Brandon Sanderson famously finished Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time while writers like Roger Zelazny (“Amber”) and George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire”) have said nobody will finish their series or continue their work. Would you want another writer to pick up an unfinished series by an author?
We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
I imagine series are left unfinished for a variety of reasons. Cancelled contracts, unexercised options, authors switching publishers, uncooperative muses, poor health, death, etc. Some of these reasons are within an author’s control and some are not. Sometimes an author has the opportunity to make their wishes known and sometimes they don’t.
Preserving the author’s legacy, as he or she intended, should be the author’s right and, as a reader, I respect that. If that means their legacy is an unfinished series, so be it. We readers have imaginations, after all. No author would wish it (we all feel a great responsibility to our readers to deliver satisfying endings), but perhaps the most profound legacy an author can leave is an infinite number of endings.
It’s a complex issue, mainly because the types of series that publishers would like to continue after the death of the original author are usually also the types of series that have large, devoted, vocal fanbases who will not be shy about expressing their discontent about, well, anything that makes the new books less than the old ones.
There’s always the chance of a good outcome: even though I haven’t read them, I’m told that Brandon Sanderson’s continuation of the “Wheel of Time” is well done. Then again, he had the benefit of a) being a big fan of the original series b) having access to the late Robert Jordan’s team and c) already some serious writing chops of his own. Starting from such a position is probably ideal — and even then there’ll be naysayers.
On the other end of the success spectrum is the bloated corpse that used to the “Dune” series. The original novels themselves gradually diminished in quality, which probably should have set off some alarm bells when talk of reviving “Dune” first came up, but then it really got ugly when Brian Herbert and (gasp) Kevin J. Anderson got their hands on the elder Herbert’s source material.
(I have, by the way, recurring nightmares in which it’s announced that, after the sad passing of Iain M. Banks, Kevin J. Anderson is planning to write a dozen “Culture” novels. If this ever becomes reality, please approach me gently, possibly armed with a tranquilizer gun and a big butterfly net.)
In the end, when handing over an author’s work to another author, you’re effectively turning it into a shared world. Without the benefit of the originator’s participation, there are going to be problems. It’s almost guaranteed that there’s going to be some fan backlash. Whether the commercial potential outweighs the tarnishing of an original, beloved work of fantasy or SF is a tough decision to make. Personally, I can’t think of many instances when this successfully happened. Watchmen‘s creator Alan Moore is probably closest to my opinion, in that he refused to endorse or have anything to do with the film version and newer prologues of his classic work. Some things are better left alone.
This is a tough one. Something I’m squirming over, frankly. But before I answer, let’s lay out some ground rules. I think we have to assume that we’re talking about a series that we truly love, because if not, the stakes don’t really matter all that much, do they? I think we also have to assume that the author has said no to this question (and is no longer around to argue) and the fans are saying yes. The examples (“Amber” and “A Song of Ice and Fire”) are both dear to me, so they’re challenging to answer from my perspective. When I try to imagine someone else picking up Martin’s work, I have a knee-jerk reaction of NO DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HIS WORK!—not only from the perspective of the author and his desires to have his work remain untouched, but also from the perspective that I consider Martin to be a singular talent, and I know that anything written by another author will let me down in some ways (perhaps many ways). That said, I’ll admit that it would leave quite an ache if the story of the Stark children was never finished. So to me the question comes down to this: would having the final story be worth it being altered and, well, sullied by another writer?
Last year on Speculate!, the podcast I run with Greg Wilson, we were interviewing Scott Lynch about his wonderful” Gentlemen Bastard” series, and we got to talking about the implied contract writers create with readers—whether there was one, how far it extended; that sort of thing—and Scott said that he believed that the author owed the reader the full story. If you said you were going to provide a trilogy, you really do owe them a trilogy. I’m with Scott. Readers become very invested in their fiction (I know I certainly do), and I think it’s fair to say that if you put down good money for the first instalment, you really ought to provide all the instalments you said you were going to provide in the beginning. Now, Scott also said that you don’t owe the reader their version of the story, and I believe that to be true as well. A writer owes it to herself and the story to finish it the way she wants to. So does the death of the writer absolve the author from that contact? Not entirely. Not to my mind, anyway. I think it’s rather important to get a whole story out and into the hands of the reader, especially one that becomes as beloved as Amber and the tales of Westeros.
So when it comes right down to it, what’s my answer? Do I want another writer to pick up an unfinished series? I’ll say yes, with two conditions. First, the writer must have left some sort of indication (notes or prior conversations with editors, friends, or what have you) of where the story was headed and how it resolved. Second, the author picking up the work must not only be competent, but can write the story in a similar vein as that of the original author.
