One of the more ubiquitous pieces of advice that is floating around the self-publishing community is that ‘series sell, and singles don’t’. Personally, I would advise that a writer follows Neil Gaiman’s advice and treat every book as though potentially it could be the first book in a series, while making sure it stands alone as a good read in its own right. I would also suggest though, that if you can make your ideas and concepts work into a series, it is a good idea to do so. Take a look at the best-seller lists on Amazon, and you will see them dominated by series, and with good reason. In an extended series of novels, there is time to develop characters, stories and plots in a way that is not possible in a single book, even if you go for the doorstop.
I’m going to hit on this today not from a sales angle, but from a creative one - because at the end of the day, writing is about creativity, not salesmanship. I won’t say that I’ve never done things for ‘business’ purposes, because that isn’t true - there are ideas I’ve got for books that I’ve back-burnered because I don’t think they will sell, but that simply is one of the criteria I use to choose which books I want to write. If something really tugged at me, I would likely write it whatever the market thought; as it stands, I want to write military science-fiction, and so I will continue to write Alamo.
Writing a series, from a creative standpoint, allows for evolution in a way that no single novel can permit. I would argue that five sixty-thousand-word books have more room for development than a single three-hundred-thousand-word book, because you are writing them as individual plots. You can choose to focus on a single character; moreover, a character can develop in a different way than you had envisioned, and if you are not tied down to a specific plot for later books, it’s a lot easier to explore different facets.
A perfect example is Orlova. She was originally conceived as a minor character, a roguish smuggler, but when it came to writing Price of Admiralty, I decided that I needed a second POV character, one that was credibly able to do the ‘hit the deck’ planet-based stuff, where Captain Marshall needed to remain on the bridge. That book tangled two primary storylines, the political trouble on the ship, and the civil war taking place on the planet, and I needed two characters to follow each of the threads. It began as an accident.
Then I realized that I enjoyed writing the Orlova parts a lot, and that I was creating a character I liked and enjoyed. Over the course of the last ten books, I’ve been able to grow and develop the character as she matures into her role; and she’s going to be facing a lot of interesting fun in the next few books as well. In a way, she’s taken a lot of the limelight away from Marshall - one of the reasons for the plots of recent Alamo novels has been finding ways to get the Captain back into the leading role again.
Cooper would be another case in point. He’s a spoiler for you - he was meant to die in Battle of Hercules, simply designed as a one-off character who was planned to sacrifice himself during the latter stages of the book. While I was writing his scenes...I just couldn’t do it. He brought a new perspective to the series, and one that I rather liked to write. Marshall is the commander, the decision-maker, and his plots often revolve around the need for him to make the tough call.
Orlova is the maturing character, developing over time, shaping up as an officer - in an odd way, two versions of ‘Hornblower’, if ‘Captain Hornblower’ was somehow serving with ‘Midshipman Hornblower’ on the same ship. Cooper is a pure actor - the man who gets the job done. One of the more interesting things to write was when those roles were reversed, and Cooper was the instigator.
This leads to one of the more important things - that one cannot keep the roles fixed, or you are collapsing into formula. Yes, by default, Marshall is the man who makes the tough call - but he’s found himself stuck in situations before where he has had to become the man on the ground, and isn’t around to make the decision. Orlova was thrust into the Captain’s chair, and had to make the decisions, and watching her react to that was fun to write. Cooper is most comfortable with a gun in his hand, in active duty, but the occasions when he has led missions, again, have been good to watch. (A counterpoint to this is that sometimes you still need to show the people in their normal roles, or they become fixed in different ones.)
Logan Winter, you ask? Well, he’s a different type again, and I’ll fess up to a little mistake I made; one of the reasons why I decided around October to roll him back into the primary Alamo story was that if I had left him on Spitfire, I’d have ended up with a second Marshall, whereas he is more of a blend of the investigator and the decision maker, but also can work in action scenes as well. He’s got a versatility that I can explore, and he should get to do that more often.
And yes, this means that I’m working now to a four-POV concept for future books. I started with two, and quickly expanded to three, and now am considering four - the important thing being that each character must make their own contribution to the series. That becomes critical, because otherwise there is a danger that characters will blend into each other. Now, I hasten to add that characters cannot be solely established by their roles - certainly not major characters - but we’re talking plots at the moment, and at the base level, a good plot is a series of strands that all tie together at the end. They can start at the same place and link up, but it boils down to different paths leading to the same place.
My instincts have always been that a book - whether in a series or not - needs a definite ending, though I am revising that a little as time goes by. Thus far, the Alamo series can be divided into four parts. The first two books were stand-alone, each introducing the core characters and the setting, and laying down a few seeds. Then the next two were the ‘Expedition to Jefferson’, the first deep-space probe, that introduced the main antagonist. The third - which was books five through nine - was the ‘Expedition to the Cabal’, which had as its goal opening up the universe.
That, I will confess now, changed almost totally during the course of the year. Originally, it was going to run to book eight, and be a lot tighter. (At one point, Captain Marshall was to be killed off and replaced with Major Marshall, but I dropped that idea early on.) The ‘rescue the Espatiers’ storyline came about when I realized that the Cabal had been getting rather ‘tell, not show’ - the only bits that had really been seen were the military, and I wanted to explore the adversary rather more.
The fourth part, which will be ten through twelve, is different again, and I can’t really name it without providing major spoilers, but I will say that ‘Ghost Ship’ does set up elements of the next two books, but stands alone more than any book since ‘Not One Step Back’, while eleven and twelve are another two-parter, I’m afraid, a decision that I’ve only taken in the last week. Originally, they were separate books that linked together, but while plotting them out, I came to the unmistakable conclusion that the plots needed tangling, rather than being left loose. I’ll be starting to write book eleven, ‘Take and Hold’, some time next week - and it’s looking as though it and its sequel might go a little longer than the 70,000 I’ve been working towards.
So, if you are setting out to write a series - and you’ve got through all of this to get to my advice - it boils down to flexibility. Don’t anchor down anything that you don’t have to. Have some strong leads at the beginning, but don’t throw the metaplot in people’s faces right from the start. Introduce the setting, first, and the characters, and show how they respond in ‘normal’ situations - normal to them, that is - before tearing the universe down - because if the reader is going to care about the universe, he has to understand why.
Take the advantage of a series and be free to change plans as you go, to ride what works and to gently discard what isn’t. If you don’t think a story arc is working, wind it up and begin a new one - as long as it has a satisfactory ending, it doesn’t matter if you terminate it early. (Just don’t ignore it. That’s the sin.) Remember why readers like a series - they like to get to know characters and see them develop and evolve over time. Never present a ‘finished product’, always keep them changing. Show what happens when Captain Sheridan becomes President Sheridan, or when the wild Prince becomes King. See how they react - and don’t be afraid to have them fail. Even if they succeed, show what it has cost them.
Ultimately, the greatest satisfaction of a series is the same for both writer and reader - watching the people they grow attached to (I didn’t say ‘like’ deliberately) face different situations and see it change them, watch them build - or for that matter, fall down - over time. That means that you have to bear in mind how each plot with affect the character, what he or she will take from it, how it will change them. And always leave something for the next book, or the book after that, a thread you can pull. And above all else - enjoy it. Because the greatest lesson of all, one I have learned very well in the last two years - is that it is a damn sight easier to write a book you are enjoying than one you aren’t!