Writing Excuses 16.7: To Series, or Not to Series
Key Points: One-offs, when an editor rejects book one, you can send them a different one. But a series can become a blitz. Make your choice deliberately. In short fiction, you may want to put the stories about a world in different publications to get a larger audience interested. You may also want to think about themed collections instead of eclectic collections. Reflections from Schlock Mercenary: Point 2, don’t assume people are going to read the whole series, write each book as if it will be their entry point. And make sure there is an ending you can live with. Think about whether you want to be a series person, or a one-off person. You might use the model where there is a common universe, with different stories and some continuing characters. When you are considering a series, trilogy, or whatever, think about what else you want to do with that universe or world, and whether or not that means you need to keep the status quo or not. Consider artistic versus business decisions.
[Season 16, Episode 7]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, To Series, or Not to Series.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m 20 books into a series I’m done with.
[Erin] Yay, Howard.
[Dan] [garbled] Howard. Thank you for flexing on us.
[Dan] We’re going to talk about series. This is part of the ongoing business class that Brandon is running. So, we’re talking about the business side of series. Brandon, what are those business considerations when you’re thinking about whether something should be a standalone or a series?
[Brandon] So, there’s a lot that plays into this. It is one of the early decisions are going to have to make, particularly if you’re a novelist, but even in short fiction. Because… Let me share a story. I might have shared it before on the podcast. But when I was breaking in, one of the things that I learned early on, or I thought I learned, was that I shouldn’t ever write a second book in a series. This is because I was submitting books, traditional publishing back in the day, and if an editor rejected the first book of a series, I couldn’t very well send them the second book of the series. But I could send them a new book from a different series. What I was looking for and starting to get were these kind of nice rejections, where they’re like, “You know, this isn’t for me, but I kind of like some things about it. What else do you have?” I could send that person book 1 of something else. So I got very good at writing a different book with every… A different series with every book I was writing. Well, in the meantime, Naomi Novik was writing the Temeraire novels. We were breaking in right around the same time. She wrote four… Three or four books in this series unpublished and put all her eggs in this basket. The advice you should write something new with every book would have been bad advice for her because when she sold that book and the editor said, “What else do you have?” She was able to say, “Actually, I’ve got two more done and an outline for several more.” That actually made the publisher go all in on Naomi’s books. I remember the publishing blitz that they did when they released her books. It was amazing. I’d never seen anything like it before for a new author. Three books came out, one a month, in three different months. Everyone was like, “What? A new author? One book a month? This is insane.” It was presaging what became one of the best ways to break in during the Indy era, which is to save up a few books and then blitz. So that your releasing very quickly, so that people can suddenly been. Naomi Novik went from nobody to one of the biggest established names in fantasy in the process of three months, because publishers just went all in on those books. So it isn’t as easy a choice or a decision as I had assumed it was. There was a branching path here. The more I’ve published in the more I become part of the business, the more I realize that there are lots of different decisions you can make here, none of which are bad, but I do think you should be thinking about and maybe making deliberately.
[Dan] I… If I remember correctly, Naomi crushed you in the Campbell award the first year, right?
[Brandon] Yeah. Absolutely crushed me.
[Brandon] And deservedly so, right? Like, there was no… I would not have voted for me with her, because her books were great and there were three, and you knew she was going to be a major force in the industry. Who knew about me with my one wacky little book?
[Dan] Yeah. So, I love this question. One of the things that Erin brought up as we were preparing for this episode is that she thought at first maybe she wouldn’t have much to contribute, and then she thought, well, actually I do have several stories that maybe could turn into series. Erin, what are the questions you ask yourself as you are looking at your own work and trying to decide should I continue this or try to turn it into a series?
[Erin] I think that, to be honest, it’s not a completely business first decision in my case. A lot of it is about exploring the worlds that I’m really passionate about, and, because I tend toward short fiction, just as a natural tendency, there’s not… There’s only so much you can encompass. So you come up with all this world, and then, you’re like, here is one moment in the world. Maybe I should have another moment? And a third moment! Where I do think about things, and this is more on the business side, is, okay, now I have a second thing. Do I go back to the person who published the first story in that world? Do I want to try to get a new audience interested in this world by putting it somewhere else? To try to bring in new people who might then go back and find my first thing? Unlike with novels, where you’re probably going to find it at the bookstore no matter who is publishing it, stories depend a lot on who the publisher is. So one of the cool things in the short fiction world is you can try to plan out a little bit and say, like, “Okay. This particular version of this story has a more science fiction-y angle, so maybe that’s a Clarkesworld. This one maybe is more of an F&SF.” And get more people interested in the work that you’re writing, which, part of a series is really trying to capture people’s attention for the long-term.
