Sunday, June 01, 2008

Series Fiction: Pros and Cons


As I work on the fourth Taleran book, I’m considering again the pros and cons of writing a series. For me, I know that quite a few people seem to have enjoyed the first few books and it’s a nice feeling to know that there are folks looking forward to reading more from me. I’m also finding it a lot of fun to revisit characters and settings that have meant something to me in the past. It’s also a joy to expand the world. No standalone novel could have explored the entire planet and I’m finding myself able to flesh out details that I had to gloss over in previous entries in the series. Plus, it’s a different kind of creativity when you can interweave new material with older material. I don’t quite know how to explain it but it allows you to develop more depth in the basic creation.

On the con side, it’s hard to know how much background material to include in order to orient new readers to the series without boring those who are familiar with earlier books. I’m struggling with this quite a bit right now. Do I need to explain the Taleran calendar again? How about the mechanisms by which the sky ships fly, or the characteristics of the saddle-birds? Do I need to give meanings for every Taleran word again?

Right now, I’m handling this problem by including a short “What Has Gone Before” section, and by having Ruenn give little narrational asides to explain certain situations, although I’m trying to keep these to a minimum and make them very tight so they don’t impede the pace of the story. For the language issue, I’m trying to use the Taleran words in contexts where their meaning is either clear or where it doesn’t really matter if the reader gets the exact meaning as long as they get the “feeling.” I’m toying with including a kind of appendix with the book which would give the meanings of the words and include some cultural elements. This would essentially be selected entries from my Taleran Encyclopedia. I’ve seen Sword and Planet authors do this before, most notably Ken Bulmer in his Dray Prescot series, and it can be kind of fun.

A last “con” about writing a series is, what do you do if you make an error in one of the earlier books? Do you perpetuate that error for the sake of consistency? Do you correct the error in the new book and acknowledge it? Or do you correct the error in the new book and hope no one notices? I’m re-reading the first three Taleran books as I work and have already discovered two such errors. In both Wings and Witch I mentioned that the Taleran dawn comes at the “fourth dhaur.” I realized this time that it should have been the fifth dhaur in order to be consistent with other things I’ve said about the Taleran light/ dark cycle. In Witch I also mentioned that the period of the day called “Mordai” comes at the twenty-first dhaur. Seeing as how I made it clear in Swords that there are only twenty dhaur in a Taleran day this seems a bit of a problem.

I also wonder, of course, how I could have possibly made these errors considering that I read every one of these books over and over and over again before they were published by Borgo.

For both writers and readers out there, what do you find as the pros and cons of a series?

49 comments:

Lana Gramlich said...

Personally, I like when authors who use unique words for things (like you do in the Talera cycle,) to include a glossary in the back of the book. That way I don't have to go flipping through everything to refresh my memory (which happens more & more, these days.) As for errors getting through regardless of your re-reads, it may be that you're just too familiar with your own work & an outside pair of eyes might help. Sometimes we have to find a book where I work & it takes 3 of us to do so. It's easy, sometimes, to overlook something. Sometimes all that's needed is a fresh pair of eyes.

Travis Erwin said...

I've never attempted a series but I can see how there would be many problems. I like sequels to have a bit of a recap or refresher but too much and I get bored and start skimming. That's no help I know but it's all I got for ya.

X. Dell said...

In building a cosmology, I can understand how an error like that could happen. I would suspect that in many such series, you would find similar errors. Star Trek, for example, is such a vast cosmology that between the novels, the TV shows, and the movies there's a wealth of inconsistencies to choose from. I don't think it has mattered all that much to the franchise.

As for the question of reintroducing material from novel to novel, what you propose sounds reasonable. After all, a tight aside would allow seasoned Taleran fans, to skim past, while not leaving newer readers in the dark.

Travis said...

I like a glossary and a "what has gone before" section. It helps orient new readers, plus it's nice for returning readers who have been gone from the world for some time.

