TT: Series on Series (con’t)

JANE: Welcome to Part 2 of the Tangent Series “Jane and Alan discuss series…”

When we ended last time, we were discussing the decisions that need to be made when writing an on-going series.  One of these is whether to write each book so that a new readers can pick up in mid-stride or not.

The World's the Thing

The World’s the Thing

To recap slightly, series can be roughly divided into those that are only a series by virtue of featuring some continuing element, and those that are actually One Big Story broken into multiple books.  If you want more details, go here.

I put in the previous paragraph to illustrate what a writer of a series faces with each book – how much transitional material to supply.

ALAN: I think the mistake that Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter made in the five volume novel that is the Long Earth series was their assumption that the books did not need any introductory material to remind the reader about what had gone before. As I mentioned last time, they nearly lost me as a reader for the entire series because I had only very vague memories of the earlier books. Starting with book two, they just threw me in at the deep end, and I sank without a trace.

JANE: How much background to supply can be a huge problem.  I’ve always loved Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” series.   He made the opposite decision to Pratchett and Baxter.  Therefore, near the beginning of each book, there is always a recap.  Being Roger Zelazny, he usually did this very well, often inserting new material as well as reminding the reader of what had come before.

Providing a recap is a choice many authors make and, sadly, many do not do it well at all.

It’s funny but, when reading in print, I hardly notice these recaps because I can skim until I get to the new material.  However, when listening to the books on audio I become very aware of the recap.  I’ve heard similar complaints from some readers of e-books because it’s harder to skim in that format.

ALAN: I rarely listen to audiobooks so I’ve never come across the problem with that medium. But I don’t have any difficulty with e-books – I find it just as easy to skip over the material I want to avoid as I do with ordinary books.

JANE: That’s good to know.

ALAN: But we’ve been talking as if characters or plot situations are the only things that hold a series together.  It seems to me that setting can also be a unifying element. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is probably the best example. He managed to tell so many different stories involving so many different characters, but the Discworld remained a constant element in all of them.

JANE: Discworld is a good example.  Now that I think about it, Pratchett’s experience with Discworld may have erroneously influenced him in believing that readers never needed recaps, because all the Discworld novels are, more or less, stand-alones.

Two other good examples of series that are united by a common setting are Andre Norton’s “Witchworld” and Marion  Zimmer Bradley’s “Darkover.”  Both feature not only different characters, but different parts of the world and even different time periods in the world’s history.

ALAN: And let’s not forget Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy city of Newford. Again we have a place providing a unifying element to a lot of different stories.

Outside of SF there is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin stories which I think are unique in that they use both setting and character to provide continuity. Generally speaking, if you have just a rough knowledge of who Aubrey and Maturin are, and a vague appreciation of how they fit in to the storyline of the Napoleonic Wars, you can read the books in pretty much any order.

O’Brian died with only a few chapters of the next book written. The fragments were published, but nobody has tried to complete the novel or to write any more. A wise decision, I think. Certainly I would have enjoyed having more books to read, but I felt no great sense of incompleteness when O’Brian died. For once, I think this series works incredibly well no matter how you approach it.

JANE: Hmm… “Tried” is not precisely correct.  I know that Walter Jon Williams, who was a huge fan of the series and had written his own stirring sea sagas, tried to get permission to finish any uncompleted books, but O’Brian’s estate did not choose to go that direction.

Certainly, since O’Brian was already stretching to find things to have Jack and Stephen do that were credible, given their ages and Jack’s rank, not continuing the series was a wise idea.  (Although I’m sure Walter would have done an excellent job.)

ALAN: I’m sure he would. Nevertheless I’m happy with the decision that O’Brian’s estate made.

Have you noticed that there are very few humorous series? I suspect that’s probably because it’s quite hard to sustain a joke across a lot of books. Harry Harrison tried it twice with the Stainless Steel Rat books and also with the Bill the Galactic Hero stories.

The Stainless Steel Rat started off very well, but the later books are nowhere near as strong and nowhere near as funny as the earlier ones.  Bill the Galactic Hero was originally a stand-alone novel. It only turned into a series when Harry Harrison was persuaded to collaborate with several other writers on subsequent volumes. It was not a successful experiment.

