Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 13: Strange Reviews

writing a bestselling series strange reviews

Most writers kill their own careers.  For decades now I’ve studied promising new writers, and sometimes after a writer makes a great debut, a few years later I wonder, “Where did so-and-so go?”  Many authors will start great but then quit the race.

The most common mistake that a new author makes is that the author will have an old novel in their trunk, and they’ll convince an editor to buy it—and all of the author’s readers will discover why that novel didn’t sell in the first place.

At other times, the author just decides to play it safe and write a novel that is too much like the last one that he or she wrote.

But when you write a great book, you set high expectations for your readers, and that means that you need to work harder to gratify them in the future.  You can’t release a novel that takes a step backwards, that is inferior to your previous work.  If you try, you’ll lose the respect of the critics and of your fans, and they’ll simply quit reading your work.

With each book that you write, you need to try to hit a new plateau.  Most fans will never notice what you’re doing—that you’re raising their expectations—but I’m convinced that the key to writing a great series is that you have to keep pushing yourself.

So when I began writing my second Runelords novel, I wanted to push it to be genuinely better than my first novel in the series.  I mentioned earlier that when I wrote that first novel, I’d wanted the series to begin like a conventional fantasy, but then I wanted to change things up, to begin convincing readers that they’d never seen anything like it.

I looked at the field of fantasy and began thinking, What is it that I can bring to the genre?  Well, I had a few ideas.  Tolkien had brought his love for invented languages and resonance to the field. (See my book, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing.)  Other authors brought their own tastes to their work.  For example, C.S. Lewis came to the field with a heartfelt sense of religious fervor and asked profound moral questions. Pratchett came with a wonky sense of humor.  Others brought a love of politics, or a new sense of diversity.  But the question that we each have to ask ourselves is, what can I bring?  I felt that I needed to bring something new to the table.

Well, I still had the philosophical ideas that I’d been considering from my very first novel, and I wanted to expand upon those.  But I needed more.

So I got into developing my world.  I created an evolutionary timeline for my creatures—and imagined what had existed on the world, when they had gone extinct, and so on, showing each creature’s evolutionary path.  The first book that I’d ever written was a field guide to mammals in the weasel family (lovingly created when I was 16, with a lot of hand-drawn images), and so I began developing a field guide to the creatures in the world of the Runelords. In particular, I spent a good deal of time creating my reavers—creatures of the underworld that were similar to ants (with hard exoskeletons), but which also had developed lungs, so that they could grow larger than insects, and I created them with their own sensory systems—an extremely powerful sense of smell (and the ability to create new scents so that they could communicate), a sensitivity to electromagnetic energy (like that of sharks), and the ability to sense vibrations through the ground.  Then I had to develop their intelligence and culture, and so on.  What I came up with was more alien than most creatures in fantasy.

I began writing the book, and I think that the sense that I wanted to add something more came into play in my first draft.  I added a couple of new major characters to the series and had fun with them.

In any case, in Brotherhood of the Wolf, I was especially concerned about the tone of the book.  I wanted to get a sense of rising darkness, but also wanted to have enough light in it so that the average fantasy reader wouldn’t be put off.

As I was nearing the deadline for the novel, about six weeks away, I got a strange call from an old acquaintance.  I answered the phone and she said, “What the hell is going on between you and your editor? I saw him at a convention yesterday and he yelled at me and told me to tell you that you had better get your next book in on time.”

Well, that was very odd.  I assured her that I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I’d check into it.  I phoned him a couple of times during the following week, but he neither answered my phone calls nor returned them.  I wondered if it was a passing thing.  Many people will get mad at their cat and kick the dog, and in this case I figured I was the dog.

A week went by, and a second acquaintance called and said, “I saw your editor a couple of days ago, and he was really angry.  He told me in front of a dozen other writers to to tell you to get that book in on time.”  I assured the author that everything was fine, but I began to wonder: Just how many people was my editor yelling at, and why, and what was that doing to my career?

I made another phone call but it was not answered, not returned.

