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The Long Arc: The Challenges of Writing a Series

When I sat down to start writing the Saga of the Redeemed, I knew where it was all going. Maybe not on a micro level (like, the individual scenes for all the books were pretty damn far from being plotted out), but in general, I knew where I wanted Tyvian Reldamar to start and I knew where I wanted him to end up (don’t worry – I won’t spoil anything). I also knew it wouldn’t be contained in a single book. Probably not even three books.

How did I know this? Well, I don’t really know. I think it was because of two reasons, and I think these two reasons are pretty important factors to consider anytime you’re planning to write a book or series of books:

#1: How Big is the World?

Excellent book! Recommended highly!

Excellent book! Recommended highly!

I don’t mean physically, either. Maybe “deep” is a better word – basically, how much story is there to explore in the setting you’ve created? If you don’t visit every single nation on your world map, will the audience miss it? How much of the world matters in the story, anyway? For Tolkien, of course, he had a vast mythology and epic forces of good and evil clashing, and so he needed a bunch of books to give the story the space he felt it deserved. Likewise, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files just keep going and going and going because it always feels like there’s more to discover. On the other hand, there’s The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – an excellent, excellent book, mind you – which is contained in a single volume. Why? Well, Maia’s story fits there, neatly and cleanly. There simply isn’t a need for more.

#2: How Much Does the Character Change?

This is crucial. For the most part, stories are about how the protagonist changes as a result of their experiences. Now, there are exceptions (*cough*JamesBond*cough*), but mostly that’s true of almost every story, regardless of genre. We are reading to experience some kind of change, subtle though it may be. The further a journey your character has, the more books you’re going to need to write. Tyvian, in my novels, begins as a shallow, narcissistic, self-involved criminal. The story is about his slow change from that to…something else. Now, I don’t think people change on a dime, nor do I think stories of redemption accomplished in a weekend are convincing (sure, sure – Uncle Paul found Jesus this weekend and is going to stop drinking – what’s this, the seventh time?), and so I feel that Tyvian’s shift must be a gradual one. It is going to take several books to accomplish.

The series, however, presents some significant challenges for the new author, such as myself. At a basic level, you need to get a publisher to keep buying your books (or, I suppose, you can self-publish, but then you need to keep paying for cover art and editing and so on and so forth, so the basic problem is the same, even if the specifics are wholly different). Are my books selling? Well, sure they are! They are pretty steadily floating between 1000th and 2000th place on Amazon for Fantasy novels! So…yeah, people are buying them, but nobody is putting a down-payment on a summer home. I’ve got a contract through Book 3 (which, technically, is Book 2), but I need two more books to finish the story to a point where I feel satisfied walking away.

Can I get a contract for those other two? Can I score an agent to represent me? I don’t know. It’s worrying, frankly, and it’s something you need to consider about your series. They might not want to publish books 5 and 6, no matter how dear they are to you.

Of course the other, perhaps more daunting problem (even if it is more under your control) is actually writing a satisfying series of novels. You know how you read the first book in a series and you’re like “whoah! That was the most awesome thing ever!” and then you read the next one and you’re like “Oh…uhhh…it was okay, I guess,” and then by the time you’re at book 3 you’re totally fed up and the story is lame and you don’t care about the characters anymore?

Yeah, nobody does that on purpose.

All writers try to make their second and third and fourth books every bit as awesome as the first one. The problems, however, are two-fold as I see it. A sequel must:

  1. Be true to the original in tone and feel.
  2. Advance the story so that things are totally different.
Oh. Now a short guy with a lightsaber. How interes...zzzzz...

Oh. Now a short guy with a lightsaber. How interes…zzzzz…

Clearly, these two things are potentially at odds. Doing it well requires you to have a keen grasp of what matters in your story and what does not. This is harder than you think, too. First off, you’ll probably guess wrong – the things you love about your series might not be the same things your audience loves (hence: WRITE REVIEWS, PEOPLE!). Secondly, even assuming you guess correctly, you still need to change things to keep it fresh enough. Remember the Star Wars prequels? Remember how boring they were? Well, each Episode did not sufficiently advance the story we cared about enough to make it work and, furthermore, the world as presented was not deep enough to support all three films. Could you have done them so they worked? Sure! But we would have had to focus on Anakin and his gradual change into a monster rather than on four-armed lightsaber duels and CGI effects.

The pitfall of keeping it fresh, though, is losing the thing that made it fun to begin with. To use George RR Martin’s series, A Sword of Ice and Fire, I’ve basically checked out of the books at this point because the thing that kept me invested – the struggle between the Lannisters and the Starks – is basically over and done with. Everybody I loved is either dead now or changed so as to become lame. The books go on and the world is certainly deep enough, but the characters just aren’t there anymore for me. I’m out.

