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?

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

Hungry Ghosts, by Stephen Blackmoore

10 thoughts on “12.48: Q&A on Novels and Series, with Brian McClellan”

  1. Your answer for the foreshadowing question talked about adding it later after the novel is completed. How does that work if you’re writing a series and have to publish the first novel before writing the later ones where the foreshadowing will pay off?

    1. I can’t imagine publishing a book meant to be a series without giving the rest of the books a passing thought. If the book was published as a standalone and has no loose ends, then it will be difficult to find a thread for a sequel. Otherwise, there should be some broadening of scope at the end of the first book. Some loose ends that are left hanging or only partially tied up.

      “The necromancer was slain, and the heroes rejoiced. Their quest finally complete, they set out in search of new adventures. The king was grateful, of course, but he could not shake a sense of dread. The undead army had fled the border when their master died. He told himself that without a leader, they would disperse or simply crumble to dust. Yes, that was it. There was nothing to fear. The kingdom was safe.”

      That’s cliched and heavy-handed (and poorly written), but I hope you get the idea.

      1. You don’t need to call out this stuff specifically. Everybody can rejoice and be happy and relax. No hints of what’s to come, beyond the fact that in chapter six they crossed paths with a caravan headed into the desert, and while that meeting served a few story purposes in this story, we don’t know WHY that caravan is heading into the desert.

    2. Arcanist Lupus,
      I don’t think that prior book foreshadowing is as crucial as making sure that the internal foreshadowing within each installment is there. When the foreshadowing is that far in advance, your touch should be very light (possibly lighter than the three times rule) so the reader won’t have the reaction of “That’s a twist? I figured that out YEARS ago.” In a lot of cases, you can just use foreshadowing in the book where the element becomes important. That said, there are some ways to do long-term foreshadowing well:

      1. Plan ahead. When it comes to the series-shaking twists, you should figure them out early on. This also goes for things like knowing the important bits of your characters’ backstories and motivations so that you’re consistent. Hopefully you should have a good enough grasp of the story by writing the first book to know your basic trajectory.
      2. Write ahead. Depending on how fast you write, you might be able to write the next book(s) before the first volume gets published and you could revise for foreshadowing before it goes to print.
      3. Leave yourself breadcrumbs to explore later. Sometimes you can just say ‘X exists’ early on and after several books you can pick up that element and flesh it out or turn it around in a new way. (Howard does this sort of thing a lot).
      4. Don’t state every facet of the universe in an absolute fashion. If there’s some ambiguity about the information or its source, you can reveal later that an assumed fact isn’t as solid as once thought. Just don’t overuse this tool or the reader won’t actually trust you anymore.

      1. Yup. Good answer. My tools (since I have this exact problem)

        1) Foreshadowing and Red Herrings are the same exact thing when they drop. They only reveal their true form when I make up my mind later.
        2) Unreliable narrators everywhere. People (characters) get it wrong as often as they get it right.
        3) Plan ahead for huge things. “Oooh, I want to do a story about X. I’d better suggest in the current story that X exists.”

  2. HI.
    Great episode, and right in line with some questions I’ve been thinking about just this last week, so the timing is serindipidous.
    Here’s a question for you, if you will…
    I’ve got a large world and story, plenty for one or more novels. But I write quite slowly, and have a hard time getting my head around projects that take years to complete with no publishing in between. The time-frame of making a novel is daunting to me.
    As such I’m considering making the story into a series of novellas, then later on to put them together into a novel. At that time I may do some re-writing, to make the threads weave together, and also add foreshadowing and so on.
    Do you have any thoughts on this, especially from a publishing point of view? It really feels like a fit as far as my working method and patience, but I’m not sure about how it would work for publishing.
    (This question is for the WE team, but also for anyone who’d care to answer)

  3. Did you have a question? Well, we have some answers! Yes, the Utah triplet, Brandon, Piper, and Dan, got together with Brian McClellan to try to answer your questions about series. Endings, serials, standalone with serial potential, teasers, whoops, I wrote the whole trilogy in the first book, discovery writing, and foreshadowing (not to mention post shadowing), all get talked about. Transcript now available in the archives and over here


    Say, how come Brandon said he was going to make fun of Brian, and then never fulfilled that promise? Maybe next time!

  4. The “what do you do if your novel turns out too short to be a novel” kinds of questions often put me in mind of Patricia McKillip’s ‘Riddle Master’ trilogy: a fantasy (arguably epic fantasy) trilogy that comes in at under 185k words. Total. All three books combined. Yet it manages, still, to take a strong set of characters through satisfyingly whole arcs within an entire world poised at the ending of an age. It certainly can be done, and done well.

  5. @Lia Dave Duncan’s A Man of His Word series is like that. I’m not sure how many words it is total, but it’s 4 books. The first 3 are all between 300 and 340 pages in paperback and the last book is a little longer at about 460. Put that all together and it’s like one book for Brandon.

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