Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is it a series?

By Jay Stringer

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?


Steve Weddle said...

I think one of the best parts of a series -- both for reader and writer -- is that combination of comfort and growth.

I spent a good deal of time when I was a kid riding in school buses to and from ball games. I was a sci-fi fan, so I read every STAINLESS STEEL RAT I could find. I read the FOUNDATION series.

Then in the early 80s I found a book called JHEREG by Steven Brust. He's written about a dozen books about the character Vlad Taltos and has a couple more coming out soon. The series is scheduled to run 19 books.

In the Vlad Taltos series, with some books much better than others, you get to see the evolution not just of the character, but also of the writer. This series does not flow book to book in chronological fashion. Additionally, Brust has written a separate series of books set in the same fictional world.

What I like about reading the books in this series is revisiting an old friend and seeing what has happened since the last time we met.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I used to love series and read all of the--well you know the list of great series' detectives. But as I grow older, I find myself frustrated by spending so much time with the same people. Even on TV. So I steer away from them. If I read one, I seldom read another. it feels like the blueprint is too fixed for my tastes.

Dana King said...

I lie a good series for much the same reason Steve does: it's like seeing an old friend again. Series I don't care for are like people I don't like; I stay away from them.

My favorite series (aside from Chandler) are the 87th Precinct, Elvis Cole, Dave Robicheaux, and the Kenzie-Gennaro stories. (Spenser used to be in that list, but Parker stay way too long at that dance.)

All of these authors allowed their protagonists to grow, and all found ways to achieve balance, either with new series, or with standalones.

How long should a series last? Depends on the author and the series. As I said, Spenser finally got tired to me, but I still seek out the 87 any time I'm in a book store for one I might have missed, since I know there are no more coming.

John McFetridge said...

My favorite Hemingway are the Nick Adams short stories.

I also like John Updike's Rabbit series and Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe books (whoa, middle-aged man alert!).

But crime fiction has taken the idea of the lifetime character development further, and it's great.

I love the way Elmore Leonard has actually linked his westerns and his modern day stories with three generations of the Webster family.

I did give up on Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels when there was just too much talk, talk, talk with Susan Silverman and Hawk doing all the dirty work but I thik I get what he wasdoing and how he was taking the whodunnit a little further.

Dave White said...

I'm still hooked on Spenser... I can't let him go...

Dave White said...

I'm still hooked on Spenser... I can't let him go...

Mike Dennis said...

Very absorbing post, Jay. I've given the series concept a lot of thought myself. To me, there are two types of series. One, a group of stories with a running character or characters, who move from one story to the next. Each of these novels are stand-alones, a la Chandler's Philip Marlowe series or Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan novels.

The second type is the group of stories with running characters and a more-or-less continuous story line. This is exemplified by Herman Wouk's "Winds Of War" and "War And Remembrance". Each of these could stand alone if they had to, but they are really one novel divided in two.

My favorite series of all time would have to be James Ellroy's LA Quartet, which I consider to be the greatest accomplishment in the history of crime fiction. You're right when you say that "White Jazz", the last of the series, sort of leads into "American Tabloid", the first of his Underworld USA trilogy.

But I think the LA Quartet stands quite alone as a masterpiece of fiction. Its own sprawling story really ends at the end of "White Jazz".

My first novel will be coming out next year, and while it's not part of a series at all, it contains secondary characters who pop up in other yet-unpublished novels and short stories of mine. And while most of them, including the upcoming novel, are in the crime/noir genre, some aren't. None are part of a series, yet taken together, they contain an overall story arc of these characters, spanning nearly twenty-five years of their lives.

That's my take on the series. In fact, now that I think about it, I think I'll go post a similar blog on my own website.

Thanks again for goosing my thought process, Jay.

Jay Stringer said...

Thanks everyone for the replies, always good to get a discussion going.

And Mike, cheers, i'll check out that blog.