satisfaction of the main characters completing their arc and 2) still have in-world stories if they want more.

    Now, to do “all the things before going to a Con!” and pack, then maybe write a little. Maybe. Or play dead.

      1. The Familiar Tales main series. *Preternaturally Familiar* is the last book in the main series. Some of the books have been promo’ed by Sarah.

  8. Changing focus of the series is a good way to do it– so say you start with Couple One, and how they get together.
    Then you go work on the Third Wheel, he gets his happy ending. But that means you meet his little sister.
    So she gets an adventure, and at some point you visit Couple One, who have kids now.
    Book four is about the kids, with one coming forward.
    He gets his coming of age story….

      1. Star Trek sort of does it– although it’ll be friends or coworkers instead of family, usually; it lets you tell an actual story without changing the TV show guys.

        Pratchett basically did this….everything else I can think of is anime, though. (And mostly comedy.)

    1. I actually intended to do something like that with the Applied Topology series; not so much generational, but at least focusing on different characters within the core group. But Thalia wouldn’t shut up and let me focus on somebody else.

  9. Series should plan to end. If people love the universe, awesome, make side quests with sub characters. IMO

  10. Yeah, it’s easy to take a series too far, because you love the characters. That’s part of why, when I finish the WW2 story arc, I’ Planning on jumping forward about 20ish years into a Cold War / Space Race story arc, most likely with my current major character’s children.

    See y’all at FenCon this weekend!

  11. I think M. Lackey did a great job on most of her series, some are getting a little long in the tooth, but most are still nice mind candy. CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series was good for the first 6 books, but I lost interest, because it took so long to come out. Glen Cook’s detective series was marvelous, as was Robert Asprin’s Myth series, and Dragon’s of Pern by Norton. But, I read all of those as a younger me, and I don’t really go back to them…so don’t know how they would hold up now.

    What about more contemporary series? Something that’s more like a TV show? Each book/story is an episode or a “To be continued…” for 2 books. So, same characters, but each “adventure’ contained, like a police procedural, or StarTrek, etc. Are they different due to the genre? Or is it like the tv series, and they just fall apart after a time?

    Like:
    The Mentalist
    The Listener
    Lie to Me
    Leverage
    Numb3rs
    Person of Interest
    Haven
    Sanctuary

      1. Lol! You are correct! Just checking to see if anyone reads my comments…. yeah, that’s the ticket!

  12. My stories are like oysters. They need their own shells.

    I’ve got one short story cycle outlined, and one novel and one novella with possible sequels — a generation later, and four generations later.

  13. I honestly don’t think it’s true that readers want series novels as a general rule.

    Series novels make the job easier for the marketing department of traditional publishers, and the guys who write the floor schematics for chain bookstores, so the big publishers told their authors to write series novels. The publishing echo chamber agreed that was best for everyone and readers learned to expect that every original work would spawn a chain of sequels ad infinitum.

    But it’s similar to how produce is being grown to fit well on a supermarket shelf rather than for taste and nutritional value. For over a half century we’ve had fiction written to suit the purchasing department at Barnes & Nobel, and now that the big brick and mortar chains are gone we’ve forgotten how to write stories that have a satisfying ending.

    I happen to be currently revisiting Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye. I have never read any of the books they wrote set in the same universe, nor do I have any interest in reading them. The ending of Mote is perfect the way it is.

    1. Readers want a reliable source of entertainment, and there’s only a limited number of ways for them to determine what that is. “More adventures of SoAndSo or in SuchAndSuchPlace” is one possible label for that reliability. Short stories published by a magazine or anthology editor with an existing reputation is another. Being famous for something else probably shouldn’t be such a label in the fiction world, but sometimes it is. In a genre like horror or literary fiction*, blurb and title and first chapter add up to perhaps more of a label for reliability than whether the reader has encountered these characters before.

      People who *don’t* write in genres that lend themselves to standalones, who *don’t* write in short form, who *aren’t* famous for something else, still need to label themselves as a reliable source of entertainment if they wish to build a readership, and writing in series is one way to do it.

      *Yes literary fiction is entertaining for its readership. Mostly the entertainment consists in admiring the stylistic experiments of the author, or congratulating themselves on their big fat brains, but it’s there.

      1. It used to be that the author’s name was enough to generate reader interest. And, prior to the middle 1980s, SF was dominated by standalone novels.

        One of the major selling points of Science Fiction, at least when I started reading it, was the novelty of a new world to explore in each story. Fantasy, too, outside of the narrow range of D&D inspired novels that people think of as “Fantasy” these days. There is no need for Something Else Wicked This Way Comes or One Hundred More Years Of Solitude.

        I refuse to accept that genre fiction doesn’t lend itself to standalone novels. Yes, some of the classics of SF/F have multiple sequels, and some of those sequels are pretty good. But it wasn’t the norm until recently, historically speaking, and I don’t think the pressure to make it the norm came from readers.

        1. “It used to be that the author’s name was enough to generate reader interest.”

          Maybe, after they’d had a few hundred short stories accepted by widely circulated magazines. Or after they’d written and had released “Andromeda Strain” or some big astonishing success.