[Brandon] I would think, though I could be wrong here, that a consideration here is also the inevitable collection that you’re going to put together. Because if you have books on a… Or stories on a theme, a collection is going to work, I’ve found, somewhat better if you can release a themed collection rather than just a… This goes into branding. Your name should be the brand that’s going to sell this collection, but I’ve released one collection of short fiction. It was all fantasy stories set in the same universe. Because of that, it did better than expected. Because the fans of that culture… I call it the Cosmere, that universe, were able to pick up an entire book knowing what was in there and it wasn’t going to be just completely eclectic. However, there are times when I have bought a book, wanting it to be eclectic, because I want to have a different experience with every story. In that case, I go look for one that is just collections of an author’s stories through a time., Knowing I’m going to get something with a lot of just diversity in story type. So I do think that this is a business consideration. It doesn’t have to be the driving force behind what you write, but it certainly behind the scenes as you build your collection of stories, deciding how you’re going to market them.
[Howard] I’m… Go ahead, Dan.
[Dan] I’m going to pause for the book of the week is what I’m going to do. Then I’m going to let Howard say the brilliant thing he was about to say. So, my very favorite book series, I have talked about this multiple times on the podcast before, is The Saxon Chronicles from Bernard Cornwell. I’m delighted to report that a few months ago, the 13th and final book in that series has come out. This is a series of historical fiction that charts kind of the creation of England as a united kingdom that covers the entire island, and how King Alfred the Great and his children and grandchildren kind of formed all the disparate little kingdoms into one single nation. It’s wonderful. Bernard Cornwell is a fantastic storyteller and a great writer. This has been years coming. So it was just an absolute pleasure for me to have this final book to cap off my very favorite series. So if you never read it before, the very first one in the series is called The Last Kingdom. It’s got a BBC series as well. But the one that just came out, the final book, is called The Warlord.
[Dan] Now, Howard, what were you going to tell us?
[Howard] Oh, I feel really bad because Dan said, “And then we’ll go to the smart thing Howard was going to say.”
[Howard] The thing Howard was going to say is I could spend an entire 45 minute Writing Excuses super episode talking about the decision process for how to create each new book of Schlock Mercenary. I’m going to try and distill that into a couple of key points. Point number one, the first book is terrible. The art is bad, it’s full of dad jokes, and I had no idea how my intrinsic biases were negatively affecting the stories that I was trying to tell. I had no clue. So fairly… I say, fairly early on… About a decade ago, I stopped telling people, “Oh, you should start at the beginning.” I said, “You know what, go ahead and start at book 3.” The decision… That decision meant that every time I wrote a book, I checked all of my assumptions, if you will, at the door, and asked myself, “Who are the characters that I’m going to be using in this book? How can I introduce them anew to the reader, assuming that this becomes the book that a reader picks up first?” Because I will never make a living at this if everybody has to buy my first book before they get to number 13. The third piece, the third decision piece, was the realization that the larger this series gets, the less people want… The less willing people are to commit to consume it. Because it’s huge. It’s 20 years of daily, every day daily comic installments. It’s ginormous. Yes, it’s 20 years of my life, and so it’s allowed to be big. But that’s a lot to ask anybody to bite off. So, we decided about five years ago it had to come to the end, and whatever end that was, it needed to be an ending where whatever I do next, even if it’s in the same universe, whatever I do next needs to be something that people can pick up with zero knowledge of the existing Schlock Mercenary universe. As I said, I could talk for hours about the individual decision points. But those three pieces, the first book was not fantastic, each book needed to be its own starting point, and it has to end satisfactorily and completely without destroying the universe because I still want to write Schlock Mercenary things, I just don’t need you to know what Schlock Mercenary is before you pick them up.
[Erin] I would say, this is a little bit of a side note from that brilliance, but thinking back to what Brandon was saying about sort of short fiction and collections, eclectic collections versus sort of getting everything in one world, I think that’s true of novels as well. I think, getting back to what we were talking about in our last episode about branding, I think you can also kind of brand yourself as like a series person, like, when you sit down to read so-and-so, like, you’re going to get a lot, you’re going to get like a 20 year, you’re going to get a deep dive. Or, there are other authors who are like, “Everything I do is a one-off.” Every time you’re going to get the same style but a completely different type of world and a completely different type of narrative experience. I think that’s something to think about, what you want for yourself for your career, do you want to be a series person, a one-off person, as opposed to kind of just letting it happen.