A series is one of my favorite things to read. I enjoy being involved with the characters over significant time periods and through multiple adventures.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I remember a certain editor of a literary journal asking me if I'd like to submit some serialized fiction, and since I had a longer story (rejected more times than I could count), I told her, "Sure. Sounds like fun." I submitted the first two installments (which she liked) but the journal went belly up. Those characters are still with me, but honestly--I don't think they were ready. You are to be commended for taking your characters, your world, as far as you have. Keep truckin'.

Erik Donald France said...

I love series, one delights in following what has come and what changes over time. The glossary is an excellent idea. I vow to read all of these come summer!

Bond does some interesting things -- in the new one, they pretty much pretend it's all like new, even though most fans will already be familiar with the general contours and 50-year "history."

laughingwolf said...

i agree w/lana about the glossary, you can even ask her to do a map, unless she already has

as for bloopers; acknowledge, correct and move on... pobody's nerfect, as they say

i do like the continuity of series

Sidney said...

I have heard there are inconsistencies in "Foundation" that Asimov just didn't worry about because he was concerned with moving things along.

Steve Malley said...

ERB faced these challenges-- a lot! He wanted things on Mars to be faster and more advanced than Earth, but he lived in a time when technology was jumping ahead faster than he could write. I seem to recall he just forged on.

Now, 100 years later, can *we* just 'forge on', or will we die by a thousand paper cuts as the pickers of nits have their way?

Welll... ever try to figure Dave Robicheaux's age? Or, God forbid, Batiste's? (I think Dave had to gently retire Batiste and the bait shop because that gentleman had to be somewhere between 80-100 years old!) But glaring discrepancies and all, I don't give a damn. I love that series.

Stuff happens. If you write well and involve the reader (and you do), most of us forgive you.

That one guy with the chip crumbs on his belly, reading furiously only to double-check that in book five the kids turned left to enter Dumbledore's study and not right... Well, you never had him. Nobody did. Keep Ruen jumping out of windows and dodging bolts of eldritch energy, I doubt we'll pull you up on the small stuff.

Steve Malley said...

Oh, and how about this for a fix for your calendar? 'Leap Year': some special time where there *is* a 21st hour? Whether it's an occasion like leap year where we get one extra day, or something like the twelve days of (medieval) Christmas where normal rules don't apply. Just brainstormin' here.

And I like a glossary too.

Mary Witzl said...

This is a useful post and you raise some interesting questions. Like Travis, I just gloss over a too-long recap, but whenever I come into a series mid-stream, I do feel a little left out. I'm not much help either, am I? What I love about a series is that when you get to the end of a book you've loved and you get that sinking feeling -- "Oh no, it's over!" -- you don't have to give up the whole world. Or not just yet, anyway.

My favorite series books are Patrick O'Brien's nautical novels. I think he did a good job of making each book a stand-alone, recapping only as much as necessary. My only gripe is that his diagram of a ship, included in each and every book, did not include half the terms used in the books, something that used to drive me wild. He had a funny disclaimer about a few of his errors in one of the books; his readers eagerly called him on historical details he got wrong.

Lisa said...

I confess to having not read many (if any series), but I fourth or fifth the glossary idea, and any other useful reference information (like maps -- I've found them useful). I think Steve is right. You should make your corrections and not worry about inconsistencies. Truly, if you've got readers with a keen enough eye to pick nits over the corrections, I'd consider it a plus to have such a dedicated following. Another option (and I have seen this done, although I can't recall where) would be to write a forward and acknowledge the corrections or inconsistencies.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, I'm sure you're right about being too close to the work. I think I will definitely try a glossary in the new one.

Travis Erwin, that's about what I figured, and is the way I'm thinking about it, recap with a bit of refreshers throughout but not too much.

X-Dell, I'm sure there are such inconsistencies in other stories/series. I've caught a few myself at times. It's still galling when it happens to you.

Travis, I think I'll definitely put in a glossary. I've always liked them too.

