Why Writing A Series (Especially As A New Author) Is Really Goddamn Hard

Why Writing A Series (Especially As A New Author) Is Really Goddamn Hard

You may have heard of, or even experienced this scenario:

*inserts VHS tape into player*

*ancient afterschool special begins to play*

I wrote a book!

An agent took me on.

A publisher is interested…

Oh, holy shit, they’re going to make an offer! Ha ha! This is it! This is the dream.

The agent emailed me the offer.

It’s a —

Whoa.

WHOA.

It’s a three-book deal!

They say my book needs to be a series, a trilogy, and they want to buy the whole motherfucking trilogy, oh fucking yes, I am the GOD OF WRITING, this is amazing, I am amazing, my agent is amazing, the publisher is amazing.

*fast forward VHS tape*

Oh, this is great, my first book is coming out this week. I AM SO EXCITED I AM PISSING GLITTER. Plus, the publisher has put in a little time and money, and they’ve asked that I really develop my platform and my brand and we’re doing some Goodreads giveaways and — all while I’m writing the second book! Which comes out in the next 6-12 months! This is so cool!

*fast forwards some more*

Oh.

Well. Um. The book came out!

That’s good. But it… I mean, it didn’t do slambang numbers, and not sure if I’ll earn out. Maybe over time. That’ll be fine. Meanwhile, I’ll just… I’ll just keep plugging away on this second book.

Though, I need to admit, it’s… hard. It’s a little harder writing this second book knowing that the first wasn’t a big deal. Just emotionally it’s a lot, but hey — fuck that. I’m an author. I’ve got a three-book-deal, and I know for sure that the publisher believes in me and that the second book will get a nice extra push and —

*fast forwards*

I just got an email and the publisher isn’t really entirely behind the second book. They love it! They’re happy. But they’re also not… committing my attention to it because they feel like the money and time they gave to the first book should be enough but how are people going to find the second book if they haven’t found the first book? Is it magic? Are we relying on magic? Are there wizards? And it’s not like the second book can somehow sell more copies than the first, probably…

Well, that’s okay. Each book has a long tail and they’ll generate attention for one another and just having them on bookstore shelves will be a win!

*fast forwards*

Okay, sooooo, ha ha ha, turns out, bookstores set their orders based on the sales of the last book, and in fact they often cut those orders by 25-50%, so the first book not doing so hot means they haven’t ordered as many copies of the second book annnnnd

I’m sorta writing the third book now, a year later

or I’m trying to write the third book

and

it’s hard, it’s really hard

I’m writing this book

this third book

and I worry it’s just going to go kerplunk into the publishing toilet

but without the splash

just a flush

and then the void

and what about when I go to get my next book deal

and they look at the sales of this series, my first

what will happen

is this over just as it’s beginning?

*pops out VHS tape*

*spins chair around, sits on it in uncool Captain America-style*

So, here’s the thing.

The above scenario is a little pessimistic — and even if it happens, it’s important to recognize that it’s not the end-all be-all situation. You’re published, and though no book is guaranteed, your foot is in the door and I’ve found that publishers are not overly punitive regarding the sales of a first series. They’re not operating in bewildered isolation; they know the score. They know it’s hard. And if the next idea is a good one, they’ll offer again.

Though, they’ll probably offer with another series.

And here’s my caution —

Committing to a series, especially for a debut or new-ish author, is tough.

It’s tough for a lot of reasons.

a) It’s tough because of the spiraling situation above. Sales of a first book are no guarantee, and now you’re in for three books long before you know how the first has done. You will likely be in the middle of writing a second or third book by the time you figure out the first has done… you know, not that great. It’s not necessarily that your publisher won’t support that first book — they may, they may not. But they probably won’t throw much support behind the second or third book, on the hopes that the attention investment they put into the first book will carry it. If they don’t have an innovative strategy to grow the series — and some publishers do! — that series is, well, literally a series of diminishing returns. Which, yes, might mean cut orders from bookstores, or higher remainders, or whatever.

b) This feeds a secondary situation — some readers are growing gun-shy when it comes to investing in and keeping up with book series. They prefer not to buy a series until it’s complete — they’ve been burned before, you see. By authors who haven’t finished the series, or by a bookstore that stopped carrying the books, or by a publisher that ended a series early. And ironically, this situation in return re-feeds the first problem: if readers don’t commit to buying a series book by book along the way, then it’s even likelier that a bookstore will stop carrying it, that a publisher will stop publishing it, that the writer will keep writing it. This is the PUBLISHING OUROBOROS, a snake biting its own tail, slurping up its own body like a serpentine noodle.

