Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Series

I don't tend to read series books. And after a recent disappointment, I'm even less inclined to give any of them a go.

For a series to remain engaging, its author needs to strike a delicate balance between variety and predictability. Variety keeps it interesting; predictability makes it comforting. Poppy Z. Brite's Liquor stories exemplify, for me, series fiction done right. None of those tales ever let me down. None contained any jarringly unpleasant surprises. Reading each novel, novella, and short was like revisiting a dear group of friends in a beloved place and knowing we were about to have fun together -- the best possible reunion.

So what can ruin a series? I believe it's the loss of one of those essential elements mentioned above. An author can squelch reader interest by dishing up the same old same-old, like Anita Blake repeatedly boinking her way through paranormal populations. Or an author can undermine the comfort factor by throwing in something the reader hadn't bargained for and can't accept.

I  just encountered what for me was a series killer, and it's related to the element of predictability. A single development, even a single incident, can have this power. I've come to think of such unexpected departures as "game changers."

For many followers of the Adrien English Mysteries, Jake's physical abuse of Adrien was a game changer. A huge one. It made those readers distrustful, even contemptuous, of the relationship arc that was central to the series. It colored (or discolored) their attitudes toward the main characters. It made those readers wary of how the series would proceed. But Josh Lanyon is an exceptionally shrewd and talented writer. He managed to smooth most readers' ruffled feathers. Fans forgave Jake and, however grudgingly, afforded him a second chance.

I've just been knocked out of a series by a game-changer. And I can confidently say "knocked out of" because, based on blurbs I've read, this development won't be resolved to my satisfaction.

Here's how I see it. When a reader commits to a series, she sees herself (however subconsciously) as entering into a kind of contract with the author. We all have different clauses in our series contracts, because we all have different requirements for a fulfilling reading experience. My contract for the Liquor series, for example, could have been worded like this: "I will remain a devotee of Rickey and G-man as long as their creator doesn't a.) break them up, b.) pull them out of the restaurant business, or c.) move them from New Orleans."

For me, one of the main draws for Frank Tuttle's eponymous Markhat series was the main character, Markhat the finder. He was wry and reckless and often moody. His only steadfast companion was a three-legged cat, and his BFF was an ancient conjure-woman, an amusing and grizzled crone known as Mama Hog. In other words, Markhat was a lovable loner constantly on the verge of becoming a lovable loser. I adored him that way.

A main character like this in an urban fantasy series is a delightful, refreshing change of pace. Cool, thought I. It will be possible to lose myself in this marvelously inventive world without slogging through any of the romantic bullshit that turns other UF series from crisp to soggy and from unique to derivative in three shakes of a butt.

Eagerly, I wrote up a contract. My first clause was: "I will remain an enthusiastic devotee of Markhat as long as he isn't saddled with a girlfriend or, worse yet, a wife."

What happens after I'm nearly four books into my investment? You got it. Then, to add insult to injury, the author seemingly killed off this "love interest" in a satisfyingly grisly way . . . but brought the bitch back! That book had the most tragic HEA of any I've ever encountered.

The Markhat series game-changer is way too much for me to accommodate. The contract has been breached. From now on, I think I'll stick to stand-alones. Unless, of course, another Liquor story is released. :)

Oh . . . and Happy Valentine's Day. JLA left this on my pillow:


Tam said...

I agree with you, if what made you love the series changes too dramatically, it's hard to maintain any kind of connection. There have also been series I've kind of ran out of steam on simply because nothing happened. I think they often work best in crime series because the mystery with a side of relationship keeps it moving forward. How many books can you hash out relationship issues over and over before people just say "make a decision already".

I don't mind giving a series a go, I've read some great ones, what is more annoying me these days are serials, that I don't realize are serials. I think BEB was very successful with the Rifter because it was clear what you were getting and each "chapter" was a comprehensive story in itself. However lately I've come across books which are like "Chapter 1" nothing much happens, they met. 6 weeks later, "Chapter 2" they talk. 4 weeks later "Chapter 3", they talk some more. And each one is 15-20 pages. You later find out there are 15 of these beauties coming at random intervals. Umm. No. Now I'm pissed. Just write a novel and let me read it.

We have become quite cautious at BER now because we've been caught with these serials and feel sort of obliged to keep going when we've lost interest. Now we'll ask a publisher if there is more coming if we suspect something similar. Obviously some readers enjoy it that way, but I'm not one of them.

Chris said...

LOL! That JLA...

I do know what you mean about a game-changer. In Anita Blake, it was the ardeur. Ruined the series for me. In Kim Harrison's The Hollow Series, it was killing off my favorite character.

I also tend to quit a series if it's characterized by each book ending in a cliffhanger. Pooey on those authors.

Hmm. My veri word is "cater"...

K. Z. Snow said...

Interesting to hear your take on serials, Tam. I'd been wondering if my recently completed three-part novel would be best issued as a three-part serial. (Of course, the sections are considerably longer than 15-20 pages.) But I kind of had a feeling readers would be pissed. Anyway, I doubt many publishers are willing to dick with three monthly releases in a row.

I agree, if you're a reviewer you need to know what you're getting yourself into. Hell, readers should know it too, from the jump. Do some publishers really fail to mention that some stories are part of a serial?

Tam said...

May I suggest you submit to Riptide or Amber Allure? LOL Oh yeah, sometimes there is no indication that it's a serial until you get to the end and go WTF? That's it? Ooooohhhh. And usually there is no indication of how many editions. You'd THINK that would be something put up front "This is book #1 of a 6 part series" but that one we asked about after getting a couple, thinking 4-5 probably seemed good, we were told there are 15!!!! We shall see if we continue with it after 5 or 6, it's Jen's call on that one. There's a different one I gave up on.

If I knew I was buying a 3 part serial and they are a good size each, I'm okay with that. It's being "tricked" that leaves a bad taste and I'm positive it's not intentional, but that's the feeling you get after being sucked in and spending money on a series you end up dropping because you've lost your patience.

Chris said...

I hate serials with a hatey hatefulness. Grrr.

I hit the end of Six Degrees of Lust and nothing at all was resolved. Nothing. In fact, something that seemed resolved in the prequel short story was actually undone in the book. I loved the book, but rated it poorly and may never actually read the rest of the series... or anything else by the author.

Yeah, I'm a grudge-holding reader, what's your point? ;)

K. Z. Snow said...

I'm obviously kidding about JLA. The only money he leaves on the dresser is his pocket change, and he'd probably flip if I took that. Cheap SOB.

I'm glad you got what I meant, Chris. You've surely read countless more series than I have. I wasn't sure if I was overreacting or not. Because honestly, giving up on the Markhat series really upsets me. I've loved it up 'til now, but I immediately knew it wouldn't be the same for me.

Yes, I remember discussions about that "ardeur" business. How freaking bizarre! I read all of two books in that series because they were given to me, and groaned through both of 'em.

So you're bothered by cliffhangers even if the next installment is issued in a timely fashion?

Chris said...

If the entire series is out, I can deal with cliffhangers. But other than that...

K. Z. Snow said...

"Oh yeah, sometimes there is no indication that it's a serial until you get to the end and go WTF?"

Yikes! That's downright deceptive!

Under the circumstances, I don't think you and Jen are obligated to keep going. Just tell whomever sent you the story (and post on BER) that you'll no longer be reviewing serialized fiction unless you're apprised of its nature upfront. 'Cause that's a huge investment of time (and a miserable one, if you dislike the story).

Tam said...

You're better than me KZ. When I first started with PNR I heard about the Anita Blake series, I never made it through book 1.

I'm personally okay with cliffhangers, seems to be something people either hate or don't mind.