Two weeks later, a third friend mentioned that he had met my editor with the same result, only this time the editor made a jab at all people of my religion, and I wondered if perhaps we had gotten to the heart of the issue.  Was I just dealing with a bigot, perhaps even one who didn’t know that he was a bigot?

I turned the novel in on time.  I felt that it was a good book, but like most big works it could still use a bit of polish.  Then I waited.  I didn’t hear back from my editor, but did get some revision requests from his assistant.  I made them and turned them in, and waited some more.  My editors in Germany and the UK began writing and asking for the manuscript, and eventually I just decided, “Maybe my editor isn’t going to respond on this one?  He must think that the novel is all right.  It’s been months now.”  So I sent the novel to my overseas editors and warned them that I was still waiting for a final revision request.

My editor in Germany got the book first and began to read.  Then my editor in England called and asked if I had sent it.  I assured him that I’d sent it via overnight mail—nearly a month ago.  It had taken several weeks for the first book in the series to get to him, so I just figured that the mail was slow in the UK.

Then after six weeks, my UK editor faxed me a message from his postman.  It said, “Wow, the first novel in this series was great, but this one is incredible!”  It turned out that the postman was intercepting my novels and reading them before passing them on to my editors.  So my editor there complained to the postmaster general, and the postman got sacked within the hour.

And days later, on a Friday night, my German editor called me, crying, and said that he thought it was the best second novel in a series that he had ever read.  Seriously, he congratulated me over and over again, then went through each scene and told me his favorites, spending about two and a half hours just to tell me how much he loved it.

Two days later my UK editor called to tell me “Congratulations” and let me know how much he loved it.  In fact, he sent me a rather expensive bottle of champagne as a gift—which the British customs of course confiscated.

And still I hadn’t heard from my editor.

Now, here is a problem with writing a series.  When you finish one book, you need to wait for feedback from your editor before you write and plot the others, in many cases.  So let’s say that you write a novel.  Your editor wants your next one in twelve months.  But if he doesn’t give you feedback for three months, you’ve no longer got twelve months to finish it, you’ve only got nine.  Well, that is the position that I was getting into.  My editor seemed angry, was not responding to queries, and with each day, he was going to make it harder and harder for me to hit my next deadline.

I was hundreds of pages into my next manuscript when I finally did get his editing suggestions, most of which were fine.  But there were some that . . . seemed just wrong.  I had introduced two minor new characters in the book, and he called and demanded that I kill them at the end.  That bothered me, because I felt that it would damage the tone of the book, but he was adamant.  He wanted them dead.  He took it a step further and suggested that he thought that my female protagonist should die, too, and that just wasn’t something that I was prepared to do.

Now, I have had a couple dozen editors over the years, and I’d never really had a problem with one, so I wasn’t sure how to handle this.

I called my agent and asked about my editor, trying to find out if he had ever voiced any complaints about me, and was assured that he hadn’t.

So I called the president of the publishing company and spoke to him.  He’s a great person, and we had a long talk, and he explained that if I tried to go to a different editor, it would create all kinds of difficulties, so he promised to talk to my editor, and I decided to keep working with him.

Now, I want to point something out here: I work with a lot of new authors.  Most of them have the impression that if they could just find an agent, then get an editor, and write a big series going, it will solve all of their problems in life.  There’s a French word for that: bullshit.

When you’re a bestseller, your problems don’t fall behind you.  You just trade the old ones in for a new set of problems.  You may have to deal with impossible writing schedules, difficult travel, time spent in promotion, publishing screw-ups, and of course editors.

So I talked with my editor and tried to mend some bridges.  Most of the editing points that he had were minor and easily handled.  He explained why he felt it was necessary to kill the two minor characters, and I saw the wisdom in that.

You see, when you are writing a novel and you’re trying to raise the stakes, there are only a couple of strategies that you can take.  You can deepen the conflicts or you can broaden the conflicts (see my book Million Dollar Outlines).  To deepen the conflicts, you take your characters and put them under more and more stress personally.  But to broaden a conflict, you put more and more people in danger.   Many fantasy authors resort to adding characters.