If those two conditions were met, I’d grit my teeth and read the final installments, content in knowing that I was reading (more or less) what the author intended. If not, then I say let the story die and let everyone wonder what might have been…
As a writer, my automatic reaction is that no one could finish a series of my creation the way I could. Anyone who’s ever edited an anthology will tell you that you can give the same idea to a dozen different authors and get a dozen completely different results. This means that even with specific notes and however many installments have already been produced by the original author to consider, anyone coming in from the outside will inevitably write a different story than what the original author would have. Every writer is different. That’s kind of the point. Another author can try to complete someone else’s series but it will never be the same. From that point of view, there’s no point in even trying. It would be a waste of creative energy, a poor relation. It wouldn’t be the story you were writing. It wouldn’t be *your* story.
As a reader, of course, there is nothing more frustrating than a story which is never completed. You want to know what happens! If the publisher and/or heirs to the original author’s estate decide to bring someone else in to complete it, at least you get to find out how it ends. And, equally for sure, the vast majority of followers of the series will buy the result, read it at a speed similar to that of light approaching a black hole, and then complain that it wasn’t written by the original author. One could argue that shouldn’t come as a surprise but it would be wasted breath. As much as you want to find out how the story ends, it will never be the same. How could it be?
So you can’t actually win either way but it’s probably the biggest challenge any author will ever face. It’s a challenge which in my opinion can’t be nailed but a truly exceptional author can come close. For many, close is better than nowhere. At least the story has an ending..
This has been a very hot topic of discussion since “A Song of Ice and Fire” was adapted by HBO to become the hit series that it is today – Game of Thrones. What if something were to happen to GRRM before he finishes the series? Fans would be devastated that such a talented writer’s lifelong project would come to an abrupt halt. Naturally, the question is very rude on the surface and it’s very understandable that he’d be upset that fans are talking about him dying (and he’s in a rather hilarious video in which he flips the bird to fans who think that). But it’s also a somewhat valid concern for fans who’ve followed the series for almost two decades. The latest installment of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, A Dance with Dragons, has left a ton of questions unanswered, and personally I’d hate to never read the true answers to those questions. The show will almost certainly surpass Martin’s pace of writing (when it comes to strictly this series at least), and as much as I’m enjoying it (easily one of the best on TV), the show will be pretty damn different from what Martin has planned.
In the case of Wheel of Time, Jordan, according to what I’ve read online (I stopped at book 5), was struggling to write a coherent storyline up until his untimely passing. Brandon Sanderson, the absurdly prolific author who finished the series for Jordan, seems to have ended it in a way that Jordan didn’t seem to be able to do. Zelazny’s Amber is another very popular fantasy series, and when Zelazny passed due to kidney failure, John Betancourt’s usage of the Amber multiverse caused significant controversy among people who were firm believers that the man had no plans for someone to continue his work, or even make use of his multiverse.
The case of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is unique in that, as mentioned before, the show will overcome the books in the next season or two. In regard to the books alone, d o I want the series to be finished? Hell yes. Would I want an author like Sanderson to finish them? It really depends. I don’t know if Sanderson would handle the content very well, as we all know he has trouble killing off characters among other things (at least in his own work, I haven’t read his WoT stuff) , but with an author versed in the same style? It’s tough to say. I’d liken it to the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker or even Ben Affleck as the new Batman – the former nobody believed would even come close to the personality of the Joker and who ended up shattering everyone’s expectations, and the latter still in the “we’ll know it when we see it” stage.
I guess the short answer is: We don’t know until someone comes along and does well, pleasing everyone, or damages the legacy of a very popular author, to the point that they shout “Burn her/him!” because he/she weighed the same as a duck.
There are several nuances to answer the question of whether an unfinished series should be completed by another author. First, the assumption posited is as if the author herself has no say in it.
Using your examples, Zelazny is reported as not wanting any more “Amber” books written and it is my understanding that a loophole was found that let a writer exploit the series. This I disagree with strongly. Thus let “A Song of Ice and Fire” end where Martin desires. If an author has expressed such a DNR, like in life, remember the good times fiercely and carry on. However if in the case of McCaffrey, Tolkien or Jordan, if a close family member takes on the role of carrying on the work through editing, scholarship or writing more fiction, with the author’s blessing, then I wholly embrace it. This sentiment extends into a broad interpretation of unfinished work. If the original author approves, then let the readers decide if they enjoy it and want more. Perhaps incongruously, my feelings are similar for works free of copyright. Nicholas Meyer’s Holmes novels are superb entertainments, as are Alan Moore’s several pastiches (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Lost Girls, etc.), the superb Datlow and Windling edited anthologies of fairy tale retellings.
The idea that there can be only one voice of certain entertainments, free of copyright or with the author’s permission, has been proven erroneous many times from nearly the entire comics industry, music sampling and cover songs, to movie franchises. I’m not saying abandon copyright protection or anything ridiculous, I am saying that there can be a great joy and value to be found in many of these extensions and reimaginings both personally and culturally. Sure some are deplorable. But don’t patronize those. There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. We can talk about this more outside The Ziegfeld Theater as I side-eye my opening day ticket to see Episode VII.