Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.48: Q&A on Novels and Series, with Brian McClellan

Brian McClellan joined us to field questions about writing novels and series. Here are the questions:

  • How do you write an ending that is open for sequels, but isn’t a cliffhanger?
  • Is it a good idea to take a large novel, and release it instead as serial novellas?
  • Can you debut with a series, or should you establish yourself with standalone novels first?
  • How do you keep readers coming back for each new novel when there’s a long time between them?
  • Should you have more than just one book done before querying agents?
  • What do you do if your novel turns out to be too short to be a novel?
  • Is it possible to write a series as a discovery writer?
  • How do you foreshadow big things that are a long way out?

Homework: Take two books or movies, suggested from friends. Those are parts 1 and 3 of a series. Now figure out how part 2 works.

Thing of the week: Hungry Ghosts, by Stephen Blackmoore.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: How do you write an ending that gives a sense of closure, but still leaves it open for more stories?
A: Make sure the ending is satisfying. Try introducing a cast in the first book of strong supporting characters, then have your satisfying HEA ending, and future books star other supporting characters. Wrap up most of the plot lines, large and small, but leave tantalizing bits. Finish this villian, but expand the scope for the future.
Q: If I write one book and it takes me a long time, should I put it out as a serial? I understand people put out serials or make their first book free to get people interested in sequels, but what if I don’t plan on having a sequel? Is a serial a bad idea?
A: The serial is in a renaissance. Make sure the chunks are satisfying, with a climax, hook, and lead-in to the next part. Make sure you finish the story before you start releasing pieces, because you want to be able to revise early parts.
Q: For an unpublished writer, is it a waste of time to pitch a multi-book series, or should I focus on standalone works until I’ve gained some traction?
A: Best, to go in with a standalone that has series potential. Every editor wants a book to be standalone when they start reading, and a series when they end.
Q: How do you keep readers engaged, and coming back for more, between novels in a series?
A: Teasers! Short stories, novellas, anthology stories, even outtakes.
Q: For a first-time author, should a series be completed before looking for an agent, or is the first book enough?
A: First book.
Q: Do you ever find that you have this great outline for a trilogy, but when you go to write it, you find you’ve written the story for all three books in a short period of time? How do I fix this? Am I cutting too much? Am I missing more subplot?
A: Give it to test readers and see what they think. If it is moving too fast, add subplots, add character plots, add viewpoints. Check your try-fail cycles, and make it hard on your characters. Consider expanding on why your characters made the choices they made. Add set pieces.
Q: Is it possible to write a series as a discovery writer?
A: Yes. Make sure your ideas are big enough, and then go!
Q: What are some specific examples you can give of foreshadowing and how it works on a longer piece of writing?
A: Fix it in post! Make sure you foreshadow three times. But don’t be heavy-handed. Don’t forget the red herrings to go with your foreshadowing.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Novels and Series.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brian] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] Hey, you did it! Good job.
[Dan] You were that smart.
[Brandon] You are that smart. I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brian] And I’m Brian.
[Brandon] Brian McClellan is joining us on the podcast again. Thank you so much, Brian, for being here.
[Brian] Yay. Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] It is our pleasure. It just gives me ample opportunities to make fun of you.
[Dan] That’s the real reason you’re here.
[Brandon] [garbled]
[Piper] So if I join in, there’ll be no hard feelings, right?
[Brian] No.
[Piper] [inaudible That’s good to know.]
[Brandon] The beard is shorter. I’m used to you looking a little more George Martin-esque.
[Brian] I got cleaned up, recently, just for you, Brandon.

