What is a series?

There’s a common piece of writing advice that encourages new writers who want to make a success of their careers to write in a series. This does make a lot of sense, and there are many successful series writers (JK Rowling, James Patterson, Anne McCaffry, Jim Butcher)‌—‌but there are also those who tend to produce stand-alone books (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson).

But what is a series, and what is a stand-alone? King’s The Shining was a stand-alone, but a few years ago he produced a sequel in Doctor Sleep‌—‌so is this now a series?

This is worth looking into in a bit more detail, and although I’ll provide many examples, I’ll focus on two in particular‌—‌the books of Mark Dawson and the Star Wars franchise.
Let’s start at the beginning:

The pure stand-alone

This can be thought of as a story that is it’s own thing, unconnected to anything else. Generally, a stand-alone will have no loose ends, reaching a satisfying conclusion without the need to continue the story.

StarWarsThere are many examples of stand-alones‌—‌Andy Weir’s The Martian, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Tolstoy’s War And Peace. In some ways, before the sequels were released, the original Star Wars film (A New Hope) was a stand-alone‌—‌the Death Star had been destroyed, and the heroes won the day. However, Darth Vader survived, and already the seeds were sewn for a continuation of the story.

The series of stand-alones

JohnMilton_seriesMark Dawson’s John Milton books all feature the same fugitive main character, but each story involves a new adventure, and by the end of the book Milton has won through. Each book, therefore, is a stand-alone tale, but they are all connected by this same character. It isn’t necessary to read the series in order to enjoy the stories, because there is no (or very little) continuing story threads.

Milton is just one of a long line of characters to feature in series like this. Think of Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, or James Bond. Sometimes these stand-alone series use groups of characters‌—‌NCIS, CIS, and so on.

This kind of series works well where the central character (or group of characters) is involved in mysteries or crimes‌—‌each story involves a new puzzle to solve. It’s worth noting that the central character(s) remains fairly consistent‌—‌there isn’t a great deal of character growth.

This type of series can work for other genres, though, and one example is Iain M Banks’ Culture books. Here, rather than a central character, the books are all connected through a shared world.

The self-contained series

BeatrixRose_seriesIn one of the John Milton books, Mark Dawson introduced the character of Beatrix Rose. She was interesting enough to spawn her own spin-off series, and this is a self-contained trilogy telling the story of her tracking down those who have betrayed her. Each book is an episode of this quest, but by the end of the trilogy it is all over, and Beatrix’ story is told.

There are many more examples of this ‘story told over a number of books/films’ type of series. For many years, the original Star Wars trilogy was a complete story, but other examples include The Hunger Games, Twilight, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.

It’s interesting that many long-story series are trilogies. The first part gives a fairly rounded story, but leaves enough open loops for a sequel (Darth Vader survives, Katniss wins the game, but the tyranny is still the same, and so on). The second part forces the main characters to face many problems, and often ‘sets up’ the ending by leaving the story off with more questions than answers (Han Solo captured, Luke with his hand chopped off). In the third and final part, the characters fight back, overcoming increasing odds to save the day.

A diversion into spin-offs and side-stories

ROgueOneI mentioned a spin-off series above, but another term often heard is side-story, and this is perhaps the start of a spin-off. Basically, a side-story isn’t part of the main series, but is connected to it in some way. It might give more insight into events only hinted at in the main series (like Rogue One in the Star Wars universe), or explore the back-story of a particular character (like Solo).

Dawson’s Beatrix Rose started as a few side-story novellas, but there was a longer tale worth telling, and so he wrote her trilogy. So sometimes a side-story grows and becomes it’s own spin-off series‌—‌Buffy The Vampire Slayer spawned Angel, both Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood came from Doctor Who, Better Call Saul came from Breaking Bad, CSI and NCIS both have a whole host of spin-offs, as does Star Trek, and there’s now talk of a Game Of Thrones spin-off‌—‌and that’s just a small handful of examples.

