MIND MELD: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Genre Series: Series vs. Standalones; Ones We Abandoned; Ones We Returned To
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
We asked this week’s panelists about series fiction in genre.
Here’s what they said…
Ah series. As you point out, they are everywhere in genre. I do read the first book of a series differently than I read a standalone novel. I certainly have different expectations. For a standalone, the story must resolve major (and most minor) plot points and come to a satisfying conclusion. When I read the first novel of series, I don’t usually expect more than some minor issues to be resolved, maybe an occasional major issue. I expect the main characters (at least for that part of the series) to be introduced. I also expect all sorts of threads will be left dangling to spur me on to continue reading the series. I don’t even mind cliffhangers. I also expect world building and events that will move the series along. I even read Paranormal Romance series differently than other series in that there should be an HEA (Happily Ever After) or HEA for now along with world building. However, if the story is not interesting and I don’t care about the characters in a series, why should I continue to invest time into what may ultimately be horribly disappointing?
Having said that there are series that I read that I probably should stopped reading. Perhaps I read them because I have invested so much time and am hoping the series will redeem itself. Either that or I’m a completist and I must have all the books of a series on my shelf. For example I should have stopped reading the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris as it became more and more difficult for me to get through the novels. As of this writing I still have not read the last book in the series though I did purchase it (see “completist” above). I stopped reading the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton because the essential nature of the series changed dramatically. Once the orgies started in earnest as the series progressed, I felt that the story telling suffered and I stopped reading.
There are series that I continue to read even though I found an initial main character disappointing. Why? It’s the world building and the more than good writing that keeps me hooked. (See the Shadow Ops series by Myke Cole)
I sometimes read a series only to be disappointed in the very end. For example I loved Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander series (Paranormal Romance) so anticipated the closely connected Fever series (Urban Fantasy). I enjoyed the series only to be very let down by the final Fever novel, which did not deliver what was promised by the author in my opinion. I have not read Moning since. (Note to authors: don’t make promises.)
Lest you think I am a curmudgeonly reader (how well you know me), I will give you a glimpse of series that have gone from strength to strength and that I want to read for as long as possible: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (14 books so far); the Jessica McClain series by Amanda Carlson (3 books so far); the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (6 books so far). Those were the first to spring to mind along with Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series (over 20 novels so far) though some books in the series are better than others.
So the real answer to the question is…it depends.
I rarely read a whole series in a row without interruption with other books, so if I read a series it’s always returning after an absence, sometimes a long one. I’ve been working my way through several classic series such as Dune and Hyperion and feel no reason to rush through them. I’d rather take my time and enjoy them. Since I’m usually reading more than one book at a time, right now this means that I’m also reading Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden and Outcast series. I often try to mix up what I read between genres — but also between dense and darker series with easier and lighter stories. If I find myself with a couple hours to dedicate, then I’ll choose something dense, but if I’m rushing out the door and know later I might be able to grab a couple minutes, then lighter would be my choice.
It happens that the first book or two in a series is enough to satisfy my curiosity about the world the author has created. Even though Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered in in my top ten list, I haven’t read the other two in the trilogy — I think maybe because I want to preserve the reading experience I enjoyed so much and delving deeper into the other novels might change how I see the characters. When it comes to Science Fiction and Fantasy, it seems that my threshold for a series is around five books. After that, I’m eager to “seek out new life and new civilizations.”
I didn’t read Name of the Wind until Wise Man’s Fear was available, then tore through both of them and can’t wait to get to The Doors of Stone. Recently, I’ve enjoyed David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy, N.K. Jemison’s Dreamblood series and I can’t wait to see where Saladin Ahmed is going to take his irrepressible monster hunter Dr. Adoullah in his Crescent Moon books. I am also absolutely in love with Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave and eagerly awaiting the next story. Each of these stories feel like they were meant to be told over multiple books. I think that one of the reasons people get annoyed by series is that sometimes, it feels like a thinner story is being stretched into multiple books. Well, that and how irritating book 2s are in general: begins in the middle of the story, destined not to end, then a long slog of a wait to see how it all turns out. Stupid, stupid book 2s.
I don’t think I’ve ever given up on a series, but I have put Stephen King’s Dark Tower books on hold and I have yet to go back to them now that the series is complete. The wait between 3 and 4 was so long that, by the time 4 came out, I would have had to re-read 1,2, and 3 to get caught up again. That was too long of a refresher for me, especially with no guarantees on the timely appearance of the other books. I intend to read them (I own them), but I haven’t gathered up the gumption yet.