JR, Witch of Talera was originally written to be serialized but the mag, which had published Swords and Wings suddenly folded when I was midway through the book.

Erik, I haven't seen the new Bond. I do like series, though. I know in some series they've just sort of pretended things happened like in an alternate universe.

Laughingwolf, I've drawn up some working maps of Talera for myself but I would love to have Lana do a better one.

Sidney, I bet that's true, and I've heard of inconsistencies in other works as well. Hazards of the trade, I guess.

Charles Gramlich said...

For everyone: I broke this response into two pieces so check my previous post if you don't see your comments answered here.

Steve Malley, I actually got rather irritated at myself for these errors yesterday but I'm feeling more philosophical about them today. I figure I can always claim that Ruenn makes mistakes because he's from Earth. Hey, mabye he's not too bright. I was thinking I could also say something like it being "sometimes referred to as the 21st hour" in certain cosmologies, so that's similar to your idea here.

Mary Witzl, I don't want the reader to get too lost so that's why I'm putting in some occassional recaps. I can also do some stuff with the glossary perhaps. At least I don't have to worry about screwing up real history.

Lisa, I'm definitely going to try and get maps in the next book. I love them in fantasy novels myself.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I have been reading several series over the last few months. The Janet Evanovich books, The Sackett novels of Louis Lamour, the Dresden Files by Butcher.

I find that each has some difficulty. Butcher tends to throw readers into the middle of things, leaving people to scramble to figure out who new characters are, what happened where. I started the series with book seven and scratched my head. Then went back to the beginning.

In the Evanovich, the books are loosely tied, but there is a sense of continuity and importantly, a constant voice. One thing I've noticed is that some series has a shifting voice which can be disorienting.

As a reader, I wouldn't mind a regular prologue that updates what is what and who is who. Of course, that was never a problem in the Harry Potter series.

Robyn said...

Hi Charles! You won the contest! Come over to Stonehenge and see! I'll put down the exclamation points and walk away, I promise!

HEALTH NUT WANNABEE MOM said...

I love to read series. As a matter of fact, I become addicted to the characters and can't wait for the next one to come out. I never notice errors but I am sure you do great. I need to check out your books.

steve said...

The best writers manage to make a few consistency errors--Conan Doyle had Dr. Watson's war wound in his shoulder and then his leg (or was it the other way around?).

I've been listneing to Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books on CD. I heard the first 3 books in sequence and then skipped a few. Stewart's right. A "story so far" introduction is a good idea. Some authors are abel to incorporate past events into the text--Hillerman was good at that. You might be as well.

One positive thing about a series is that you have a way to sell earlier books. If someone picks up the Witch of Talera and likes it, she might want to buy the earlier books. I suspect the biggest negative is just what you've run into--maintaining consistency through the series.

Charles Gramlich said...

Stewart, I really enjoyed the Sackett novels, and each of those stood on its own very well. I haven't started the Butcher books yet but will soon. I have the first two.

Robyn, wow, thanks. I just emailed you my addy. Loved the captions you put on the pics on your blog.

Health nut, thanks for stopping by my blog. I can really get into series as well, although I don't like to be lost and floundering in them.

Steve, I do find that people can be fanatically loyal to a series they like. I can only hope to generate that kind of readership. I know I've been very loyal to a lot of series in my day.

the walking man said...

Just a thought...a glossary is fine but it still entails flipping pages for understanding, is it possible to bring a new reader up to speed through dialog in the current "present?" Use the characters voice to orient the new reader.

I have seen the glossary used, and a dictionary of terms and they do work but I never wanted to have to stop look up what a "dhaur" is. Some way that incorporates past circumstances in the body of the text may resolve that.

As for mistakes...leave them in. It will give the future camp followers and Talerian convention goers something to discuss and have meetings about.

Peace

FANCY said...

I do think that we always need new words sometimes and if they don't exist we can invent them...and that is the funny part...:)

ChrisEldin said...