JANE: Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series had the same problem. The later books were nowhere near as good as the first one, possibly because the series was built around outrageous situations, and it’s pretty hard to top what he started with.

ALAN: After Douglas Adams died, Eoin Colfer wrote a sixth Hitchhiker novel. Most people disliked it.

JANE: I didn’t even try…

I think that Robert Lynn Asprin’s “Myth Adventure” novels worked well as a humorous series.  The humor was in the outrageous situations, but the characters evolved and grew so that there was a lot more than the capers holding things together.

ALAN: I enjoyed many of the books in that series. The humour got more subtle as the series progressed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I have a question for you. You have written two very successful series (three if you count the two Athanor books) and you are currently working on another. What did you decide to do about the kind of problems we’ve been discussing?

JANE: That’s a very big question. I’ll take a deep breath and let you cross examine me in the next installment of this series.


8 Responses to “TT: Series on Series (con’t)”

  1. Peter Says:

    Put me down as another “has no problem skimming recaps in ebooks”.

    Tangentially to the Tangent, the problem of recaps isn’t unique to novels. Over the past few years with the rise of heavily-serialized prime time television (daytime TV is a whole ‘nother beast) I’ve noticed a trend of releasing “zero episodes” that are basically recaps of the previous season just before the launch of a new season (these also serve as a form of advertising/reminder that the show is back, of course). These go beyond the 30 second “last week on…” spots – they’re 45 minute recaps of the entire previous season to refresh the viewer on what’s going on before the new season starts.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I’ve seen the “zero episode” element in anime as well. The weak ones are just recaps, but the best ones give a little more information or different perspective and can really be great.

  2. J.M. Marshall Says:

    Another point about series: some writers create a series where the character never changes (although this is more prevalent in older series, such as the John Carter on Mars series or Nero Wolfe) while more writers create a series in which the main characters evolve or the fictional world changes. The “danger” in that, of course, is when the author has the character/world evolve one way while the reader disagrees and stops reading the series.

    I’ve stalled out reading the Campion series by Mergery Allingham because the older, married Campion, who is aging in real time, isn’t the same adventurer hero of the earlier books but I’m not quite sure what he is at the point where I’ve stopped. I also stopped reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden series at a point where the author had to make certain decisions to keep the series going but it changed the overall nature of the series and I couldn’t keep assimilating the changes.

    Have any of you (Jane, Alan, commenters) stopped reading a series because the characters changed too much (or never changed at all)?

    • janelindskold Says:

      I agree with you about liking the earlier Campion, but I respect Allingham’s choice. I enjoy the Grafton alphabet detective series, but over twenty books in and characters almost unchanging is creepy.

      Oddly, I never felt this way about Nero Wolfe, because it’s clear that much of his behavior is a pose meant to protect himself and as a reaction to a pretty rough past. (BLACK MOUNTAIN shows this, I think.) Archie does change, although slowly.

      Off the cuff, I can’t think of a series I stopped reading because of how a character changed, but that’s probably because I’m trying to remember the “good times.”

  3. Paul Says:

    Back when SF magazines ran serials (maybe one still does, occasionally), an editor or someone had to recap what had gone before at the start of each new segment. Maybe something like that is needed in some book series.

  4. CBI Says:

    I’d be interested in takes on when you drop a series. Two come to mind for me.
    1. “Jumping the shark”: where the situations become more and more wild that the basic setting (mythical world or alterations to this world) is warped so much that it degrades coherence..
    2. Boring or disjointed writing. Perhaps we’ve all had the sense when reading that an author just wanted to get the series over, or that he was only doing a sequel to pay the bills. For lack of a better term, the story-telling genius took a powder.

    • janelindskold Says:

      For me it’s when the characters become parodies of themselves. Robert Parker did that with the Spenser books and I became VERY peeved. Then Parker died and I didn’t need to make the choice to not read the books when Jim did. I enjoy book chat with Jim, so I was relieved.

      This probably falls under your #2.

      I’ve encountered #1 less often than I have a sort of reverse — when the writer gets so caught up in minutia of the world that the story vanishes.

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