[Brandon] All right. So. We’re taking questions from our wonderful listeners. Anna asks, “How do you write an ending that gives a sense of closure, but still leaves it open for more stories?”
[Piper] Whew. Open, but not a cliffhanger?
[Brandon] Open, but not a cliffhanger, I think that is indeed what she’s asking.
[Dan] Well, I think the thing you need to remember is that your ending needs to be satisfying. A great example of this is the first Star Wars movie. Meaning, the fourth Star Wars movie. A New Hope. Which ends with they have done what they set out to do. Spoiler warning. They blow up the Death Star. They get awards for it, and it’s awesome, and it feels satisfying. It feels like they’ve accomplished something real, and it could stand on its own, but there’s still plenty of other things going on. Darth Vader got away, the Empire still exists, all these other things. So, there’s totally room for it, but you don’t feel like you’re missing out, you don’t feel like there’s a cliffhanger, because they did what they set out to do and it was satisfying.
[Brian] Right.
[Piper] My recommendation, and this comes from a romance section where a lot of romance authors tend, in the first book, to introduce a cast. The idea there is that there is a central hero and heroine, or trio, or quadruple, depending on the story. But, you have your central romance, and you have this cast of really, really strong supporting characters. So the end is a very satisfying happily ever after, and yet, you know these supporting characters could have stories of their own. That’s how a romance author sets up for a future series. When it’s very character-based.
[Brandon] I’ve read a lot of anticipation from romance readers who’re like, “We’re finally getting to this person’s book.” Right? Where the first book introduces all these people who are going to have different styles of romances, and you eventually get to the one that was your favorite or whatnot.
[Piper] I’ve actually had… And I hope we have time for this… But I actually have had a gauntlet thrown down at me from a forum of readers in which they fell in love with my support… One of my supporting characters from the Triton Experiment series. His name was Boggle. They loved him so much, they challenged me to keep him exactly the way he was in the novella. Don’t put him through any kind of hero makeover. No extreme makeover, no physical makeover, but find him and build him a romance just for Boggle. I did it.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Piper] It’s out there.
[Brian] I think a big part of it is really just wrapping up a majority, percentage, maybe of the plot lines going on. Both small plot lines and the big one. But having tantalizing bits here and there. If you are writing the first in a planned series, you’ll have the great arc, that maybe isn’t even introduced yet, but… Wrapping that kind of most of everything is going to be your best bet.
[Brandon] I’d say the other big thing you can do is increase the scope in the later… In like the epilogue or whatnot. Meaning, this is the we have defeated the villain we set out to defeat, but we discover that this villain is part of a much larger network, and we have a larger task about us. Just don’t do that too many times, right? What you want to do is use the first book as a standalone microcosm for how the series is going to progress. Then, expand, and then do the larger story across several books.
[Brandon] I think, actually, a great example of that is the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. Of doing it well, and then doing it badly.

[Brandon] All right. AJ asks, “If I write one book and it takes me a long time, should I put it out as a serial? I understand people put out serials or make their first book free to get people interested in sequels, but what if I don’t plan on having a sequel? Is a serial a bad idea?” I think this is a really interesting question, because, to give you some context, listeners, the serial is making a comeback. This is a larger story released in small chunks. We’ve talked a little bit about serials on the podcast. But there’s really a renaissance going on now. If you’re interested in investigating, Hugh Howey’s Wool is one of the ones that, a few years ago, really took off as a serial. I’m going to say to you, AJ, you could put this out as a serial. Your model, and I have very little personal experience with this, your model will be serialize it in that you try to make sure that your chunks are all satisfying on their own, and they are mini-novels. If your book breaks well, that you have a nice climax and a hook and lead in into the next section, you can split a large novel into say four different pieces and things like that. You release the first one free or $0.99, and then you release the others at $1.99 or $2.99. Your anticipation that you’re building is for the rest of that series. It becomes a series now.
[Piper] I’d agree. I’d also say that why you want it episodic, because you want people hooked on that episode, really liking that episode, and looking forward to what’s going to happen next. You can also, because you’re self-pubbing, play with the price of your first or second installment of your serial. So you can start it at $0.99, to get people hooked. But once you’re about halfway through whatever number of episodes you have planned, at the halfway point, you can do or run a promo where the first story is free to bring in a new influx of readers who are kind of going to binge. Then, you’re always going to have at the end of your whole serial release, people who are waiting for the whole thing because they prefer to binge. At that time, you can also swap your $0.99 deal to a freebie for the first… The first hit is free. So that people… They know that the series is finished, so that they will just read through the serials all on their own. So you can do those sales at different points in time in your sales cycle.
[Dan] That’s really smart.
[Brandon] I think this is… This is a model that people are experimenting with and having a lot of success with. I would argue that some things, like on Amazon, Shade of Vampire and some of the romance things are doing this as well.
[Piper] They are.
[Brian] It sounded a little to me like she was also asking if she can put out the first of a serial before finishing the novel? Because she said she was taking a long time to do it. I would not recommend that, if that is what she’s asking.
[Piper] Oh, good point, good point.
[Brian] Because when you’re writing a full story, you’re going to go back and change little things at the beginning to make everything line up. Personally, I would avoid that.
[Brandon] I would… He or she should… I would recommend that they finish the book in its entirety.
[Piper] Before releasing it in installments. I mean, you might be able to do the copyedit rounds as they go, but definitely have the book finished and at least your heavy-duty round of edits done.
[Dan] This is the part where if Howard were here, he would say, “Luxury!”
[Piper] True.

