Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 17: A Few Lessons Learned

After I finished my first series, I still found that I had a lot to learn.  As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed long books.  I loved to immerse myself in a good fantasy or science-fiction series, especially ones with fascinating worlds, but I found that being a reader of those novels and a writer of them were two different things.

When I got to my third and fourth novels, my editor began setting a word limit on my work.  He had a hard limit of 170,000 words which I could not pass, and he really wanted the novels to be 130,000 words.  In case you don’t know it, trying to write a big world-creation novel—where you develop new cultures, magic systems, societies, languages, religions, and so on—requires a “fat” novel, something similar to what Robert Jordan was doing.

But my editor wouldn’t let me write anything half as long as a Jordan novel.  In fact, Jordan’s last novels were about 450,000 words, and were getting larger, but mine were constricted to be roughly a third of that.  So I was writing in a form that required a lot of space, but felt that I was writing with handcuffs on.

Now, I think that I should clarify something.  I mentioned this earlier, but in about 2002 or 2003, the heads of the Barnes & Noble chain had demanded that the publishers restrict the size of their novels, particularly in the fantasy and historical categories (the world-creation heavy categories). But some of the older authors with long-running series were allowed to keep writing those door-stoppers, and of course Robert Jordan was, as far as I can tell, the originator of the “big book” series.  And so if you are familiar with the term “grandfathered,” you will understand why the major chains kept selling these big books, even as they grumbled.

So in the last three novels in the series, I had to restrict the complexity of the tales.  In short, I felt cramped, as if I wasn’t free to explore in my novels the way that I wanted to, and I heard some fans grumble about it, saying that “David Farland seems bored with his series,” or expressing the opinion that I didn’t really love the genre.

In fact, while Jordan was being asked to lengthen each succeeding novel, I was asked to cut each one.

So I began to feel restless and resentful.  But instead of pushing my word limits, I tried to get my characterization, world creation, and story all condensed into a more concise, powerful form.  I think that I did pretty well, but really felt more and more as if I were trying to race a Harley on a kid’s little 50cc dirt bike.

Of course I couldn’t complain about it.  My problems with my editor hadn’t ever let up.  I tried to come up with ways to build a better relationship, but nothing worked.  Christmas gifts went unacknowledged. Phone calls went unreturned.  I tried to get my editor more involved in the creative process by asking his thoughts on the plans for novels but got insults instead of answers.  I took three trips across the country in an effort to have meetings with him, and he conveniently “forgot” I was coming on each occasion.

So I felt that I was struggling.

Now, I said that I liked long books, and even a good series, but I don’t like them to go on endlessly, and so I made a decision quite early that I wouldn’t write more than four novels in my series.  Yes, I could have expanded the series by bringing in more characters, but I had already gotten that shot down.

And here is a key to writing a series: you can’t go on telling stories about a character forever.  The character starts a story with a list of problems.  He might have an enemy. He might need to grow as a character. He might need to find love.  When that original list of problems is over, your story is over.  Period.

Now, some authors try to give the character a new set of problems.  The dark lord rises from the dead (perhaps to be defeated a final time), or the man’s One True Love divorces him.  All of the bad habits that he once had return, and so on.

You can try telling stories that way, but they wear at the reader’s patience.  Even great characters eventually wear out.

So I didn’t want to go there.  By the time that I reached book four in the Runelords series, I felt that I had a mixed bag.  I’d had huge sales, but not the runaway hit that I was looking for.  I felt in part that I was a victim of my own bad planning.  Should I have considered writing a six-book series instead of just four?  It would have given me a couple more books to build a readership.  But there’s a saying that a movie producer friends has, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where you’ll go wrong until you go through the experience.

So I began considering writing a new series.  The other day I found a proposal that I’d sent to my editor, a tale that I still plan to write.  I don’t think that he ever responded to it or a couple of other proposals that I’d sent.  I did mention to him a science fiction series, but he said, “Dave, you’re a New York Times bestselling fantasy writer.  We don’t want to see any more science fiction from you.” That was ironic, given that in my early career I wasn’t allowed to write fantasy because I was a bestselling science fiction writer.

When my editor showed no interest in either more science fiction or new fantasy ideas, I asked if there was something that he would want to see.  Well, he wanted more Runelords books.  So I suggested that I write a new series set in the same universe, one that started with a new generation. My editor liked that idea, and so I began a new series.

When I turned it in, my editor actually said, “You know, this is a really strong book,” and he seemed quite happy.  But when it came out, it wasn’t marketed as the first book of a new series, it was “Book 5” of the old one, the one that had ended.  Which of course confused readers.  They’d gotten the end of the series in book four. They knew it. So when book five came out, my sales numbers dropped pretty dramatically.

Sigh.  There wasn’t much to do.  So I tried one last trick: I took the proposal to Hollywood. . . .  Now, every author is told “Don’t go to Hollywood. It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Well, some folks just learn the hard way.

So here is what I learned from books four and five:

  1. Plan your series to be a long one.  Give your protagonist some enormous obstacles and let him grow in stages.  I think that there isn’t anything wrong with writing a long series, if you plan it that way.
  2. Know that your editors aren’t being personal when they seem to “make up” rules.  They’re responding to market forces as they plan a book release.  New authors don’t understand the answers to questions like, “Why is my cover so dark? Why does the font suck? Why can’t I write a longer book?” and so on.
  3. Don’t write a book five to a four-book series, even if your editor is excited about it.  When your series is dead, know that it is dead, and convince your editor and your agent.



I’m in Australia going to a few conventions and teaching some writing workshops. You can see all my live workshops here.

On an earlier writing tip, I talked about Curtis Green and the memoir he is working on. The arrest and staged death of Curtis Green is believed to have led to the fallout of Silk Road and it’s alleged kingpin Ross Ulbricht. You can pledge and preorder a copy of the memoir (similar to how Kickstarter works) right here.

Please consider sharing the link with others. We need to get at least 250 preorders for this to work. As a bonus, if you preorder a book, you’ll get a free lecture from me. You can see all my recorded lectures at the bottom of this page.

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