A series still manages to fill me with anticipation. I’m a sucker for series since my early teens. I already loved to read Brazilian YA adventure/SF/detective series, but it was, I think, with the publication of Dune in Portuguese (in 1984, along with the David Lynch movie adaptation) that I started to read SF series for good. Shortly after that, many others followed, such as Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives, and Fred Pohl’s Gateway – which is an all-time favorite of mine. Other is David Zindell’s tetralogy composed by Neverness and the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy, which I read in the 1990s and read again a couple of years ago. The experience was very refreshing and I felt very happy to see the series still stand.
An anecdote I think will illustrate my love of series better than anything else: less than a couple of months ago, when I was in the middle of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (which I was already loving, by the way) and heard it was the first of a trilogy, my enthusiasm for it grew exponentially. I think that, when a story shows promise in its worldbuilding, it’s hard for me to let it go in my mind, so I’d rather not see all the work the writer had go, so to speak, to waste – because the novel is just the tip of the iceberg. Even before Clarion West (during the workshop this impression became rather accentuated, and now, three months later, still is), I already had noticed this while I was writing a story that took place in the distant future. I started writing a novelette and sent it to a magazine – its editor answered me a short time later telling me the story wasn’t bad, in fact she liked it, but she felt it wasn’t a complete story. She wanted to know more background details, and the main story should be more fleshed out; by this time I had already written a short history of this universe (I’m still writing it; it’s been almost two years since) and other two short stories, still unpublished. The novelette is currently in its way to become a novel – and during Clarion West I wrote other two stories in the same universe, one of which was the basis for the outline for the second novel. (Yes, right now the story is that long – it’s a duology at least, and I think it may become a trilogy.)
Speaking of trilogies, I’d rather read a trilogy or a tetralogy than an infinite series. Other two series that come quickly to mind are the Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons (which I already re-read a few years ago), and Karen Traviss’s Wess’har saga (another one which I’m reading again right now, just for the kick of it), not to mention Stephen King’s The Dark Tower (which I absolutely loved, but I still need to read The Wind Through the Keyhole, alas.) On the other hand, I think some universes are too big not to give them a try in a longer run. That said, I’d still read the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Dune sequels and Ann (and now Todd) McCaffrey’s Pern series, or C J Cherryh Foreigner stories, but sagas like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan and David Weber’s Honor Harrington always seemed like too much of a stretch to me. That, of course, can always be attributed to taste.
Because I write and then interview other writers for the Adventures in Scifi Publishing, my reading experience may be a bit different from most fans. In short, I break my reading into three categories in order of how novels usually get prioritized (unfortunately need vs. want, folks): (1) for podcast author interviews; (2) to develop my own craft or better understand the marketplace; and (3) for pleasure.
Often I get lucky and these distinct categories intersect. But sometimes they don’t and it has led to several changes in my reading behavior.
As a result, I often do shelf a series for a period of time or abandon it altogether. It’s not uncommon for me to read the opening novel of a series for an interview or craft and market understanding and then never pick up the sequels. It’s not to say that I generally don’t enjoy these novels when I do read them, but time doesn’t wait for us when the next deadline looms.
If I’m reading for pleasure, it can be quite common — though painful — for me to set aside a book I truly want to read in favor of a deadline I might have.
Within the last few years, I’ve tried to get crafty in consuming as much as possible and juggle all three at once. This strategy has changed my purchasing habits for novels. I’m usually reading at least three books a month and each is in a different physical form, i.e. I’m usually listening to an audiobook, reading an e-book, and reading a physical book (hardcover or paperback) continually.
Each form allows me to take advantage of time and place, e.g. I have a 30-plus minute commute to work so I have at least an hour a day of audiobook consumption. This is extremely helpful for my interviews and marketplace interest. Also, I’ve found that if I really want to get into a subsequent book in a series, audiobooks are sometimes the most practical form for me to do it. I did this recently for Leigh Bardugo’s follow-up to Shadow and Bone. The downside: it’s really hard to get an author autograph on an audiobook. When buying for craft development, I NEED to see the text and will buy only a physical or e-book.
Oh, this damned question has made me wistful. Ian Tregillis’s Necessary Evil, I’ll be back to you soon.
It’s a great question, one that I agreed to write a response to specifically because I think that — maybe, possibly — I’m a bit of an outlier in current genre crowds. You see, I don’t really dig a lot of series fiction too much. The funny thing about this is that I have absolutely no problem with the concept (why would I? it obviously appeals to folks, resulting in more books sold and read!), and just as often no problem with the execution (there are so, so, so many good writers who write serial fiction exclusively); instead, I tend to get bored with the same world and characters, no matter how much I like them. I want to move on to other junk.
