Series are evil things. Sometimes they sneak up on you—as in you don’t know you’re reading the first (or third) novel of a longer story until you get to the end. Feeling a little wrung out, you turn the last page and ask, “Is that it?” You have to go hunting for the next book, or the first book, or any book. Sometimes a series teases without delivering. You go into the next book thinking, just one more book, then I’m done. But you’re not. Sometimes a series is guilty of nothing more than robbing you of a week (or month) of your life. You don’t mind at the time, but when you emerge from that other world to find all your houseplants dead and something growing in the bathroom, it’s hard to shake off the fog and get back to it.
Now that I have the series experience as both a reader and a writer, I wanted to share some of the worlds I fell out of love with, and those I will read until…forever.
I’m a strong believer in every book of a series having a strong singular arc, or a story that wraps up fairly tidily at the end. Too many questions and it’s an unsatisfying read. Too few, and you’re done. You don’t need to read on. The perfect series novel should feel like a chapter of a greater story. It should be a complimentary course in a banquet. But, to continue my food analogy (I do this a lot when writing reviews), there is a point where the wait until the next course is too long, the next dish is completely wrong for the menu, or you’re just too full to continue. You’re done.
As a reader, one of the most frustrating things about being invested in a series is the wait for an imperfect book. It’s not always a matter of the book being the worst thing ever written. More, it’s that the author went in a different direction—which is to be expected on a long journey. Put a hundred of us at the southern tip of Manhattan and few of us will arrive at Central Park by the same route. Or it may have been that they killed the character you loved best, or retired them. (And they’re hoping none of their fans rescue them from the side of the road during a blizzard, nurse them back to health and force them to write, or else.)
I think for many of us, though, it’s simply a matter of getting bored. The couple we’ve been following find their HEA, the threat from the first book is finally neutralised, or the hero has been resurrected one too many times. Sometimes dead needs to stay dead. (Looking at you, Jack Bauer.) Or maybe the story has wandered into new territory that simply doesn’t interest you. I got to book eight of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series before giving up and I was seriously invested in those books. I replaced houseplants twice and moved house rather than clean my bathrooms while in the midst of them. But then the Seanchan invaded and the road to Tarmon Gai'don just seemed to get longer and longer and…I was done.
If I hadn’t been waiting for Qhuinn and Blaylock to get their groove on, I’d probably have stopped reading The Black Dagger Brotherhood around book seven (Lover Avenged, which should have been called Lover Ahvenged, and was my favourite entry in the series).
I gave up on Sookie Stackhouse when she went to New Orleans. Actually, I think I missed a book before then and just got lost.
Let’s talk about the series I’m still reading. I recently finished Archmage by R.A. Salvatore. If you’ve read every book even tangentially related to the Legend of Drizzt, we’re at nearly forty books and counting. I’m still not bored.
Lois McMaster Bujold could write Miles as a cantankerous old man confined to a wheelchair and I’d still read him. Hell, I want to read that book. I also need another Ivan book. Stat. Not tearing my hair out waiting for the ARC of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is hard. I could also read novels in Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire forever. In any order.
We have quite a few authors here, on Here Be Magic, who have series going that I am invested in. Jeffe Kennedy, Angela Highland, Veronica Scott and Steve Vera have all sucked me into their worlds.
So what about this series I’ve just finished writing (with my BFF Jenn Burke)? Before we even wrote the first word of Chaos Station (which was called Space Boys until we finished our first draft), we talked about series and story arcs. We talked about series we were still reading, and why, and series we’d given up on. The why there is just as important. When had the story lost us? What could have kept us invested?
The answers are simple and complicated. On the simple side we have story and character. On the complicated side we have…story and character. Story includes the world, in my opinion. The story and the setting should be inextricably linked. Same with the characters, to a degree. They’re the moving parts, right? You can introduce new characters while keeping the reader invested in your world. You can sometimes retire old ones. But for me, a compelling character—a voice that sings inside me—can be all it takes to keep me reading a book I might have put down otherwise. Characters are important.
Jenn and I could, quite conceivably, keep writing adventures for Zander and Felix until the Milky Way collides with Andromeda. We’d probably lose the bulk of our readers around book six, though. That’s an actual statistic. Apparently the sixth book is when readers start to get bored with a series in a measurable way.
We decided to tell Zander and Felix’s story in five books for a couple of other reasons.
One—we didn’t want to write these books forever, and having just got to the end of our draft for the fifth book, oh, thank goodness we’re not. I’m exhausted. I love these guys. There’s a part of me that could quite easily spin tales about Felix until they bury my ashes with an apple tree. He’s special in ways that would only make sense to another writer. But I want to write other characters and I want to explore other worlds. Readers want to explore other worlds too. Hopefully with me.
Two—when you write a series featuring one main couple, you need to give them a happy ever after sooner rather than later. There is a point where putting it off is the same as one of those decade-long engagements. Why aren’t they married yet? What are they waiting for? And why, for the love of all the cheese in the universe, are they still looking for adventure when they’ve nearly died six times? There’s a point, you know? There’s a definite time to lay down the tools and say, “I’m done.”
We didn’t want to push past that point. There are other stories in the world we’ve created and maybe one day we’ll tell them—with new characters and fresh voices.
Well, I’ve been rambling on and on like a series that just won’t quit. Must be time to wrap up this post. As a reader, I do love series. There is nothing more comforting than slipping back into a well-loved world and adventuring with characters who feel like an extension of yourself. As a writer, I think I’ll continue to write them, because sometimes it’s hard to let go. Series can be a reflection of life, in a way. Of us. Even in our mundane and suburban lives, we’re often looking for the next adventure. For so many of us, there’s that little refrain echoing around the back of my head: “Just one more book.”
What are some of your favourite series and which ones did you quit before they were done?
If aliens ever do land on Earth, Kelly will not be prepared, despite having read over a hundred stories of the apocalypse. Still, she will pack her precious books into a box and carry them with her as she strives to survive. It’s what bibliophiles do.
Until then, she plans to keep reading, writing about reading, and writing stories of her own.