Saturday, October 3, 2009

There Is No Finish Line

Just how long can a series run?

That was the question this week, although our sidebar is still asking me about the writer who influenced me the most, so if I sound confused bear with me. And since it's Saturday, I'm going to be lazy and keep this short, which is easy because Kelli always does a better job articulating what I'm thinking than I could — and she does it long before a single thought works its way from my turgid, caffeine-deprived synapses down to my fingers on the keyboard.

I think the most successful series authors are really writing a series of stand-alone novels. Books which happen to share some recurring characters but can be read in any order and exist on their own merits. Now that doesn't mean there isn't a greater reward for readers who discovered the books in order, and it certainly doesn't mean the characters don't change or evolve over time. It just means that if you discovered a great series writer by picking up book four in a used bookstore, that novel would grab you from the first page and leave you desperate to find all the other books in the series.

I first heard this notion of a series of stand-alones described by Lee Child, who is arguably the master of the modern thriller for this reason. You know Jack Reacher is going to show up, and you know he's going to come out alive. And yet every book opens with a hook that gets in deep, and before you manage to take a breath, let alone pause to consider all the angles, you've finished the book and can't wait for the next one. But look at the settings, themes and underlying crimes in any of the Lee Child novels and you'll find them all distinct.

Persuader was the first Reacher novel I discovered. I was hooked instantly, went back and found all the others in the series. And then after a while The Enemy came out, which gave us insight into where Reacher came from, and how that character was forged. In terms of chronology you could argue that The Enemy should have been the first in the series, but I doubt it could have been written without the insight gained looking backwards from his other adventures.

The order doesn't matter. What matters is how great each book is, by itself. The recurring characters are familiar friends, signposts along the way. Emotional reference points for our own moral compass as it spins from plot twist to suspect to the dark recesses of our hearts. The characters are driving the plot, and we're going along for the ride, but they can take us anywhere in time or place.

But if you're writing a linear series in which the characters are aging in real time, as many accomplished writers have, then the clock is ticking. So depending on how tightly spaced your stories occur, at some point you're going to run into issues of mortality.

The other issue for a series writer, and probably the real question, is how interested is the writer in the characters? If the writer is bored and just phoning it in because he or she is responsible for a franchise, the readers are going to sense it and abandon those characters. We can all name series that, for us as readers, seem to go on too long, not because we didn't love the characters any more, but because the writer seemed tired of them.

Our imaginations aren't linear, so a series shouldn't have to be, either. It should just be a series of great books. And in that context, a series could go on indefinitely because you can move through time, take any character's point of view, change the voice from first to third, as you wish.

Sherlock Holmes stories didn't appear in chronological order. They were adventure stories, remembered in random sequence by the man telling us the stories, Dr. Watson. The same with Conan, Tarzan, or any of the great heroes. How many times has the origin of Batman been retold, not to mention all the new tales of the Dark Knight. These characters are timeless, and part of that longevity comes from how their stories were (and are) told.

I like to think of my novels as adventure stories, so I'm definitely in that school. My first two series novels took place in reverse chronological order, and readers seemed to get a kick out of that. It's also given me a lot of flexibility as I explore the characters and as their relationships to each other, and with me, change. So to writers contemplating a series who worry about getting stale, let me make a humble suggestion...

Throw away your watch, burn your calendar, and start dreaming. Then your characters can live forever, even if we can't.

1 comment:

Shane Gericke said...

I, too, love Reacher books, and hope Lee keeps writing them forever. He just signed for four more, so that's a good sign!