Evaluating a Series

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by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Back at the start of the Memphis Barbeque and the Southern Quilting mysteries, I didn’t worry at all about planning the length of the series. That’s because I knew the fate of the series was in the hands of Penguin.  If they decided to end the series, they would.

And I was right…sort of.  Penguin did decide to end the Memphis series because my editor had left the publisher and I was ‘orphaned’ (and because due to the nature of our contract, I couldn’t get my character rights back).  But I wasn’t exactly right about the Southern Quilting mysteries.  Penguin decided not to continue the series in print (asking me to consider a digital-only contract after 5 books)…but I decided to take the fate of the series into my own hands and requested a reversion of rights.  I’ve published two more books in that series myself, and am working on book 8 now.

The Myrtle Clover series, which I took back from Midnight Ink after the first book,  currently has 11 books in the series.

My year is spent divided between the two series. The good news is that the series and characters are very different from each other and I don’t have to ‘share ideas’.

But how long should a series continue?  Originally, I’d thought I might just write an extra couple of books in the Southern Quilting mysteries after leaving Penguin Random House. But the sales have been strong and the print sales have been especially strong–maybe because these had been books that readers had originally purchased in bookstores and they were used to buying the series that way.

I know my readers have written to me in regard to all three series, asking me to keep writing books.  But I know they mean keep writing good books. Nobody has time to read bad books, even in a series one once enjoyed.

There’s also something of a difference in a series that’s fairly static versus one with an series arc. If you’ve finished a continuing story (the universe is now saved, etc.), then it’s more obvious your series is done. But for some of us, the story wraps up at the end of each book and there isn’t a continuing arc over the course of the series.

So here are some points that I think I’ll consider when deciding on a series’ longevity (and no–I don’t have any plans to stop my current series):

Do I still have fresh ideas or am I just recycling content?  Does it feel stale?

Are there still natural subplots and interesting things to discover about the characters?

Are there new elements (new characters, new situations, new setting, new setbacks) that can be naturally added to help the characters continue growing and help the readers discover more about them?

These questions all ensure a reader’s continued interest in a series.  But here’s a question just for writers: is the series still selling well?  Is the income still worth the time and effort I put into the series?

I have my favorite book series and my favorite TV shows, too. But I can tell when the quality of a series or show has gone downhill.  It’s almost as if they changed writers.  Most likely, though, the writers are just under the gun to produce, were burned out, and recycled the same old stuff.  I wouldn’t want that to happen to my series…I think it leaves readers with a bad taste in their mouths.

For more information about series and series planning, visit the category at the Writer’s Knowledge Base. 

How do you decide how long your series will continue?  Have you run into any TV shows or book series that just went on too long?

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16 thoughts on “Evaluating a Series

  1. The third one of my series wrapped up a lot of stuff and brought the main character on one very long character arc, so I felt it was done. (Of course, now I’m writing about his son, so maybe it’s not done?)
    But I can certainly tell when an author is just producing and has run out of fresh ideas. Preston and Child seem to be recycling ideas now and I’m not as excited to read their books anymore. I think an author can get boxed in with his own mythos.

    1. It’s not done if you’ve still got the writing itch. :)

      I think you’re right. There’s the boxed-in aspect. And it can be complicated with readers: sometimes they may think they want something new in a series, but when there *is* something new, it’s not the same story world and it bothers them.

      Someone like Stephen King has it perfect. Each book is a standalone (with some exceptions, like Dark Tower) and he’s known for delivering something very different each time.

  2. Those are such important questions to ask, Elizabeth! If you don’t have fresh ideas and you aren’t enthusiastic about what you’re writing, then why would readers want to read it? It won’t be interesting. I think writers need to reflect on those questions as they plan. There may be another great book in that series…or it may be time to try a new one. Either way, it’s worth the reflection in my opinion.

  3. I quit at 5 books although I could’ve kept going.

    Anne McCaffrey lost it a bit in the end. That’s probably why she started writing with her son, although his books aren’t as good as her earlier works.

  4. My primary mystery series has 9 books now. My characters have seriously evolved since book one. I left a thread hanging at the end of book 9 so my readers have been clamoring for book 10. Many have told me they’re glad I left the thread because they can see I’m going to continue the series. I’m getting to the point though were, beyond that book, there’s not much more I can do with the cast beyond the base mystery unless I make drastic changes to locale (take them on the road) or I start killing off core cast members. Given my motto, ‘Family, Friends, Love, Murder and Mayhem’, that’s not a wise choice.

    I think maybe 12 books is the limit and then another spin-off taking my MC in an all new direction. I spun a cozy mystery series featuring two meddling mothers off of the series. The 3rd book in that series is in the works and I have three more already mapped out for it.

    1. I think, ultimately, we’re doing a favor to our characters, series, and readers if we stop when we feel like we’ve hit a wall with story evolution. But love the idea of spinoffs! You’re doing a great job exploiting (in a good way) the story world.

  5. I think the Stephanie Plum series has really run its course, and looking at the reviews of the later books, a lot of other readers agree. It’s frustrating that after nearly 30 books, Stephanie hasn’t gotten any more skilled at her job and the love triangle is still unresolved. I’m also starting to feel that way about M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin mysteries. I don’t think I read the latest one, but the one before that I started to think, “Wow, this is really not great.”

    It’s such a hard line to walk for series writers I think. People want to see the characters they know and love, but if those characters go too long without changing at all, it begins to get tiresome.

    1. Oh, I hate to mention M.C. Beaton because she’s the main reason I’m writing my books. But I totally agree. I particularly like her Hamish series and the one before last was a stinker. But then the latest one was good! So maybe at this point, she’s just a bit inconsistent with the quality.

      You’re right: it’s a tough call for a writer. But maybe it’s better to leave when readers are still hungry for more than to wait too long. I think I’ll keep a close eye on my reader reviews.

  6. Hi Elizabeth–when I started writing my series five years ago, I envisioned writing the books until I was seventy years old, and ending with a set of thirteen. I’d still like to do that, but I’ve become aware that I could end the series at any book, including the one I’m writing now, if the spirit to do them was no longer with me. Every so often I think I’m at a crossroads: Do I keep on with that series? Do I start another? What the heck would I come up with for another? Nah, it’s easier to keep on with the current one. So on and so forth. I think you and others who write more than one series at a time are amazing!

    1. I completely understand where you’re coming from. :)

      It’s sooo much easier to continue a series instead of starting a new one. That’s why my series are so long, ha!

      I would never have had 3 series if publishers hadn’t prompted me to do so. Down to 2 now, and it’s still a bit of a challenge!

  7. Hi Elizabeth – I guess a writer can keep themselves and their series up to date … in an easy going way … so today’s readers have a flavour of life, and are not stuck in the dark ages – some tv shows get stuck that way …

    Writing a series offers ways to keep the series in vogue and other ways to spin out … as Anne has done …. people get hooked into the characters and want to continue on reading in the same vein … but I’m sure you’ll come up with another thought or two for a new series … cheers Hilary

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