Monday, September 9, 2013

Standalone or Series?

I know which I prefer

While there are plenty of standalone stories I love (A Canticle for Leibowitz, Bellwether, and many Christies, for a few) I find that most of my favorite books are series. And I don’t mean mammoth multi-book epics – though I loved the Wheel of Time books, I’d rather not have to wait a quarter of a century to get to the end of a story.

No, what I appreciate the most are the series where the individual books stand alone, satisfying in and of themselves. Because if I love the writing and the characters and their world, I’ll want to return – again and again, if possible.

There’s a wide variety even among these. Some series show little or no change in the characters and their world – I love the Nero Wolfe stories in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that Wolfe and Archie and their world remain the same.

Though I generally prefer series that grow and develop and change over time (both the characters and their world) – the kind that are best read in order and reward the regular reader. (And that’s what I’m trying to write.)

What I don’t like (and I hate to criticize, so I’m not naming any names) are series that try to convince you that the characters are changing and developing when they’re really only running around in circles. I can read ten books in a series like this and still give up and never read any more, because they promise something but keep failing to deliver.

There really are no rules on the right way to write a series, though. Take Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books – stories set in the same world and sometimes sharing some of the same characters, but swinging back and forth among wildly different eras (and even writing styles.) And yet it works beautifully.

Then you have the mysteries of Georgette Heyer or the intrigues of Helen MacInnes – which are truly standalones, but which occasionally have characters from one book pop up in others. And the writing style is so strong and distinct that the books taken together create a consistent world that lives in the imagination. And it feels like a series.

Donna Andrew’s Turning Hopper books have a strong arc that tell a bigger story across several books (in addition to the individual stories for each one.) But her Meg Langslow mysteries grow and develop over time in a more gentle fashion, creating their own world (rather than one big story) and expanding it.

Exactly where my own books will fall along this spectrum is difficult to say. I already know there’s enough change for the characters and the developing story of the ‘world’ in the background that my books will probably best be read in order. But I don’t consider them to be simply parts of one long story – each book aims to tell a complete story that I hope is satisfying in and of itself without having to read the next book.

That’s what I’m aiming for, but we’ll see.

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