I also like the glossary idea.

The one thing about the children's book series "The Magic Treehouse" that really bothered me was the amount of recapping that was done. I wanted to get on with the story already.

I think in later books, she decided to trim. I mean, when you're at book 30 in a series, can you imagine?

And I think most people like to read these kinds of books in order. Don't they?

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Greg Schwartz said...

I think it's a good idea to include an glossary (or partial glossary) and maybe other neat facts about the world. I know as a reader, it's neat to find something like that at the end of a good book, something that lets you inside the inner workings of the world you just explored.

Bernita said...

I like the Talera books and I like series.
Your error is a nit, a teeny-tiny nit, ignore it.

laughingwolf said...

i'm sure she'd enjoy working with you, too :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, that is definitely the preferred way of doing it and what I try to do regularly. But since certain words are sort of "common usage" on Talera it's not always easy to do that after the first once or twice. The glossary might work well to give folks a chance to double check on something they only vaguely recognize.

Fancy, making up words can be fun as well.

Chris Eldin, that's the issue at hand, for sure. How much recapping, how much forward momentum. And I'm only on book 4. A long series like that would be particularly difficult, although surely people who are reading book 24 have read earlier books and have a pretty good feel for characters and situations.

Rohit, I'll check your site out today.

Greg Schwartz, I'm convinced on the glossary. Definitely something I'm going to do here.

Bernita, thanks. I'll take your advice about the nit.

Laughingwolf, she has done an illustration for some poetry I've been working on. And her fantasy art fits with the Taleran concept very well.

Billy said...

A good one keeps me engaged and I usually read it more than once. Hell, you've got one going in a sense. Go for it, Charles!

Anndi said...

As a reader I can say that I love series, it feels like reuniting with old friends.

SQT said...

I've read a lot of series where there are little mistakes here and there but I don't think it's a big deal. There are so many details to keep track of and I think it's easily explainable by saying that a character made the mistake-- that's human nature after all.

Jon said...

I like the idea of a map and a glossary.

Having said that, one of my favourite series was E C Tubb's Dumarest saga. He used to repeat whole paragraphs from book to book and it never bothered me, in fact it was part of his charm.

I remember trying to map Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom and finding the city of Zodanga wandered around the planet from story to story - so if you make a few mistakes you're in good company.

One thing that must be difficult in a series featuring one main protagonist is to fit any satisfying character development into each instalment. Maybe series work best with plot based fiction rather than character based; or where the world remains constant but the characters change; or where the secondary characters are vital to the story (eg. in detective series)

- Jon

cs harris said...

I'd fix the mistakes and simply include an author's note. If the books go back to print, they might let you correct the errors, so you wouldn't want to perpetuate them.

I recently read the nth book in a popular series. The author obviously expected me to know his hero, and I didn't and therefore never warmed up to him. On the other hand, I get annoyed when writers recap what I don't need to know.

Avery DeBow said...

I prefer to read and get the gist of the gadgets and things rather than have a long explanation of their inner workings. Same with past events--just give a quick idea of what happened, and move me along. I'll either catch up, or i won't. If the current story is tight within itself, it won't really matter that much.

The worst example of over-explaining past novels was Jean M. Auel's last Earth Children novel, The Shelters of Stone. Almost the entire novel was recapping of the previous three. There was hardly a plot woven in among the backstory.

Don't worry about the slip. Fix it and go on. Most people won't catch something that small. And for those who do--just sit back and congratulate yourself on establishing a hardcore fan base.

Sarai said...

It is always interesting to see what authors think about regarding the series pros and cons.
As far as the mistakes I seriously doubt anyone has caught it but if they have admit the mistake and correct. Most readers will understand that in a series there are bound to be mistakes. I prefer an author to correct them and then admit it if asked.

Britta Coleman said...

I think you're on the right track with keeping the retreads as tight as possible, and the glossary is a terrific idea.