The evolving series

StarWarsSeriesThe stories in a series often hint at deeper stories, and series can evolve over time. So we have the growing story of Star Wars, with the prequel trilogy and the films set after the events in Return Of The Jedi (as well as all the spin-offs in books and animation).

The Dune books are another example‌—‌the first one can be read as a stand-alone, Frank Herbert originally conceived it as a trilogy but wrote more sequels, and now other authors are expanding the story with prequels and other tales.

I should mention Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books here. A series of stand-alone tales based in the same world, recurring characters have grown and developed as they’ve featured in different books. Think of Vimes, who starts off as a down-on-his-luck guard trying to cope with the likes of Corporal Nobbs, and ends up as an ambassador with links to the nobility. ‘His’ books can be read in any order, but there is pleasure in reading them chronologically to appreciate his growth. But there are also so many characters, and such a rich world, that there always felt like more stories were yet to be told. As with the expanding world of Star Wars (or, as another example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films), each adventure gives rise to the potential for even more.

The continuing series / the serial

IsabellaRose_seriesSometimes, a series evolves with an on-going arc, and Dawson’s Isabella Rose books are like this. They follow Beatrix Rose’s daughter (who originally appeared in those Beatrix Rose books I mentioned above, making this a spin-off of a spin-off), but although certain loops are closed in each book, there is a large overall story growing, and none of the books really end with Isabella in perfect safety‌—‌as readers, we know there is more to come.

These are often called serials, and they are very likely to employ cliff-hanger endings‌—‌think of the old black-and-white TV shows like Flash Gordon. Although there are many who dislike them in books (especially when unexpected), they are undoubtedly one way to garner interest in the next instalment. They’re not as common in films (where viewers still expect a ‘complete’ experience), but are still used in many TV shows.

These types of series can come to an end (as Game Of Thrones is), with the final season tying up enough of the story threads to satisfy fans. But there are some shows that keep on going‌—‌soap operas. These involve many characters with intertwining story-lines, and viewers are often following many threads at once. As one story-line comes to a conclusion, others are already rushing along, so the viewer is continually drawn back to find out ‘what happens next’.

As I’ve hopefully shown, there is no simple stand-alone/series dichotomy, but rather many ways of telling stories, and of having those stories grow over time. Stand-alones can become series, and series can spawn stand-alone tales. Stories intertwine all the time‌—‌and even in a stand-alone, there are hints of more stories.

It does appear that writing in a series can maximise success‌—‌if that series proves popular. But this doesn’t mean a series has to start as something huge. Most of the examples mentioned above started small (a single Star Wars film, the first John Milton adventure), and grew over time. And this makes a lot of sense‌—‌stories are living things, and the telling of one opens up the possibilities of more. Even if a particular story doesn’t focus on them, there are always questions. If a writer/producer can create stories to answer the questions readers/viewers are asking, then the series will grow.

New short story – ‘Power’

Another short story for you.

StTanwgsChurchThis one wrote itself pretty fast, and although the story’s fiction, the setting is real (with a bit of artistic license). St Tanwg’s Church, in the North Wales village of Llandanwg, sits amongst the sand dunes (I was told that it had been buried at one point, although a bit of research leads me to believe this is a bit of an exaggeration‌—‌about 150 years ago the church was in disrepair, part of the roof fell in, and the building filled with sand). Like many church sites, there’s a lot of hidden history here‌—‌so it seemed an opportune setting for a story about ancient power.

You can read Power here, or visit this page for a full list of my short stories (all under 1000 words, so ideal for a quick coffee break).

Are there too many books?

Are there too many books in the world?

If you look at the numbers, it might seem that way. A bit of Googling, and I came up with a figure of over a million new books being published every year in the US. Add to this the 13 million books from previous years that are still available, and that’s an awful lot of reading material. And that’s only in the US. Google reckons there are nearly 130 million books in the whole world, and that it would take about 60,000 years to read them all.

