Thursday, October 1, 2009

Standing Alone with Others

By Kelli

How many books should be in a series?

Hmm. CJ covered the types of characters that usually perform well in multiple books, and gave us a great typology for protagonists. Becky was her usual witty self, and of course gave us the right answer. And Sophie, with her typical charm and styling, left me laughing at the description of what follows "Aaaaand ..." (and wondering if Matt had a mullet).

So that doesn't leave me much to do. I can pick a number out of a hat ... my hat, actually. Numerology is an ancient art/superstition/practice, and some numbers seem to work better than others. Like 3--trilogies, triptychs, etc. Somehow, it's more compelling than 4, which seems to fall flat, except in singing quartets (but even they usually have a star singer and a trio back-up).

No, that's not getting anywhere. So instead, let's talk about series versus stand-alones.

Maybe I'm crazy--actually, that's a safe bet--but I like to think of my series as a series of ... stand-alones. In other words, each book is a self-contained chapter of a life, of events, that--if we're lucky--we get to rejoin in progress at some other point on the life-spectrum. Kind of like snapshots.

Now, I'm more interested as a reader and a writer in writing characters who learn, who change, who react to the circumstances I place them in. BUT--the lifeblood of a series is a loyal readership, and those readers will need consistency. Hence the dilemma ... how to show the life scars (or triumphs) of your protagonist--how to put them through life-changing events--without changing them beyond the tolerance or expectations of your readers. Or your editor ...

I've written exactly three books in my life. My first was NOX, my second was its sequel, and the third was the first of a new series ... CITY OF DRAGONS. I'm now working on its sequel. So I guess you could call me a serial writer ... but honestly, with CITY OF DRAGONS I conceived of it as a series but tried to write it like a stand-alone. You know--like "this is my only shot with this character" kind of thing. Like it was the first--and the last--time I'd see her.

In reality, we sold a two-book deal, and I've subsequently conceived of the series as a series of duos--two books from 1940, two books from 1939 (prequels), and two books from late 1940-early 1941. Two-book snapshots, all of the same life, but at different points, different intersections. I've got a short story that's a prequel, too, coming out in FIRST THRILL (along with stories by Becky and CJ), so in a sense that's part of the same series--the complex story of Miranda Corbie.

Will it work? I hope so. Miranda is a character that I'd love to see age ... provided she lives long enough, which is always iffy in her line of work. I'm working on COUNTRY OF SPIDERS (tentative title of sequel) right now, and with the same philosophy ... write it like there's no tomorrow.

How many books should be in a series? To use a cliche: only time will tell!


Jen Forbus said...

From the perspective of a reader who loves the series, I find this question very interesting. I was also noting something similar over on Goodreads where folks were asking which writer should "hang up" their series because it was past time.

I love the series because I love character and character development. My favorite books are ones that I finish and then still talk to the characters in my head afterward. They've become my adult version of the "imaginary friend" I guess. And much like I wouldn't want to be parted with my real friends, I don't relish the thought of being parted from my imaginary friends either. And so I love when they re-emerge in the next book.

I appreciate the authors who decide to wind down a series because the characters don't speak to them anymore. I would much rather they do that then force a series to continue uninspired. There are people who do that; I think for money and fan demand maybe. But there are also authors who manage to keep their series fresh and original for long periods. So, I say, if you can do that and the characters continue to speak to you, continue the series. If they stop talking to you, don't force it for any reason. Respect them!

Sophie Littlefield said...

wow, you actually *planned* your series....I am humbled. Maybe I ought to give that a try. Right now my planning consists of "hmm, wonder what stella's gonna do next?"

And don't you think mullets can be, you know, a little bit sexy, on the right guy?

Bobby Mangahas said...

Stand alone series? I like that, Kelli. At least that way, you can pick up in the middle and not be so lost, although I hope this would encourage readers to still read earlier books in the series.

By they way, which hat would you use. I know that you probably have quite a collection of them.

Unknown said...

I was going to say that a series should last only as long as the writer loves writing it, but then I remembered poor Mr. Holmes perishing in The Final Problem, only to be resurrected in The Adventure of the Empty House (which must be Doyle hinting at his feelings about the whole enterprise?!).

It's really up to the readers, which is only fair, since they are ponying up the bucks.

Kelli Stanley said...

Jen, I think you're right ... there are a lot of pressures to keep on with a popular series. Money and survival being probably the most important. :)

I consider every book of mine that gets published a privilege ... with no guarantees, because pretty much nothing in life is guaranteed. So I try to write my series with that philosophy in mind. Long-term, on-going demand is one challenge I'd love to have! ;)

I think it just goes to show that every stage of a career--or life--brings challenges. And if you're lucky, you get to deal with the ones associated with mammoth success! ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Soph, I'm thinking "plan" might be an exaggeration ... more like envisioning, maybe? I've got a neighbor who's as sharp as a tack at 98--and an artist--and it struck me that Miranda would be 102, if she were alive today. Then that started me wondering what happened to her ... especially in the '50s during the Cold War when she was in her early '40s.

With Arcturus, I don't see that far ahead. That's because he's a lighter spirit, though dark enough to walk mean, muddy streets. :)

And as for mullets ... well, as long as they're not the super-exaggerated, sleeveless t-shirt and boffo mustache variety--more like Ralph Lauren mullets or glam rock mullets--I'm OK with 'em. ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, RJ--that's exactly what I've tried to do with CITY OF DRAGONS. You can blame George Lucas ... he started with Chapter IV of a three-part trilogy, remember? ;)

I've got too many hats to keep track of ... I sometimes forget how many. They include a fedora from the 30s that has faded to a light pink, and a gorgeous silk top hat from the '20s or '30s ... but for this question, I'd use my writing hat, which is a beat up, brown, moth-bitten Champ fedora that looks like it's seen the inside of one too many deadlines in a newsroom--or in an author's room! ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

It should be up to readers, Myst, but ultimately it's up to publishers and what their expectations are. With the economic melt-down this year, I've heard about several writers--critically-acclaimed or award-winning, very popular with a core mystery audience--who were dropped, because their books didn't continue to build.

A lot can kill a series ... and the author is probably the least likely suspect. ;)


Bobby Mangahas said...

To be honest, Kelli, the only thing I blame George Lucas for is doing the first Three chapters.