How long should a series be?

Obviously, a series can range anywhere between four and 100+ books. However, the most important consideration is how long should it ideally be and still be worthwhile. Even the best-written, most original series start to feel like mindless tosh and cash cows after a certain point.

I’m embarrassed when I think back on how many spin-off series I had planned or in progress for my Atlantic City characters, all branching off from the now-shelved eight-book first series I wrote. I even planned the titles and general plots of my entire Max’s House series when I was only writing the first book!

Looking through the list now (and at my synopses files), it’s obvious many can be combined, since they lead right into one another and are so short. Others can be tossed out entirely, since those events have been moved to separate books (e.g., Newark Love StoryMalchen and Pali).

A number of the titles originally referred to much different storylines, particularly re: Max and Sam’s intense, on-again, off-again relationship. Though Max is a major playboy in his younger years, the only serious relationships he ever has are with Al Scots (his future wife) and Brooke Pembroke (whom he breaks up with to reunite with Al). He goes on a couple of dates with Sam, but that’s pretty much it!

A lot of the insipid ones in the middle can be replaced with books with new titles and radically different storylines, spanning longer periods. It’s so obvious I was taking notes from after school specials, junky pulp fiction, and dreadful TV shows and movies about teens!

I’ve long known my Russian novels will span 1917–91 and include two prequels spanning 1889–1917. For Cinnimin, I know it’ll span 1941–2050 and end with Cinni’s death. Along the way, younger generations rise to the fore.

For Max’s House (a name I may very well change again), I originally planned it ending with Max and Al’s emotional reunion in autumn 1962, their marriage, and the birth of their first child. I knew all along Al is the only woman for him, no matter how much he takes her for granted, has an open relationship without her approval, breaks up with her to date other ladies, and finally has the tables turned when Al breaks their engagement and moves to Paris for five years. The entire series is driving towards this ultimate goal of happily ever after.

Now the series is slated to end in 1970, as the Sewards come together to bury patriarch Great-Grandpa Stanley and reflect on the end of an era. The world he opened his eyes to in 1860 was radically different than the one he closed his eyes on 110 years later.

For my permanently shelved WTCOAC series, I went the classic route of coming-of-age, taking my characters from fifth grade through the eve of starting college. I also planned a four-book series about their college years, plus a novel about their first year in the real world.

The prequel series is short and sweet, reflecting their young age (though there’s still some edgy content). As originally written, it takes them from the summer before second grade to their final day of fourth grade. If I age them up slightly, they’ll go from the summer before fourth or fifth grade to the last day of sixth or seventh grade.

So how many books are needed to tell a coming-of-age story or take a family and/or town through several generations?

I would say between seven on the lower end to maybe thirty on the highest end. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series runs 25 books, but it never feels like a wandering series. Alice ages normally, and as the series progresses, the books last longer (e.g., going from four books about one school year to only two, plus summer books). The first book and the three prequels last one school year, and the finale takes Alice from age 18–60.

At a certain point, a series starts to run out of steam and do little but serve a cash cow, esp. with floating timelines enabling characters to stay the same age for over 100 books. You need to have an idea of where you ultimately want to go, or you’ll just begin writing aimlessly, with no end in sight and characters long overstaying their welcome.

Most importantly, writing a neverending series prevents you from creating new characters and going on the journey through life with them. Goodbye isn’t forever when you can always reread the old books.

One thought on “How long should a series be?

  1. True about writing aimlessly [and the reader feeling like they are reading aimlessly – that is a point].

    Thinking about the second-fourth grade books: would that have been for an audience/market who enjoyed the Sweet Valley Kids? Trying to remember whether they were in third grade or before sixth grade.

    The entire series is driving towards this goal of happily ever after” – like Harry Potter is about death and facing it. Yes – you do need that over-arching idea to guide the series and the decisions you make.

    And not just between Max and Al?

    “The more we are together – the happier we’ll be”.

    Yours truly is culling junky pop fiction [V. C. Andrews/ghostwriter-in-chief Andrew N.; Tom Clancy; Jackie Collins].

    And when you combine the texts – the omnibus phenomenon. [with short stories; poetry; ancillary/anthology material in between]

    Good to have at least one Seward centenarian – and to stop in the 1970s.

    The last book of the Alice series would have been epic. Reynolds Naylor is someone I had not encountered because she fell in between the niche of Penguin Classics and modern/contemporary/backlist.

    Eight would be perfect and twenty-seven/twenty-eight would be stretching it.

    Is your series a rolling-stone series or a moss series? A moss series is one that grows quietly and quickly and under the understory. And stones have their degrees of rolling. Or it might be a fallen-tree series or a spplinter series.

    Summer/holiday books are good to break in and up a series. If you like them in the summer when their daily routine is different; you might end up wanting to go to the first or the last. [says she who put her most effort into her travel books – one is in Poland and Germany; one in Boston; one in Australia and one in Budapest].

    The thing about inspirations and sources.

    I was thinking about some of the big differences between Australian and US soap operas – for example, Neighbours and Home and Away. When Home and Away had books made out of it [novelised] they picked the big events like aneurysms – which would compare to a medical series drama and have the teen-surfing moments. #transmedia

    Started thinking about spin-offs when I was exposed to the whole situation comedy scene in 1992 – from 1950-90. Like Maude and All the Family – because of the Simpsons and a spiral book about their history and what Groening used for inspiration and rocket fuel.

    Life in Hell is very edgy – so if I were telling people about the Atlantic City trilogy I would say it was a non-cartoonish version of Life in Hell.

    Lifetime and Lifetime Original – I imagine younger writers are taking some of their cues – as well as Hallmark. And anime and manga.

    Anthology drama and fiction.

    When people bring TV and comic book mindsets/conventions to long-form fiction or even to short stories.

    Not so dissimilar to how Dante used paintings and other cultural artefacts. [eg to make the Inferno – Heaven; Hell; Purgatory].

    For the Russian novels 1917-91 makes sense. If you were in now/the present [post-1991] there would be oligarchs and Putin [and more Putin – so maybe not 2034?].

    A lot like Wikipedia and how people decide to expand and/or fork and article. The ever-lasting battle between inclusionists and deletionists.

    Planning several books ahead is fine if you have a good property.

    Max and Sam … lots of unrelieved tension Mulder and Scully style.


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