03 March 2007

But Series-ly, Folks...

There's no denying series are popular in publishing right now, and when done right, can make readers happily return for more and more, enjoying the ever-expanding cast with each new release. Other times, readers (and sometimes the authors themselves) look at one more Fluglehorn Family logo stamped on the newest release and run screaming into the night, only to be found hours later at the local coffeehouse, nursing a chai tea in the corner and muttering something about not being able to tell the Flugelhorn-Smythes from the Flugelhorn-Joneses. In some cases, whispering "but that makes him her step-cousin" to a dinig companion crafted from an empty styrofoam cup and a handful of stirrers.

There are readers who can be quite content jumping in at book sixteen, figuring they'll catch the rest later if they like this one, and enjoy whatever installment they can pick up when they can. There are readers who must start at book one and proceed in order (with debate over whether story chronology trumps release date if applicable) or mountains will fall, puppies will die and their matinee idol of choice will wake up ugly. Any way we look at it, it's an important aspect of publishing.

Saying "series" seems easy enough; in modern parlance, it can refer to any linked books, but to be more specific, let's consider breaking it down into sub-groups. Sequels, sagas, spin-offs, not to mention prequels.

At the moment, it's easy to find historical romance series that will follow groups of siblings, friends, soldiers or schoolmates, mostly staying within one time period; everyone's around the same age, and about in the same period of their lives.

Every once in a while, there is what I term a direct sequel -- Hero and Heroine from Book One are also Hero and Heroine in Book Two, with new events to test their mettle and their union. We've seen this more in the earlier days of the genre, as in Rosemary Rogers' Steve and Ginny books or Valerie Sherwood's Lovesong trilogy, but Jennifer Roberson's Tiger and Del in her Sword Dancer books had to fight through six volumes for their well-earned HEA. Yes, I know the books were marketed as fantasy, but they're romance, I tell you. For some readers, another trip to the well for a beloved couple is a welcome revisit, but for others, once the original HEA is in place, that's the best way to leave it.

Sagas have long been a historical fan's delight. Bertrice Small's O'Malley clan has covered a few centuries, from matriarch Skye through mentions in the author's contemporary erotic works, crossing with the equally prolific Leslie clan. To bang the old school drum again, Aola Vandergriff's classic Daughters Of... series followed three sisters from the 1850s through 1920s, with lots of marrying and burying in between. While some readers (me, me, me) enjoy seeing a hero and heroine at different stages in their lives, passing on the torch to daughters and sons, and eventually grandchildren, others might prefer not to have to see age change the young lovers who first stole their hearts.

The spin-off may be more common in television, but there's no reason it can't work in historical romance. The hero's friend who didn't get the girl can strike off for a new land, or the new world, be lost at sea, presumed dead, or any other number of reasons he (or she!) might leave First Story Land and begin a new life elsewhere.

Then there's the standalone (a term which has always confused me, but I think that's just me) -- the book with no sequels, prequels, spinoffs, or connections left, right or diagonal. Sometimes a story that ends with one couple's HEA is exactly the right note.

For me, I prefer to write stories that are one to a customer, but if a truly outstanding secondary character had something to do on their own, I'd consider it. Not all supporting characters can support their own stories, command their own spotlight, while some do it quite well.

So, readers, what sorts of connected books do you like best? Least? What about the one-offs? Writers, what's the best thing about crafting connected stories? Hardest? When should a series end? When the original protagonists age? Die? The historical period changes? Something else? Never?


Kim Iverson Headlee said...

I dislike books that are not self-contained, where the entire series may as well have been printed on toilet paper and torn off at convenient intervals. Mainly I have seen this phenomenon occur in the Fantasy genre, and it is a prime reason why I don't read a lot of those stories anymore; the "neverending quest" that spans 47 volumes just doesn't float my boat.

I did, however, devour the Star Trek books. Most of the time those stories related a specific adventure, until Pocket Books started getting cute by publishing multi-volume crossover stories in an attempt to broaden the reader base of the other series. After a while it became tedious to keep up with so I don't buy them anymore.

