To Avoid Shark-Jumping

The writer trying not to repeat himself.

As I await the page proofs for Eddie LaCrosse IV (Wake of the Bloody Angel) and begin the first draft of Eddie LaCrosse V (so far, Eddie LaCrosse V), it occurred to me that every book in the series begins with two concepts, one of which is the same each time, while the other is very different.  If you’re out there and considering writing a series, this might be a useful thought process to explain.

First, the concept that’s the same each time: how do I make this book different from the last, and from all the other books?  Some elements simply have to remain the same, after all: the first-person narration, the hero solving a mystery, the anachronistic tone.  But there are things that can be varied, such as supporting characters, location, and timeline.

For example, the first novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, took place over the main character’s entire lifetime, flashing back to his teenage years and his young adulthood. It also traveled all over his world, from the small town of Neceda to the sprawling seaport of Boscobel.  Since at the time I wrote it, I had no idea that it would begin a series, I swung for the fences, packing in all the ideas I had for the character and his world.  It was an epic, in everything but word count.

In contrast, the second one, Burn Me Deadly, deliberately took place in one locale and in linear time, and included lots of characters Eddie knew well.  The third, Dark Jenny, was a tale told over a winter’s evening about something that happened years before, set in a locale where Eddie knows no one.  And Wake of the Bloody Angel, as the title implies, takes place at sea, again in linear time, and with Eddie having his first true sidekick.

But each book also has a core idea, a central thesis that provides the narrative litmus test for what works and what doesn’t.  In The Sword-Edged Blonde it was the Fleetwood Mac song, “Rhiannon”: anything that didn’t help evoke the same atmosphere as the song (and I realize that the song means different things to different people, so any given reader may go “huh?” at hearing this) was tossed, and since I nursed this story for years, it went down a lot of blind alleys.  Having that core idea helped me eventually figure out the right direction for it.

Once I established this methodology, subsequent books became easier.  In fact, each one could be broken down to a single term that guided the writing of both the narrative and the overall atmosphere.  Burn Me Deadly: dragons=atomic weapons.  Dark Jenny: King Arthur.  Wake of the Bloody Angel: Pirates.  Eddie LaCrosse V: the Wi–wait, I can’t tell you that yet.

This combination of having a core idea and trying not to repeat the form of previous stories helps keep the Eddie LaCrosse novels different and exciting, at least for the writer.  I’ve read my share of series where the author simply stopped trying to be different and essentially rewrote the same story over and over, whether from boredom, lack of ideas, or just to give the fans what they ostensibly want.  I don’t want to do that with the Eddie LaCrosse novels.  Since they’re all about the same character doing the same job in the same world, some similarities are inevitable.  But my job as the writer is to make the rest of the elements as fresh and different as I can each time out.

How do your favorite series succeed (or fail) in keeping themselves fresh and interesting?

3 Comments on “To Avoid Shark-Jumping”

  1. I’m writing a few series, three of which have already started being published. I’m going to reread this post; I want to make sure my series don’t jump any sharks!

  2. One way to keep a series fresh is to change who the main character is. In Tana French’s mysteries, she stays with the same core group of people, but rotates who narrates. This is fascinating because you get to enjoy a new perspective on the same world. Jonathan Carroll does this too.

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