c) Writing a series is… actually hard. Here you’re a debut writer and you’re tasked not just with one book, but three — and not just three books, but one story split thrice, a trilogy. I don’t to say this is advanced story math, exactly, but it’s also not basic shit. This is at least an intermediate level-up (ding), and I’m tempted to say it’s a swim forward or drown scenario, which is true, but it has the added complication that the success or failure of a book is not entirely reliant on you, the other. What I mean is, there are so many other factors that go into making a book leap into people’s hands or die on the shelf — marketing, promotion, cover design, placement, bookstore love, librarian mojo, zeitgeist, simple fucking luck — that now you’re forced to do this dance with three books, not one. It’s vital to realize this is a commitment on your part — like getting a new job and being told you can’t just quit if it doesn’t work out. “Welcome to Dave’s Churro Repair, new employee, please sign this contract confirming you work for us for at least two years!”

d) The commit to write a series or trilogy or whatever the configuration is a commitment often made before you’ve done it. That’s okay, and certainly there’s a certain pleasure to writing on spec — here’s the idea (which is nearly always in part a lie!) and now I am paid money to write it. But again, for a new author unused to the trials and tribulations of a writing schedule with a theoretically tight deadline, this can actually be pretty fucking tough. Again, this is thrown into the deep end stuff — HEY THANKS FOR THE BOOK, the publisher says, NOW WRITE TWO MORE IN THE NEXT 9-12 MONTHS. Which is phenomenal if you’re practiced and ready; less awesome if you have no idea what the fiddly fuck you’re doing and you’ve got kids and a day job and a weird habit of showing up in people’s houses with a chair and a VHS tape in order to lecture at them. Also, you’re dressed as Captain America. Freak. But also it’s kinda sexy? Shut up.

So, what do you do?

Well, I have no idea.

If you’re in SFF or, really, any kind of genre, it’s probably gonna come up. And when it does, you just need to be prepared for how to deal with it.

You could —

Talk to your agent. (And/or, the editor.) If the book isn’t something you want for a series, you need to own that up front. Be clear. It’s okay to not write or pitch a series, and it’s okay to be clear that this is a standalone. Wanderers (out July 2019!) is a book that is for me, very distinctly a standalone. Admittedly, a huge standalone (280k), but it’s one book. I had people ask if I could turn it into a duology or a trilogy — and yes, I could have, but no, I sure as fuck didn’t. The publisher believes in it as one book, and honestly, the pressure that alleviates is astounding. I don’t have to worry about 2-3 years worth of book releases in one story — it’s one and done, baby. And the second book in the deal is also a standalone, which is a new chance to succeed or fail rather than several books staple-gunned together into a giant authorial raft.

Plan for a series only if it merits a series. Again, worth talking to your agent and editor with the idea that the first book stands alone but has series potential — in other words, if it does well, you will commit to a series. If it doesn’t? Then you’re not on the hook for a few years of writing, editing, and promo. Note that a series benefits a publisher more than it benefits a writer, often, so, go in with clear-eyes and firm demands.

Self-publish. Self-published series do well — and self-publishing one book also gives you a reflexive ability to see if more books are demanded or if it’s time to cut bait and run. No publisher will demand you write more of a failing series because, drum roll please, you’re the publisher. Of course, that’s also the downside: you’re the publisher, not just the writer. Considerably more work on your part, but if you’re good at that kind of work or know how to pay the right people — go for it.

Write all the books first. Write the series first. If it’s a trilogy, write the trilogy before trying to publish. If it’s a longer series, write the first three books, at least. Or, bare minimum, plot the books robustly, so that when the contract comes in you’re not rushing to figure out the story beats on a longer series.

Suck it up and enjoy the ride. Hey, getting books published is awesome, and fuck it, you can just roll with whatever punches this industry throws at you. At least you know they’re coming, right?

p.s. Pissing Glitter is my CIA code name, don’t @ me

* * *

THE RAPTOR & THE WREN: Miriam Black, Book 5

Miriam Black, in lockstep with death, continues on her quest to control her own fate! Having been desperate to rid herself of her psychic powers, Miriam now finds herself armed with the solution — a seemingly impossible one. But Miriam’s past is catching up to her, just as she’s trying to leave it behind. A copy-cat killer has caught the public’s attention. An old nemesis is back from the dead. And Louis, the ex she still loves, will commit an unforgivable act if she doesn’t change the future. 

Miriam knows that only a great sacrifice is enough to counter fate. Can she save Louis, stop the killer, and survive? 

Hunted and haunted, Miriam is coming to a crossroads, and nothing is going to stand in her way, not even the Trespasser.

