Monday, 8 October 2012

Why so series-us?

What do Stephanie Meyer, J K Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Paul Magrs all have in common?

They’ve all written a series!

When I was researching, believing myself ready to submit a fantasy novel to publishers and agents, I came across one thing, over and over.  Publishers love their fantasy in threes.  The general notion seemed to be that if you can make your story into a trilogy, it is more likely to sell.

As a reader, I disagree with this.  I would rather read one stand alone book then a trilogy.  I thoroughly enjoyed Northern Lights of the His Dark Materials trilogy (Phillip Pullman), for example, but The Amber Spyglass actually annoyed me and was a battle to finish.  I adore The Blade Itself of the The First Law trilogy (Joe Abercrombie) but couldn’t for the life of me tell you what happened in The Last Argument of Kings.  I couldn’t even remember off hand the titles of these third books!

On the other hand, I am an ardent fan of the Discworld series (Terry Pratchett), the Brenda and Effie series (Paul Magrs) and Joe Abercrombie in general who’s novels all feature the same world and reoccurring characters (I read with longing that Logan Ninefingers and/or Glokta will reappear).

Yes, I dislike trilogies but love a good series.  What’s the difference?

A trilogy tells the same story over the course of three books.  While I have repeatedly read that all trilogy books should be able to stand alone, this simply isn’t true and if you want any closure for your new favourite characters, you must read all three.  Three books are not many, but have you noticed that many trilogies grow in size as they go on?  The final book is always the thickest and suddenly gaining that closure becomes a marathon.

A series tells the story or stories of a set of characters in the same location.  This can be as varied as the writer wants and can make work.  It may be that a series stretches across a whole world (Pratchett’s Discworld), a country or two (George R. R. Martin’s Westoros and across the Narrow Sea) or a town (Whitby in Magrs’ Brenda and Effie series).  It could focus on a small set of characters (Brenda, Effie and friends) or a whole cast full (Rincewind, Vimes, Vetinari, The Librarian, Susan, Death, Colon, Nobby Nobbs, Carrot, Tiffany, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg to name a few and that is not counting the one off characters through the whole series).

A series is something special, it is something that readers become loyal to.  It is the equivalent of joining a group of friends on a new adventure.  You live and breathe there with them and look forward to when you can return to them.

A series is also a sure fire way to make a publisher a lot of money.  Once one book has a readership, the whole series has a readership and the longevity of the books relies on the number of books in the series.  Not to mention that someone may discover a book fairly late and then catch up through the backlog, resulting in more sales and an ever increasing customer base.

Whatever the series you hope to create, there are some constants which must remain throughout;

  • Locations must remain familiar.  Feel free to introduce new locations, of course, but make sure they are repeated throughout the series.
  • Have a cast of reoccurring protagonists.
  • How about some reoccurring antagonists?  This will differ depending on the series.  Crime stories will require different protagonists throughout, but how about that serial killer that got away?

While a series should have constants, it is also very important that each book work as a stand alone story.  This is where it becomes tricky!  A series can/should have a main issue or story that is worked on throughout (the game of thrones in A Song of Fire and Ice, Brenda’s fight for a normal life in the Brenda and Effies books) but each book must have its own story with a beginning, middle and ending giving the reader closure.
You also want to ensure that anyone can dip into the middle of your series and still be immediately hooked without wondering what the hell is going on and being forced to find the first book.

How about a sub series?  Within the Discworld series there are the City Watch series, the Witch series, the Wizard series…if you have a large cast of characters this might be one way of dividing stories.  It also gives way to marketing opportunities – which is your favourite Discworld sub series?

Why not experiment?  Both of my current novels are the beginnings of series’.  One will rely on three main characters with some minor reoccurring characters.  The other will rely on a world, with reoccurring characters but a new story and point of view each time.  I’m actually very excited to see where both will lead me.

As with all writing, there are exceptions to all of these rules.  When it comes down to it, write what you love but make sure it works.

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