The Big Idea: David Mack
Posted on January 17, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
Author David Mack knows what you expect out of a book series. But with The Iron Codex, he’s making the argument that you should sometimes get something else than what you expect. Let’s read his thoughts on why this is.
In the publishing industry, there are certain expectations that govern how a new book series is launched, promoted, and sustained. The Iron Codex was written to defy those expectations.
One of the most common bits of received wisdom that is imparted to authors when they embark upon the creation of a series of novels is that, while each book must tell its own story, each entry in the series should be very much like all the others under the same banner. They should share a core cast of characters. Employ the same settings. Evoke consistent themes and tones. And, above all, belong to the same easily defined and marketed genre or subgenre.
For example, if one launches a series whose first book concerns a grouchy, ghost-talking private detective solving a murder in Victorian London, one’s publisher and readers are likely to want the second book to feature the same main character, supporting cast, setting, and tropes. Moreover, it’s reasonable for them to expect that its plot will concern another mystery to be solved. Perhaps another murder, or maybe something else, just for variety. But the essential reading experience of each book in the series should be very much like those that preceded it.
It’s a logical and reasonable approach to crafting a series. It has a long track record of success.
It also was exactly what I did not want to do when I created my Dark Arts series.
I created Dark Arts to be something different. Its first book, The Midnight Front, was plotted and planned as a World War II-era secret-history war epic about demon-powered sorcerers waging secret campaigns behind the scenes of the real war’s events. But I had no interest in creating a series that simply hopscotched from one war to another. I didn’t want the progression of the series to be “World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq War, etc.”
What I’d envisioned was a series that would follow a core group of sorcerers through different eras and regions of 20th-century geopolitical history, by telling stories best suited to those times and settings. Consequently, book two of Dark Arts is a radically different style of novel from its predecessor. Instead of another war epic, The Iron Codex is a Cold War-era spy-thriller.
Just to increase my difficulty level, I decided that book two should also have a different main character than book one; I wanted the female lead from book one to take over as the heroine. The Midnight Front had been about Cade Martin’s journey from naïveté to jaded cynicism. I wanted The Iron Codex to chronicle Anja Kernova’s path from self-doubt to self-knowledge.
Of course, switching the main character from one book to the next has been done by other authors as they developed a series. (I’m looking at this blog’s esteemed owner’s own Zoe’s Tale as a sterling example.) But often those series were more consistent in style, genre, and setting than Dark Arts promises to be.
That’s not to say there are no through-lines connecting the stories that constitute my series. The magic system, which was extrapolated from the rituals of Renaissance-era ceremonial magic, is an essential element in every book. Subplots from book one are continued in books two and three (the latter of which I am still revising for final delivery to my editor), and my supporting characters have their own arcs that follow them through the series.
Will those links be enough to keep readers from abandoning my series en masse when they realize that each new book will be a different narrative flavor? Book three is going to be a paranoid conspiracy piece about betrayal, and I have notions of making book four a high-velocity heist thriller. Of course, it’s possible book four will never happen, because I might have just committed career suicide with this unorthodox approach to my series’ genre identity.
There are a lot of reasons why this experiment might not succeed. I knew that was a risk before I started. But on some level I genuinely believe that, just as I find it more interesting to write a series that changes up its approach with each book, there is an audience that will appreciate and celebrate it. My acquiring editor certainly believed it to be a worthwhile endeavor.
If that turns out not to be the case, future generations of writers will likely use my name in whispered tones as a caution to others. But even if this experiment fails to pan out commercially, I will defend my creative choice. (Though maybe not my business savvy.) I think the Dark Arts novels are fun and unlike much else out there. I’ve enjoyed writing them, and I can’t imagine having taken any other approach to telling the tales of these characters. Now, however, my role is done, and all I can do is hope that the books find their readership via word-of-mouth.
And so I cast my peculiar narrative bread upon the waters of public opinion … and hope that my reward proves to be more than just a handful of soggy gluten.
The Iron Codex: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s
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This actually sounds jolly good, and intriguing. While I can’t think of a series which changes in that way from one book to another, there are series with quite significant shifts in narrator, eg, Charles Stross’ ‘Laundry’ books. So long as the context is similar, then why not? And the concept itself sounds good.
This sounds like a cool way to do a series. It reminds me a bit of Peter Clines’ Threshold books which are connected by supporting characters and in-universe callbacks to previous books while the genre shifts a bit. I think using different genres within a series can be a good idea and maybe even expose your readers to new things.
I think the Liaden Universe series of books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (21+ so far) falls into this category of shifting book sub-genres I’ll call it, since they all are space opera, but the tale told in a particular book could be a coming of age tale, or a spy story or even a romance. The characters traipse from one book to another, sometimes center stage, sometimes just in the background, but it covers multiple generations and eras in the Universe. Makes for lots of entry points to the series as well as lively discussions about the best place to start and optimal reading orders.
I’ve recommended the The Midnight Front to my library. Hopefully they’ll get a copy for me to read soon :-)
Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworlds series did this – 13 novels, multiple main characters across the series with an interrelated universe. It remains one of my favorite series and she handled the connections between books brilliantly.
I remember the Iron Codex being a McGuffin from the first book, but had trouble getting into the mechanics of the story for some reason (not necessarily a reflection on your writing). If you’re going for a different approach with this one, I’m willing to give the series another taste test.
Really hoping the series comes out as an audiobook. This definitely made me interested in listening to them!
Max Gladstone did similarly with the Craft Sequence, and look how poorly that’s turned out. Of course, he couldn’t even keep his books in a linear chronology…
There’s a series we all know that I really like, through space and time, where the heroes always change but the villain remains the same: Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series.
It inspired the Star Trek episode with the neutronium flying wind sock.