What can I say? I have kind of a short attention span. Looking at my bookshelf, it strikes me that the vast majority of my favorite novels are standalones well under 120,000 words. I love the relatively brief novel that does what it does and comes to a resounding — but not necessarily tidy — end.
(Before anyone who knows me jumps in to comment below… yes, I know I’m writing a sequel RIGHT NOW. Shut up. Leave me alone.)
(PS, I love you. But seriously, don’t poke the bear: obvious contradictions hurt him.)
This is not to say I don’t love certain series a great deal. Phyllis Gotlieb’s Lyhhrt Trilogy is up there, as is David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy. I loved my time in Zelazny’s Amber and Brust’s Dragaera. I read most of those as I typically do when I read a series: as if it were one extended novel. If I don’t have all (or most) of the books in front of me, generally, I won’t finish the series. I could never be one of those people reading A Song of Ice and Fire while still waiting for books to be produced, no matter how awesome.
Part of the reason for this, admittedly, is that I rarely re-read books. (Again: Short attention span. Want new stuff!)
The funny part about the whole situation is that, because series fiction is indeed so ubiquitous, I end up reading — and enjoying the hell out of — a lot of first-in-a-trilogy novels, knowing full well that I may not pick up the sequel. I find, for whatever reason, that I don’t typically care too much about plots, and so I’m never too bothered by one not coming to a resolution. (Of course, it’s generally better when they do, but I’ll take an emotional resolution any day over a plot resolution.)
Now that I’m writing this, I realize something: my preferences, I’d be willing to bet, have just as much to do with formative reading as they do with any real aspect of my personality. The science fiction I felt the most communion with in my early reading was stuff from the sixties and early seventies — an era in sf publishing when, undoubtedly, the series novel was less common. And plot resolution back then? Well, that was a thing you might hope for but just as often didn’t get. reading fiction from that era, I grew to like the more open-ended narrative, which now shows up in my reading preferences as well as what I write.
And… wow. Have I wrote all the above just to come to the conclusion, “You like what you like because you liked it before?”
Hmm. I guess so, and suppose that’s okay. I may just decide to re-read some of those books I rarely consider re-reading. Only a few of them will be parts of a series, but who knows? I may be more inspired to stay in those worlds a little longer this time.
Although we generally refer to groups of books as “series,” in fact when we use that term, we are often referring to both series and serials. In a series, each book stands on its own, and in a serial, books are conceived, or at least written, to tell one on-going story and later volumes require a familiarity with the earlier volumes.
Prime examples of series include Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga or Heinlein’s Future History series. For the most part, each book stands on its own and can be read without knowledge of the previous books in the series.
Examples of a serial include George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. More often than with a series, a serial is conceived of as a single unit, even if the author may lengthen the series of books as work progresses.
And for a strange amalgam of both, we have Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which can be read as stand alone novels, but also have an internal chronology for specific sub-serials.
When I was younger, I loved series, being able to dive in an engross myself in a strange world for three or five books. However, as I’ve grown older, and my time has grown less my own, and as serials have gotten longer, I find I prefer either stand-alone novels or loose series. While I would love to be able to spend the time reading through a well imagined world over the course of several books, watching a multitude of characters’ relationships grow and plot become more and more complex, because of my review schedule, I scarcely get to read that many books in a row that are my own choice, and I usually wind up reading books as they come out (or before they come out). My chance to read them as a solid block, or re-read earlier books before the newest one is published, are minimal.
So, when I do read series, no matter how much I enjoy them, I read them with the knowledge that I’m missing many of the nuances that stretch over the course of several novels, details which I would obsess over when I was younger, much as my daughters obsess over the details and continuity of Rowling’s Harry Potter novels or Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus. I’m glad my daughters can focus and remember those details, and I know several adult who can remember the same intricacies of plot and world building as they read serials by their favorite authors. Sometimes I miss having that ability.
And so, I have a tendency to read series more than serials, but either way, I just figure the author will give me the cues necessary to remember what happened in earlier novels and who the characters are. This doesn’t require a lot of repetition, but it does require that characters and events have significant signifiers.
I say “pure” stand-alone books to mean those that are not attached to any other world and which don’t have any sequels, like World War Z, Tigana, and Ready Player One.
Technically, The Heroes and The Emperor’s Soul are both stand-alones, but they tie into Joe Abercrombie’s and Brandon Sanderson’s previous works.
And there are plenty of novels which have sequels, but aren’t necessarily required to read, like Ender’s Game, Old Man’s War, Wool: Omnibus, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
However, I think the best stories are those which take place over multiple novels, and demand completion of all works for closure. Books like The Farseer Trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Wheel of Time, The Kingkiller Chronicle, and The Stormlight Archive.
