Series Writing: Empowering Your Inner Sprawling Epic

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by Adan Ramie

Most writers of fiction have dealt with a story that pushes against the boundaries of novel word count. Many might even know what it’s like to realize you’re writing what my writing group jokingly calls “the sprawling epic.” You know the type: the story starts when your protagonist is born and goes on for decades – maybe centuries – and several books before it finally reaches its conclusion.

Recently I found myself facing this sometimes-crippling foe. Unwittingly, I had written myself into a crossroads in which I had published three novels in three genres, and they were all screaming sequel. I solved my dilemma not by giving up on any of the stories, but by clarifying each of them with this three-question method.

Does your book need a sequel?

Not every published novel will lead to a series. How can you tell if your story needs to continue?

·    The overarching plot has not played out to a satisfying conclusion.

·    Your characters have other stories that need to be told.

·    Your readers tell you so.

The distinction between the overarching plot and the book’s main story is an important one. Characters can go on to learn more about a larger storyline, but the main events of a book should come to a satisfying conclusion by the time the reader reaches the last page.

What is your publication schedule?

Once you decide your book needs a sequel, the best way to empower the story is to decide on a publication schedule. Some authors can write, edit, and publish a book in a couple of months, while others need years to put the finishing touches on a new work.

Know yourself. If the first book took ten years from first idea to ready-to-ship, chances are you won’t be able to dash off the sequel in two months.

After figuring out your time estimate, decide what story you want to tell next. Many authors will keep writing in the same series until it reaches its conclusion, but I’m the type that likes to skip around, so I tend to switch to another series after each book so that my brain stays lubricated with motivational juices.

Input or pencil into your calendar the tentative publication dates of each book. Then break up each book into tasks.

My task list looks like this. Use it as a template or a jumping-off point to plan your own.

1.      Writing the first draft. (4-6 weeks)

2.      Settling. This is the part where I attempt to forget the story so that when I come back to it, it’s easier to see it with a critical eye. (4-6 weeks)

3.      First edit. (1 week)

4.      Beta reading. (1-4 weeks)

5.      Second edit. (1 week)

6.      Allow editor to work her magic. (1-4 weeks)

7.      Third edit. (1 week)

8.      Send book to ARC readers. (Up to 8 weeks)

9.      Final format for publication. (1 week)

The most important thing to remember in this step is not to set your deadlines too tightly. Even writers who work better on a deadline are only human, so make sure you incorporate some sanity breaks into the process.

Is your series finished?

This step isn’t as easy as the other two to pin down. If you try to end the series too quickly, readers will be left with burning questions that could turn into frustration when they find out that you don’t plan to continue the series. Drawing it out too far also risks alienating readers. If they are expecting more of the story meat, but get only fillers, they will be left with a tainted opinion of the series.

Questions you can ask yourself to determine if the series is over are much like the ones you asked in the beginning.

· Is there anything left of the story that needs more than an epilogue to tell?

· Are readers still asking about where the characters are going?

Intuition plays a huge part in this. If you know your long-tail story is done, let it go. If not, decide how many more books you need to resolve it.

Every writer of long-form fiction will come up against the sprawling epic at least once in a career. How you handle that crossroads is determined by how much thought and effort you put into it. Use this three-question process any time you find yourself wondering if your book needs a sequel – or if your series needs a fifteenth title.

author adan ramieAdan Ramie writes suspense, romance, horror, and science fiction. Find out more about her at her blog and check her out on Amazon Author Central.

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10 thoughts on “Series Writing: Empowering Your Inner Sprawling Epic”

  1. Good questions to ask yourself. I found myself in that situation when I was part way through my first novel. It became a trilogy. e never know where the muse will lead us but we do need to be wise about blindly following her.

    1. Definitely! Blindly following anyone – least of all a mythical or mystical being – is never wise. 😉 It’s kind of like walking a tightrope. You don’t want to err too much on the side of caution OR on the side of wild abandon. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Interesting questions. I shall keep them by me in case I am ever tempted to gird up my loins for a sprawling epic.

    One good thing about indie publishing is that if there are (important) loose ends to tie up this can be done through a novella or even short stories which a traditional publisher probably wouldn’t be interested in. Or one can start the other way round with short stories (perhaps in anthologies) which grow into The Sprawling Epic (which is what Chris Willrich did with his ‘Gaunt and Bone’ stories – they grew into a fine trilogy).

    1. You’re right, and that’s one of my favorite parts of indie publishing. We have the ability to do what needs to be done for the story, even if the publisher’s pocketbook doesn’t like it. I’ll have to check out the Gaunt and Bone stories! Thanks for your comment, Judi.

  3. Good guidelines to keep in mind. I’ve just finished book 4 of my current series, and although I could go on, I won’t–it just feels done. I agree that giving the readers enough of a resolution without taking it too far is a delicate balance, and based purely on feeling. I want to give my readers just enough so they can imagine the rest and be blissfully happy with it. Good post!

    1. Thanks, Melissa! You’re right on that score. I think we’re often taught from an early age not to listen to our own intuition, but that’s all we really need. Listen to your gut – it won’t steer you wrong. Thanks for the food for thought!

  4. Hi Adan,
    Thank you for an exceptional article. I book marketed it for rereading. Also I followed your link to your Amazon page where I downloaded your intriguing free short story books. I look forward to reading them.
    Best wishes.

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