Planning for the long haul

[— Karen Myers —]

I prefer long-form fiction (novels) over short stories, and long series are even better, the kind that follow the same group of people over a long time (as opposed to separate entries that just happen to inhabit the same world or which follow different generations). So why not produce the sort of thing I like to read myself?

I’ve had a long series in mind since shortly after I started my first book. By the time I finished the first 4-book series, I was eager to tackle it, but I knew I didn’t have enough experience to craft a story that was open-ended the way I wanted it to be. I wrote a second 4-book series to learn more of what I needed and re-read other open-ended favorite series furiously to try and distill what I thought I would be useful. Though I’m writing a created-world Fantasy, I also browsed several other genres, such as SciFi, Mysteries, and Thrillers, where long series are common.

And now I’m finally writing it (doing book 3 now — will start releasing when 3 is done), and I think I’ve got the key guidelines that work for me that will allow me to keep it up indefinitely. In case you’re doing something similar, I thought I’d put those out here for people to comment on.

I also wanted to mention that the model that taught me the most about how to keep the kind of story that resonates with me going for a long time was C. J Cherryh’s Foreigner series, 21 books so far and still going strong. May I live as long and do as well. (And if you’re someone who gave up in her first book in that series, try again — it’s an oddly structured stand-alone prequel, followed by the real start of the series story in the same volume.)

If you have favorite open-ended series in any genre, don’t hesitate to mention them, too.

So. Here’s what I think about what it takes me to plan a series for the long haul, so I can send my characters up the steps into their stories, one book at a time. As always, YMMV.

1 – Leave enough room for the primary characters to grow. Start ’em young(-ish), so they don’t accidentally age out of the series.

My book 1 is a prequel that sets up the situation, and the series proper begins 5 years later when the main protag is 20. After that, I’m planning anywhere from one to four books per story-year.

2 – Keep the core team a manageable size and build it slowly. Don’t keep adding new members promiscuously. Even if it were only one new person per book, you would soon overwhelm the attention span of any reader.

3 – Don’t forget that the members of the core team have hopes and dreams, life changes and adventures, just like the hero. They can marry, suffer, screw up, draft replacements, and so forth over time. They can unexpectedly betray the hero. And they can die.

4 – Don’t be afraid to include non-core characters as important secondary foci in an individual book, instead of just expanding the core team. They can still be present in later books, just not as part of the core team (or only gradually so).

5 – Consider an organized gimmick of some sort as a cohesion component across all the books.

Each of my books involves one or more new magic discoveries (arcana) as either foreground or background elements in the plot, as well as their commercial exploitation if appropriate. These discoveries are the components of the Industrial Revolution of Magic premise for the series.

I use an image of such a discovery (its source plant, animal, etc.) and pages from a notebook about it as a decorative element for each back cover, as well as a B&W drawing inside. (And I hope my cover artist in Poland will last me for the duration…)

Each of my titles takes the form of X of Y (Structures of Earth, Fragments of Lightning, Dustings of Blue, etc.), which lends an element of recognition and a reference to the specific arcana discovery.

6 – Sketch out a large enough story world so that many locations can eventually be made available for story settings.

7 – Things should age over time: people, animals, buildings, furnishings, clothing, local settings. Changes & entropy accumulate. Unchanging environments detach the long story from the real world.

8 – Things and events have individual histories. A discovery should have an economic impact that changes over time. Discoveries might result in the presentation of professional papers over time. Business rivals should arise over time. And so forth…

9 – Make sure each book entry is a reasonably self-contained story. Provide enough clues to remind readers about persons and past events, but keep all the structure and emotional impact that is needed for any stand-alone book-length story. Maybe no one starts reading a fantasy series at the tenth entry, but it may have been a year since they read book nine, too.

What advice would you suggest to keep a long series happy and healthy (and above all, interesting to the reader)?

12 thoughts on “Planning for the long haul

  1. There’s always the Andre Norton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Terry Pratchett technique of shifting characters. Not necessarily removing old ones as the main characters move to support and secondary to main can work

  2. Also do NOT undermine your happy endings. Remember that the events in LOTR would have been worse without those in The Hobbit.

    1. Yes. I absolutely hated that about War and Peace. After everything everyone went through and seemed to learn from, in the epilogue they are all drifting right back into their old patterns again.

      Just undermined the entire book.

      And the whole point of it was so he could write them a story about the Decemberists (I think) which never even happened.

      Writers need to be willing to allow main characters to turn into mentors, sages, and even hazily remembered legends. Let Zuko become Iroh. Heck, *show it*. It’s awesome to see the young punk turn into the wiley old magnificent bastard, the awkward nervous teenager turn into the steady handed matron, or any number of transitions.

      People change, and that does not make them any less magnificent.

      1. Heck, let them turn into respectable, settled husbands and wives who stay home because they have small children.

  3. This is one of the reasons I love older comic books. A lot of my favorite series were written for years by the same author, and when you read and re-read them you can see where the writer was peppering the books earlier in the run with hints about what would happen 12 issues later, like Roy Thomas’ Avengers runs, or Chris Claremont on X-Men (17 years mostly excellent years!). It’s probably my biggest influence, and when I go back and read or edit my earlier work I can see where I can include more of a hint, or tone something down, or shift it to fit an idea I had later into better continuity.

    Also, “…why not produce the sort of thing I like to read myself?” is pretty much the entire reason I write. Even if I put it out and sell 0 copies, at least I always have it to entertain myself later!

    1. I had to laugh — yes, I read my old stuff. I’ve fixed the typos long since in the current editions, but they’re still (warts and all) a set of stories I like to read. “So close…,” I think to myself, “but I can do better.”

  4. Ayup – have a large enough cast, shift focus from character to character, bring in new ones … I will likely wrap up the Luna City saga at 12 volumes, because of several reasons, but I will go back and do stories set in that world and focus on some minor characters. In my historicals, which are all linked through four family trees over a hundred years, the heroes and heroines shifted – a minor character in one book became the lead character in the next, and in the last book, the two heroines were granddaughters of the lead couples in the previous two. People change, grow up, grow old, settle down – may as well show all that.

  5. I’m currently planning for the ‘Republic of Texas Navy’ series to get through WW2, then jump forward about 20ish years to the Cold War / Space Race, with the current main character’s children becoming the leads in the new story arc.

    For book titles, it looks like I’m setting up a pattern of alternating ‘Texas’ and ‘Lone Star’ in the titles. I’ve done ‘Texas at the Coronation’ and ‘The Lone Star, The Tricolor, and the Swastika’, and book 3’s working title is ‘Texas in the Med’. Kind of like how David Weber has ‘Honor’ in the title of every other Honorverse novel.

    1. I envy you having titles for your books already. Those are by far and away the hardest part for me. I can sit and write 120,000 words no problem, then go back and edit it in a reasonable amount of time. But coming up with a title for those 120,000 words? Not impossible, but near enough to it as might as well be!

  6. I think the main issue I have with “open ended” books is things like a huge over arching problem that finally might get solve twenty books later, but without a feeling of resolution in each individual novel.

    David Weber handles the problem very well, with an immediate problem that gets taken care of in usually one or occasionally two books, all of which advances the over arching plot, while still satisfying the reader at the end of every book.

    It sounds like you’ve got a good grip on the series. As a pantser, I salute you, even while I utterly fail to understand how it can possibly work.

    1. “Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory.” Aristotle

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