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Writing a Series; or, The Characters Who Just Won’t Die, Dammit

Devil Said Bang is the fourth Sandman Slim book. As I write this, I'm currently working on book five, Kill City Blues. When I started out, the last thing I thought I'd be writing was a series or anything other than science fiction. However, Sandman Slim dwells in that ever-shifting netherworld somewhere between Jim Thompson and Neil Gaiman. File the series under Urban Fantasy, Fantasy Noir, Supernatural Thriller, or whatever the hell they're calling it this week. The truth is, I'm just happy that people are reading the books.

Before Sandman Slim I'd never considered writing a series, and when I started, it just about broke my brain. At its most stripped down, a series is simply a load of adventures with the same characters built roughly around similar themes. Vampire hunters hunt vampires. Witches perform magic. All that's true and it's not that hard to write. Things only get complicated when there's something going on that's larger than the foreground story — a story arc that spans multiple books and won't be resolved until some nebulous point in the future. That's the stuff that will kill you.

What do the readers need to know now to keep them reading, and what does the writer need to save for the next book, when the reveal will be that much more powerful? How are your characters going to change over the course of x number of books? Just how much are you supposed to plan in advance? When I wrote Sandman Slim, the first book in the series, I couldn't answer any of those questions. Fortunately I had a good editor, Diana Gill, and she threw me a life preserver when I needed it. Over the next few books I used up enough life preservers to personally save most of the passengers on the Titanic. Now I'm pretty happy writing a series. No matter how badly I treat my characters, I know they'll be back for more, and maybe I'll give them a break in the next book.No matter how badly I treat my characters, I know they'll be back for more, and maybe I'll give them a break in the next book. Probably not, but I'm the god here and they have to dance to my rumba.

Which brings me to the question that I'm asked frequently, that everyone writing a series is asked frequently: How much of the story do you know in advance? That's an easy one to answer: I know a lot. I'm writing thriller/mysteries. I need to know in advance if Colonel Mustard was killed in the library with a candlestick or if he was attacked by a chupacabra or has been faking his death and framing Justin Bieber. I frequently outline on paper, drawing arrows between characters and incidents. I use a highlighter on some ideas and end the occasional sentence with five question marks (my personal code for "Is this a good idea or irredeemable crap?"). But even with all that planning, I don't know everything.

I deliberately leave holes here and there in the story. This gives it room to breathe and evolve, and it lets me occasionally surprise myself when a character does something unexpected or a scene takes a turn I didn't see coming. Those kinds of surprises, ones that are fun for the writer, are usually fun for readers. And they're a good sign that my unconscious is working as hard as my conscious mind. It's like having a slightly demented collaborator throwing you Post-it notes scrawled with cryptic runes and sentence fragments that you can somehow magically understand.

Here's an example of a surprise. Since the books hop back and forth between L.A. and Hell, I knew that Lucifer was going to appear throughout the series. But when God showed up in Aloha from Hell, I was as surprised as anyone. I was writing a scene, and suddenly there he was. He wanted lines and jokes and a distinct point of view. The whole character package. So I went with it. Now God's identity and nature have become an important part of the series. And I never saw that coming.

I didn't know how I'd feel about writing a series when I started Sandman Slim. Now I love the process, and when this series ends, I hope to start another. I have a couple of ideas, neither of which I'll tell you about right now. You see, I know what's going to happen, but it's not time to tell the readers yet.

÷ ÷ ÷

Richard Kadrey has published nine novels, including Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, Aloha from Hell, Devil Said Bang, Kill City Blues, Dead Set, Butcher Bird, Metrophage, and The Getaway God. He has been immortalized as an action figure, his short story "Goodbye Houston Street, Goodbye" was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award, and his novel Butcher Bird was nominated for the Prix Elbakin in France. A freelance writer and photographer, he lives in San Francisco, California.

Books mentioned in this post

Richard Kadrey is the author of The Getaway God (Sandman Slim Novels #6)

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