So, to circle back, I find myself writing Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed at the moment and I need to keep reminding myself of why I love this series in the first place (answer: the characters) and what has to change in the story to keep it fresh (maddeningly enough: the characters). It’s a balance, and a difficult one. I mean, honestly, how many more swordfights can Tyvian get in before it becomes boring?

(looks at notes)

Gosh, I hope it’s a lot.

Publicity Notes

Just wanted to take a moment to remind new readers of the Saga of the Redeemed that the first two books are being released in one volume – titled The Oldest Trick – which is how I always intended them to read. A great opportunity to get started and save yourself some dough, to boot. It is currently available for pre-order from:


Barnes and Noble


Google Play

And probably on Apple iBooks somewhere, but I can’t figure out for the life of me how to find it.

Anyway, preorder today!


Playing Another Tune…

Stumbled across a review of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies the other day, written by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. In it, he attests:

…in a first book (or movie for that matter) everything has the benefit of being shiny and new. Every revelation is fresh and exciting. Every character is a mystery unfurling.

That’s not the case in a second book. In a second book, you still have that problem. PLUS you have the problem that some of your readers read the first book two days ago, and some of them read it two years ago. Some of them haven’t read it at *all.*

On top of that, a lot of people want nothing more than for you to write your first book over again… because that’s what they know and love. But you *can’t* do that, because you only get one beginning.

When you write the second book in a series, the honeymoon is over. Now you’re in a whole different type of relationship. And love is harder to maintain than infatuation.

That’s why, in my opinion, shifting gears from first book to second book is THE most difficult part of being a new writer.

Crap...I think Kvothe's gotta spend a year learning kung fu. Hmmm...

Crap…I think Kvothe’s gotta spend a year learning kung fu. Hmmm…

I found this review particularly interesting in light of the fact it involves two of my current favorite fantasy authors, both of whom wrote second books that I didn’t like as much as the first. Of the two, I would even argue that Rothfuss’s second book was the more disappointing of the two in the context of the series. I did not think either book was actively bad, mind you – they are both great reads, if not as tightly paced as their first offerings – but they don’t gleam as brightly as the initial outlay. Of course, to again quite Rothfuss’s review, “But you won’t find me bitching, because the only thing I could say was something along the lines of, “O! Woe is me! I was expecting pure untrammeled brilliance and all I got was mere shining excellence! Also, they didn’t have any loganberry cream cheese at the café this morning, so I had to have blueberry instead! Alas! I shall now weep and write poetry in my journal!”

The point Rothfuss makes, though, still stands regardless of Red Seas, Red Skies‘s relative quality and is really worth considering. Since most of your average aspiring fantasy or science fiction authors are looking to write a series, some notion of how that is going to work out is important to realize. So how do you do it well? How do you top yourself?

I’m not Rothfuss or Lynch – pretty far from it, really – and I’m not really here to offer a critique on their work. I don’t have any good answers on how to write a second book because I haven’t successfully done it yet. I’m in the process of writing two separate sequels to two separate novels, and one is going pretty well while the other is something of a disaster at the moment. The only thing I can say that is helping me in one and hurting me in the other is this: know what the series is about.

At some point in writing Red Seas, Lynch had to ask himself ‘what role does this book play in the series as a whole?’ Now, given that he hasn’t finished his series yet, one can only guess at what the answer is/will be. For Lynch, it involved pirates. Pirates, to some extent, fit thematically with some of the larger forces at play in Lynch – issues of freedom, rebellion against authority, and sneering at the rule of law – but it departed from the operative action and mood of the original book. That becomes disconcerting for some readers, not as much for others. Likewise Rothfuss has Kvothe wander off up north to learn swordsmanship and combat. Very much in keeping with the building legend of Kvothe, but it served as a major tangent from the motivating storylines of the book thus far (Denna, the University, Ambrose, the Chandarain, etc.) even if we did get some goodies in the end. Was it worth the slow down in the plot?

I don’t have the answers, as I said. I suspect that Rothfuss is very much correct about the difficulties of continuing a series, if for no other reason than (1) he’s done it and (2) the statement ‘the sequel is always worse’ is so commonly understood to be true, it is practically a truism. All I know is that I need to find a way to tell a new story at the same time as advancing an old one, and that’s a pretty unique balancing act. Maybe someday you folks will have the luxury of judging my success or failure in the endeavor.

Of course, in order to do that, I need to get the first one published first.