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N


32 responses to “Why Writing A Series (Especially As A New Author) Is Really Goddamn Hard”

      • This is exactly why it is helpful. If I’m in a canoe or raft heading down the river, I sure as hell appreciate the guy who posted the sign ‘Rapids Ahead. Beware!’

  1. Thanks for the perspective. Really…really valuable insight for someone trying to debut with a fantasy series. I really…*sob*…I’m not horrified at this dose of reality. It is good. Everything is fine.

    …I’m not crying. My eyes are pissing tears.

  2. As an avid SFF fan/writer, I’ve been feeling like series books are the bane of my existence for years and years. It happens over and over: the first book is a lovingly, enthusiastically crafted pleasure to read. And the others too often read like a stiff, contractually obligated chore. So thanks for shedding light on why this happens from the author’s side of things.

    On my own writer’s side of things, I tend to have ideas that are one book tops, usually short stories and novellas. I haven’t really cracked the code on how to expand a story without making all my characters glaringly ignorant and stupid. I’ve always been of the opinion that if your story takes 13 volumes to resolve, too many characters are missing key problem-solving abilities. And I’m not personally in the business of writing characters like that. So, yeah, I think if the industry felt more open to anything besides cookie cutter trilogies just because Tolkien did it, I’d be happier as both a reader and a writer.

  3. Hey, Pissing Glitter….I mean…Chuck! Heh heh…uhh…
    Wow, sorry about blowing your cover like that, man, but…well.. *discreetly nudges glitter on floor under corner of nearest chair* You know…yer kinda outing yourself with all that fantastic writing! I guess the glitter thing is just spontaneous?
    Seriously though, I think I pissed myself (nope, no glitter, dammit) when I saw that word count for Wanderers. HELL YEAH! That’s my kind of meaty-ass book! Beach reads are for pussies! Gimme that tome that hurts to hold in one hand, even in paperback!
    (I just pitched a 250k Fantasy, so I’m praying we’re not the only ones who like WORDS.)
    But what really got me about this post is the idea of publishers wanting…nay…DEMANDING a series.
    Really?
    Seriously?
    I HAVE a series. I have four books written, with half a baby fifth in the oven (Ewww…bad analogy…move along.) And yet every.stinking.piece of writing advice I’ve seen says to pitch that first book as a standalone!!! WTF?
    Why can’t we pitch a series if we have one?

    • “Never try to sell a book without an agent.” “Never try to sell a series. Work with a standalone first.” I have never paid attention that sort of rule. You have a series? AWESOME. Pitch it as such. BUT make sure the first book is, in fact, strong enough to stand on its own. That’s my two cents. James A. Moore. (I’ve had a few series sold. SERENITY FALLS SEVEN FORGES and TIDES OF WAR)

      • Thanks, James! Good to hear that sometimes those pesky “rules” really are more like “guidelines” …to paraphrase a pirate.
        It feels better to me to be able to tell the truth up front with both a standalone-capable first book AND a series, instead of whacking a requesting agent over the head with a bundle of unexpected follow-ups.

  4. Yes oh yes! And when the publisher of your 11th books says to you, “No, I think we’ll keep The B-Team for the series title, and come up with another title for this one, the first book of the series.” And you say, “WHAT series? fuck fuck fuck” (but you say it to the dog on the couch beside you, because your publisher just asked you for more books. The holy grail. Or something.)

  5. I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said, and I have cut short a few attempts to make a series from a book, or a novel from a short story for that reason. But, and I say this simply because it’s a truth for me, sometimes a series is a blast to write. AS LONG AS YOU ARE PREPARED FOR IT. James A. Moore

  6. I wrote the trilogy first, not knowing any better. I got an agent with the first book, and once we signed, I confessed that the other two books were already written. She got me a 2-book deal, and then the publisher dropped the series. I ended up pubbing the third through my lit. agency, which is self-pub except they did all the typesetting and covers and whatnot so it wasn’t self-publishing, so much as “lots-of-help” publishing. If that third book hadn’t been written already, I don’t know if I’d’ve finished the series at all. Probably not.

  7. This article is great on so many levels! The humor, the comedy…And please tell me the term “pissing glitter” is not copyrighted so that I can somehow incorporate it into my next conversation for funzies.

  8. One of my favorite British writers of historical fiction has a trilogy that didn’t make it for just these reasons. I thought he might just need to get to work and bang out the third book, because I was really caught up in the story but the books just didn’t sell (although his other stuff is doing very well) so the publisher just nixed it. Hmm, come to think of it, someone said the same thing when I was begging for another Atlanta Burns story… Sometimes reality sucks.