For me, I think a series should be based on the author's interest in exploring that world, and the willingness to create changes and new interest in the characters and the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Billy, I'm at an age now where I'm starting to revisit some series that I really liked, although I used to never re-read a book. That's when I was young and foolish.

Anndi, yes, like a family reunion of sorts.

SQT, well I'm definitely going to blame it on the character. It's even easier in first person cause the character is narrating it. Stupid guy, can't keep the Dhaur's straight. Maybe he was drunk.

Jon, I hear you on Dumarest. I enjoyed that series and still have some more of them to read. I also remember trying to make some logical sense out of some of Howard's Conan stories and not always succeeding. As for character development, I think I worked some development into Ruenn over the first trilogy but it may definitely be tough in the follow up book.

Candy, sorry to miss our meeting tonight. Not feeling terribly well. I've made notes for myself in case the books are ever reprinted, although at least the errors don't cause any continuity issues with the series. I've had that problem of coming in late in a series and feeling very lost and I don't want my readers to suffer that.

Avery, I had some of that problem with the Clan of the Cave Bear series. In fact, I never made it past the first book, although I wanted to. I have definitely glossed over a fair amount of the inner workings of things on Talera and thought I might explain a couple things more fully in this book. I will try not to let it impede the action too much, though.

Sarai, I will own up to my mistakes if anyone asks. I think, too, it's probably impossible to keep fully consistent. Heck, real history ain't fully consistent.

Britta, I definitely have a lot more of Talera that I want to explore and also another basic story cycle I'd like to tell. After that I think it'll be done.

laughingwolf said...

that's great, hope to see more of her stuff on her blog, too

SzélsőFa said...

You might include an appendix that includes a vocabulary, that explains some of the inhabitants of the planet, some about the way machines work, and so on.
If you incorporate these into the text, it might bore your returning readers.
I think people do not buy Part 3 of a series, though. They either buy it 1 to 4 (5-6-7 etc) all the way, or buy none.

Josephine Damian said...

Charles: As a reader I tend to avoid series. If it's a long running series, I feel I have to start at the beginning, and lots of times the first ones aren't available or are only in paperback (I hate paperback!)

Another reason I don't rarely read them is writers tend to get lazy and phone it in as the series continues. They forget plot and focus on the personal problems/family relationships of the secondary characters - basically filler - and probably because they've run out of plot ideas. I can see how they get bored with their character, but their fans and publisher pressure them to churn out more for easy money.

As I writer, I see series as a ghetto - and advance plateau to get srtuck in. I think JK Rowling and Stephanie Myers have the right idea - a plotted series with a distinct beginning, middle and end - one long story told over several books as oposed to a series of cookie-cutter plots.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I think Lana has a link to her website with her fantasy art on it. I'll have to check.

Szelsofa, With Talera, it would be definitely hard to start with 3, but they could probably manage 2. It's a matter of taste on how much you include "in" a book. Some folks have told me that they wish I'd done more of that world building and explaining in the books.

Josephine, Long running series definitely seem to have that problem. I have definite ideas for a second trilogy of the Taleran books, but after that I wouldn't do more unless a particularly juicy, stand alone plot, occurred to me. Except in rare cases, I seldom read a series beyond the six books. Some exceptions are the Travis McGee series, the Dray Prescot series, and ERB's Martian series.

Shauna Roberts said...

I have several mystery series that I read every book in, but tend to steer away from science fiction and fantasy series unless there's a beginning, middle, and end.

I have trouble remembering the details in series because of the time gap between releases and between when I actually get around to reading them. So I do like and need memory refreshers. But I prefer to have them worked into the plot as needed.

In Charlaine Harris's Louisiana vampire series, heroine Sookie summarizes everything that's happened in the past books in the first chapter or two, which disrupts my suspension of belief. I'd rather have "As you know, Bob" explanations.

If a book I read has a glossary or list of characters, I refer to it. I find them useful.

