When I’m talking to other writers about my work, in those rare moments when I actually start to join in those conversations, I often get asked the same question. It’s a natural one to ask and be asked, especially when you’re at the fledgling stage that I’m at.
“Is it a series?”
And I’ve found that my usual answer is so pull a strange face, make a high pitched noise that makes it sound like I’m stretching to the moon to find the answer, and then saying “Ummm…sort of…yeah.”
Now this answer really has three translations.
-“Why, yes. It is indeed a series, Should I be blessed enough to get a contract and sales that allow me to complete the story as intended.”
-“ummm….yes. But its actually a deep analysis of what a series actually is, and what it needs to do in the modern world to be relevant, and to chart the progression of a man’s self delusion over three or four books. I’m quite excited about it, if not a little pretentious.”
-“Yeah, it’s a series. But for some reason I don’t want to admit it.”
Now I’ll leave you to decide which answer you want to believe. I go with a lovely cocktail of all three. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I work through my second manuscript and continue finding my voice. It is a series, hopefully. And it is one with a purpose and a life span. But why do i feel the need to expand on that, and not simply say "Yeah, it is."
Last week I joined in a chat over at THE BIG ADIOS that included, amongst others, Ray Banks, Christa Faust and Tom Piccirilli. And one of the topics that came up was that of series writing. There seem to be an equal amount of plusses and minuses to writing a series as apposed to a stand-alone. You get time to explore your character(s) and to follow through on the repercussions and actions. On the downside, you can become stereotyped and trapped.
Some series appear t exist only for financial reasons, to keep a contract on the authors table and a steady income. Whilst others find new legs and manage to explore ideas and actions that a stand-alone perhaps cannot. One thing that a series writer appears to have is the ability to jump in and out. The author can choose to go off and do a stand alone for a change, whereas a writer of stand alones cannot so easily decide to go off and write a series.
I think a serries that serves of an example of everything both good and bad about a series is the Scudder books. The first four books are standard hard drinking PI books. Very well written, very dark and increasingly confident. The Lawrence Block decided it was time to introduce consequences to his fictional world, and Matt Scudder became an alcoholic.
The series is up to 17 books now, and seems to be finished. Following Scudder’s moment of clarity, we got both some great serial detective fiction, and some lesser books that seemed to exist through obligation. At their best, the books explored Scudder’s ageing, his continuing battle with addiction and doubt, his marriage and infidelity, and a growing friendship with a vicious killer. At their weakest, we got some convoluted plots and a couple of crazy serial killers. Because every series has to have at least one.
Maybe a good analogy for this type of series would be the classic TV show The Prisoner. The series lasted for 17episodes, but when you look at it in the cold harsh light of my living room, about half of those were actually key to the plot and the character. The rest were wacky interludes with westerns and a rocket ship light-house (not that I’ll hear a word said against THE GIRL WHO WAS DEATH. That is TV gold.) So if the story CAN be told perfectly in 6-7 episodes, why take 17?
If you sit with a red marker pen, you can trace names and references in James Ellroy’s work that could link everything from The Black Dahlia up to The Cold Six Thousand (can’t comment on Blood's A Rover yet) as a series. There are tenuous links between Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, and there are a couple of direct links bridging White Jazz into American Tabloid.
But it’s not big deal, maybe because it’s easy to overlook.
Writers like Elmore Leonard and Allan Guthrie seem to have the best of both worlds, they write stories that take place in a loosely shared universe, you can tie in their books if you want to, but you wouldn’t go so far as to call either authors series writers.
This very website has authors who are doing good things with series characters, and I’m knee deep in Russel’s second McNee book right now.
Some books, though, need to stand alone. Buttercup's Baby will hopefully always remain an in-joke at the back of The Princess Bride. The Maltese Falcon somehow seems perfect for not being the launching pad of fifteen similar adventures.
So here are a few questions for you as I sit and type away on my own series.
-What are your favourites?? Which have achieved a level of resonance and insight that couldn't have been achieved in a single story?
-Which authors have managed to find the write balance and to present an evolving character based story? Who has used the format to take their character and story in new directions and elevate the series.
-Do you think there is a maximum length for a good series? How long should they be? Is there a sell by date that an author needs to bear in mind?