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August 11, 2006

How Long is Too Long?

How Long is Too Long?

By Rebecca the Bookseller

Look, we can all be dull at times. We start prattling on about something we consider fascinating, and the next thing you know, our companions have nodded off into their pasta. But that's not what I'm talking about here.  I’m not talking about periodic slips into tedium. I’m talking about the chronic bores.

Blog_bored These people don’t know they’re boring. They don’t think they’re boring. Usually, they’re nice, or smart, or kind, otherwise you wouldn’t keep hanging out with them. And you don’t want to hurt their feelings by yelling, right up in their face: "Yo, Bub - You’re boring us to tears, man! We’re ready to pull our own teeth out just for the distraction." One does not say such things in polite society.

There are other ways. Remember the old Scope Ads? If someone had bad breath, you put a bottle of Scope Mouthwash in their mailbox, and they got the hint. This worked well, except on borderline psychotics, who had to be institutionalized for a short period to deal.*

I’ve seen partners give eachother signals - you know, how the international sign for "You have something on your face, wipe it off" is the focused eye contact accompanied by the napkin to the mirror- image location. Same concept. If a certain someone has reached a level of humdrum that borders on torture, their companion will give them various signs - the raised eyebrow, the clearing of the throat, the swift kick to the gonads under the table**, that kind of thing, to alert their beloved that some line is being crossed.

The same thing can happen in a book series- oh yeah, you didn’t think I’d get to books, did you? Six degrees, baby. One of the great debates in authordom is the great series question: How long is too long? Putting aside the exceptions - Sue Grafton, Diane Mott Davidson, J.D. Robb - who have created and run with such great characters that we never want them to end, I think the fact is that every series has an endpoint.

In pop culture, a series is said to have reached its creative end when it Jumps the Shark, a reference to a scene from the TV show Happy Days, when Fonzi, complete with leather jacket, jumps over a shark on water skis.  Even the producers knew it was the beginning of the end.  Is there a different term in the book business? I don’t know one, and I’ve asked around, so if you’ve heard of one, let the rest of us know.  200pxfonzie_jumps_the_shark

There is no magic number. Sometimes five is just enough, sometimes three is too many, and sometimes seven is even better than one. Sometimes it’s obvious - the characters finally solve an arced mystery that has spanned several books. Or all the characters’ issues are resolved - like when two characters who have been playing catch and release finally get married or kill eachother. Then everybody - author, publisher, readers - all of them feel good about the series and look forward to the next project.

Sometimes, and this is the tough part - it’s obvious to the reader, or to the bookseller, but not to the author. Publishers - who knows - as long as they are making money, I’m not sure they care how good the books are. In rare cases, it’s a pitched battle. Anne Rice, for example, ended her LeStat series amid great wailing from her fans about the integrity of her characters. She responded by offering them their money back - after all, she said, those characters were her creations - no one knew them better than she. Not everyone has made enough of a fortune to take that position, but more power to her, I say.

What about the rest of the authors - and readers? For authors, do you want to know? If so, what’s the best way to put it? For readers - do you tell your authors you think they should hang it, up, or just stop buying?

What do you think?

* This is not medical advice. Seek immediate help if the thought of Scope in your mailbox has you running for the handguns.

**This is not relationship advice. Don’t kick anyone in the gonads, unless it’s in self-defense. They tend to vomit, and can be useless in many ways for days afterwards.

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Well, personally, if I like a series I want it to go on forever, until the author is dead, and even after if possible. Then I'll have the luxury of always knowing there will be something out there I already know I'll like.

But if it is going to be a limited one, I like knowing how many there are going to be. In the case of two of my favorites, Harry Potter and the Mitford books by Jan Karon, the authors were very up front about how many books there would be, so you know the end is coming.

I guess the universal sign for authors that something has been lost along the way is that the sales are not there anymore. I don't know how else it could work, since I don't think authors should continue to write or not write something based on comments from fans, if that is what they really want to do. Plus, due to human nature, fans tend to be more vocal about complaints than satisfaction, so you're not always getting the whole picture. On the authors' end, if they're just not feeling it anymore, and do it just to do it, neither side will be satisfied.