[Brandon] I think that this… This can… They both have advantages and disadvantages. One of the biggest boosts to my career is the fact that I set all of my fantasy novels in the same universe. This was during a time where that was not necessarily… I mean, people have done this all through the history of storytelling. But it was not a selling point, for the most part, through most people’s careers. King… Steven King did it and different authors have done it. I happened to be doing this the same time that the MCU launched. Right? My first book came out in 2005, the MCU launched in 2007, I believe it was, and suddenly, the MCU was getting big, when I had basically the same sort of model in my epic fantasy, where I had a bunch of different stories that were all connected with some continuing characters moving between planets and worlds. What this did is it gave me the same sort of boost that the MCU got where the series that may be a little lesser-known or people are a little less likely to try out or things like that got the boost of everyone knowing, “Oh, but it’s connected to the whole thing. If I like this other thing, some of the things I love are going to be in this lesser-known story.” What it does is it really makes it a lot easier for me to launch a new book series by saying, “This is a Cosmere.” It’s going to focus on this and it’s tied into this whole big thing that I’m doing. The core fan base starts… I’ve got like three levels of branding. There’s branding on the series, there’s branding on the name, and there’s the branding on half of my work is this larger universe. It’s been an enormous help in marketing.
[Dan] I want to take a slightly different direction for our final few words here. One of the choices that I make, one of the things I look at when I’m deciding if something needs to be a series or not, is deciding what else I’m going to do with that universe, with that world, and if that means I need to keep its status quo. What I mean by that is, for example, Mistborn is a great example of this. The story you were telling with that trilogy is the story of changing the world irrevocably. More so than a lot of dystopias. Dystopia does this, but Mistborn in particular. What that means is after you finished that trilogy, if you had wanted to… Well, and you did, want to continue dealing with that world, you couldn’t use those same characters and you couldn’t use that same kind of style and world and culture that you had established and the people fell in love with. You found other ways to do that with the follow-up series. But, for example, with the role-playing game tie-in, with the board game tie-in, those necessarily are not continuations of the story, they are kind of infixes to the story you already told.
[Brandon] So this is a good… We haven’t talked a lot in this series about when you make artistic decisions versus business decisions. I’ve often said, Erin said in a previous episode something like this, that I think while you’re writing the stories, artistic concerns should be primary. We’re not talking about those in this series, but it should be in the back of your brain that it’s all right to make bad business decisions for artistic reasons. Because we are storytellers who want to tell a specific story. When I came in with the pitch for the original Mistborn series which ended with an irrevocable change to the status quo, the publisher told me this was a bad idea and recommended I not do it. I did it anyway. They thought this was a terrible idea. This was Tom Doherty, this wasn’t my editor. This is the head of the company, who said, “This is probably disastrous for your career. You should not do this. Because if this series takes off, you are limited to three books. You’re going to have to completely rebrand the series for the next books in the series, and they are just not going to sell as well. They never do.” I made artistic decisions that I wanted to do this. Then I leaned into them business-wise. I said, “One of the selling points of the Mistborn trilogy is that it is a complete trilogy, that you know you have an ending.” I think artwork is stronger when there’s an ending to it. I then tried to do the best with the business that I could, and I think it has certain advantages by having different eras of the series. But I made that as an artistic choice, not a business choice. Then I made the business adapt to it, rather than the other way around.
[Dan] That’s, I think, a very smart way of handling that. Lots of different series… You look at my own, the Partials series, that is about the end of a status quo. Where is the Mirador series, I could write Mirador novels for the rest of time, because the status quo never changes. Extreme Makeover, which I think is my best book, will never have a sequel, because…
[Dan] I made that choice early on that that’s how the world is going to end.
[Dan] Anyway. We have come to the end of our episode. We have a bit of homework that were going to get from Howard.
[Howard] Right. This is leaning a little into the art side of it. Hopefully, you, fair listener, have a favorite series. Something that you’ve read or watched or otherwise consumed that you are familiar with. Here is your homework. For each installment of that series, whether it’s a book or an episode of TV or a movie, write down what questions were asked and what questions were answered. Do this so that over the course of the whole series you can see the question-and-answer dialogue that takes place between the creator and the consumer. You’re doing this so that when you have to ask yourself, “Oh, no, am I holding back too many of my best ideas for later in the series?” you have an answer. Because some of those question-and-answer moments in the series that you love, some of those may be your favorite things and they didn’t show up until six books in. So, there’s your homework. Question-and-answer, documented over the course of a series that you love.
[Dan] Fantastic. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.