The Series Thing

Three series books in a stack

When I was first drafting the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I wasn’t thinking about a series.

I was thinking about a sequel. I had a character arc in the book—initially called ALIBI, and those of you who’ve read TCB can guess which part of the original survived—that wanted resolution. I had a very rough draft of a sequel when I started querying. But as a result of querying, the two books got folded together and became what was eventually published.

When THE COLD BETWEEN went on sub, I was already writing another in the series. At that point I thought I might have some success. I knew all these characters, knew their lives—I even knew how they died, most of them, although some of that has changed. I figured I could write adventures for a while. I wasn’t really thinking of some larger arc that would play out in X number of books.

Then a publisher the book had been subbed to asked for three books, and suddenly* I was under contract for a trilogy.

Although it wasn’t a trilogy, per se. Not in my mind, at least. I had one finished book and half another (well, closer to 20%, but don’t tell anybody; REMNANTS OF TRUST ended up a pretty good book, I think). I was asked to sketch out what might happen in the second and third books. Not a summary, thank goodness; I sketched out REMNANTS in about three paragraphs, and BREACH OF CONTAINMENT in one. The exercise of doing that was less, to me, defining a story arc as it was reaching a large-scale plot point that had been knocking around in my head for a while (the fate of Galileo—which, despite being a starship, is really the anchor character for me).

I still wasn’t thinking trilogy. I thought it would all go very differently than it did. I thought I’d be able to tell as many stories as I liked.

I’ve written before about trying to tie up the end of BREACH in something of a satisfying knot. But integral to that plot was one dangling thread. I doubt most readers will chuck the book across the room because of the dangle—it’s not designed as a cliffhanger, just a suggestion that there are more events on the horizon—but it’s there. A path for the author into the next story. A pre-inciting incident, if you will.

I caught a little bit of conversation on Twitter this morning about trilogies, and how third books are sometimes rushed to resolution in order to bring all of the spiraling (often sprawling) plot points together. I know the feeling: BREACH felt like that, like I was on a sailboat in a windstorm and none of the lines had been tied down, and the wind was whipping a dozen ropes in my face and if I didn’t wrestle them into submission somehow the whole thing was going to capsize. But all those plot points were within BREACH itself; they weren’t leftovers from the other books.

I didn’t write a trilogy. I wrote a series. I planned to write more; I had a partial draft of the fourth book when I fell out of contract. I’m still** writing that fourth book. The shape has changed, and many of the internal conflicts; but the larger plot points I had planned when BREACH came out are still intact. I have a fifth book planned, and that might be the last; I don’t know how much stomach I’ll have for self-publishing, which is far more hands-on than I’m comfortable with.

(That’s a blog post for another day, I think; but the truth is I can still tell as many stories as I like. It’s just if I self-publish I’ll have to do everything myself, and let me tell you, my personality is not well-suited to the marketing and publicity stuff. But I’ll do the next two series books, at least. I can learn.)

I suppose, in a way, I was writing a TV series, something of a hybrid between the story-arc-bounded stuff we see a lot of now, and the different-monster-every-week type of thing I grew up with, that’s connected by character and nothing else. I wanted the build of a longer story arc, especially where character was concerned; I wanted my characters to grow and change and remember what had happened to them before.

But I wanted people to be able to start anywhere, to jump in with whatever book looked interesting to them, and to be able to fully understand and enjoy the narrative without the earlier installments.

I didn’t think that was an unusual thing, but I do see an awful lot of writers (admittedly many of them very new) wrestling with the logistics of a multi-book story arc, in particular how to ensure the readers read the earlier books first. And indeed, I was told my multiple folks in publishing that readers will do that: most of them, if they see a series book they’re interested in, will hunt down the first rather than reading the one that caught their eye.

But it’s not all readers. And the only way you can be absolutely certain your reader will have all of the material required to understand the story is to include all of that material in one book.

I suppose for me it’s a point of pride, which is a bit silly. We all tell our stories in different ways, and if someone’s got a story that’s going to take them 450,000 words to tell—well, I’m not going to be the one telling them they shouldn’t break it into multiple volumes. For me it’s almost an intellectual exercise: how do I open this book, introduce these characters, build this world in a way that doesn’t bore people who already know but is also thorough enough for someone who’s never been here before?

But of course I do this because I didn’t start any of this thinking “trilogy,” or “epic 400,000-word space opera,” or any of that stuff. I do this because these stories began with me thinking about whole lives: birth and death and love and heartbreak and work and art and morals and ethics and passions and plain old survival. None of that’s ever felt particularly segregated in my day-to-day life; why would I write a story that didn’t focus on all of it, all at once?

I guess the story arc I’m writing is just…life.

Here in the real world, we drift in and out of other lives. People I was close to are long lost to me, via distance or death or silly offense. Things I want, things I try to do come out wrong, sometimes badly so. I’m still here, still going; a little older, but that happens, too.

I don’t write myself—that would be boring, for me and everyone else. But I write people with lives as complicated as my own, because that’s what makes people interesting to me. I’ve always been fascinated by small moments, little character bits that say so much about a person.

And I overthink everything. So what else am I going to do but write?

Two things kept me from a trilogy: one, that I never thought of a single story point that needed to be introduced, escalated, and resolved over four hundred thousand words; two, that I never thought of my writing career as something that would have an end. This was a failure of imagination on my part: I thought once I was published, I’d just keep going. Maybe quietly, but still. I thought I’d write about Galileo until I was done saying things about it. People write trilogies, often really, really good ones; but these stories were never shaped like that for me. I wing it, really. One book at a time.

Maybe that shows. You know? I’m kind of hoping it does.

Three series books in a stack
my beautiful children

*for large values of “suddenly”

**for large values of “still”

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