Book series

May 24th, 2004 § 12 comments

Regular visitors probably know I’m an avid reader. I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. I never can have enough of books. If you are thinking of sending me a gift, please send me a book.

When I was younger, I used to read two books each day. The librarians at the school’s library didn’t believe I could read so fast — even if the books were not that big — and sometimes wouldn’t let me borrow more books after I had returned the ones I was reading at the time. My love for books is one of the few constant things in my live. I have to avoid going into bookstores lest I spend excessively in books.

Of course, I have my favorite genres — namely, science fiction and fantasy. I grew up dreaming of becoming a scientist, and daydreaming about faraway places in distant pasts, remote futures, and imaginary worlds. Life eventually decreed I would follow a different path, which I’m still trying to see clearly.

Anyway, this is a rant from a book lover. Few free to ignore it. I had been intending to write it for a long time, and now I’m glad it’s off my chest.

I’m going to talk about book series. Series are traditional in literature. From stories serialized across multiple maganize issues to those split in multiple book volumes, writers who had a long story to tell always found a way to get it to their readers. Over the time, series became such an ingrained aspect of the industry that many publishing houses today expect writers to automatically think about sequels to their books — especially, of course, for those books who are wildly successful.

I like long stories. If the plot is engaging, the characters are compelling, and the book is not ridden with flaws, I’m willing to go along the writer for as long as he decides to continue with the story. I’m also more than willing to wait for the writer as he takes his time to perfect the story.

Long ago, when I still used to play RPG, I found them to be one of the most satisfying creative experiences I ever had. I always wanted to be the game master because that provided me with a way to create never-ending, always-expanding stories that followed characters for years. So I really like long story arcs.

However, in the past few years I have developed a strong dislike for book series. Except for a few writers, I can’t seem to stand them anymore.

Take, for example, Robert Jordan’s best-selling The Wheel of Time. It’s a good story. It’s full of interesting story arcs, has a rich mythology background and engaging ideas. Or rather, it was a good story. When I first started reading the series, I couldn’t put the books down. I kept wanting to know more about what was going to happen, where the story would lead. I read the first five books one after the other, always eager for more. Then came book six.

With book six, the series started to go down a different path. Book six was still interesting, but it lacked the fast-paced style of the previous five books. Long descriptive passages, with no plot movement whatsoever cluttered it. The next four books in the series went from bad to worse. Except for the ending of book nine, all other books were too slow. Book nine, by the way, was just a long setup for its last chapter — hundreds of pages just following characters around while they didn’t almost nothing. Book ten was the worst of the lost. Even die-hard fans were bored to death by it. I mean, the book was almost a thousand pages long and half of it was wasted with a single character who spends his entire time in the book waiting for something to happen. Fans now are debating whether Robert Jordan will finish the story someday or not.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be going down a similar path. The fourth book has been delayed for such a long time that fans don’t believe it’s coming anymore.

Terry Goodkind wisely chose a different strategy. When his best-selling The Sword of Truth series started losing steam, he announced he would write only more three books after the ones he had already written and that they would comprise a sing storyline — a nice way to stifle complaints that the previous two books were too dull.

(Terry Goodkind really deserves an aside. I’m always amazed at the things he says. I really don’t know where he finds the gall to say them.

I was once listening to one interview with him in a radio station, and he declared he had single-handedly killed the fantasy genre and that science fiction was a genre that had committed suicide. Last time I checked, both genres were doing just fine, thank you very much. That was after saying that he didn’t write fantasy, but “novels”. All because his books are packed with Objectivism, which he thinks is the One and True Doctrine. Later in the interview, I was amused to hear him declare that his editor once said to him that his books sold well because he routinely broke the rules of fantasy in his books and people were always wanting to see how he would do it in the next book. He couldn’t cite a single rule he had broken. Anyway, what would you expect the editor of a writer whose books always end up in the New York Times best-selling list say to him?

