TT: One Book or Many?

ALAN: I’ve been thinking about books that are part of a series. I assume they are popular and sell well, because the writers keep on writing them. But from my point of view, I find that sometimes they have significant disadvantages.

JANE: What sort of disadvantages?



ALAN: The idea came to me with the recent publication of The Long Cosmos, the fifth (and last) novel in the Long Earth series by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. I read and enjoyed the first book (The Long Earth), but when the second book (The Long War) came out a year or so later, I simply couldn’t get in to it.

By that time, my memory of the characters and events from the first book was vague and I didn’t really understand what was happening with the storyline. So I gave up on the series. But now that the series is complete, and on the strength of having enjoyed the first book so much, I decided to give it a second chance. I started at the beginning and read all five volumes, one after the other.

JANE: So, how did you feel about the series this time?

ALAN: I thoroughly enjoyed it! It quickly became clear to me that the reason I’d been unable to read the second book was because it was a continuation of the story from the first one. The second and subsequent books are not stand-alone novels. You really do need to know what has gone before and you need to understand the relationships between the characters. This is one massive story which just happens to have been published in five separate books. I can’t help wondering if the year or so between the publication of each book hurt the sales figures. Surely I can’t be the only reader with a bad memory? I bet a lot of other people gave up on it as well, for the same reason I did.

JANE: Certainly it’s a risk.  I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve heard someone say, “The next book in Great Series I Love is coming out.  I’m getting ready by re-reading all the ones before.”

Probably the most extreme variation on this I ever encountered was a very nice young hairdresser who, when she learned I wrote Fantasy and SF, happily told me she read Fantasy.  She read Terry Brooks.  Only Terry Brooks and, if I remember correctly, only one of his series.  When she finished the newest installment, she’d go back and re-read the others until a new one came out.

ALAN: I can’t imagine doing that. There are so many books that I haven’t read yet. I do re-read old favourites occasionally, but by and large I’d much rather read something new.

JANE: Oh, I’m an avid re-reader, but I can’t imagine limiting myself to one author, much less one series.

I’ve been thinking about the word “series.”  It seems to me that – as with so many other terms – “series” embraces a great deal of variation within the form.

There are the series that are loosely linked by continuing character or characters.  Other than this, there is very little continuity – and sometimes a great deal of contradiction.  Many older mysteries – including a perennial favorite of mine, those by Agatha Christie – fall into this category.

ALAN: Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books are like that. You can read the books in any order (and with some of them you can read the individual chapters in any order as well). They are full of deliberate contradictions, and that’s a large part of their charm. I’m very fond of them.

JANE: These “deliberate contradictions” may be why I’ve always found those books so confusing!

In addition to loosely linked series, there’s the sort of series you mentioned above, where the story may be broken into parts, but it’s really all one book.  Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” was actually written as one book, and only broken into three because, at the time Tolkien was writing, the genre fiction market was not set up to handle a book of that length.  It’s odd to realize that if Tolkien were writing today there might be a single fat Fantasy novel called Lord of the Rings.

ALAN: It has actually been published in that form. I once possessed a gigantic paperback that contained all three books, and I’ve seen a hardback edition as well. It was big and heavy and you certainly wouldn’t want to drop it on your toe.

JANE: Interesting!   Was this Tolkien’s original manuscript, or a compilation of the three novels?  I’m curious because I’ve always wondered how much revising Tolkien did when he learned he had to break his opus into three.

ALAN: It was just a compilation of the three novels. If you are interested in Tolkien’s original manuscripts and revisions, you should seek out the analytical books his son Christopher published after his father died. These contain multiple drafts and much scholarly commentary.

JANE: Thanks for letting me know…  Maybe when I retire.

As you mentioned above, an author is taking a huge risk with the “It’s Really One Book” series.  However, if the readership is addicted to some aspect of the series, the hiatus between books can whet the readership’s appetite for more.

ALAN: That, of course, assumes that there always will be more. Sometimes there isn’t. Robert Jordan died before he could finish The Wheel of Time. I understand that it was finished by Brandon Sanderson, and I’m sure he did an excellent job. But it’s not the same as having the series completed by the original author…

It works the other way round as well. Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who was the first person to climb Mount Everest, was a fan of The Wheel of Time. But Sir Edmund died before the series was complete. I’m sure he must have found that quite frustrating.

JANE: Although I have never read “The Wheel of Time,” I’ve had the pleasure of being on several panels with Brandon Sanderson, including one specifically on writing series.  By the time Sanderson was commissioned to complete the series, it was very long with a huge cast of characters, and a considerable amount of backstory.

The first decision that had to be made was who would be the audience for the books he would be writing: readers in general or fans of the series.  The decision was made to write for the existing fans of the series.   I think this was a wise choice, because otherwise each book would have needed to devote more and more space to recapping what went before.

ALAN: I’ve not read the series, but I do know that it is very, very long. I doubt that a casual reader would be likely to choose a book from late in the series as their introduction to it. So I’m sure the decision to write it for the existing fans was the correct one.

JANE: There’s certainly a lot more to say about series, both from the point of view of the reader and that of the writer.  I have a great idea.  Why don’t we turn this Tangent into a series?

ALAN: That’s an excellent suggestion. Let’s do it!