          “And, prior to the middle 1980s, SF was dominated by standalone novels.”

          Of which a large percentage had started out as a serialized piece in a magazine or a group of interconnected stories published at different times in magazines, which case we’re back to building reader loyalty by the reader consuming the source material in pieces released at different times.

          I keep harping on the magazine angle, because today they’re not remotely the power in the marketplace they were when I was a teenager in the 90s with an Analog-reading parent, and even then they were not remotely the power in the marketplace they were when the Analog-reading parent was a teenager. “Barnes and Noble is dying, so we can go back to the way books were before B&N” doesn’t make sense as a starting point unless we discuss why books were that before B&N.

          I was probably wrong to speak of “genres that don’t lend themselves to standalones” when I should have been speaking of “genres that don’t lend themselves to spontaneous reader discovery of standalones.” And, maybe you’re right, maybe it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe all the Kindle readers who click so enthusiastically on “next book in series” would do so just as enthusiastically on “other books by author.”

            1. more importantly, genre anthologies are everywhere and selling surprisingly well. And if you get even a middling name in – say mine — it gets you seen by that person’s fans.

              1. There’s some very positive synergy in the new short fiction markets. Readers will pick up a collection or magazine because of one or two names on the cover and discover several more authors to follow. Indie authors, even those who specialize in novels, can really benefit from actively seeking out short fiction opportunities.

                1. Part of why the magazine market went downhill is cost– at least the last several times I even looked at such things, if I saw a story that looked like it was nice/I’d want to read, I had to pay almost Mass Market Paperback price for the chance to read the short story.

                  E-magazines, obviously, don’t have quite that issue.

                  1. Granted. The old tradpub magazine model was mostly advertiser supported, and the Indies don’t have that. But you basically ARE buying a Mass Market Paperback, it’s just formatted as a magazine rather than an anthology. The print quality is the same as any other POD book.

                    Interestingly enough, Cirsova Magazine, which is kind of the pace car of the Pulp Revival, routinely sells more trade paperback copies than e-books. A lot of that is due to his design skills–he puts out a very attractive product.

                    1. Cirsova magazine has *gorgeous* covers, it’s refreshing. 😀

                      Back to the price issue– yes, the production costs *are* the same as (basically) a book. The problem is that the product isn’t– I am paying “book from author that I like” prices for “short story from author that I like, and a whole ton of gamble.”

                      If they could find a way to make advertising take down the price a bit, it could improve the ROI for the format; otherwise you’d have to do something like Cirsova and *really sell* folks on the judgement of the people choosing what goes in/on the magazine.

                    2. The same gamble applies to multi-author collections or, for that matter, a novel from a new author. The track record of the publisher helps, of course, but that takes time to establish.

    2. Series and known authors are a good way to filter the slush pile that is indie currently. There is a huge volume of material out there otherwise.

  14. Wait, how do you do the “This one is going to be X number of books in the series” thing?

    I didn’t even mean to write a sequel, much less three of them. I have no idea – I mean, I have a couple other possible story ideas set in the same world and time, but there’s now way I could go “Oh, yes, Combined Ops is a 20 book series” with a straight face!

    1. Yeah. No kidding.

      Although I did try with an Urban fantasy . . . First book sets up the why weird stuff. Second book takes care of the zombies, then the third book is the dangerous shifters . . .

      Needless to say, it went nowhere.

    2. You guesstimate, and sometimes you’re wrong, says the person who once downgraded a series from tetralogy to trilogy to duology.

      Generally a series should last as long as the author feels like writing in it, unless there’s some burning financial reason to do otherwise (spinning it out because it’s paying all the bills, cutting it short because something else is paying all the bills).If you keep having ideas in a given setting, great, go for it. It’s a good problem to have. If not, don’t try to push it beyond the limits of the inspiration you’re getting. Something else will come along.

  15. Seems to me there are different types of series:
    1) same characters, reset to the start (more or less) at end of each adventure. The old TV show model. Some mystery series are like this, or enough to bore me within two-three installments. Even if something changes for the protagonist, they read the same, somehow.
    2) Keep the setting, change the characters. Heinlein’s Future History, Lensmen(I think), Andre Norton’s SF and Witchworld.
    3) characters grow and have more adventures, bigger challenges. Or different challenges. Discworld, Vimes and the Witches both change over the course of the stories.
    4) author thinks they have a single story that requires numerous 3″ thick volumes to tell and tries, more or less successfully, to do so. For many people Wheel of Time is one that was successful. Brandon Sanderson keeps getting published (and bought by my spouse) so his must be working for readers, too. (I bounced off hard. ) Janny Wurts is another, as is Michelle West but they’ve both been fired by their publishers. Wurts is keeping much better control over her story than West, whom I have given up on.

    Bujold’s Vorkorsiverse is a combo of 2 & 3. And I think is probably the way to handle a series that will lead to least burnout for the writer. But I am not a writer, so who knows. There are always outliers, too –
    There’s a manga & anime – One Piece – that’s been telling one story for over twenty years. And the author keeps providing payoff for small bits dropped way back when. It’s amazing in how he keeps it up.

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