Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Death of the Series?

With some stories, it’s like taking the vegetables and throwing them in a pan of hot oil. You can’t walk away and leave them for ten minutes – you’ve got to start stirring them to keep them from burning. With other stories, it’s like taking those vegetables and putting them in hot broth. You’re going to give that some time to simmer.

The problem is, not all stories are the same, and even within a series some stories will be told in a different fashion.

I was discussing this with my friend Marsha last night, because she was uniquely placed to comment on my first book. She’d read it ages ago, a full two years before it was published, in its original form. Before a few massive rewrites. And now, she’d read the published version and she loved it and remembered much of it from before, but then she told me what she wanted to see more of from me in the future.

More description, and more time in the heads of the characters. And then she reminded me that the original had more of both. She understood that I’d probably had to cut some to meet length requirements…

This prompted a huge discussion about balance. I wasn’t surprised by her comment at all. Truth is, the person who cut up the book in the critiquing process could be said to have used a sword, not a scalpel, except that might suggest they just chopped away without reason. In fact, after cutting all I was told to cut, I went back and added in just over 3000 words that I’d taken out. I thought 15000 words was enough, 18000 drastic.

This is, for me anyway, one of the toughest things about writing. Well, after coming up with titles and settling on character names and writing synopses and queries… When it comes to the actual manuscript, this is what I find hard to balance. One book I read in the last five months, I really enjoyed. Great story. Had me hooked. I really only had one complaint with the story, and that was why the pov character had to think the same things over four or five times. And by that, I mean literally it was what they’d already thought about and didn’t add anything new to the equation. An otherwise brilliant book brought down just a touch because it was repetitive. Sometimes, an author will go so far into the detail, belaboring the story, I start thinking, Enough already. Frankly, if at any point in the story I’m tempted to start skipping bits it’s a mark against it, and if it’s a series book that’s when I start to wonder if it’s past due.

But then, there are other times where every single second in the story is perfection. Then there are times you truly don’t get deep enough. When Marsha and I were talking we discussed an author we both like, who we both feel needs to take us a bit deeper, and I said I didn’t know if they did it by accident or if it was intentional to leave us wanting more. But at some point, I think if we both feel we don’t get in just a bit deeper to understand the protagonist, maybe we’ll lose interest. Hard to say.

As I said, it’s a real balancing act.

Now, as Marsha knows, SC was intended as the start of a series, and I had drafted a sequel, so for her SC would have been perfect if the sequel had followed… because the sequel did go deeper. And that’s really what she wants in a series – to feel like you get to know more of the characters every book out. Me too. In the first book of a series I want to get a taste. Second book I want to know more. This is really the risk of not following through on a series. If you’ve said everything there is to say in the first book there’s no need for a follow-up, and if you’ve left things to cover then the first book is not entirely satisfying on its own, as far as characters go.

When I wrote What Burns Within it was go-go-go from the get-go. There’s a ticking clock and the emphasis is on procedure, not the personal. I tried to tell only as much about the characters as you needed to know for this story, with just a hint of some things that might be addressed down the road. In fact, one of the rejection letters I go said it was clear that the three protagonists knew each other before this case and they wanted to read that book. Yeah, well, that’s the plan. It was pitched as a series...

Working on book 2, it’s very different. WBW is repeatedly getting smacked in the head. Book 2 is like having someone stick a knife in your gut, slowly, and then twist it. The second book goes much deeper into the characters… WBW has the character reveals through the action of the story, but book 2 is far more personal. Marsha says that’s perfect… if it’s a series.

This is something I’ve been wondering about. I’m a huge fan of series. Give me Rebus and Jack Taylor, Thorne and Milne, McRae and Rourke, Tony & Carol… I love series books. I love getting back to characters I’m interested in and reading a book where the circumstances the characters face reveal more about them. And in general, I’m not in as much of a rush to read stand-alones, Laura Lippman being the most noteworthy exception. Stand-alones lack that sense of urgency for me that series books have.

However, times being what they are, more and more authors (especially unproven new authors) are getting signed to one book deals. And that does make it very hard to develop a series.

And then, as Marsha and I were talking I confessed to her what no author in my position ever wants to hear – I said I usually (usually!) don’t pay much attention to authors until they have three or four books out. I know, I know… But if the books are stand-alones it’s even harder to tempt me.

The real thing is, I want authors to fall in love with. I want to like a character to the point where I want to spend more time with them. And then I want to be able to do that. It’s very hard if an author puts out a book and then disappears. Or if book 2 is a real disappointment because the author spent 10 years polishing book 1 and could hardly function under a deadline for a second book.

It used to be that publishers could invest a few books to grow an author and build a readership. Now, market realities are changing that, and as a reader I’m getting nervous. Rebus will be off the force this year. Jack Taylor has a few books left. My understanding is the new Thorne book ties up a lot of loose ends and the next Billingham will be a stand-alone. No word on whether or not it’s back to Thorne after that…

I’m starting to wonder who will be the next great series characters that will fill the void. The reader in me feels that the relationship between reader and author is unique. People feel personally let down if they start to warm to an author and their characters and can’t get more. I understand series have to end, and would rather see them end strong than hang around whimpering long past the interest of the author. But when it comes to being tempted to try new writers, I hope for more than one or two books.

This is also making me rethink my approach with new material. Yes, I’m also working on a stand-alone, because as much as I find it heartbreaking as a reader to not be able to continue reading a series I’ve started to enjoy, I find it gutwrenching as an author to not be able to develop the characters intended for a series. And I'm wondering what it means if a self-professed series junkie is working on a stand-alone. Seems like a really bad sign.

Anyone reading book 2 or 3 of a series that they feel is one they’d recommend?


John McF said...

You know, I can't think of a single series I've read where I started with book one. It may be a strange admission, but I don't think very many people even hear of an author with only one book published (maybe you expect more of yourself as a reviewer).

But I do think the definition of "series" can be loosened up a little now. We've had that strict single-protagonist (or, yuck, duo - I'm not a fan of the sidekick) for a long time. I think we can start getting past it.

If Rebus gets kicked off the force and Siobhan Clarke operates without him, that'd be okay, wouldn't it? Seems like he's been grooming her.

My publisher wanted some kind of "Inspector somebody mystery..." or "52 Division Mystery..." subtitle but when I couldn't do that they were happy enough with a kind of loosely linked "series" that had a few of the same characters in mostly supporting roles. They're linking them up pretty well with the covers.

Of course, they could yet be a huge flop.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I suppose there would be some people who would abandon the Rebus books if Rebus was no longer in them... although I wouldn't. At least, not on that basis alone. I'd have to feel Rankin was retreading well-worn ground and going nowhere to give up on it.

I think we end up with the duo thing a lot because it gives more room to move in the story, as well as the hope if the reader doesn't bond with one character they'll connect to the other. I also think part of the reason is that there's a belief - I stress belief! - that readers can't follow large casts and must stick in only one or two people's heads for the most part.

I went somewhere in between you and the norm - three protagonists. There's no way you're going to get their entire life stories in one book short of it being 2000 pages long. And it isn't intended that way. I'm somewhere between you and the usual on that. You do have a large cast to handle and I can see that being challenging - I find myself in awe of how you stay on top of it as a writer.

Personally, the same old, same old gets a bit boring. I like your approach. And I love playing with three main characters myself. It makes it so much more interesting, and less predictable I think.

And whether something flops or not doesn't mean the quality isn't there, as I believe it is with your books. Since I've had the benefit of reading book 2 but it isn't out yet you're one of the authors I have been following since your debut. I've done well this year catching on to debut authors I think will be around for some time to come, but I do tend to find out about authors a few books along.

jersey jack said...

Have you tried Robert Crais' Elvis Cole series? He's on number nine or ten in this PI series, plus he has written several stand-alones. I love'em.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I haven't yet Jack, although we have a few of his books here. Another one of my personal quirks, being more keen on police procedurals, in general. However, I've heard good things about Crais.

Stuart MacBride said...

Sword? Hack? Surely not!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Better a sword than a chainsaw... At least there's some art to using a sword.