The Role of Short Fiction in a Series

Guest post by John D. Payne.

I haven’t written my second book yet. Any of my second books. Oh, I’ve written a few first books. (Hey, look! This one’s in a bundle!) But so far none of them have got a sequel yet. So my experience in series writing is with stories, not books.
Although most people think of novels when they think about series writing, short fiction is actually a huge part of series writing. And there are definitely characters and worlds that only appear in short form that are nonetheless hugely popular and influential.

For characters, think of Conan the Barbarian. Robert E. Howard never wrote a Conan novel, but he wrote 21 Conan stories, 18 of which were published in his lifetime. For worlds, think of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, which originated in a loosely connected series of stories written over the span of twenty years or so.

Today, Conan and Cthulhu are each billion dollar intellectual properties that have directly spawned video games, television shows, movies, plays, games, comics, stories and novels written by other authors, etc. And an uncountable number of other works were influenced by Howard and Lovecraft’s creations.

(Then again, both men died poor. So, you know, take this all with a grain of salt.)

So it is definitely possible to have a highly successful series that stays entirely in the realm of short fiction. But let’s say you want to write novels. Nothing wrong with that. And nothing unusual.

When people fall in love with a character (or a world) that they encounter in one format, they often want to repeat the experience in a different format. (Like the Lovecraft and Howard fans buying all the stuff listed above.) So let’s consider two different scenarios, depending on the original format where the series is found.

First, let’s think about a series that originates with a novel and then spins off short stories. This is increasingly something that publishers ask authors to do between books. Or maybe it just seems common to me because some of my favorite authors (Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, Brandon Sanderson) do this.

At a minimum, the story in between books reminds the audience that the series is out there. And if the story is outstanding, and released at just the right time, it can whet readers’ appetites and lead to a feeding frenzy when the next book in the series comes out.

Or maybe I’m the only one who wears a shark suit to the bookstore on release day?

Writing stories between books has also been a helpful thing for me as an writer. It helps me see both what my audience responds to and also what my own creative brain responds to. There are always more ideas than time, so figuring out which projects are the most exciting really helps me prioritize.

For example, last year I wrote a story that takes place after the end of my novel The Crown and the Dragon, and it really got me thinking about a second book. I wrote from the perspective of a totally new character and really felt like I was seeing the world through new eyes. Not only was this fun, it helped me figure out theme and plot issues that will make the sequel a much stronger book.

Then, the story sold to an anthology that should come out any day now and when it does, I’ll be very interested to see how readers respond. If my audience is as excited as I am to be back in this world, then book two is going to leapfrog its way up to the top of my next-to-write list.

I’ve been talking about stories that come in between novels in a series, but it’s also possible for a series that starts as a book to end up mostly in the short story format. And to be very successful in doing so. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series began with a short novel, followed by another three novels and 56 short stories.

Again, this is a billion dollar intellectual property, and it’s mostly short fiction. And unlike Conan and Cthulu, Holmes was managed to win his creator wealth and fame in his lifetime.

Which is nice, so I hear.

Anyway! Let’s consider a second scenario, one in which short fiction is the origin of the series. One of my favorite examples is the Ender series, which began with a short story which later got reworked and expanded into a novel. But it all started with the story, which attracted a huge audience that wanted more of this character and this world.

If you’re writing stories that are getting you a great reaction, you’re probably already thinking about how to put these characters into novels. I’m doing this myself with a story I wrote for One Horn to Rule Them All: A Purple Unicorn Anthology. Readers have told me they like the characters in the story, and wanted to find out what happened to them. Well, me too! So I’m working on a novel that follows the short story, and I have two other novels planned to continue the series.

Short stories are also a good way to flesh out a setting, a piece at a time. Larry Niven did this with his Known Space universe, which began with his first published short story and includes numerous other works, including what is probably his best known novel, Ringworld.

I am trying to do this same thing with a sword and sorcery series I’ve been working on for years. I have several stories written here, including three published, and each one helps me develop a richer world with more fully realized characters. I’ve got I’ve got novels planned for this setting, and when I finally get to write them, they’re going to be awesome because they’ll be built on a foundation of super-rad stories.

In the end, no matter where you are with your series, short fiction can be a great vehicle to help you get where you want to go. Spin-offs, in-between stories, explorations of character and setting– these are all great ways that short fiction can help you and your readers get excited about your series. Or they might just end up being the perfect format for your series to end up in.

So give it a try! And when you end up with a billion dollar IP on your hands, don’t forget who loved you way back when.

(It was me.)

–JOHN D. PAYNE

 

John D. Payne was born on the prairie, where tornadoes and electrical storms come to play. So he grew up watching the lightning flash outside his window and imagining himself as everything from a leaf on the wind to the god of thunder. Today, he lives with his wife and family at the foot of the Organ Mountains in New Mexico, where he he focuses his weather-god powers on rustling up enough cloud cover for a little shade.

His debut novel, The Crown and the Dragon, is a thrilling epic fantasy published by WordFire Press. A Kovel award-winning author, John reads and writes in many genres. His short fiction has been published in anthologies like Dragon Writers and magazines like Leading Edge. For stories, exclusive bonus content, updates and more, please visit him at: patreon.com/johndpayne. Or tweet how dumb this post is to @jdp_writes.

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