The Road Goes Ever On

12 Jan

Sequels and series are all the rage in many branches of genre fiction. There is nothing new here: Tolkein wrote a trilogy — which was a sequel to a stand-alone story — and then continued to produce books set in the same middle-earth history. Robert E. Howard wrote a series of stories and novels about a certain barbarian. Asimov, too, tried his hand at trilogies (and then added books in later years) and Heinlein wrote lots of loosely connected books set in a common future.

In the mystery genre, many writers have their detective who appears once (or twice) a year. Some are ageless — that is, they never get older and never change. Kinsey Milhone — the protagonist of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries — never seems to change. She’s always running, stuck in the seventies, worrying about her rent. In fact the entire series might be set in the same six month period (remind me not to live in that murderous neighbourhood). Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, are likewise unchangeable, even as the world changes around them. Rex Stout, the author, was well aware of this oddity and even played with it. A black character, who appears as teenager in a 1940s mystery, reappears in Wolfe’s office in the 60s. He is now a middle-aged adult but Wolfe and Goodwin are unchanged. At the other end of the spectrum is John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee, who ages both physically and emotionally, gradually broken by the crimes he is called on to solve.

Fantasy writing these days is particularly notorious for producing long series of increasing long books. These series often have a cast of dozens – some of whose character arcs are captured in a single book, others of whom carryon throughout the entire series. I’m no expert in fantasy — I stopped reading it in quantity over two decades ago — but my impression is that while things happen, nothing ever changes. And that’s exactly the way the readers like it.

In science fiction, the lure of the extended series is less profound. There are certainly examples of trilogies — Robert J. Sawyer has several — and stories set in the same universe are common — C. J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union books or Iain Banks’ Culture series are good examples — but few base their entire careers around them. Things are changing: half the submissions I get at Bundoran Press are the first book in a series.

Writing a series has certain merits for writers — you’ve already done the world-building and created some on-going characters, so writing another book is less work than the first one or a brand new one. As well, if someone discovers the third book of the series and loves it, they are almost certainly going to buy the first two as well. Moving backlist is a nice incentive for publishers, too, as long as the books are in print. In my own case, I wrote Defining Diana as a standalone novel but my publisher — egged on by my wife — encouraged me to write not one but two sequels. Even now, I get occasional inquiries as to when another Frank Steele book will come out.

Of course, there are risks involved. What if the series doesn’t sell and you get dumped by the publisher or, worse yet, it does okay but the publisher goes out of the business. I know several writers who had this happen. They then had to find a new publisher; most publishers are less than keen on taking on writers mid-series, especially if the back-list is under contract to someone else.

For publishers, too, there is always the chance the writer will die before the series is done. Robert Jordon did exactly that and though the publisher was able to hire someone else to complete the work based on Jordon’s notes, I’m told it wasn’t the same thing — for either readers or sales. J. K. Rowling finished her Harry Potter series and then wanted so much to move on to something else that she wrote a mystery novel under an assumed name. Recently, there was word of a Harry Potter stage play, so even Rowling feels the pressure from fans to continue. Another possibility is that the writer gets bored with chronicling the same characters — Sookie Stackhouse came to an end recently for exactly that reason. Writers are not widget-factories; they are creators. At a certain point there is nothing creative left to say about a certain set of characters.

Charlene Harris actually got death threats over her decision to move on in her creative life and the pressure to return to these ‘beloved’ characters will undoubtedly be enormous. Nothing new there either — Arthur Conon Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and then was forced to bring him back three years later, under pressure for the public and, more particularly, his publishers. George R. R. Martin has likewise been harassed by ‘loving’ fans for the slowness with which he produces his Game of Thrones novels. I haven’t heard similar stories in the science fiction world — but there was sufficient demand to produce posthumous Asimov and Heinlein books finished or written entirely by other writers.

For publishers, series are a double edged sword. They represent a significant investment but also a tremendous possibility. A hit series can literally make them rich; its conclusion for whatever reason can seriously cripple the cash flow. For a small or new publisher, the attraction of a series is the same but it also limits your ability to publish new authors as your schedule gets filled with sequels.

So what is the attraction for readers of re-visiting the same characters and the same worlds? Recently, I’ve become a grand-father (and that is a post-modern SF story in itself). As the boys are introduced to books, I’ve noticed how much they enjoy having the same story read over and over. Sometimes as soon as you just finished reading it — for the sixth time that day. It’s not as if they don’t know it — in fact they can ‘read’ along with you even as young as 3. Which is exactly my much older experience when I watch ‘Galaxy Quest‘ for the tenth time and can recite the lines along with the characters.

There is a comfort to repetition whether you are 5 or fifty — it provides certainty about the world and about yourself; it creates a little frisson of delight at being part of the process. The repeated experience may also trigger certain chemical reactions in the brain — perhaps even those related to other forms of addiction. Maybe the behavior of fans that grow angry at authors for not delivering the goods is exactly like that of addicts in withdrawal. And, of course, for fanatic fans, the ability to discourse on their favorite series or TV show (which is only achievable through deep and repeated immersion) provides access to a community of the like-minded — the inner sanctum of the ‘true fan’ from which derisive barbs can be launched at those who truly don’t understand, including sometimes the actual creators.

But I think there is more positive interpretation. One of the joys of reading is the ability to slip into another world, another perspective. There are even studies to suggest that reading novels change the way your brain works — for the better. How much easier it must be to reach this mental state when we return to the same place, the same old friends, time after time. Returning to a well-loved book through re-reading or to a on-going journey of struggle and success in the newest book of the series must be a little bit like coming home.

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3 Responses to “The Road Goes Ever On”

  1. ahaver1 January 12, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    Insightful. Thanks for that post.

  2. Alison Sinclair January 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    If it’s supposed to make it easier, I must be doing it wrong …

    Stand-alone or series, I seem to go through the same flailing around, blundering into dead ends, and wrestling-down for every book; I’ll get there, but it will be a messy process with much whining (fortunately largely reserved for my notebooks). Writing related books seems to take effort away from those aspects that come relatively easily – worldbuilding and character – and add effort to those aspects that have come with difficulty – mainly plot. Extending a story over multiple books adds complexity.

    • Bundoran Press January 14, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

      Every writer has their own personal demons; the things you find hard are what find easy and vice versa

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