Five Things I’ve Learned Writing a Series

by Josh Vogt, @JRVogt

My third urban fantasy novel, The Dustpan
Cometh
, has just released. I thought I would share some of the lessons I’ve
learned while writing The Cleaners Series.

1- Humor is Incredibly Subjective

When I first got the idea for an urban fantasy series focused on a supernatural sanitation company, where magically empowered janitors, maid, plumbers, and others wield mops, squeegees, and feather dusters like wands and staffs, I knew it had to have a strong humorous angle. How could it not with such an absurd premise?
Starting with Enter the Janitor and now continuing with The Maids of Wrath and The Dustpan Cometh, I enjoyed infusing as much humor as I could into the stories so far. Yet as reviews to each book showed me, our senses of humor are all over the board. What one person found to be hilarious, another found unbearably corny. Where one person loved a water elemental named Carl who lives in a spray bottle, it fell totally flat with another. And that’s entirely okay. We each have certain things that make us smile or laugh, and if I try to write something that’s funny for everyone, it’s destined to fail. So I write what makes me smile and laugh and then enjoy when it connects with certain readers.
2- You Don’t Have to Explain Everything

If someone picks it up The Maids of Wrath or The Dustpan Cometh without reading Enter the Janitor, certain things have to be conveyed about the world and characters for them to make sense. However, this doesn’t mean if you’re writing a sequel that the story has to screech to a halt every time an element from past events appears on the page. Sure, some things should be explained—hopefully mostly through dialogue or character actions rather than flat exposition—but I believe readers are smart folks, and I can trust in their intelligence to pick up on context. Things will make sense, even if it takes a couple extra pages to get there.

3- Track Past Details Well

Since I hope to be playing in the world of the Cleaners for a goodly while, moving forward, I’ll be building a “bible” for that reality, tracking everything from character physical features, personalities, and pasts to the creatures they face, the spells and equipment they use, and other critical tidbits. In The Maids of Wrath, I could look up details I’d forgotten relatively easily by flipping through Book#1, but some eluded me for a goodly while–and this was even more true for The Dustpan Cometh. I could see myself fretting over continuity or having to do some major ret-conning in future books if I don’t get the essentials sorted in an orderly fashion and let a mistake slip in. It’ll save me a lot of effort and frustration in the future.

4- Characters Should Grow…but Remain Flawed

Things change. At least, they should. People are affected by their past, whether for good or ill. They can make different decisions, react differently to situations, and discover new aspects about themselves. Yet even as they acquire new strengths, perspectives, and skills, growth is never a perfect process. If a character suddenly sheds all their old weaknesses—like Dani’s germaphobia or Ben’s recklessness—then there’s the real risk of them becoming boring from one book to the next. They can still make bad decisions, face new challenges where they stumble and fall, or discover a not-so-nice side to themselves that’s going to require a lot of work to deal with. Characters should grow, but the inner and outer conflict should shift to keep the tension fresh at the same time.

5- Everything Needs a Cost

And I don’t just mean magic. Yeah, there’s the idea that any magic should have a price, otherwise it just becomes wish fulfillment. But whenever characters face a challenge, they shouldn’t walk away unscathed, even if they achieve victory. If they accomplish something without sacrifice, it strips the significance of it. If they reach new heights of power without slogging through miles of stinking sewers to get there, they haven’t really earned it, have they? We don’t read stories where the villain is vanquished because everyone made fun of his squeaking attempt at maniacal laughter. Sure, some steps might be easier than others, but if they’re facing down murderous psychos in a morgue and, in the end, don’t have a few new scars to show for it…what does it really matter? Be ready for at least one person to pay the price, even if it’s the ultimate one.

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The Dustpan Cometh

It’s back to school for Dani, whose new work-study position as a—what else?—janitor at her college provides the perfect front for her job with the Cleaners, the supernatural sanitation company keeping reality tidy and safe. The toughest part? Accepting that the forces of Corruption aren’t behind every squicky mess. Sometimes frat boy vomit is just frat boy vomit.

Then a real problem appears: Sydney, the entropy-wielding Scum whose touch turns anything to dust. He reminds her of the deal she made so he’d spare a child’s life, and it’s time to uphold her side of the bargain—by going on a date with him.

Back at Cleaners HQ, Ben is determined to restore his powers and has been submitting increasingly absurd ideas for doing so to the Employee Suggestion box. When a concept is unexpectedly approved, he becomes a target for his coworkers, who are all-too-eager to test the limits of his latest “theory.“

In the midst of the pair’s respective dilemmas, a strange form of Corruption strikes in the heart of Denver, transforming swaths of neighborhood parks into lifeless desert.

Scrambling to contain the disaster, the Cleaners pinpoint Sydney as the source and prepare to put him down at all costs. But after Dani encounters another potential culprit, she finds herself inexplicably defending her would-be beau. Even as her loyalties are questioned, she must still face her greatest challenge ever…

Wearing a dress in public.

Josh Vogt is an author, editor, and freelance writer. His fiction ranges from fantasy to science fiction to horror and beyond, including tie-in fiction for a growing number of roleplaying games. His novels include Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, as well as the urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor, The Maids of Wrath, and the newly released The Dustpan Cometh. Find him online at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt.