Monday, March 24, 2008

Series Business

Sorry it’s been a couple of days since I last blogged. I was on the road through Wednesday night for business, then took part in a wonderful Salt Lake City writers’ conference Friday and Saturday. All in all it was busy, but a lot of fun. At least the conference part—I love getting the chance to talk to other writers. This business is way too solitary otherwise. The business travel—not so exciting. Although I always like Boston, even when it’s raining.

First let me just pass on a lesson to all you other writers out there. If you get back a Q&A from your editor just before you jump onto a plane, wait before posting to your blog. Don’t just think, “Hey I’ll whip off a couple of lines and post this baby before my flight leaves.” Editors are notoriously picky about typos on blogs about them. Especially when all of their smiley faces get turned into capital J’s. Enough said. Fortunately, Lisa was also at the conference and she doesn’t hate me for life. Also, I came back from the conference fully energized and excited about new blog ideas. So let’s get to it, hey?

Early on the first day of the conference, one of the attendees asked me about my new book. When I told her it was the first book in a five books series, she wrinkled her nose. Assuming she didn’t have to sneeze and relatively confident I hadn’t passed any unpleasant odors, I asked her what was wrong.

“I hate series books,” she said. “You have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next, and by then you’ve forgotten what happened before. I won’t read them until they’re all out.”

I thought about that much of the conference, because in general I really like a good series. It makes me not feel so bummed out when I come to the end of a book I really like. I have four kids ranging in age from 7 to 20, and we all excitedly attended the midnight releases of every HP book from 4 on. Not sure if they had those before that, but if so, we didn’t know about them.

So what makes a series bad or good? In my mind there are several things. A series is bad if each book leaves you hanging in the middle of the action. A series is good if each book wraps up one storyline while leaving several others to be solved in future books.

I think there are two kinds of series. The first is where there is an ongoing character, but each book is a standalone with an entirely new plot. That would be like Fablehaven or Twilight. You could read just the first book and be totally satisfied. Of course you want to read more, and the next book picks up where the last one left off, and there are overarching elements to the story, but you aren’t left hanging per se. Then there are series like Harry Potter, where each book is its own story, but you would be very unhappy if another book didn’t come out, because there are many, many threads left hanging. Finally, there are books like the Wheel of Time series, where it’s essentially one long story broken into parts. Yes certain things get wrapped up, but many more are opened.

In my Farworld series, each of the first four books deals with a quest to find the next elemental, but there are lots of other ongoing storylines. You clearly understand when you go into the series that you must read all of the books, and read them in order. But it’s not so bad that you throw the book on the floor and scream curses at the author when you finish each volume—like, say Terry Brooks’ “Armageddon’s Children” where it ends with a couple of kids falling off a tall wall. Talk about a cliffhanger. So I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle.

A series is bad if the story is so convoluted you can’t remember what happened a month later, no less a year or more. A series is good if the story is clear, exciting, and at least somewhat organized. It’s good if the reader doesn’t have to go back and reread the previous books (unless they want to) before the new book comes out. It also helps if you stick to a yearly release. At the conference, Lisa said that I should quit complaining about waiting for my book to come out and get writing number two. I promised her I’d have it ready before book one is released in September.

A series is not necessarily bad, but at least not as good if the characters don’t learn and grow. A series is good if the characters progress. It may be in how good they are at magic, or how they deal with other people. They may fall in love or out of love. They come to understand themselves better. But they need to change. Nothing is more boring for me than a series where the main characters are exactly the same in book three as they were in book one.

A series is bad if the only recurring characters are the main ones. A series really gets me pumped when a character I liked but almost forgot suddenly reappears. The red tipped arrow flies through the air, or you hear a familiar whistle, or see a white stallion, and you go, “Oh my gosh, that’s old so and so. . .” It’s like when you’re a kid and you rediscover a favorite old toy at the bottom of your toy box.

A series is bad when it feels like the author had no idea where it was going when they wrote the first book and is just making it up as they go along. I hate it when the storyline feels forced. I love it when a story surprises me—when clues that were placed clear back in book one show up again in book four. Or when a pattern emerges that I didn’t see until I’d read several of the books in the series. It makes me happy when an author really delivers with a plot that was well thought out from the very start.

Last of all, I really like a series to stay with the same artist. I know the author has no say in that, and sometimes the publisher doesn’t either. But I like to line up my books side by side and have them match. I like to compare covers and maps. I really, really, like when covers convey something. Like when how Shadow Mountain is going to have the jackets of Farworld 1-4 actually look like the elements, water, land, fire, etc.

Okay, so I’m easily amused. How about you? What do you like and dislike in a series?


Melinda said...

I serious, seriously dislike a series when in the end the protagonist's boyfriend is lying on the floor with a gun shot wound and she had just called 9-1-1 and has cradled his head in her lap and began the longest wait of her life.

And now I have to wait, too...

When is the next book coming out!!!

Julie Wright said...

I'm with Melinda . . . I really really hate it when authors end with her saying, "you have to be okay!" But we never get to know if he is okay or not. Yeah, those authors suck.

In my one on one with Jamie Chilton, we talked about endings and stand alone books. She wanted to know if my book ended satisfactorily since it is the first in a four book series. I told her everyone was safe and that the readers heart rate came down at the end so they wouldn't be left worrying, yet not every tangle came undone. Many plots remained unresolved. The basic idea is that in each book in the series, Hap and Tara will find two of the missing puzzle pieces.

In short, it ends like Michael Scott's The Alchemyst and your book. I know there are readers who hate the wait, but I don't mind the wait as long as I know when the wait will be over. I don't like huge cliffhangers with characters dangling over their doom because I don't feel satisfied in that. I need the characters to be safe so I don't worry about them when I close the book. I want to think about them, but not worry about them.

I've just rambled and likely made no sense at all.

Becky said...

I tend to like series most of the time. Especially when I catch them at the very beginning. Though to be honest as a reviewer, if I'm receiving a review copy or ARC of a second or third or fourth (etc) of a series that is new-to-me, it is slightly put-offish that I have to try to track down the others in the series myself. If my library doesn't have it, then chances are it'll stay at the bottom of the pile forever. Though *technically* I think series books (at least good series books) are supposed to be able to be read by themselves. (I'm a bit hesitant to believe that I don't need to have read earlier books--especially if I'm going to be reviewing them.)

But getting back to the question on hand, I like series books most of the time. Pacing is key though. An exciting beginning, a boring middle, and an exciting end isn't the best strategy to follow. Characters are also key. As long as I'm attached to the characters I'm going to want to keep reading the series to find out what happens to them.

Anna said...

I think that the end of the series needs to end all the plot threads satisfactorily. I don't think they should be rushed or forced, but the plot threads have been going on for 3-7 books, right, so they have to be all wrapped up (SATISFACTORILY) in the last book.
I have no problem in reading series that have just come out. A lot of modern books I notice when they come out and if the cover and the story looks interesting, it gets put in my mental list of modern fantasy I want to read someday. Fablehaven is one of those. Leven Thumps was one of those, but I have read ( and I own ) every single Leven Thumps book. Nobody likes to wait, not really, but then again...isn't that part of the fun of it? Waiting for the next book to come out and then saving up for it and then BUYING it? One thing I like about series that are just starting or have only a few books out is that it is easier to buy them then, because the paperbacks are out and you can buy the first ones and you don't feel like you are spending a lot of money at once. Warriors is fun because I know that I have a long way to go before I have to wait (and in reality, they have new books coming out ALL THE TIME. all the time. I'm not gonna be able to catch up by May.) so I won't ever have to wait. Modern Series (and old ones too) Rock!

DesLily said...

Oh boy.. this isn't easy.. and I may be wrong but I think publishers are more than happy to hear (especially from a new author) that their story is a "series".

When I was young (and books were carved in stone) I loved, loved, loved, series! Once I like a character or characters, I can't get enough of them ! Of course continuous good stories behind them help..heh.

As I grew OLDER, I still loved series for all the same reasons, but now I enjoyed finding series that were all published already and maybe a new one or two "in the process".

Now I am old. Now I wonder if I will be around to read "the last book" if I begin a new series. Not the happiest of thoughts, but it is truthful. So now I HOPE the whole series is out.

Second choice is that at least 2 of the 3 (if a trilogy) are already out and I only have to wait for the last book. (this also gives me enough of the story that I don't feel a reread is necessary before the last installment)

But I haven't stopped getting the first book of a new series! all the blog reviews of new books make it impossible to ignor them! lol

The scarey part is that I've read where some publishers give as much as 36 months for the "next manuscript" to come to them... that's asking a lot from someone's memory, especially if they read a lot.

Heather B. Moore said...

Sometimes people tell me they don't like to start reading a series until it's completed. So they want to know when the final volume is finished so they can start.

Personally, I'm fine with starting a series when only a first book is out as long as most of the conflict is tied up--an a little bit of anticipation is left. There's nothing wrong with re-reading a book if you forgot what happened ;)

I still have people come up to me in odd places--like the grocery store--and ask when Jeff's next Shandra book will be out (because we're in the same critique group, and readers who are big fans read the acknowledgements and hunt down those mentioned to get more information). There was quite the cliffhanger at the end. But I loved it. When I read it I just laughed and said, "Classic Jeff"--and of course I already knew some of what happened next (being in the same critique group).

Brian said...

I love reading books in a series that has just come out. I like waiting for the next one because it makes me really appreciate it when it does come out. Besides, it gives me time to read other books in between. I usually don't like reading two books in a series directly after another, unless I feel like I have to read more right then. Like the Warriors books. I zipped through the 1st series in about a month. One right after another. I didn't zip through the 2nd series as quickly though, so by the time the 3rd series came out, I was still in the 5th of the 2nd. (Man that is a mouthful.)If a book is long and stands alone well though, I need to take a break from the characters and the plot(s). I love series anyway though.

Jon Spell said...

I love all the comments about DOA. =) (first thing I thought of, too, in context)

I think I prefer series over stand-alones, like Great Scott says - I get involved with the characters and their world and don't want to leave it.

You reference Garth Nix on your blog (pic) - I read the Necromancer (Abhorsen?) books and enjoyed those. That's one of those generational books, like Xanth, where you follow the progeny of the main character from the first book.

Of course, you do run the problem of the Wheel of Time, when the author perishes before completing the series... =(

Karlene said...

I agree with Melinda. I think authors who do that should be tortured until their next book is in the stores.

I like series books, but I prefer it when each book sort of wraps up that particular story line. I don't mind if there are a few things hanging out there--like in HP. But Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks (and that Jeff Savage) annoy the heck out of me. I'm impatient.