Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The challenges of series fiction

with 8 comments

A few of my novels

It would be nice if writing a series of novels came down to publishing a bunch of books with vaguely similar covers, but unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Series fiction, especially in suspense, is inherently problematic because it violates an important aspect of what we know about the world. It’s true that life doesn’t lend itself to being confined easily within four hundred pages, and any story can be extended indefinitely in either direction—life rarely affords us the luxury of tidy endings. (As Sydney Pollack points out in Eyes Wide Shut: “Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn’t.”) But series fiction pushes this sense of continuity in artificial directions, by assuming that not only does life go on, but it rhymes. In most mystery series, the protagonist doesn’t change appreciably from book to book, is confronted with the same kind of case in each installment, and usually ends up more or less where he started. Events in one book rarely have any impact on the next. And while this sort of structure is acceptable on television—although it took me a while to accept the lack of narrative memory on shows like The X-Files—it often rings false in fiction, and can even become enervating for the author himself. Conan Doyle famously killed off his own creation, and one occasionally senses a touch of exhaustion in such otherwise excellent writers like Daniel Silva, whose publishers have gently nudged him back toward his trademark character when he might have preferred to move on.

When it came time to write the sequel to The Icon Thief, I wanted to avoid this trap as best as I could. I was determined, for instance, that City of Exiles change the stakes of the series in tangible ways, and when I realized, early in the planning process, that I was simply repeating the same pattern as before—of Ilya staying just barely ahead of his pursuers—I decided to move forcefully in the opposite direction, with consequences that readers of the novel will discover for themselves. In some ways, I was aided by the fact that I’d never intended my debut novel to be the first installment in a series. In an excellent essay published in the classic mystery companion Murder Ink, the novelist Peter Dickinson draws a useful distinction between novels that were conceived with a series character in mind and those that stumbled into it by accident. A deliberate series hero, he observes, often starts out with a list of quirky character markers designed mostly to set him apart from similar protagonists (“Let’s say he has a club-foot and rides an enormous bike…”), while the accidental hero evolves in a more organic way, based on the needs of the first novel in which he appears:

These are the detectives who come into existence because the author wants to write a particular book. The book itself demands a detective, and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs.

"In the lightning-paced sequel..."

This is essentially what happened with Ilya, as well as with my beloved Rachel Wolfe. I didn’t intend to bring them back, and when I did, I found that I was stuck with the attributes I’d invented for them in the first novel—which ended up being a source of fruitful ideas and constraints. The single greatest trick I’ve learned from writing a series involves finding where the real essence of a novel, or a character, lies, and not confusing this with more superficial qualities. Ilya was conceived as a resourceful thief and assassin, but in the second novel, he doesn’t steal much of anything and kills only out of necessity. As a result, I was forced to dig deeper, and by following some hints from the first novel—his bookishness, his fascination with Jewish mysticism, and his discovery that everything he believed about his sense of honor was a lie—I was able to see him more clearly than before, as a man trying to come to terms with the division between the two halves of his personality. Similarly, if my only goal had been to write a novel with a story resembling that of the first, I would have centered it on another enigmatic work of art, which was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I looked at the novel slantwise, and saw that it was really about the problem of interpretation, and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us. This led me to concentrate on historical mysteries instead, and ultimately led me into the Dyatlov Pass.

Series fiction also turned out to be a testing ground for my ideas about backstory. Usually, I deal with my aversion to backstory by refusing to create it in the first place, to the point where important details of my characters’ backgrounds are left deliberately vague, even to me. For my second book, not only did this backstory already exist, but there was an entire novel’s worth of it, so I had to decide early on how much of this previous material to include. My solution, which probably won’t come as a surprise to regular readers, was to refer to the earlier book as little as possible, which ended up being both a philosophical and a pragmatic decision. The second book in a series occupies a peculiar position: it needs to reward those who have read the first novel, but also be accessible and interesting to those encountering these characters for the first time. Finding the right balance between telling a completely self-contained story and honoring the complicated history of the first novel was a real challenge, and it taught me a lot about what information is essential and what can be safely dropped—a lesson that I’ve put into practice for the third and final novel in the series, Eternal Empire, and hope to draw upon for any books I write in the future. The result, I’d like to think, is a pair of novels that read perfectly well on their own, but gain additional richness and resonance when taken as part of a larger whole. Tomorrow, on the day City of Exiles finally comes out, I’ll try to pull all of this together, and explain what I learned from writing my second novel.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2012 at 9:48 am

8 Responses

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  1. Hi there, I have been writing a small book and now I’m thinking about trying to get it published. Do you know where I go to do this? I have no idea where to start.


    December 3, 2012 at 9:52 am

  2. Wow—that’s a big question! My honest advice, once you have a full, revised manuscript, is to look for an agent—it’s the only way you’ll get read at the major publishing houses, and even if you decide to go with a smaller press, the process of finding an agent will teach you a lot about your own work and whether you’re ready for publication. The best way to start, I’ve found, is by looking in the acknowledgments sections of books you admire and using this to come up with a list of names. Anyway, it’s a big topic, and one I hope to cover on this blog one of these days, so you might want to check back soon. Good luck!


    December 3, 2012 at 10:02 am

  3. Reblogged this on Annette J Dunlea Irish Author and commented:
    Alec Nevala-Lee Writes On The challenges of series fiction

  4. Reblogged this on charleshenryeditingblog and commented:
    For all my trilogy writers: an interesting post.


    December 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  5. I work with a lot of trilogy writers (I am an editor) and reblogged your post because I thought it was very insightful. Have a great day!


    December 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm

  6. Glad you liked it! Nice blog, by the way—I’ll need to drop by again.


    December 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm

  7. Excellent post, thank you for writing this! I reblogged this on I, too, am working in what could be considered a series, though each book in my series deals with a different generation of members of one extended clan. Still, things established in one book should definitely affect things that happen afterwards, and subsequent books should still be able to stand on their own. This is very good advice.

    Tammy J Rizzo

    December 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  8. Thanks, Tammy! Writing a series in which each of the installments can also stand on its own has been one of the great challenges of my writing life, and I’m glad you found this post helpful. Good luck!


    December 6, 2012 at 10:39 pm

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