Friday, 5 August 2011

The Saga Habit

Except for the tendency to write articles about the Modern Girl and allow his side-whiskers to grow, there is nothing an author to-day has to guard himself against more carefully than the Saga habit. The least slackening of vigilance and the thing has gripped him. He writes a story. Another story dealing with the same characters occurs to him, and he writes that. He feels that just one more won't hurt him, and he writes a third. And before he knows where he is, he is down with a Saga, and no cure in sight.
P. G. Wodehouse

That quote comes from the preface to Blandings Castle, published in 1935. Side-whiskers and proto-feminists aside, the condition Wodehouse describes is still true, 75 years later. Look at Philip Reeve, joyfully immersed in his wonderful Mortal Engines series to the tune of seven books and counting. Or Lemony Snicket's thirteen-book odyssey. I hardly need mention J. K. Rowling, do I?

Many attribute the popularity of the saga to market pressures - the need to create a franchise and build reader momentum over a multi-book series. But there's another side to this coin - writers love them. If being an author is like having your own personal sandpit, then how much better would it be to have a really, really big one full of colourful characters and cool steampunk gadgetry? What if you could excavate as well as widen, digging into the fascinating backstory of your world and its most beloved inhabitants? Lets face it, for George Lucas, the real world basically ceased to exist about twenty years ago.

The downside of the continuing saga is over-elaboration, the urge to explain things that were best left to the audience's imagination. This is a weakness that Star Wars has especially suffered from - Darth Vader and Boba Fett were great baddies who lose more of their glorious ambiguity with every cartoon spinoff. When a writer is in the midst of story, it's easy to forget how much a reader brings of themselves to the worlds we create - over-elaboration can destroy that. Lemony Snicket, on the other hand, went the other way and failed to explain enough about his world. Each book in A Series of Unfortunate Events unveiled more and more delicious mysteries, and it seemed that the author was poised to explain all of them in a glorious final volume. But book 13 - The End - was simply that, more of a stopping point than an answer. Never have I been more frustrated about the exact contents of a simple sugar bowl!

When I was researching the children's market back in 2007 (my previous YA novel having been written in complete ignorance of what was actually selling), the multi-book series seemed like a sure-fire way to get published. So I conceived an elaborate five book saga detailing an ongoing zombie war and set to work. With the first book done, I discovered that even though everyone seemed to want these series, it was bad form to actually mention them in your letter to an agent. No problem, I thought, and came up with the following nifty phrase:
The 51,000 word book tells a satisfying and complete story, while offering considerable scope for expansion into a series.

Pretty good, right? And it worked up until the moment that I sat down in front of my would-be agent and she shot the whole idea down in flames. Her reasoning was very simple and very sound:
  1. It's much harder to sell a series by a debut author than it is to sell a standalone novel.

  2. You shouldn't save ideas for later - put all of your best concepts into the first book and make it as good as it can possibly be.

My friends Teri Terry and Paula Harrison have both recently sold multi-book series as debut novelists, so these are clearly not hard-and-fast rules. Nevertheless, I have taken my agent's advice to heart and it's driven everything I've done on the manuscript I've just completed - to the great benefit of the story. By trying to take the central concept as far as it can possibly go, I've engineered an ending that - if it remains the way it is - could only be diminished by a sequel. So why then, did I find myself yesterday writing the synopsis for a prequel?

Fetch the smelling salts, Jeeves. I seem to be coming down with a Saga after all.



  1. Great post, more of the same please (see what I did there?).

    Another problem is the author becomes bored with the material and just starts going through the motions, scared to attempt something new in case it flops. Let them go out on a high I say.

  2. I knew it! You will be converted after all...

    My big project was always meant to be a series. I'm putting all my ideas into the first, but the ideas "grow" with each book. I was firmly told by a US editor that what I've written in the outline was really enough for two books rather than one. And after thinking about it... well, she was completely right! The ending I envisaged for Book One is a much more natural ending for Book Two. And now, what was meant to be a trilogy could easily be a four-book series (shock horror!).

    But I do have an idea lurking in the back of my mind that is never going to be more than a standalone novel. That one is more literary than commercial though...

  3. a prequel?!!! well ... as long as you're doing it because of that strange unstoppable urge to write that writers can't control and not because of any market pressure!

  4. Candy - I'm not sure that I do anything entirely separate from market pressures, because, to be honest, I want to sell books. And if it made the difference between a one book deal and a two book one, I think I'd be mad not to go for it. But I wouldn't consider a prequel if I didn't feel I could tell a really good story that would equal or surpass the first book - otherwise it would be better to write another standalone.

  5. I like the idea of a prequel - like writing a series backwards. Now that gives me an idea...