(This is part 9.5 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
I finished the first draft of Marked in the summer of 2017. Its edits would take a while, and I wouldn’t send off what would become the final version until much later that year, but the summer and autumn of 2017 was the point at which I had to make the decision about how long the Alex Verus series would be.
“How many books will there be?” was a question I’d been asked many times by this point, and I’d usually given an answer between 10 and 14, with my most common guess being 12. This guess turned out to be exactly right, but this wasn’t because I’d been working from some kind of master plan. When I started Alex Verus #1, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a series at all, and it wasn’t until I reached books #4-#5 that I started planning out the story arc in any sort of detail. Instead, I’d said 12 because that felt vaguely to me like the right sort of length.
Around this same time, my agent negotiated contracts with my US and UK publishers for three more Alex Verus books. I’d asked for 3 because I felt that that would probably be about the right length to end the series . . .
. . . if I wanted to end the series. Which was the big question.
The most common reason for a book series to end is that the publisher drops it. I didn’t have this problem: both my US and UK editors were quite happy for me to keep on writing Alex Verus novels, and in fact encouraged me to keep the series going. From their point of view, the Alex Verus series was a modest but clear success – it was obvious by this point that any Alex Verus novel that I put out was going to sell, so as far as they were concerned, the natural thing to do was to keep churning out Alex Verus books until I was totally out of ideas or my readership got sick of them.
There were other reasons to continue the series. My readers seemed to enjoy it, and on the occasions that I talked about bringing the series to a close, I’d always get comments asking me to make it as long as possible. There was also the world development to consider – I’d spent a while developing the Alex Verus world, which meant I had a lot of work to draw upon whenever I needed it. Writing more Alex Verus novels was much easier than the prospect of starting something new.
But far and away the biggest reason to keep the series going was security. By 2017 I was an established author, but I wasn’t THAT established – certainly not famous enough that I could write something new and expect it to sell just on the strength of my name. By this point I’d been able to call myself a “successful” author for maybe 2-3 years, but I’d been an unknown/failed author for a good 15 years before that. For all I knew, this was just some temporary blip, and as soon as I stopped putting out Alex Verus novels, things would go back to how they’d been before. Ending the series, and committing to starting something new, felt like burning my bridges. I was effectively betting my future career on the idea that I MIGHT be able to write something else that would be successful in the way that the Alex Verus series had been, despite not knowing for sure exactly what the Alex Verus series had done right. It was a scary prospect.
Those were the arguments against ending the series. All of these played out throughout 2017 (and for a couple of years before that) at the back of my mind.
Set against that were the arguments FOR ending the series.
Ending the series would let me create a new world. This would admittedly be a ton of work, but a lot of things in the Alex Verus setting had been locked in by choices I’d made very early on, some of which had had far-reaching effects. Just to take one example, the fact that most mages in the Alex Verus setting could make teleportation gates had an ENORMOUS impact on the world. Conflicts worked differently, transportation worked differently, and entire types of story that revolved around travelling to or from a place just couldn’t be told. It also led to all kinds of awkward questions such as “why haven’t mages used this power to completely reshape the world economy”, though in practice, from a story point of view, I had much bigger problems with the fact that it was ridiculously difficult to force a mage into any kind of confrontation that they didn’t want to have. This wasn’t a big deal, but by this point I was thinking that I’d quite like to be able to write something without being quite so restricted by the decisions made by my younger self.
Much more important, to me, was my vague feeling that twelve-ish books felt like about the right number. I’ve always believed that stories have a natural length. It isn’t just a matter of the author’s decision – there’s a ‘right’ length for any given story, and the more you diverge from that length, the worse the story gets. I think the biggest reason for this is the story’s themes. Some stories aren’t long enough to explore their themes fully, and those are the ones that feel disappointingly short. But much more common (especially in the fantasy genre) are the stories where the author runs out of big ideas or themes to explore, but keeps the series going anyway. The characters stop growing, the world stops changing, and the story becomes static, to the point that you can read an entire book and realise at the end that nothing has really happened. This is very common on TV (The Simpsons is the best-known example) but it happens more than often enough in fantasy books too. Usually when I realise that a series has reached this point, I drop it. I didn’t want that to happen with the Alex Verus series – I wanted to create something that I could look back on and be proud of, and that meant giving it a proper ending.
But the final and strongest reason for me to end the series was interest. By the end of Book #9, I wasn’t bored with the Alex Verus series. But I had the feeling that if I kept on writing it for too much longer, I would get bored. And once I got bored, I knew it would show. Better to end on a high note.
I didn’t make the decision quickly – I turned it over at the back of my mind for months, if not years. But at last, I decided to end the series. 12 had been my initial guess for the number of Alex Verus books, and 12 was where I’d leave it.
As to whether that was the right decision . . . well, given that I’m writing this in 2021, it’s too early to tell. Maybe I’ll come back to this post in a few years when I know the answer!