As most of you probably know by now, Robert Jordan, author of the "Wheel of Time" series, died recently. The saga had stretched on through 11 books and Jordan was as work on the 12th and last in the series at the time of his death.
While it probably isn't important to Jordan's legion of fans, the question such a record raises for a would-be writer is "what possesses someone to write a 12-book series of novels?"
Several years ago I shared an autograph table with Jordan at a Southern California science fiction convention and I asked him how the "Wheel of Time" had come to encompass so many books. The reason, he told me, was that he simply wasn't able to wrap up the story he wanted to tell. The series had originally been intended to be much smaller, but it kept growing as the plot kept expanding and mutating. He expressed a certain amount of frustration at this, despite the series' popularity because it kept him from working on other projects.
The truth is that no sane person sets out to write a 12-book series. (How many writers are eliminated by that qualification, sane, I'll leave as an exercise to the reader.) You aren't so much possessed to write a bunch of books set in the same universe using the same characters, it just happens. And it isn't necessarily a good thing.
Broadly speaking a multi-book series comes about in two ways. One of them is to plan out a series of books from the beginning, which is what Jordan did. (I gather he was originally thinking of it as a trilogy, but that's only an impression.) The other is to write a single book and just have the damn thing grow.
In my case, the Wiz series, about a computer programmer stuck in a world of high fantasy and low puns, was originally intended to be a single book. When I planned out "Wizard's Bane", I had no intention of writing any sequels. In fact the third book in my three-book deal with Baen was originally intended to be a modern horror novel about the ghost of Dracula visiting Cleveland -- which was the most horrifying thing I could think of at the time. That book never happened. Instead I did the second Wiz book "The Wizardry Compiled" and a series was launched. However in the course of writing the first book, and afterwards, I discovered why so many books become series - and why some series seem to go on far too long.
The reason is that both publishers and fans like series. They let the publishers compound their marketing expenditures by spreading the benefits out over several books. Fans like series because they want to read more about the characters and situations they enjoy.
So a series is a win all the way around? Not hardly. There are a lot of problems with series for everyone involved, writer, fans and publisher. In my opinion the science fiction or fantasy series is something that needs to be approached with both caution and restraint, especially by the writer.
The first thing to understand is that the series will only continue for as long as the publisher finds it profitable. If sales start to fall, the series is going to end abruptly.
This can be pretty traumatic for the writer. One fantasy author of my acquaintance had her series summarily canceled by the publisher at about book six. She was especially bitter about this because up until about book four the publisher had been encouraging her to lengthen the series and they'd worked out a verbal agreement for the series to run to nine books.
Based on the (non-binding) understanding with her editor, she had started working ahead and actually started writing portions of the last three books in the series. She'd invested a good deal of time and energy and she hated the fact that her readers would be left hanging by the abrupt termination. She had also been counting on the income from the series, although she wasn't foolish enough to spend the money before it arrived.
This last point probably takes a little explanation. Because of the way fiction is published. An author doesn't see income beyond the advance for about three years after he or she starts on a new book. Needless to say, the advance is never enough to live on for three years or so.
A smart author who is actually trying to make a living writing fiction (Okay, so that's an oxymoron) tries to have two or three books in various stages of completion, collecting at least one advance a year for signing a contract for a new book. The exception is an author who is working on a series, where all the books in the works are part of the series. So my acquaintance not only lost the expected immediate income, but her entire work schedule for the next several years was disrupted.
The thing that really made her mad was the books were still profitable. Sales on the last one were down, but it was still on track to earn out its advance. However her long-time editor had left in an editorial shakeup and there was apparently a new direction at the publisher and her stuff just didn't fit any more. So with sales down, she was cut off.
While the situation can be bad from the writer's standpoint, it can be even worse for the readers. For the readers, the problem is quality. Even if you've got a story arc completely worked out for the series, it is extremely difficult to keep the quality consistently high. In fact most series go wandering off in the weeds after two or three books.
This isn't so much that the author runs out of ideas, although that can happen, as it is hard to keep working to a consistently high level when you're working the same ground over and over. The fire goes out of the concept, you find yourself starting to repeat and the series goes into exhaustion.
The other thing that happens is that editorial attention tends to slack off in a successful series. This is a problem because nearly every writer can benefit from good, tight editing. However as a writer becomes more popular, editors are less willing to ‘interfere’ with the writer’s work. No matter how desperately it needs it. To see what I mean, compare the latest Tom Clancy novel to “The Hunt for Red October” or “Red Storm Rising.” Both those novels taught me a good deal about action writing. The latest Clancy novels can’t even hold my interest. They are sprawling, loose and in desperate need of good editing and being cut by at least a third.
What is worse, a series is usually contracted for several books out. That means you're not only meeting a deadline for one book, you're committed to deadlines for two or more with not much break between them. In general publishers want to see one or two books a year in a series. That puts extra strain on the writer.
The slipping quality is usually what causes series sales to fall off, which leads to the publisher canceling in mid-series. But that has an even worse effect on the writer's career. Poor books damage the market for the writer's other work. Readers, not unreasonably, base their opinion of a writer's work on the last thing they read. If you lose readers it's awfully hard to get them back.
For all that, it's awfully difficult for a writer to turn down a series deal. For as long as it lasts it means a certainty that's hard to find in the often-chaotic life of a writer.