Sustainable Series Strategies

For those of us who like to write genre fiction — the cozy mysteries, the thrillers, the science fiction horror, the fantasy — our books often have the funny habit of turning into series.

Trilogies, and longer series, seem to dominate the market regardless of genre. From a craft perspective, how do you set up a successful series from the start, with characters that continue to be interesting five books in, and plots that are sustainable across hundreds of thousands of words? At what point in your career does it make sense to pitch a series? What are readers hoping to get out of series work, and how long will they wait between installments? Series writers share tips and tricks gained from going through the process.

At the titular panel at ChiCon8/WorldCon 80, Seanan McGuire, Wesley Chu, and Maquel A Jacob, moderated by Mary Robinette Kowal did their best to answer these questions, describe sustainable series strategies, and more.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is a series?

A book series typically has a couple common features:

  • The story continues past a duology (2 books) and beyond a trilogy (3 books)
  • It tells more than one story – but has connecting and usually progressing elements that build upon each other.

Should You Write a Series On Purpose?

Some authors always intended their story to be spread across multiple volumes, others are pressured into it by the fans and the sales and the opportunity to visit their world and characters once more.

Standard advice says: write a standalone with series potential.

You sell each book as a singular unit, the story within it should be relatively self-contained, but have seeds of future plots sprinkled in it.

Factors to consider:

  • Are you stretching out a story to fill the space, or expanding your story, to show the readers more?
  • Are your fans and/or the sales team asking for more books?
  • Each book in the series typically gets fewer readers, even as new books may bring in new readers.
    • Readers often fatigue around book 5
  • Are you fatigued as an author?
    • You can approach each book as though it were the last
    • You can switch protagonists to make the story fresh
      • Seanan McGuire vowed she’s “going one book longer than Dresden Files if I have to hit him with a bus!” (The bus seems very unlikely)
    • You can write a palette-cleansing unrelated story between each book in the series
Table with microphones and 4 masked people behind it. Left to right: Mary Robinette Kowal, Maquel A Jacob, Westley Chu, and Seanan McGuire.
The backs of a few audience members heads.
Sustainable Series Strategies: Left to right: Mary Robinette Kowal, Maquel A Jacob, Westley Chu, and Seanan McGuire.

Dealing with Character Fears, Anxieties, and Trauma

Writers put their characters through a lot. How do you keep it fresh?

  • Keep torturing them
  • Torture them in a different way each time

Have your character process their trauma: Denial->Resistance->Explore->Accept->Act.

Remember! Just like the cycle of grief, characters (and people) don’t always go through the process in order. Plus, achieving one goal often doesn’t fix the problem, because the goalposts keep moving.

A writerly example: Impostor syndrome:

I’m not a real writer because:

  • I’ve never finished a story [and after they do…]
  • I’ve never submitted a story for publication [and after they do…]
  • I’ve never been published [and after they do…]
  • My sales aren’t that great [and after they improve…]
  • I’ve never been nominated for an award [and after they get nominated…]
  • I’ve never won an award

Tips For Creating Your Sustainable Series

  • Know your world – organize your notes or create a series bible
    • It’s easy to misspell a side character’s name or forget their hair color
  • Subsequent books in a series are rarely ever shorter — often much longer
  • Book 1 sets up the expectations for both the world and the main characters
    • Avoid establishing rules you might want to break later
      • ie. Seanan’s October Daye series had only fae of European origin, so 16 books in, she’s stuck now. Also, 13 years ago, queer characters couldn’t be the main character.
  • A strong character can keep the readers coming back for more

How To Prevent a Soggy Middle

For many writers, even if they don’t know when, they often know how their series will end. So how do they keep the middle of the series interesting?

  • Inject new conflict
  • Work to make each novel stand alone
  • The old standby of: continually raising the stakes.

When To End A Series

There are a couple of schools of thought.

  • As planned – some series are fully plotted before the author gets started
  • When the book sales steadily drop off for future books more than is sustainable

Going Indie

There are tons of reasons a person might want to go indie, from creative control, to being a niche market, to simply being sick of the rejections. Romance and cozy mysteries top the indie series success genre lists. Many indie authors have found series success by following a few tips:

  • Picking one genre for the series
  • Changing the length (often shorter than traditionally published books)
  • Speedy releases – (maybe 1 month between, maybe 3 months)

Final Thoughts?

If you’re going to write a series, be sure to keep your promises — never let the books get shorter, make sure the voice is consistent, and keep the story true to the characters.

Are there any series you think have been well sustained? Any that dropped the ball?


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