I belong to several on-line writer’s groups. I find it helpful to interact with other authors, and their feedback on my stories is invaluable. Lately, I’ve noticed a rather interesting trend in the comments in these groups. There are a lot of writers out there who are writing not just a single book, but a series of books. Some even admit to writing them simultaneously. I found this perplexing.
At first, I simply wrote this trend off to either inexperience or greed, and in some cases, both. Being of an inquisitive mindset, I recently posted in one of these groups asking why so many, and in my perception, primarily youthful or inexperienced writers were taking this path.
I got some of the usual pithy responses like, “For the money” or “Because that’s what editors want”, but I also received a wide variety of answers. It seems, that the reasons for writing a series are as varied as the writers themselves. However, after rereading all the responses, it seems that they can be divided into roughly three groups.
The first group are those who set out to write a series simply because they see greater financial rewards. I certainly can’t argue with them, when they say that a backlist helps sell your front list. That is a truism. What I can and do argue with, is the total greed shown in some of the responses, and the rush to get that backlist written--today. These writers set out to write a series to have their name on a meter-long section of shelf-space instead of concentrating on the painstaking process of producing one high quality story. To paraphrase one of the worst responses I got in this category:
Because I earn more money, and they sell better. Splitting a 100,000-word book into four sections is cheaper to edit, and each section can be sold for 2.99 each versus 2.99 for the whole book. It's a great marketing strategy.
I’m sure that there will be those who disagree, but I see that as blatantly ripping-off the reader. Not what I would call a great career move.
The second group of answers I got were those I would deem either misinformed or inexperienced. I was told with authority, and by an author whom I truly respect, that agents and publishers prefer series over stand-alone books. Yet, another person who has worked for multiple Big-5 publishers said that absolutely wasn’t true. She said that publishers look for a well-written book that they believe will sell. Obviously, and what she didn’t say is, if your book is making them money, they will want more.
Others responded that their character’s story was simply too large to be contained in a single volume. As a short-story writer, I encounter this problem all the time. The solution is not to write a series of short stories, but rather to distill the idea down to a manageable size. My recent submission to A Haunting of Words anthology was a tale of a young soldier in Vietnam. I told it effectively in less than 2,000 words because I made no attempt to detail his pre-war life in Compton, who he was friends with in High School, how he came to join the Marines, or any background on why we were fighting that war in the first place. I didn’t take the reader on a complicated and boring march through the jungles to get to the scene. Nor did I bore the reader with description of what the tree-line looked like, how heavy his pack was or who all the other men in his squad and platoon were. I told a simple story of a single firefight and the immediate aftermath. In other words, I narrowed my focus to what was important in the story I wanted to tell. This is one reason that I feel short story writing to be invaluable training for the aspiring novelist.
The third group of answers were almost universally from professional or more experienced authors, some of whom have quite impressive resumes. I said almost universally, because there were a handful of admittedly green writers in this group as well. These authors stated that, although they had written or were working on a series, they only wrote a single book at a time. Some said that ideas for future books would come from the writing and be jotted down for future reference. Others said that they had spent years carefully planning the series they wanted to write and then sat down to write it one book at a time. One of the best of these responses generously gave me permission to quote her in this article, but asked that her name be withheld since she hadn’t taken the time to craft her response in what she felt to be a truly professional manner. Like I said, professional. Here’s what she had to say.
“Each book I write is a standalone, but one of the secondary characters becomes the main in the next. Each book is in excess of 125,000 words. I don't write them simultaneously as such, I'm working on one while another's being edited … But a lot of it is reader pressure. When people start clamoring for your next book, it does put pressure on you to keep going as fast as you can. But I do write full time.
What I hate, as a reader, is one book that's sold as a series in 5 parts. Now THAT is just … someone out to make a buck and I won't buy it.”
With over one hundred responses to my question, there were the inevitable repeats and pretty much every conceivable blend in between, but these three categories are a representative distillation of the whole.
Like any skill, writing takes time and effort to master. No matter the temptation or pressure to take short-cuts, there is no substitute for experience and craftsmanship. Each author will meet with success or failure, in large part, based on what time and effort they put into their writing. I hope that all will attain what they deserve, especially those who take the time to craft a riveting story that has their reader demanding more.
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