[Brandon] So, Ashley asks, “For an unpublished writer, is it a waste of time to pitch a multi-book series, or should I focus on standalone works until I’ve gained some traction?” Dan and I have talked a lot on this idea. I’m curious what Piper and Brian have to say.
[Piper] Shall I go first? Or you go first?
[Brian] I sold my first book as a series. I sold a single book. I sold a single book that I’d finished, with two unfin… Or with two not even touched novels with it. That was in 2000… And 12? That I sold those. I have no idea what editors are looking for and wanting right now. I’ve heard that you’d better be super confident in it if you’re going to try to sell a series. That it’s safer to come to them and say, “Look, I’ve got this first book. It’s meant to be a series, but it could be a standalone.” If it… Don’t lie to them, if it is written like that. That they’ll… They’re more likely to take a look at it, and then say, “Oh, yeah. Okay, maybe we could do a series out of this.” You go from there with negotiations or whatever.
[Piper] Exactly. I would say it depends also on your market. From a traditional publishing standpoint, it is really good to have a novel that could stand alone, but also has series potential, and state that in your submission query. Or to your agent, and your agent pitches it, what have you. But the bottom line is that it is a standalone novel that has series potential, and you already have outlines for the future novels if you’d like to discuss. Whereas digital, you could go standalone, especially depending on the genre and what’s intended for that, especially if there’s a call for submissions. A lot of digital submissions… I’m sorry, digital publishers, their editors will have a call for submissions, and you could get a standalone in there. Then they might ask you whether it has series potential or not. So it just depends on what plans do you have for your book.
[Brandon] I frequently say that my experience has been that every editor wants the book to be a standalone when they start it, and wants it to be a series when they end. The reason for this is they’re like normal people, they’re like, “I don’t know if the author can pull this off, let’s just make sure that they can.” Then, if they love the book, toward the end, they’re like, “I want more.” This is how most readers are, I feel. So. I think you guys covered that great.

