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Monday, 18 April 2016

Writing - serious about series


Fellow blogger and author Liz Harris recently posted her disenchantment with series books, prompted by Linwood Barclay’s novel Broken Promise (see her blog). She’s a fan of Barclay (I believe his writing style needs work, yet despite this he has the knack of drawing the reader in to keep turning the pages). But she was disappointed to find the book was the first in the Promise Falls series – some covers say this, some don’t, the latter being misleading, perhaps. Even so, Liz found the end of the book akin to ‘continued next book’ which can be deflating for a reader. Many readers, and Liz among them, want a resolution at the end of each novel. Yes, the series can present new challenges for the protagonists in later books, but some issue should be resolved in the current volume.

Series books by their nature are difficult to categorize for readers. For one thing, there are different kinds of series, all of them having their advocates.

Types of series
(not exhaustive)

1) Main character(s) engaged in solving crime/mystery/fighting common enemy. These are probably the most popular, because there is usually no continuity between books, yet they do supply the reader with familiar characters and environment. Police procedural and some historical books fall into this category. Ed McBain’s Precinct 87 and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, for example.

2) Main character(s) have intertwined stories to tell, which eventually define a resolution at the conclusion for all concerned. Nora Roberts is adept at these – quartets and trilogies, and even sometimes duets, relating to families (no pun intended).

3) Main character(s) in a dynasty/exotic location combat threats from outside, which can be warlike, business, personal or even supernatural. These can be interlinked sagas as penned by Barbara Taylor Bradford, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, et al.

4) Main character roams the land and becomes involved in murder, mystery or mayhem. Each tale is stand-alone; the character rarely changes through experience. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Saga, for example.

Why read/write a series anyway?

Regular characters in a series have been around in genre fiction for decades, which proves the popularity of the concept. TV and film franchises benefit from series productions, again emphasizing the attractiveness to the audience.

Readers feel comfortable meeting again familiar characters who encounter variations on a theme – murder, mystery, etc.

Writers build up a ‘bible’ for their characters, which includes their past, the current situation, and often where they’re going. The writer is familiar with the characters. I don’t believe it’s lazy writing, because you still have to present obstacles for the protagonist, and these difficulties must be overcome according to the character’s known traits.

Will the series end?

Depending on the type of series, it’s possible that some readers will not tackle the first book in the series until they know the last one is published or imminent.  This hasn’t prevented The Game of Thrones books amassing a vast readership (before the TV series, in fact), or Archer’s ‘Clifton Chronicles’. Fans of popular authors will buy in, regardless. It’s tough for relative unknown authors to gain this readership until they’ve amassed several books in a series.

A finite series I’ve recently read is Night Hunter by Robert Faulcon (six books published between 1983 and 1987; all reviewed in this blog). It’s a supernatural quest series, with a resolution published three years after the penultimate book.

Certainly, you’d think that before the author could ‘sell’ the series idea to a publisher, they’d have some appreciation of the conclusion.  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are in effect one novel in seven parts. I imagine the resolution was conceived at the outset, even if much of the glorious detail that runs throughout was not.

Of course, some series don’t need a final book, because they’re not a continuing saga but individual incidents in the main protagonist’s life (indeed, some characters don’t age though their authors do!) The character simply fades away – Charteris’ The Saint and Simon Brett’s Mrs Pargeter, to name two.

Series where the protagonist ages and evolves through his experiences are especially popular in crime fiction, because their back stories of family schisms affect the protagonist – Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks, for one; there are plenty of others.

I read all types of series and certainly don’t feel deprived if I haven’t reached ‘the end’. As in life, we enter other people’s lives, sometimes stay around, and at other times move away, not always consciously, but it happens. Art imitates life – so some stories will remain incomplete. I can live with that.

Having said as much, I do prefer to attain a resolution in the series books I write, though there always has to be an exception (see Floreskand below)!

The Avenging Cat series

Contemporary thrillers. Catherine Vibrissae has set herself the task of destroying the man who was responsible for her father’s death. To begin with, she sabotages his dubious business interests, but over time it seems to get more personal – on both sides. Each tale has a conclusion, though it promises more to come, for her vendetta is not complete.

#1 – Catalyst
#2 – Catacomb
#3 – Cataclysm

Work-in-progress - #4 – Cat’s Eye

The Tana Standish psychic spy series

Set in the 1970s/1980s, this features Tana Standish, a psychic British secret agent, who as a child survived the Warsaw ghetto of 1942.  Her credo is simple: fight evil. Unfortunately, she soon learns that the Soviets have a special secret unit in Kazakhstan that is employing psychics to spy on the West, and they have targeted her as well…

#1 – The Prague Papers (Czechoslovakia, 1975)
#2 – The Tehran Text (Iran, 1978/1979)

Work-in-progress - #3 – The Khyber Chronicle (Afghanistan, 1979/1980)

The Chronicles of Floreskand
‘by Morton Faulkner’

Co-written with Gordon Faulkner, the creator of mythical Floreskand, this series spans a fantasy continent that has been evolving for forty years. These stories have resolutions at the end, yet a great deal is left hovering for later books, with recurring characters and unintended consequences from earlier events.

#1 – Wings of the Overlord
#2 – To Be King

Work-in-progress - #3 – Madurava

Love them or loathe them, series books will be around for a long time yet. Long may that be so!

To play fair with the reader, however, publishers should make it clear that a book is part of a series.

4 comments:

Liz Harris said...

What an interesting discussion about series' novels, Nik. I'm so glad you passed on the link.

From what I've been hearing from fellow authors, series novels are becoming increasingly popular with publishers, and I know authors who've been asked to make the later books they're working on into a series, if possible, although that hadn't been their original intention.

As with any trend, if that's the right word for something that's been around for a long time, even though it's been given new life through coming under a recent spotlight, there can be overkill, and it'll be interesting to see the situation in a couple of years.

Hopefully, publishers will make it clear to the reader what is a series' novel and what is a serial novel. In the latter one wouldn't expect a resolution at the end of anything other than the final novel.

A word of caution was made by someone who commented on my blog; namely, that the blurb for the later novels in the series should take great care not to include a spoiler to any of the earlier books in case the prospective reader glances at the blurb of a later book before reading the earlier one(s).

Many thanks for a really interesting blog posting, Nik.

Nik Morton said...

Many thanks for the considered response, Liz. Yes, I agree with that warning. The blurb for the 6th (final)book in the recent series I read mentioned a successful outcome revealed in the 5th book!

G. B. Miller said...

I'm kind of on the fence with reading series. Can't tell you how many I've started only to come to a stop either because a key volume was missing or it was so long between volumes that I got tired of referring to a previous volume to get up to date with all of the characters. I'm all for series that contain books that are stand-alones, since it leaves me (personally) satisfied and looking forward to others.

Nik Morton said...

I agree, George, there should be a planned end to a series; Harry Potter, for example. Stand-alones within a series work well, and can still reference earlier adventures. We have to wonder if George RR Martin will finish his sequence - which was originally going to be a trilogy! EC Tubb did complete his Dumarest saga - eventually. Yet there are others that never got completed - either the readers deserted or the publisher gave up... A series can provide more depth than a single book, however. There's no easy answer for the reader; chance it and see - especially with my 'Avenging Cat' and 'Tana Tandish psychic spy' books...!