The moral: write each story with a strong beginning, middle and end, and keep it fresh!

Marjorie Jones said...

I agree. I love a good spin-off (which I call 'companion titles'), but each of my stories is a stand-alone. You can read My Lady's Will and not one sentence of it hinges on The Jewel and the Sword. There are, however, familiar references that someone who read the 'first' book would 'get'.

I like a good saga, too, but find that putting that much into my reading isn't something I can do much anymore *very sad face*. If I'm going to keep track of that many characters, I need to do it for my own writing lol. Of course, if well done, the 'keeping track' comes naturally to the reader and its no harder than remembering which real-life cousin parented which children at the annual family picnic.

I've seen some references lately to a VERY popular series of books getting a little long in the tooth. The series is by one of my all-time favs and while I started reading this series when it first came out, I haven't read the last two or three books. The fans on the BBS are saying 'enough already' and 'wrap it up' when you read between the lines. I think the line has 17 parts now and folks are having trouble keeping up with the linked characters.

Seventeen might be a bit much. But then, she's created her own world and writes in it. Perhaps the readers themselves are putting too much emphasis on the connections between the books. Does so-and-so hero know or have a pre-existing relationship with the heroine's best friend three books ago?

Who cares? Does one look at ALL books written by Author A set in medeival England to find an outside-the-covers connection? Of course not. So perhaps these readers should enjoy each 'installment' of this series not as a link to the books before, but a single book to be savored and enjoyed.

Wow... chatting today aren't I? Sorry about that LOL

Eliza said...

Awesome post.

I love 'em all, even standalones. If the book's at all good, however, I'll jump at the mention of a sequel.

I really like full stories, however they happen. I want to know about the side characters, and if I get a full story about each one of them I'm happy. My husband's the same way. We just watched the new version of All the King's Men, and my husband didn't like it because it wasn't enough. He wanted to know about Ann and Adam and Tiny and every other character who was named at any given point.

I told him that's why the novel's 600 pages long. Because Warren liked the ins and outs, too.

At the behest of my sister-in-law, I'm reading Inkspell right now. It's not the perfect book, but I can overlook its rough parts because so many characters are explored, and the Ink World along with it.

I have great difficulty writing standalone stuff. Almost all of my fiction is somehow related to events in Atrocity Gods, even the modern stories.

Camilla said...

I like connected books where it isn't obvious that the books are connected. Like early Liz Carlyle wherein she had a large cast of family and friends who popped up in each others books but didn't scream sequel bait--they were part of the world she created. By doing that instead of deliberately setting out to write a series of "connected books", the historical texture feels richer and the characters
have more flesh because they aren't viewed only through each other's eyes. (Perhaps that why I love writing about characters with large families who are a bit dysfunctional)

In terms of series, one I've really enjoyed was Philippa Carr's twenty book saga that followed the female line of one family from Tudor England to WWII.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

I love both types of book, but there is somethng about a series that makes me sigh in happiness. LOL

A series written well is a great enjoyment and buying the next book in the series is like visiting old friends again.

I've read some great series.

William Stuart Long (Vivian Stuart) wrote The Australians series - 12 books, starting from convict settlement right through 20th century.

Winston Graham - The Poldark Series - 13 books (I think)

Catherine Cookson - The Mallen Streak series and the Tilly Trotter series.

Pamella Belle - her English civil war series - 3 books.

Sharon Penman - medieval Welsh series - 3 books

Author's name escapes me at the moment, but she wrote The Morland Dynasty and it's about 18 books long I think. I got to book 7 and then couldn't find the rest of the series. LOL

And a heap more! LOL

I even wrote a series myself. Kitty McKenzie and Kitty McKenzie's Land.
Then I think of Kitty's grown children... so who knows! :o)

Tess said...

I think it all depends on how well they're done - if something sucks me in, I'll read it, series/spin-off/saga/stand-alone.

As we as writers hear so often - it's all in the execution.

LOVED Poldark, also LOVED the first few volumes in the Morland Dynasty series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Never quite made it all the way through as some books were missing from my local library.