  9. Thanks, this is timely for me. I’m in this exact scenario (at least I’m done with book 2 and halfway through the first draft of book 3 before book 1 comes out).
    One question: does insisting on a single book cost you social capital with the publisher, or do they just take it in stride?

  10. I am considering dipping my toe into the churning waters of The Series, but in a rather less pressureful way: instead of one great story arcing over three (or more) books, I’m planning to write a mystery with characters that can continue on into other stories. Of course, there’s still the issue that I might get so sick of my characters I want to push them over a waterfall, but that is a chance I am prepared to take.
    Also, being self-published (and giving up on brick-and-mortar stores) does relieve some of the pressure. I think… Different pressures, anyway, and don’t they say a change is as good as a holiday?

  11. What you’ve written is exactly right! I’ve written books which are massive; but no publisher wanted them because they were ‘too big and nobody wants a book from an author who isn’t well-known’.

    So, I wrote a trilogy – a whole trilogy – and left it in the drawer for a year or two. Then, I went back to it, and it still excited me! So, I gave it to a friend of mine who’s an editor; and she said it ‘needs a little help, but it’s a great book’ (and she wasn’t just saying that because we were friends; I said to her to be blunt and let me have it in a warts and all kind of way). This gave me a good insight into what people are looking for.
    However, I don’t have the money to publish the book… and every grant I’ve tried to get through and arts grant has fallen on its face.

    So, I have a few books which are finished, sitting there on my thumb drives waiting to be published with a grant – but I’m unable to get them self-published because I can’t get a grant. This sucks to no end!

  12. This is such a good reminder. I just sent my manuscript to an agent for the first time and entered PitchWars the next day, and I’m trying not to let my head float to high into the clouds!

  13. Thank you for this, Chuck, as your advice is not only pertinent, but seems to fit what i am going through. I have a book done, and could be a series. In fact, so much so that i completed a first draft of book two. But I need to worry about getting book one done and ready, before going any further.

  14. Would you say the the same applies to a series of novellas? I’ve been toying with the idea of writing out a string of novellas, then seeing if I can get them published (after the requisite 8 million* rejections).

    *all numbers are guesstimates

    • I did that with ZER0ES and INVASIVE — it’s a cool way forward, though there’s still occasional confusion that the second book is just BOOK 2 of the first, which isn’t quite right at all.

  15. Oh wow, that sounds like a rollercoaster. And I hate rollercoasters.

    My first thought was “whew, glad I bought ‘Aftermath’ as soon as it came out.” Although I’ve just now gotten around to READING them. And now I need a Sinjir/Conder crime-thriller/romcom like I need oxygen. “Chaos in Cloud City”. I may need to write a fan fic.

  16. Great article. I’m finishing my first long writing project, the scripts for a comic book series, and I did what you suggested. I wrote the whole darn thing, 82 chapters, before even thinking about shopping it. That way I got to conceive of it as one project, the way I envisioned it. And frankly, if no one wants to pick it up, that’s okay, because it is still my vision and I’m proud of it, no compromises. I can’t imagine having written and pitched the concept and maybe one chapter and then having to fight through editorial control over the remaining chapters/issues as well as having editorial deadlines. Yuck. It was fun writing because I wrote at my own pace in the way I wanted without any external stress. Who knows what will happen (I’m just finishing my final edits before sending it out), but I’m glad I wrote everything from start to finish in the series before putting it out there.

  17. The book I’m writing could definitely be a trilogy. Or even a pentalogy/quintology (5 books) or more! It could also be a standalone if I squeeze it all in. So how do you know just what kind of approach to take? My gut says trilogy but as a first timer wouldn’t a standalone be better?

  18. Writing is hard. But hard is good. My momma used to tell us that “If it ain’t hard, it ain’t worth doing.” I took that lesson to heart, and I wrote my first young adult adventure series. The story that I had in my head was too big for just one book. It had to be a series, or the book was going to weigh in at about 1200 pages. Aside from short stories, this was my first real writing project as a professional. And it was my first book. Five-book series? No problem. I was determined to make Momma proud. I’ll admit that it was a struggle. My writing skills started off rough and improved as I went along. But that’s the point, isn’t it? You write to be a better writer. One book is a start. Keep going. Write. If the story is in your head and you can’t sleep at night because you’re working out plots, then it’s worth writing. And if you’re worried that your readers will hate you because you unconsciously channeled George R.R. Martin and killed off one of the major characters, then you’re doing it right. It’s hard because writers choose hard. Easy “ain’t worth doing.”

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