Writing: series and stand-alones

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that readers love book series.  They’re so popular now, one of my friends complained that she’s having trouble finding novels that are stand-alones, that if a first book does well, the author starts a series.  She likes the “freshness” of new characters and new settings, and she’s having a hard time finding them.

If a series works, a writer has a ready-made audience, happy and anxious to buy his next book.  And just because readers like one series doesn’t mean they’ll like the next one.   I belong to several groups in Goodreads, and when Patricia Briggs came out with her latest Mercy Thompson novel, members wrote about pre-ordering it and taking the day off work to stay home to read it.  I can’t imagine how awesome that must feel (but I’d love to find out).  When Patricia Briggs finishes a new novel in her Alpha and Omega series, though, there’s still lots of pre-book excitement, but it can’t compare with Mercy’s hullabaloo.  The same goes with Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series.  Readers can’t wait for the next book, to the point where Ilona Andrews writes little tidbit scenes inbetween novels to placate their itch.  And even though her other series are popular, they’re not AS popular.

I understand the dynamics of series and why authors write them.  It’s because readers want them.   But for me, there are advantages and disadvantages to writing them.  If readers love them, the advantage is obvious–more book sells.  From a writing standpoint, the author is returning to a world he knows and to characters who’ve walked and talked in his head enough that they become more and more real.  It’s fun to see how much they’ll grow and what they’ll do next…as long as new ideas keep coming.  But I’ve followed some series for a long time, and there’s a point somewhere along the way, when the sameness of the world and the characters becomes a hurdle instead of a blessing.  How many new battles or challenges can the characters face?  How many things can the author come up with to keep the series fresh?  New characters and new plots start to look intriguing.  That’s one advantage of stand-alones.  Everything’s always new.  The first fourth of a book is introducing characters, setting, and a struggle, and it feels like an adventure when everything’s unfamiliar.

My three series are new enough, I still enjoy them.  I’m working on the third Enoch/Voronika novel, and it’s interesting for me to discover new facets of each of the characters, to push them in different directions to see how they respond.  It is my third book in the series, though.   I don’t know how other authors manage it, but my pile of background papers keeps growing.  I have a character wheel filled out with information for each major character I’ve introduced.  I have lists with short descriptions of minor characters I’ve created with an X on them if I killed them in a previous book (it’s urban fantasy, remember.  How embarrassing if I staked someone in book two and then reintroduced him in a later story).  I have a short paragraph on how each major character grew or changed in each book.  For each novel, I compile more and more information.

For Empty Altars, I did lots of research on clothing, foods, weapons, etc., in Norse times, and I seem to add more research each time I write about Tyr and Diana.    I’ve only finished my second book in the series, and I already have a mountain of information to leaf through.  I know I could just look it up each time, but there are so many versions of Norse myths, I want to remember which one I used.

For my Wolf’s Bane series, I thought I’d just have fun, making things up.  But I wanted to keep Reece’s magic consistent, and I wanted it to feel “real.”  So I have a mound of articles and notes for those two books now.  I don’t know how Sue Grafton kept everything straight for twenty-six letters of the alphabet in her mystery series or how Janet Evanovich files things away for her Stephanie Plum novels–which could be infinite, I guess, since it’s based on numbers.

And that’s another thing about series.  Some authors create a specific time frame for them.  Books based on the 7 deadly sins should have…well…7 books.  If the series starts with five brothers and the author intends to follow one in each novel, the reader expects five books.  I don’t have a brilliant plan for my novels.  I intend to write them until I’m tired of them or until readers are sick of them, whichever comes first.  But I realize the more of them I write, the more baggage goes into each one.  When that baggage is too heavy to carry, it’s time to move on.

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