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!