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The Serial Authors

December 29, 2009

My first introduction to fantasy fiction came when I was eight or nine in the form of  a short children’s series called “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander, starting with The Book of Three.  (I discovered the series by accident.  As a military brat, I was living on an Air Force base in Germany, and wanted desperately to see Disney’s animated adaptation of the first two books, called “The Black Cauldron“.  I missed it then, but discovered the novels as a result.  As an aside, I still think the books deserve an updated, live-action take from Hollywood.  I’d be more than willing to sign on as a creative consultant, should that ever happen.) 

The books were hugely influential for me, and eventually led me to many other fantasy novels, most of them parts of series as well.  I read the first ten of Piers Anthony’s Xanth” books, I read Tolkien’s seminal “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I read the Dragonlance trilogies, and many more.  Eventually, I got started on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which I alluded to in my previous post, a book series that now spans twelve very large books.  Friends won me over to read the Harry Potter books.  In all, I can only name a handful of fantasy books that I have read that have not been a part of a series or serial.

And it’s something that crops up outside of the fantasy world as well.  The venerable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned four novels based on his famous detective, and dozens of short stories.  Agatha Christie did the same with a large number of books on her detective.  More recently, we can read several books about Dan Brown’s Harvard Professor, Robert Langdon.  While many of these books can be read independently of each other (unlike most fantasy series), they nonetheless all center on the same main character.

Yet, in most mainstream fiction outside of certain genres – fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, and thrillers, for instance – the book series seems to be a relatively uncommon thing, which I find curious.

Publishers, in particular, have enough motivation to encourage series and serials.  Readers can become attached to the main characters of books they like, moreso than to the authors of those books.  I daresay the name Sherlock Holmes is a better-known name than that of his creator.  When a publisher releases a new book in a series, it is an easier sell.  There is a built-in audience, ready and waiting for the latest book about their favorite characters.  For these fans, just the knowledge of an impending book release is sufficient to guarantee a sale.

Authors, too, seem to grow attached to the worlds and characters they painstakingly craft.  With the work that goes into creating the environments, back-stories, and characters it would seem a waste to use them all just once.

For readers, a new book in a series provides a comforting familiarity.  The reader already knows the characters and the world their story takes place in, so there is no need for any additional mental investment to learn those details anew.  The reader knows he or she will enjoy the book because he’s enjoyed the prior books in the series, so there is no fear for the additional monetary investment.

With all these factors, it’s not hard to see why series and serials are common in genre fiction.  In fact, it leads me to wonder why series and serials are not more common in mainstream fiction.

But there are pitfalls and drawbacks to series as well.  “The Wheel of Time”, for instance, begins fabulously.  The first several books are fast-paced and engrossing, the characters engaging, and the world mysterious, energetic, and full of magic.  But somewhere along the way, the series began to lose steam (and some readers).  Thankfully in the previous volume (and hopefully in the current one as well) that energy has started to pick back up again, paying off for readers who stuck through some of the slower books.

One complaint about “The Wheel of Time” book is that for a long time, there appeared to be no end in sight.  In theory, there would be a final confrontation between the protagonist and the villain of the story, but there was no indication of when that might occur.  I had the same problem with the Xanth books – the series appeared to be continuing on, ad infinitum, and I just lost interest, even though I loved the first books in the series.  Luckily for me, each of those books told a relatively self-contained story, so I didn’t feel cheated out of a big climax by putting those books down.

The “Harry Potter” series, by contrast, began with an implicit promise: there would be seven years of schooling in Harry Potter’s education, with one book for each year.  At the end of the seventh year, Harry Potter would finally confront his nemesis.  In my personal opinion, this was a story-telling tactic that paid off.  But it’s a tricky thing to accomplish.  Author J. K. Rowling was able to do this by use of the “seven years of school” backdrop, but other stories don’t lend themselves to being tied up in neat little packages quite so well.  And even in Rowling’s case, it looks like this became a challenge, as each book in the series got progressively larger, deeper, more detailed and more intricately plotted than the last (much to my pleasure, I might add).

Another challenge presented by the writing of series is one faced in a similar fashion by actors portraying the same character over and over: that of getting typecast.  While the Harry Potter books were fabulous, Rowling has yet to follow up with any work of significant size or substance.  And can we imagine her writing anything else?  There’s a case of sophomore blues of the highest order!  Piers Anthony publishes almost nothing except Xanth books these days, although his career began with other works than these.  Writers are generally an imaginative lot, and long to tell more stories than one.  Getting caught in this situation could be highly frustrating to an otherwise promising career.

Author Brandon Sanderson seems to have seen that trap coming, and started his career off with a stand-alone novel, Elantris.  He followed that up with a quick trilogy before being tapped to complete Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”.  Only recently has he started working on what seems to be a fantasy series of his own with a larger scope before establishing a body of work that can show of his range of talent.

Another potential draw-back, upon closer examination, is that serial fiction is not, in fact, universally liked by audiences.  While serial fiction seems to have gained in popularity in recent days, there remains a sizable portion of the population that prefers its entertainment to be cycled relatively quickly, and prefers something new and different and not at all like what’s come before.  I imagine this portion of the population also prefers somewhat shorter tales as well.  One way or another, this is an audience that needs serving, just as the audience that has a taste for serial fiction needs serving.

Given both the pros and the cons to serial novels in genre fiction, I can’t make any sort of recommendations about whether young writers should try to avoid serial writing, or to dive right in.  Largely, it will be a matter of taste.  Regardless, with a few of these pitfalls detailed out, it may be possible for aspiring writers to find ways to avoid some of the more egregious errors of serial novels in their own work.  If  you plan to write novels in a series, think about these benefits and short comings.  Which of these problems seems most important to you?  How do you plan to avoid them?

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