[Brandon] So, Rachel asks, “How do you keep readers engaged, and coming back for more, between novels in a series?”
[Piper] Teasers!
[Brandon] Okay.
[Piper] You gotta be a tease.
[Piper] Sorry.
[Brandon] More hanky-panky from Piper.
[Piper] Well, and the trick with hanky-panky is to not always give them all of the hanky-panky. You gotta be a tease. So what a lot of romance writers will do, and a lot of sci-fi, I think, is they will plant really short stories in between. They don’t have to be free, or they could be free. Like, for example, I released a short story called Winter Valor that was part of my True Heroes series as an incentive to kind of hold or tide my readers over in between the release of one full book and the next. Or you could find anthologies to be a part of, in both the traditional publishing world and in digital publishing. In particular, quite a few digital publishers will put out a call for anthology submissions that are either shorts or novellas that you could put out. Or you could self publish, if you have the rights. A great example of this is the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine do the tales from the archives. Those tales from the archives are small, super shorts. Steampunk shorts, that kind of tide readers over in between the release of the bigger novels. Tease your readers. So they don’t forget you.
[Brandon] We did a promo on that series a little while ago. So go check that one out.
[Dan] Now, this is something I know Brian does a lot, or did, with novellas.
[Brian] Yeah, no, it’s… I kind of struck on the idea a couple of years ago, between book one and book 2 of the Powder Mage trilogy, and started doing short stories, and then eventually novellas when I realized people kind of wanted a little bit longer stuff. People ate it up. It was a great way to… I had about nine months to a year between novels. It was a great way to remind my readers I exist, and to remind them what’s happening in the world, even if the thing doesn’t… The novella or short story doesn’t happen during that time period. It still gives them some sort of [inaudible perspectives] “Oh, that was really cool. Here’s some more adventures of my favorite characters. Oh, you know, I think I’ll go back and reread book 1.” So it encourages them to grasp onto that. I think especially with like epic fantasy, and I think different genres have different loyalties…
[Dan] Yeah, definitely.
[Brian] Loyalty levels. Epic fantasy is one with a very high loyalty level. So people say, “I will buy anything that’s under this universe.”
[Brandon] Although, I will say that… Though we get away with a lot in epic fantasy, being consistent is so important. Now, you’re going to say, “Brandon, I know some famous authors that are not consistent.” I know. I know there are some famous authors who are not consistent. I am not consistent with books in a series, sometimes. But particularly when you’re starting out, the readers will wait in epic fantasy, but they want to know. Are these one a year? Are these one every two years? Are these one every 18 months? Let them know, be consistent on that, and you will have more success.
[Dan] Now, on this topic, I do want to jump in as a guy who basically doesn’t give readers anything in between books. That you don’t have to do any of this stuff, if you don’t want to. The one time I tried it, I did a John Cleaver novella in between three and four. What I found is that that is popular among the super fans. The super fans aren’t really the ones who need that. It’s more of a reward for them, rather than let’s keep your interest high.
[Brandon] Now, let’s…
[Dan] So, you don’t have to do this if it sounds overwhelming, or if it sounds like too much.
[Piper] It’s just popular.
[Brandon] Let’s point out that some of the publishers, Dan’s YA publisher and mine, both for a long time were hard-core this is how we’re going to keep interest in a series. They contractually required short stories from us. I know you did one.
[Dan] I actually did a couple different things for the Partials series, and…
[Brandon] It never worked.
[Dan] It never worked.
[Brandon] It felt manufactured. I did one for the Reckoners. It didn’t work. With the publisher requiring it in the contract, it just didn’t pan out.
[Dan] I think that what Brian was talking about genre is a big thing here. Not only genre, but medium. If you’re in epic fantasy, and you have that kind of high buy-in to a world, that’s very different from me selling supernatural thrillers and oh, here’s another little minor story. If you are self published, and you’re selling directly straight from you to your fans, it’s much easier to put that out. I think the fans are more primed to receive it. Oh, here’s another short story. In something like the stuff that I’ve done, the kind of bigger traditional published series, in thriller genres, it just doesn’t work as well.
[Piper] One thing I’ve seen from two different romance authors is that they’ll take deleted chapters, like outtakes, and they’ll make them available on their website. So you don’t have to go through the creative factor of writing a short story, but you still give something that’s there for people to look for.
[Dan] Frankly, stuff like this… I know, he’s telling me I need to shut up, but… You can keep in touch with your readers through stuff that is not fiction, as well.