With that said, none of the authors here are allowed to stop! :)

I like a series in which the status quo changes a little bit in each book. So that's what I write.

But that's not the way most people feel, is it? My mother, for instance, loves entering the same world over & over. She gets annoyed if a character is killed off or the family/love interest situation is different from one book to the next--perhaps because she doesn't read the books in order.

Great topic, Rebecca.

Nancy, I'm with you. I like series because I like finding characters who become friends and family. But if they don't grow and change, and if they just seem to repeat the same behavior patterns over and over and over again (hmm -- kind of like that season 6 Buffy episode . . .), I get really bored. At which point I vote with my wallet and stop buying the books.

We actually talked about this last night at my mystery book club meeting. The general concensus was... any formula is good, until it becomes so obvious that there are no surprises. I'm a sucker for twists and unexpected events as long as they make sense, but still want some form and a definite plot. There have been times I've picked up the newest book in a series ( no one here of course) and thought I've read it already. That's when I stop buying. I like the comfort of established characters, but if they don't grow as the series progresses it wastes my time and there are too many other good books waiting to be read. I'm probably in the minority but I never made it past L in the Milhone series...I just lost interest. On the other hand, I loved Dianne Day's historical series set in San Francisco and was disappointed when she wrote no more. Still, on re-reading the last chapter, I realized she had tied up the loose ends and more was not necessary. I think it's a fine line. Maybe readers should be more vocal and let the writer know these things. I agree with Nancy. Great topic, Rebecca.

One of my favorite series jumped that shark about two books ago, but the books are still selling - big.

The first five were absolute gold - the next three were good, the following two were just OK, and the last two just suck.

This makes me wonder if people are buying them out of habit, or because it's The summer book to have, or because of the P.R.

I guess I'll have to change the title of my next blog, Rebecca, since I was going to talk about this subject too.

The answer to the question is Yes, there is such a thing as too long.

I loved Lawrence Saunders' books - the Deadly Sins were terrific, and Archie McNally is one of my all time favorite characters.

In a move that rarely works, a man named Vincent Lardo continued to write the McNally series after Saunders' death. You could tell the writing was different, but the spirit of the character was still there, and it was a great gift for fans like me - or like Laura, who also wants her favorites to continue post mortem.

I'm really wrestling with this right now in my own series. On the one hand, I have readers who tell me they want it to go on and on and on, and I love these characters and this world. On the other, I don't think I can keep stretching things out much longer than I have already written (I've got two books written that haven't been published, so this really isn't a premature worry for a series that's only got two books in the stores now). I think I can do one more good book that won't artifically prolong the conclusion of certain things. There is the possibility that I could start a new arc in the new situations created by the end of the first arc, but I'm not sure it would have the same "magic" (pun intended).

One thing I am doing to sort of stretch things out is write a non-series book before I even make a decision about what happens next in the series. But then I have to worry if my readers will follow me into a totally different area or if it's these characters and situations they love, and not me or my writing.

Sure, we talk about this in the book store and our reading groups too. We find that after 5 to 7 books, authors have mastered many things about the craft of writing thru the series and other voices keep calling to them. It seems that's when they write the stand-alone book that's been nagging at them.

For some readers the series characters have become friends-------------allbeit the convenient ones who don't call you in the middle of the night or say things that offend you personally. That is much the reason some folks don't want those "friends" to disappear from their lives forever.

However, times change and like when the lights go out in a Charlie han movie----you just know how this will wrap up. I loved the Rex Stout books until three in a row the killer offed himself--------a good solution for Rex Stout because there was no way to get a conviction.

Good topic. Maybe other book clubs could come up with thoughts on this subject.................it does define what your choices are for future books.

Mary Alice....digging in for a busy Fall of author events.

I agree with Ro - and I think I know which series is referred to. I keep reading them out of habit and out of fear that, even though the last few have been subpar, maybe the newest is back up to the old standards. Also, I sometimes think it's me - I've grown tired of a character or writer. I would think, however, that a drop in book sales would be a hint to an author that there may be a problem.

Some questions for those lucky people who get paid for making up stories and writing them down, and their readers:

Why's the trilogy a staple? (I guess it's like the 3-act play, but am curious about how it works).

Is the trilogy a series?

Is a series bound to the same characters, or can only common situations be used?