Can you imagine being introduced to those worlds and only staying for one novel? It would be criminal.
The real beauty of a series is time.
We can’t help but care more for characters after spending 2,000 pages with them instead of 200, because we empathize when we see the decisions they make in difficult times, and how those choices change them (for better or worse) over the course of a story. More story = more decisions = more feels.
An unspoken pact is created between reader and author in a series. I, the reader, will stick around and give you my time—time to show me a fascinating world and the complex characters that inhabit it, and in return for my time, you, the author, will make me care—care harder than I thought possible.
(Quick note: none of this is to say that stand-alones and shorter works can’t tell good stories. They can, but I don’t think the same level of emotional connection can be achieved. Short stories and anthologies rock (see previous Mind Meld) and they make us think, but to be honest, I’ve never cried or thrown my arms up in delight during a short story.)
A climax that is skillfully built up towards over three or more novels absolutely blows us away when it hits. It is inevitable and unexpected, beautiful and sublime.
Now what happens if you interrupt that process? What if you stop—or take a long break—in a series? This has only happened once for me with a completed series, and happens all the time with works-in-progress. It’s a tough balance for the reader and the writer. There will be those who have just finished the previous book, and those who haven’t read it since it was published.
I’ve only tried a few times to pick up a series again after a long break, and well…I failed miserably. Mostly because I suffer hard from reader’s amnesia: where you remember why you fell in love with a series, and what was so cool about its world and characters, but events and details go hazy even after only a few months. After all, it’s the little things and the connections that make series worth all the effort.
The best strategy I’ve found is to re-read books in a series just before the latest one is published, as with The Republic of Thieves and Blood of Dragons (and probably Winds of Winter, The Doors of Stone, and The Broken Eye).
And we all need more excuses to re-read anyway.
My approach to reading series has changed a lot over the years. I happily used to jump in at book 1 of a new series, read the new ones as they were published, and do the Jo Walton “I’ll just quickly reread these five books” thing to refresh my memory. Now I have less time to reread earlier volumes, I’m finding it harder to keep track of all the details. Because of this, I occasionally find myself waiting until maybe the third book in a trilogy is about to be released before grabbing the first one, then reading all three in quick succession. When that’s not possible (e.g. when I’m supposed to review a title, or when I’m just too impatient to wait) I tend to reread just the last 50-100 pages of the previous volume to refresh my memory. (Speaking of: I’m a big fan of authors who include a timeline or a “What Happened Before” section at the start of each new book. If every series had one of those and a map, I’d be a happy reader.)
I just made an exception to this: I’d read the first six books in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series more than a decade ago, and felt like I didn’t remember enough to be comfortable with going straight to the next book. The promise of at least eight more unread books in that series was powerful, so I decided to treat myself to a reread of the first six books. (If George R.R. Martin ever finishes A Song of Ice and Fire, I may do the same for his series, which I lost track of during the wait between the fourth and fifth volumes.)
I’m a big fan of the standalone, the shorter format, the one-and-done style of storytelling, but there’s also something wonderfully comfortable about sinking your teeth into a long series. I don’t think my approach to either format is different, but due to time constraints and forgetfulness I do have to be a little pickier before committing to longer series. In the end, though, as long as it’s high quality writing, I don’t really care if it’s one book or twenty.
I see the proliferation of novel series as a financial reality of the marketplace. The novel has always been the prose form of a movie, with all the same financial, promotional and artistic hurdles to overcome, but on a drastically smaller scale. And, given the proliferation of entertainment options and the ease with which those options can be obtained online (legally or illegally), publishing houses and movie studios have clung to the same cash cow to nourish them through these market shifts: FRANCHISES. Every movie has to be Star Wars, and every novel has to be Harry Potter. If a book doesn’t lend itself to a sequel — hell, if the publisher can’t sign a preemptive contract for a sequel — the book doesn’t get published. All of which is to say, if you’re reading anything published in the last 10 years, you’re reading a series, even if you don’t intend to or aren’t aware of it. Almost any book can be a series and, if it has any sort of marketplace success, will become one, almost without exception.
(This isn’t new, by the way. Dickens serialized many of his novels in magazines because he made more money that way. Tolkien envisioned Lord of the Rings as one giant brick of a tome, only to be told he had to slice into thirds to get it to press, and he still needed a prequel and an addendum to get it all out there. The required length of publication has far more often had to do with the physical realities of binding limits and spinner racks and shipping weights and column inches than any artistic necessity. Writers have “written to fit” since forever; today they write to fit 100,000-word installments spaced out over years.)