[Brandon] Yes. We’re at 15 minutes and we haven’t done the book of the week yet.
[Dan] Oh, my gosh.
[Piper] Sorry.
[Brandon] So, book of the week is going to be A Hungry Ghost?
[Brian] Yes.
[Brandon] Brian, tell us about it.
[Brian] Hungry Ghosts is the third book in the Eric Carter series by Stephen Blackmoore. It’s an absolutely awesome urban fantasy series that I adore. It’s very dark. If you like the darker aspects of the Dresden Files, you will love this. It’s about a necromancer who lives in LA, in modern-day LA, who gets involved basically with the gods of death. It’s super cool. The third book came out in February of 17, and it’s just… The whole series is awesome. They’re great like airplane reads. You have four or five hours, real quick, that good urban fantasy stuff. He’s totally underappreciated, so check that out.
[Brandon] Excellent. Thanks, Brian.

[Brandon] I’m going to pitch a fast one at you. I think you guys will be able to get this.
[Piper] Are we sure it’s fast?
[Brandon] Ariana asks, “For a first-time author, should a series be completed before looking for an agent, or is the first book enough?”
[Piper] First book.
[Brian] First book.
[Dan] First book.
[Brandon] Yup. Do… It’s hard to sell on proposal as a new author.
[Piper] It is.
[Brandon] Published authors often do this. As a new author, finish your first book, and then you’re good.

[Brandon] Lizzie asks, “Do you ever find that you have this great outline for a trilogy, but when you go to write it, you find you’ve written the story for all three books in a short period of time? How do I fix this? Am I cutting too much? Am I missing more subplot?” The only person I know that’s had problems with things like this is our short story writer friend, Eric James Stone, who when he wrote his first book, it came in at like 40,000 words in a thriller genre. I may be exaggerating. But he had to add a ton. I would say this… The problem is, this might not be a bad thing. You may just have written a really awesome novel that has all the cool things from a trilogy in it. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the case. Give it to test readers. If they read it and they’re like, “Feels like this is just moving too fast,” which is entirely possible that they will. Then you want to look at subplots. You want to look at adding character plots to some of your characters so they have something they’re trying to achieve that is separate from the plot. You want to have more viewpoints from other characters. You want to expand this.
[Dan] I think also, aside from subplots, it could be an issue of try-fail cycles. It could be that your characters are accomplishing their goals too quickly and too easily. You need to make it harder on them.
[Brian] But don’t add things for the sake of adding things. Because you see that a lot in books, in genres that have longer books in them. You have people just cramming in more stuff that bogs down the story. Don’t do that.
[Piper] I’m definitely a proponent of the beta reader feedback. Ask them, if they don’t already give you the feedback, who did you want to know more about? Who may have confused you with their choices, or you would have appreciated knowing why they did what they did? There’s most likely in a concise story some more character development that you could do that the readers would appreciate. Even though it might not have been absolutely necessary for the story, it may enrich the story to be able to go into some of that. What drove your character to make the choice they made?
[Brandon] Then, the other option is, in certain genres, add another set piece. Right? You may not have… If your readers are reading the book and not being fulfilled, it just isn’t awesome enough, another set piece. This happens in thrillers a lot. We’re like, “we need to go to this cool place to get the special thing.” You then go to that place yourself and write it off in your taxes and…
[Brandon] Write a very inspired story about skydiving off of the Eiffel Tower or whatever.
[Piper] That’s pretty much the entirety of Piper’s travel [garbled, laughter]

[Brandon] All right. We’re going to do one last question. So… That one’s too easy. I’ll just give it to you. Is it possible to write a series as a discovery writer? Then, we’ll do another last question.
[Piper, Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes.
[Choking, laughter]
[Dan] It’s hard. But you can do it.
[Brandon] How did you do it, Dan?
[Dan] How would I do it? As a discovery writer, I would make sure that before you start, that your ideas are big enough. You don’t need to outline how the story’s going to work, but make sure you have a really big idea or a really deep character and then just explore it.