16 Responses to “TT: One Book or Many?”

  1. Dawn Says:

    I am definitely one who re-reads a series when a new one comes out. That way I am fresh on what went before.
    I had read the first 5 of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books when that was all of them. By the time I got back to them there was 15!!. I re-read the first five intending to read the entire series. I only got through 11 of the 15 so far before it got to be too much. I won’t re-read all of them when I get around to reading the rest of them. Maybe the first one and the 11th one only.
    A coworker has recommended the Wheel of Time series. I am not sure I want to try to read that large of a series again!!

    My favorite series that gets re-read every so often is Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. They were one the first series I read when I started reading SF & F in the early 90’s.
    I love finding new things to read.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Valdemar, interestingly, is an intermediate type: at least until recently, it has been an interconnected set of trilogies [mostly, with a couple of one-offs and 2 duals] so you get both big stories, but complete ones, and the loose continuity across many, many years and people.

      • Dawn Says:

        I think that is what I like about them! I still tend to re-read most of the timeline when I read a new book in the series.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        What’s the first book in this? I haven’t read this series and have always intended to do so.

      • Dawn Says:

        Mercedes Lackey Keep writing stories that fit into the timeline in different places. The Black Gryphon series starts them all. Here is a link to the timeline order.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        The first written was Arrows of the Queen. As Dawn says, the oldest complete story in-universe is The Black Gryphon, although sequences in [iirc] Winds of Fate go into much deeper time. Reading in internal chronological order could be jarring, since later books fall much earlier in Misty’s career and it sometimes shows in the writing.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        What book would you start with? What book would you recommend that you think would make someone get involved?

      • Dawn Barela Says:

        Black Gryphon, or the next set Magic’s Pawn

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        The ISFDB listing for Valdemar is here: I’m not sure of the internal logic for many of the shorts, but the books are listed correctly by sequence and internal chronology, with one exception. Brightly Burning, for some reason, hasn’t been included as a Valdemar novel [perhaps because it’s the one genuine tragedy in the lot; in a lot of ways, not a good fit for the general tone of the series, arguably the best of them all as a book]. You notice that the books are grouped by the story they tell, and that story has been given a name, so The Black Gryphon is the first of the Mage Wars set, and Magic’s Pawn is first of The Last Herald-Mage.

        I would certainly agree that Black Gryphon is not a bad place to start, as long as you remember that for the rest of the series the Mage Wars are deep backstory [although they, umm… echo back into the lives of many of the characters much later on] The Last Herald-Mage is the one set I’ve never finished: I get impatient with idiots who can’t count to 3.

      • Dawn Says:

        Wow! That listing you shared was impressive!! I need to check it out thoroughly.
        Brightly Burning falls before Oathbound the first of the Vows & Honor series. Tarma & Kethry remain my favorites! Although their stories take place mostly outside of Valdemar, they do need to be included because they do have an impact in later stories.
        I love The Last Herald-Mage series. Vanyel is one on my favorite characters in the series. It was the first story I read with a gay male hero. The third book is my favorite because it reveals a lot about the Ashkevron family. And the later generations do appear in later stories because they are horse breeders.
        I do agree that you can see the difference in the progression of writing. From her earliest-Arrows Of The Queen-Talia’s story was her first published. And there are places that when she revisits certain time periods, that there are continuity errors.
        But that really does not bother me. The overall flow of the storyline works.

  2. Peter Says:

    I also used to own a giant paperback with the three volumes of LotR (quite possibly the same edition – mine was the 1972 UK printing. I managed to dig up a photo of it here.

    I’d propose a third sub-type of series: in addition to “single story in multiple volumes” and “same character, stand-alone stories”, there’s “same world, different characters” – Andre Norton’s Witch World is a prime example (the stories and novels span multiple continents in space and millenia in time, but are all set in the same world). You could put things like Asimov’s Foundation or Heinlein or Anderson or Piper’s future histories in this category too.

  3. James Marshall Says:

    In the comments above, there’s a discussion of “where to begin” in a long series, especially when the books’ internal chronology does ot match the order written. Narnia is one of these series, Brust’s Dragaera series is another, but my first encounter was with Alan Dean Foster’s Pip and Flinx series. The second book published, “Bloodhype,” should NOT be read until fourth. For some reason, it got published earlier than books 2 and 3 of the loose trilogy about Flinx’s childhood and self-discovery about who he is. Reading them in publication order confused me and threw me completely out of the next novel I’d read (“Wait, doesn’t he already know that character? Why is he acting surprised?”).

    These days, of course, people have discussions on the ‘net about which book in a series to read first but, back in the pre-home-computer era, you just had to pick a book and start reading, hoping that the list of published books inside the front cover was accurate and in order.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Excellent point. As the discussion above shows, even THAT isn’t always helpful. I admit to feeling overwhelmed rather than encouraged by all the books involved in the “series.”

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Oh, dear! Didn’t mean to intimidate you 😉

        The fact is that with the Valdemar [formally, Velgarth, since a number of the stories don’t actually happen inside Valdemar] books you really can start just about anywhere. It’s better to take the individual duo/trilogies in order, since they are mostly tight single narratives where it’s much harder to figure out who’s who if you start with book 3, but even the most tightly coupled of the sequences, Mage Winds and Mage Storms, aren’t that strongly dependent on reading order. In fact, I don’t recall which of them I got my hands on first, although I suspect it was Storms. The off-hand references to previous adventures the characters make are never critical to the current story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: