Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tyranny of Series Novels

Since George R. R. Martin blogged about how some of his fans were actually angry at his slow pace on putting out the fifth book in the Fire & Ice series, many authors have been asking who is in charge, the author or the fan. It's seems like a simple answer. The author is in charge. The answer is not so simple. The author is in charge of writing, but publishers, editors and fans have more control than you would think.

When Stephen King posed this question, he came up with a novel length answer: Misery. King put the author in danger and in the hands of a psychotic fan enraged that he had killed off her favorite serial character, Misery Chastain, and changed both their lives. Seeing that as one dangerous extreme of the author-fan spectrum, what is the other end?

Writing a series of novels around a character or group of characters can be fun -- for a while. It's a great way to build up readership and a loyal fan base, but it's also hard work that often ends in tears and flat writing.

Traditional publishers are all about the series because it brands an author and that leads to pseudonyms, writing on a tight schedule and often repetition. The publisher cracks the whip. What next? The author complies with an outline of the next book in the series and the work begins again . . . and again . . . and again, and so on until the author is played out or on the verge of a major snit fit. Too often the publisher's demands exceed the muse's well of creativity and newness and the books suffer. The writing is flat and bordering on repetitious, if not downright repetitious, and rabbits must be pulled from an assortment of hats. I've seen it happen to too many series that started out wonderful and ended up boring.

Anne Rice's famous vampires were fresh and interesting once upon a time, but they became boring and irritating and no longer any good. That happened about the time that Memnoch, the Devil came out and the series didn't survive very long after that. Anne even took a powder and decided to write something else, turning her back on her vampires for religious writing.

Katie McAllister's books were fun and innovative with her vampires looking for their one true soul mate to save them from their wicked, wicked ways and make them whole. I read several and noticed that the same situations cropped up in almost the same point in the next story as in previous tales and there was little variation in the characters or their dialogue and demeanor. I have not read her dragon series or her steampunk novel, but I'd be willing to say there is a similar issue with those as well.

Charlaine Harris has fallen down the rabbit hole with her latest addition to the Sookie-verse and several other authors have fallen down the same hole, albeit with a different landing zone.

It's nearly impossible to sustain the enthusiasm for a single character or group of characters unless you're either very committed or have an endless range of stories that fits that particular universe. Boredom sets in for reader as well as most discerning fans, although the die hard fans will drive the author nuts demanding the next book in the series -- or else. Fans can be so possessive of what they consider to be their books and their characters, hence King's premise in Misery.

Many authors of genre fiction choose to write the same style of books without following a single character, like David Baldacci, although David does branch out a lot and remains firmly entrenched in the thriller genre. It's the one he knows and knows how to write very well.

A few decades ago, I picked up a novel, Children of the Lion, by Peter Danielson and was introduced to writing that mingled fact and fiction with what were purported to be the children of Cain. You know Cain, the first murderer who killed his brother Abel so his god would love him more. I enjoyed the books thoroughly and couldn't wait for the next book in the series, until I hit The Golden Pharoah. I had a big problem with the short reign of the Shepherd Kings in Egypt during the schism and the fifty-year bondage of the Israelites. That much disbelief I was not willing to suspend. I was done and didn't go back. I had the same problem with Anne Rice's Mayfair witches series that took off from the Vampire Chronicles to follow the line of Mayfair witches and who had the power in the next generation. The first book was wonderful, the second a bit bizarre and, with brief forays into more interesting territory, the books and writing descended into bland territory and I was done.

Maybe I don't have an obsessive gene that allows me to overlook banal writing, predictable plots and endless repetition or maybe I just don't have the stamina for an endless stream of books built around the same characters or situation. Whatever it is, I fail to understand the need for a fan to dictate to an author what should and shouldn't be written and on what schedule.

It could also be that I'm an author with lots of stories to write and I know how hard it is to be fresh and original with the same character or group of characters. I have never loved any character that much, even though I will be returning to New Orleans to tell the rest of Pearl Caldwell's story and write what happens when Pearl and J. D. Bath meet again, and they will meet again. It's only one more book and not a real series. Series aren't really series until they get past trilogy. So far, there is no plan for me to venture into that particular territory. Two books are okay. I can even envision a trilogy, but I doubt I'll head into series territory any time soon, or within my lifetime.

George R. R. Martin is writing the fifth book in his series and it looks like there will be another one after that one. How many more he plans is up to him. His fans have been rude and demanding and refuse to understand that some authors just don't do deadlines well. A book takes as long as it takes and fans need to understand that or Stephen King's fantasy may well become real.

My advice to readers and fans is to accept what is given in the time that it is given and be glad when you get it. Treat it like a Faberge egg: priceless, enjoyable and one of a kind. I felt that way about Frank Herbert's Dune series. His was the one series of books that never got old, wasn't repetitious and was always fresh and new. He was a rare author and I followed his stories whenever I could find them. I have also read his son Brian's continuation of the series and have enjoyed them so far, but there are only so many hours in a day and I must write my own books -- and book reviews. They are my Faberge eggs -- so far. I hope they stay that way.

As for publishers demanding additions to the brand names they feel that they have created (chain gangs authors are being tied to), buy a clue. An author is a rare and precious thing able to create wondrous worlds and memorable characters. Treat them gently or they will find someone who will. Series work on television because writing is done by committee.