On the surface, this doesn’t bother me. One of my favorite aspects of genre reading is the world-building, and well-developed setting lends itself to a number of stories within that world. I also love the idea that, after reading a book that enthralled me, there’s more books like that waiting to be read or waiting to be published. My only real concern as a reading consumer is value for my dollar. Does the unit of story I’m plunking down money for offer something in and of itself worthwhile, or is it just a toll I have to pay to get to some eventual plot and character closure at some distant point in the future?
If I discover a well-regarded series in the middle of its run, I generally decline to pick it up until the run is over. I’ve read not one word of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, because I have no desire to jump in midway (or, in Jordan’s case, read a story the author never finished, even if someone else did). If I catch a series at the ground floor, as I did with Charles Stross’s Laundry novels or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, I tend to keep up. I think that’s a defensive measure against getting caught up in a series that goes on too long and withers away; by waiting until the whole arc is done I can gauge if any part of it is worth investing in. My reading time is so limited I don’t want to waste it getting two-thirds of a good story out of a trilogy.
I tried that with the 1632/Grantville series by Eric Flint, but it metastasized to multiple authors and an unwieldy cast of characters — almost literally a whole town — and I simply couldn’t keep pace, and the works stopped being novels some much as history books of this counterfactual setting. I try every few years to go back because the early books were so good and am reminded why I shouldn’t.
Everything is a series now, but that’s made a more cautious consumer on the whole, rather than a more willing one.
This timing of this question is quite serendipitous; I recently had similar thoughts running through my head. On the second count, I’m returning to a series after a long absence – David Anthony Durham’s Acacia, after having read the first in the trilogy The War with the Mein back in 2007. Since it has been over six years since I read the first one, I re-read it so I could go through the trilogy in succession and at the time I submitted this response I was on the second installment The Other Land. Good news for me is that enjoyed the first book perhaps more on the second reading, no suck fairy here.
On the whole; however, there is no one singular way that *I* approach reading book series. Longer series I tend to stagger reading the books. For example, The Wheel of Time and The Dresden Files are probably the two longest series I’ve read and/or am reading. When I initially read The Wheel of Time, I would read, at most, two of the books back-to-back and when I began to re-read the series after abandoning it for approximately a decade, I tried read at least a few a year. So in a sense, The Wheel of Time for me fits into an abandonment, a re-read, and a staggered read.
With The Dresden Files, I’ve enjoyed every installment I’ve read since embarking on the series in 2006. I try to read at least one per year, and more often than not two or three per year. I’ve still got the two most recent installments Ghost Story and Cold Days waiting for me, so chances are I’ll read either those back to back or hold off on Cold Days until we are closer to the publication date of Skin Game to read it. Another series that falls into this category, since it works somewhat as connected “singletons” would be Steven Brust’s terrific Vlad Taltos series. The thing about series of this nature is that I don’t mind not having read all the books in the series and knowing that there’s always more of the series for me to read. In short, knowing I’ve got a dependable read waiting for me is a good thing. Recently, L.E. Modesitt’s Recluce books could possibly fall into this category since I enjoyed the first one so much. The series seems to be related singletons and by the author’s own admission/goal, he rarely writes two novels back-to-back in the same time period.
Of course there are series that I read immediately upon publication of a new book in the series: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (though I re-read the whole series when each book publishes), any series that Tad Williams has published or will publish, and more recently Myke Cole’s Shadow OPS books, Peter Brett’s Demonwar cycle, and since reading her latest as Rachel Bach, any series Rachel Aaron writes, and so on and so forth…
Another reading habit/method could be called “testing the waters:” If I’ve enjoyed the first book in the series (i.e. Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy) I’ll wait until the trilogy or series is completed if it appears the author is publishing the books on an annual/consistent basis. That is, I’ve read the first and will be reading books 2 and 3 back-to-back when book 3 publishes. Another series that falls into this category is S. Andrew Swann’s Apotheosis trilogy. I’ve read the first, but have books 2 and 3 waiting for me, though they are gathering more dust than I’m proud to admit. Also, now that the series is complete and published, I really want to catch up with Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels.
Returning and say, picking up book 5 after last reading book 4 in a series where the books are part of the whole rather than episodes proves challenging, as I enumerated in the blog post I linked above. The one series it looks like I may finally give up on is The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I’ve read the first seven books (most recently Reaper’s Gale the seventh book about four years ago) and one of the books by Ian Cameron Esslemont. However based on the fair-to-middling things I’ve seen about the last three books in the main 10 book sequence and how much I did not enjoy Forge of Darkness, I am not inclined to continue.
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