How Long Should a Series Run?

My friend (and fan) Richard Garrison asked me, “Kevin Smith of Clerks fame has stopped making movies, claiming the ‘tank was empty.’ A lot of writers continue a series well past it’s arc in some cases to meet reader demands, in some cases to pay the bills. When you start a series, do you see the end of the arc, or do you continue as long as you feel the material is entertaining and relevant?”

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We’ve all read those series that continued past their sell-by dates, and we’ve all understood the motivation for them: money. In my lifetime, I saw one of my favorite series, the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, start to stutter and miss as he tried to meet the one-book-a-year deadline up until he passed away. On the other hand, another of my favorites, Andrew Vachss’ Burke series, came to a definite conclusion after 18 books, a feat of will and artistic courage I still admire.

To answer your question, though, we have to break down the concept of “series” into its two incarnations. One is the linked, continuing series, in which each book is part of a larger story. The other is the series of individual books, each of which can be read on its own, but often provides a larger picture when the whole series is read.

As a reader, and apparently a cranky old one at that, I don’t really enjoy the former. Too many times a series that should have run for three or four books at the most, instead runs to ten, twelve, twenty books. I hear many readers complaining that this or that volume doesn’t really advance the story, but simply eats up time and page count. And nothing is more annoying that seeing a book that looks interesting, only to read on the cover that it’s Vol. III of Hfuhruhurr Continuum, and virtually impossible to follow if you haven’t read the first two books (I call this the “Babylon 5 Effect”).

When I first planned the Eddie LaCrosse series, I knew that’s what I wanted to avoid. So from the conception, the idea was that each book could be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, new reader or old. If you’re a loyal reader, of course, you get little rewards that a first-timer would miss by seeing characters change, settings alter and so forth. But it’s important to me that any of my books be open to that first-time reader who thinks, “That looks interesting.”

Now, did I plan an overall arc for the series? Er…sort of. I want each book to differ in setting and tone, and to show us something about Eddie we haven’t seen before. As long as I can do that to my satisfaction, I’ll keep writing them as long as people want to read them. That said, I do know what the final book will be. I even know what the final line of the final book will be. But it’s up to the reading public to decide when, or if, I ever get to write that one.

Thanks for the question, Richard, and I hope you enjoyed the answer!

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, series, writers, writing

5 Responses to How Long Should a Series Run?

  1. mordicai

    The thing you do that I find really tantalizing is just leave hooks dangling all over the place. Plenty of room for you to come back later & be like “oh yeah, all that gold in the attic? Here is what that is all about…” which provides a lot of cohesion to the stand-alone format.

  2. Paul Weimer

    Thanks, Alex.

    I think the more modular approach seems to work much better for you as a device.

    As a point of comparison, the Tanna and Tully stories seem to only really work well for me if I’ve read the first one, to establish the characters. Then, one can read any of the other stories and get into it without too much difficulty. Although you do enfold the high concept in the subsequent stories, the first one feels essential somehow, if that makes sense.

  3. Star Bustamonte

    I’m perhaps less little cranky (and a tiny bit less old), so I enjoy reading both types of series. Though, I have to say that I do find it frustrating to pick up a book like you mentioned and find it is volume 12 in an endless series. On the other hand, I would have missed some really wonderful writing if I avoided them altogether.

    I do think that part of the problem with a series that runs on too long is not just about money. Writers and readers often become very attached to their characters. Who hasn’t finished a wonderful book and wanted more? So here’s my question for you, Alex:

    Do you have a hard time letting go of your characters? Will it be difficult for you when and if you end the LaCrosse series?

  4. Marian Allen

    Oh, DAMN, man, can we say “approach/avoidance experiment?” I want to read that final book, but I don’t want it to be the final book, you know?

  5. Deborah Blake

    MORE EDDIE! (Just sayin’.)

    My current series, which will come out next year, may turn out to only be a trilogy. And you know, I’m fine with that. (And that’s assuming they buy book 3, which is by no means a certainty.)

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