Thursday, 29 August 2013

Friday Feature: Matt Forbeck on How To Blow A Series

I wrote my first books for younger readers about a decade ago. The folks at Wizards of the Coast wanted to launch a new series of Dungeons & Dragons novels for kids, something that would introduce them to the concepts of the kinds of worlds in which D&D games are set, and they asked me to take a shot at it. 
It took me three tries until I came up with the concept for the Knights of the Silver Dragon. With my first couple efforts, I concocted intricate storylines and intriguing characters who would evolve as the stories progressed. 
That was a mistake, mostly because I wasn’t going to be the only writer of these books. Once I came up with the concept and wrote the first book, an assortment of other writers would take over from me and write other books in the series. With luck, I’d get to revisit the setting again, but those other writers would create the stories in between my entries. 
Because of that, the best model for the series turned out to be episodic television, which turns out the kind of stories that you can catch in just about any order and enjoy. There’s no building plotline, no ongoing developments, and no strict continuity to worry about. 
With this kind of setup, each writer plays with the same set of toys, but we’re all required to put them back on the shelf when we’re done, in roughly the same condition in which we found them. It works great with a multi-author setup because most of the stories have the exact same starting point, which they come back to at the end of the book — if only so the next author can take off from that same point without any hiccups. 
The model worked well in that it satisfied the requirements of the situation. Unfortunately, while it produced some fine stories, a great series didn’t arise from them. It went on for a dozen books, after which I wrote a two-part series to cap it all off. 

Wizards had hoped to continue the series forever, like a fantasy-based Hardy Boys set. Sales dropped off, though, and they had to cancel it instead. 
I’m not omniscient, of course, and can’t say for sure what went wrong. As I see it, though, there was a clear reason for the line’s demise. While the episodic TV series model worked well, we didn’t take it far enough.
In a TV series, the showrunner makes sure that each episode of the show feels reasonably close to the ones that went before it. That way, when you sit down to watch the latest episode in your favorite series, you get something close to what you expect. 
With the Knights of the Silver Dragon series, though, the authors and their styles wandered a bit much. By themselves, the stories were all decent, but the way the authors wrote them didn’t always match up well. The readers who enjoyed my first entry in the series, for instance, found something different in each of the next tales. 
They were all about the same core group of kids, but they were told in different voices. If you liked one, you couldn’t be sure you’d enjoy the next, and that kind of uncertainty adds up to lost sales. And the end of a line. 
It was hard to see how to fix a problem like that, as Wizards wanted to release a book every month or two, and they didn’t think any one author could manage it. I set out to prove them wrong last year by challenging myself to write a dozen short novels of (perhaps not coincidentally) the same length as those Knights of the Silver Dragon novels. 
I didn’t quite hit my goal. I wrote ten novels, although one of them was a novel based on the Leverage TV show, which was a bit longer than the others. I also wrote nine Magic: The Gathering comics and a Starcraft short story, plus a number of other things, during that year. Still, I think if I’d stuck with writing only novels, I could have managed it. 
Of those novels, three of them form a trilogy called Monster Academy. I’m still writing the last two as I polish the first — which should be out in October — but I’m writing all of them. If you like the first one, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like every one of the others too. 
And as a reader, that’s what a series is really all about: finding a group of characters you love in exciting situations and following them from book to book in a well-tailored series of events. As a writer, that’s just what I want to deliver to you too.

Check out Matt's excellent website, or catch him on Twitter!

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