Is it more common for a series to end because,
a. the author's had enough
b. the characters have hed enough
c. reviewer, editor fatigue
d. audience exhaustion.

Do you keep your favorite characters after finishing a series to reintroduce them in an unrelated story, and what are the attributes you keep and which do you have to change (beyond the obvious)?

Can one common character carry a series or must there always be a group?

How long between installments (do you call them installments?) do you like to wait? What determines this? Your capacity? Sales?
Editors and contracts? The Muse?

Who invented the series? (not Homer?) What are your architypes? Your favorites?

What's involved in taking the story back in time subsequent to doing the first book?
What causes this for you? At what point does going back make sense?

Thanks for riffing on any of these.

I think people enjoy entering and returning to a special world, be it Middle Earth or Narnia or Mayberry RFD.

Yet, jumping the shark should be a concern -look how poor NBC drained the spontineity out of good shows like "Frasier" "Friends" and "ER." Look how the "Star Trek" faced the final frontier called the economic law of diminishing returns.

I think stand alones are great for a writer's growth. You never know if you can use a character from a stand alone who will interact with your series hero/heroine sometime.


Ro and Beachfla, I think I know the series too. Those first books - even up through the 8th and 9th, were so hilarious - but I had to force myself to even finish last year's, and this year, I didn't bother at all.

Maybe they'll get better - I thought Sue Grafton had a lull around M and N, but R and S were terrific.

The same thing can happen with music - I loved the Dixie Chicks from the very first, but I thought their new CD was pretty redundant. If you have the early CDs, it sounds a lot like the stuff they've already done.

TES--You've asked a bunch o'questions. I know some of the answers:

Trilogies usually happen because book contracts are three books. (Although, increasingly, I hear of 2 book deals.)

In the thriller world, trilogies may use the same cast of characters, but not necessarily the same protagonist. (I have a friend who writes very popular thrillers in which the protags are a family of sisters and brothers.) But a series--which is usually a mystery--has one sleuth as the protag.

Series are usually cancelled for economic reasons--either the publisher isn't making enough or the author moves to greener financial pastures. Sometimes series end because the author has decided to move on for creative reasons, too. Or...uhm...died.

The time elapse between books is usually a function of how long it takes the author to write a new installment. Some writers manage a book a year. Others (who said Heather Graham?) can write as many as--gulp--five books in a year.

For what it's worth, I've ended my series twice. I thought the third book was the last (I hadn't heard from my editor whether or not they might offer me another contract) so I basically ended the story arc of my protagonist. Then they offered me a 2 book deal, so I ended the series again after the 5th book. Then they offered me *another* 2 book deal, and I'm just starting the "last" book now. Since I wrote romance novels, though, I think I'm pretty good a fully examining a character's various inner conflicts--meaning I can re-invent a story arc for my protagonist. It's often a function of going into the character's backstory to find a kernal of something interesting--an emotional issue, a mistake, a regret, etc--that will propel the character into another story or two.

I like your other creative questions a lot. (Archetypes! My passion!) Let me think 'em over. Meanwhile, maybe somebody else has opinions?

Why's the trilogy a staple? (I guess it's like the 3-act play, but am curious about how it works).

Yea, the Greeks started it with Oedipus and Orestes and Frances Ford Coppola, George Lucas and other mother film makers have continued the tradition for modern movie audiences.

Given that students study Greek drama in 6th grade, I believe, the trilogy is born again in all story telling practices.

Very interesting subject. I happen to love series, but have some problems staying interested. Not a good combination.

Obviously, when sales start slipping, the author should know that he/she needs to do something...either wrap up the series, take a hard look at how to freshen it up...something. I think most of us will stay with a series we have liked a book or two after we have ceased to enjoy it, at least that is true with me. I want to see if the book or two were just a slump on the author's part, or if the series is for real going south.

I really, really hate when a series I have loved starts to slip, but at the same time, I think that it would be incredibly difficult to keep book after book about the same characters fresh.

I like some growth in the characters, at least most of the time, but not so they become unrecognizable. I don't much see Jack Reacher growing, nor do I really want him to. Those books are about the adventure, not the character growth.

What would you authors want a reader to tell you?

Lula Todd

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