Sam said...

I love series - I read them all the time. I like getting to know the world, the people, the history...the more complex, the better!

benjibopper said...

i've never written a series, and i don't know if i could. i can only think of cons actually. after all the work and re-work of writing and editing and re-writing and editing more, all the feedback and improving, by the time i finish a short story, let alone a book, i can't touch it, can't even read it again. time to move on. and i have so many other ideas, different styles, i want to try and experiment with. a series would be very hard for me.

i admire your discipline to stick with it, and it seems you've done a great job and have a fan base.

judging by fantasy and scifi fans i've known, you'd better keep things consistent - better consistently in error than inconsistent.

Randy Johnson said...

My feelings about series depends on the series I guess. I've read a few that are endlessly interesting and others that make me feel as if the writer is phoning it in for a paycheck, so to speak. That's when I bail out fast.
I never grew tired of the Sacketts for example, as L'Amour had a large enough cast that the focus wasn't on the same character every time out. That kept me intersted.
Another series(I won't mention the author or character) seemed to be descending into porn and from what I've read on the internet, the books only got worse.
I'll say the same about the proliferation of western porn years ago. If I want to read porn, I'll get a porn novel. If I want to read horror, I'll find a horror novel. Don't mix them.Of course, that said, when I learned James Reasoner was writing some of them, I tried a few. They were up to his usual good writing standards, but they'll still never be my favorites of his work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, I find glossaries useful too, and fun. I think The Wheel of Time series kind of put a lot of folks off reading Fantasy series because it was never ending.

Sam, I like a good complex world, but I don't want the author to slow the action down too much.

Benjibopper, I actually did two different series of short stories back in the 90s, one about a vampire character and the other a sword and sorcery series. I do find them particularly intersting in fantasy where you have a big world to explore.

Randy Johnson, I agree that it depends a lot on the series. The Sacketts was very good because there were a lot of different characters. It was more of a family series than a single hero series. I read probably three or four of those "adult" westerns years ago and I never quite got the point because the stories were pretty poor and, like you say, if I wanted to read porn I wouldn't be picking up something for the "story."

Jon said...

I experienced something yesterday which immediately reminded me of this post in your blog.

I picked up a book called "Fortress of Owls" by C J Cherryh who is one of my favourite authors. My mistake was picking a book which I now realize is part way through a series.

The book starts with a dense 13 (count them!) 13 page summary of what sounds like an really complicated story so far, and its awful! Its quite put me off continuing.

Because its C J Cherryh I might go out and buy the first in the series, but it certainly hasn't put me in the mood to start half way through.

If you're going to start with a "What has gone before" you should definitely keep it to a paragraph or two.

- Jon

Ello said...

Hmmm I thought I commented on this one. I can't remember what I said!

But I don't think having these errors are problematic. I think you just move forward with the correction and not worry about it. And I love glossaries also. But it is so normal to have some errors, even with several beta readers. We are all only human.

Barbara Martin said...

I like to read series, particularly ones where the characters have intrigued me. Last year I was introduced to the Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child books. They have written mostly stand-alone books, but a few could be listed in the series category. Each of the books have one or more returning characters with only a mere mention of their relationship to another book or situation.

With Robert Jordan's series, The Wheel of Time, I was given books 7 and 8. When I began book 7, I managed to read about a third of it before giving up. The story was difficult to get through as there wasn't enough backstory for me to understand what was going on. I began at the beginning, learned the foundation of the story and the following books fell into place.

Your blog has just the refreshing approach to the writing craft I like, and I certainly will be returning frequently to see what you've posted next. Great blogs.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jon, oh I agree, I never want more than three paragraphs at most for a "What has gone before." I think mine have gotten tighter across the series.

Ello, I was pretty upset about my errors at first but have become more accepting over the last few days. It still irritates me. No matter how much you check something creeps in.

Barbara, thanks. I'll put your blog into my google reader so I can keep up with your posts as well.