[Brandon] All right. Here’s the question I was looking for. Rory asks, “What are some specific examples you can give of foreshadowing and how it works on a longer piece of writing?”
[Piper] Eeew!
[Brandon] This is tough stuff. It’s one thing that you learn more and more as you write it, but it’s an easy one to fix in post. A lot of new writers miss this. Foreshadowing is the easiest thing to tweak when you’ve got a completed novel. Fixing a character arc is hard. Having readers read and be like, “Oh, I didn’t see this coming.” It’s easy. You just… Dave, who taught Dan and I some writing in college, said, “Make sure you foreshadow something three times.” I would go through, if my alpha readers or beta readers were confused, and say, “Okay. How many times have I foreshadowed this? Can I work in the foreshadowing?” Remember, the best foreshadowing works when the reader doesn’t expect that it’s foreshadowing. If you can say, “Dum, dum, dum,” after the line…
[Brandon] Then…
[Piper] That would be a little heavy-handed with the [garbled]
[Brandon] You’ve done it wrong. What you want to do is make them think you’re foreshadowing something else. You want them to assume that they have figured out why you have put this thing in. The classic example… Spoilers… In Elantris is we have this shattering of the earth that happens where everyone assumes the magic went haywire. Because the magic went haywire, there are all these terrible things that happen, including breaking the earth. So we put this in, and everyone doesn’t see it as foreshadowing. When, at the end, you realize, “Oh. Under earthquake actually broke the magic.” Because the magic is based on the landscape and how the land looks. So it’s a reversal, you don’t know it’s foreshadowing, you think it’s an effect but not the cause. These are the ways that you want to get your foreshadowing slipped in.
[Dan] This is what Brian was talking about earlier about how, if you’re going to serialize something, finish it first. Because this is what you need to go back and add. More often then not, what I am adding in revision is foreshadowing. It’s not I’m going to drop a clue here. It’s oh, I’m going to explain this thing. I’m going to find a good reason to explain this thing. But I’m not going to dum, dum, dum it.
[Piper] There’s actually a great example. This does not have to just be in mystery or suspense element type storylines. Courtney Milan writes historical romance, and in particular, one of her novels, which I will have to come back to you with the name of the actual novel. You’re introduced to the heroine. The hero happens to be in a room, and he’s mildly hiding because he wasn’t supposed to be smoking in that room, and he sees her come in. She wanders over to a chess table, and she picks up a chess piece, and she kisses it. He has no idea why she does that gesture. Then, through the course of the story… Trying not to give spoilers. There is a significant moment in the middle of a courtroom where she touches her fingers to her lips, the same way she would have touched a chess piece to her lips, and gives him the signal that he should do the thing that could totally ruin their relationship, but is the right thing to do. That is a fantastic piece of foreshadowing that had nothing to do with mystery, and everything to do with their relationship and the bigger picture of the story. And it was really well done.
[Brandon] That’s a great example.
[Brian] I’ve always found that if you do it right, foreshadowing and red herrings go well together. Because you take the attention away from that foreshadowing.
[Piper] I have this picture of you juggling red herrings now.
[Brian] You put them there…
[Brian] Yes. You put it there, so that it’s there and they see it, but their eyes are attracted to something else and they say, “Oh, that’s the big thing.” But it’s not.
[Dan] This also reminds me of a story about Michael Moorcock as he would write the Elric books. That he would just make sure to add in five or six really cool, interesting ideas, and then at the end, decide which one of them was going to be the real one. Then, you’ve got your foreshadowing and your red herring all wrapped up.
[Brandon] JJ said the same thing. That robot he talked about plotting. That was almost identical to how he said he tries to make a plot work.
[Dan] That’s awesome.

[Brandon] All right. So let’s do the homework, which again, I have written down Dan does something weird.
[Dan] Yes. Okay.
[Piper] Wacky.
[Dan] So, this is Dan gets to be weird again. This is actually a game that you will hear on a lot of comedy podcasts. So, in honor of this being our series, closing out our series idea, I want you to take two books or two movies. Get suggestions from friends, make sure that they are whatever weird things. Then, that is going to be part one and part three of a series, and you have to figure out what part two is, in the middle.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Piper] That’s fun.
[Dan] It’s a lot of fun.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.