The impulse to add characters is a trap.  When you keep adding new characters to a series, then you lose your focus on the original protagonists.  This is what happened with Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time, and George R.R. Martin in The Game of Thrones.  Both authors are immensely talented, but eventually as a reader I felt that the people that I cared about early on in the series had sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, and so I quit reading.

Let me see if I can explain the problem a little better.  Imagine that you’re a reader, Brad at age 30, and that you started reading a novel.  In the Runelords, I had Gaborn as a major young male protagonist, but I also had Sir Borenson as an important protagonist, too, and I switched between their viewpoints.

When I started writing Brotherhood of the Wolf, I added a couple of new male protagonists, which I quite liked.  But therein lies the trap.  My reader might be eager to hear more of Gaborn’s story, but now I’ve got three other protagonists who appeal to the same demographic, and the reader can become . . . disengaged, much in the way that I heard complaints from readers of Jordan’s novels when Rand disappeared for a book.  In effect, your protagonists are all competing for your readers’ interest.

So you need to focus on a couple of characters, and instead of trying to continually “broaden” the character pool, work at deepening the conflicts for those characters.

In my case, I recognized the problem and suggested that in order to avoid darkening the tone of the novel, that I have my two new characters just wander off at the end of the novel and go live their own lives.  But my editor insisted that they should die heroically.  So I gave them a heroic death.

But I didn’t budge on my female protagonist.  I had plans for Iome, and I didn’t want to kill her, and that remained a sore spot between us.   Ultimately, as an artist, I feel that you need to accept responsibility for your work.  A lot of people will tell me, “I don’t read fantasy, I just read thrillers.”  Well, that doesn’t mean that I try to figure out how to turn my fantasy into a thriller just to please that one person.  In this case, I tried to split the difference.

A second problem also came out.  My editor wanted me to cut the novel quite a bit.  The bookstores at the time were screaming about how there were too many “fat fantasies,” and my editor wanted to have a maximum word count that was 50,000 words shorter than my current novel.  Little did I know that this was the start of a trend, and that my editor would ask that I shorten each novel in the series down to 130,000 words, maximum.

So I trimmed the novel, killed a couple of characters, and made some other changes—even adding in a couple of scenes of my own that made it stronger.

Interestingly, when the book came out (to excellent reviews), I did get a few pieces of hate mail from some fans.  One woman said, “I can’t believe that you killed these characters in the end.  I will never buy another book with your name on it.  Obviously, you don’t love your characters.”

Sigh.  I’m sorry.  I think that the tone became too dark in that series too quickly.  I was letting my editor assert too much artistic control.

This long rewrite led to other problems.  My German publisher who had loved that first draft so much had hired a translator, and when I sent a fax and told him that I was going to have to rewrite the novel, he actually fainted.  His assistant revived him and called me on the phone, where I reiterated the news, and the editor fainted again.  He ended up getting sacked by his publisher for it.

As for me, the series kept growing and doing well, but I soon found that my problems with my editor weren’t over.  During the next three years I tried calling him several times, but he quit taking my calls.  I went to major conventions and tried to set up meetings with him through his assistant, but he would never meet with me, feigning surprise that I was even there.  I’d become persona non grata.  I wasted weeks of time and thousands of dollars trying to develop a better relationship with him but couldn’t.

So I focused on the next book.  By the time that I got it started, I was already on a very tight schedule, and so I focused on my work.

What are the takeaways from all of this?

  1. If you’re lucky enough to get a hit series, realize that your problems in life aren’t over, you just have a new set of problems.
  2. I think that my early editors were all very . . . lackadaisical about book schedules.  They pretty much said, “Oh, just turn it in when you are ready.”  But when you start hitting the bestseller list, you need to throw that philosophy out the window.  Get your books in on time.  Better yet, call your editors and let them know that they’re coming in early.
  3. You may well have relationship problems with an editor or agent during the course of your career.  May I suggest that you always try to be a professional, no matter what.
  4. Listen to your editors carefully, make the changes that you feel help the manuscript, but ultimately you need to take responsibility for your own work.

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