That’s going on a book a day, too. The average American reads roughly 4 books a year. In the UK, the average person reads for only 5 hours per week.

Yet more and more books are being produced each year. I found one statistic that said a new book is published on Amazon every five minutes (and that was back in 2014). Even if this is a very conservative estimate, that’s over 250 new books every single day.

Loads of books!Looking at this with cold logic, when it’s impossible for a single person to even read a fraction of what already exists, there seems no reason for putting more stories out into the world. Yet many of us continue writing, and continue adding to this immense pile of fiction available to readers.

But the numbers don’t tell us everything.

Every reader is different, with different reading habits and tastes. Similarly, every writer has a different style, their own take on things, their own unique way of telling a story. Readers can go through many books before finding an author who resonates with them.

This is why there is usually a wide range of reviews, even on popular, commercially successful books. What one reader can’t stand, another will love.

As readers, we want to find books resonate with us. That might be in their style of writing, or the stories themselves, or something else‌—‌the rounded characters, or the witty dialogue, or the evocative settings.

Of course, it’s hard to find these ideal books‌—‌but we keep on reading, keep on searching. The more books available to us, the better our chances of finding that book, of discovering that writer whose voice speaks to us. And, as a writer, I keep putting these books out with the confidence that, somewhere, there is a reader who has been waiting for this particular book, even if they don’t know it themselves.

octopus-1235006_1280Once a reader finds that one book, of course, they often seek out others by the same writer. I know this through experience‌—‌it’s why I have every Douglas Adams book, why I’ve still got just about every Terry Pratchett book in paperback, every Iain Banks book. It’s why I get pre-orders of every book Barry Hutchison puts out, be they in the Space Team series or something else. It’s why I’ll look out for new books by the Platt/Truant/Wright team. And, as a writer, I know that, if someone clicks with one of my books, they’re likely to want more‌—‌and so I’ll do what I can to provide for them.

There’s obviously a certain amount of financial incentive in this‌—‌the more readers who like my books, the more copies I sell, and the more money I make. But there are other reasons why I write and publish books.

There’s something incredibly satisfying with whole creation process‌—‌and in a society where we are encouraged so often to be passive consumers (of all kinds of media) it’s important that everyone has some kind of creative outlet. In the past this was music for me‌—‌hours spent playing guitar, recording and manipulating sounds, editing as best I could‌—‌but for you it’s probably something different. Maybe it’s gardening, or cooking, or painting, or sewing. For me, at this moment in time, it’s writing.

Of course, creating anything is never plain sailing. There’s planning, and moments when things don’t seem to be working. There are different stages of revision, correcting one issue but having that lead to more things that need altering. But this is all part of the challenge‌—‌if it was easy, why bother?

I could write stories purely for my own entertainment, but there’s a persuasive argument that anything we create doesn’t really exist until we let it out into the world. This can be both scary and liberating‌—‌what if readers hate it? What if they love it? What if it’s ignored? But until I publish, the story isn’t complete.

This drive to produce (and publish) more stories makes the original question‌—‌are there too many books?‌—‌almost redundant. Yes, there are more books in the world than any one person can read. But there is also more music out there than a single person could listen to in a lifetime, more TV and film, more paintings and sculptures, more great meals and beautifully tended gardens, more of everything than we can ever experience. Art and creativity are all around us, and it’s being added to all the time. And this is a good thing‌—‌the more there is, the more we can experience.

The more books that exist, the more books there are for each of us, with our individual tastes, to read and enjoy.

Why the hero must save the day

It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.

This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great‌—‌it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass‌—‌it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation‌—‌the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?

The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending‌—‌the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.

handshake-4040911_1280One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.

And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise‌—‌the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.

But he didn’t. The promise was broken.

And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.

That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race‌—‌then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert‌—‌and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.

As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.

Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.

In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?

Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.

If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.