Don’t get me wrong. Terry Goodkind is a good writer. I’ve read all books in The Sword of Truth series, and I actually liked some of them. Books two and six have very good stories, and all books in the series have this evocative feeling to them that’s the mark of a well-written story.

The problem with Terry Goodkind is that he doesn’t care about the consistence of the books, which sometimes contradict each other, and that he resorts to deus ex machina resolutions way too much. If he didn’t have multiple storylines going each time, that would kill him. But he can tell a good story so he survives despite them.

I didn’t like the last two books in the series because they get too preachy on the readers. The main character would suddenly stop everything he was doing to give an extended lecture about the dangers of altruism and to extol the virtues of Objectivism. I’m talking here about real info dumps thinly disguised as dialogs.

What’s more funny about the whole thing is that the core value for the main character in the series is freedom. The whole series is an apology to the freedom of the individual, in opposition to collectivism. But if you visit the official site for Terry Goodkind and try to post anything critical about him there, you will get promptly banned and all yours posts will be deleted before anybody has a chance to comment them. I lurked there for a time, and I saw lots of polite posts, with created interesting discussions around them, be deleted because the maintainers didn’t like the things they said about the series or the author. I’m not talking about personal attacks, but about valid criticism.

But I digress.)

The authors I mention above are all good writers. They can create a compelling story when they want. But I doubt their last books would have sold so well if people were not dying to know how the stories end.

I still feel the bitter taste of disappointment in my mouth when I finished the tenth book in the Wheel of Time series. I only finished it, reading every single word on it, because I kept hoping the story would start moving ahead soon. It didn’t, and I lost count of the times I simply wanted to throw the book against a wall. How is it possible to spend twenty pages just following a character as he walks around the place where he’s camped moaning about how he can do nothing about the fact that his wife was captured?

Those three authors are but a few writing series. Everywhere you look, you see others. Terry Brooks has been writing his The Sword of Shannara series for over thirty years, interspersed with other minor stories. Granted, most of the books in the Shannara series could stand on their own, even though they form a long story that you need to follow to understand the whole picture.

As I mentioned before, the book industry now expects authors to automatically start writing sequels to successful books. I once read an article by a writer who just had her first book accepted for publication. As she recounted the events that lead to publication, she mentioned that her editor had called her and advised her to start writing a sequel for the book as soon as possible. Series do make commercial sense. That’s why they are so loved by the industry.

As I said, I have nothing against series as such. What I don’t like are series that exist only because previous books managed to form a following that now can’t help but buy the next books in hopes of finally finding out where the story is going. Such series tend to end in unsatisfying ways, mostly because their authors got tired of them. Others, like The Sword of Shannara series, begin to tell the same story over and over again, changing just the surroundings and the characters’ names.

My favorite writer of all times, Stephen Donaldson, is what I consider a proper series writer. Most of his books were part of larger series, but those series are all finished — except for one of them, whose last book wasn’t written yet.

Donaldson wrote two magnificent series about the same characters. Those series, known respectively as the First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, have three books each, and are deeply satisfying. Donaldson’s style is a bit verbose sometimes, but is strong, and he can tell a good story without needing ten thousand pages to do it. If he had written those other series I mentioned, they would need only half of the words to tell the same events.

When Donaldson wrote the Second Chronicles, he was already planning for the Third Chronicles, which he’s writing right know. He intends to finish them once for all, and he said in an interview that he will probably spend the next ten years writing the four books that comprise this last series. And I’ll tell something: I don’t mind waiting those ten years because I know the series will end and that it will be complete. Donaldson writes to explore the themes he set out to explore, not to show that he can handle a million characters and subplots or because he wants to go all preachy on his audience.

I’m now wary of buying any books saying they are part of a larger series. Of course, there’s a lot of good series out there. The Lord of the Rings is one of them. The Chronicles of Narnia is another. Stephen Donaldson, a fantasy reader himself, recommended Steven Erikson’s Tales of Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which I will probably buy some day. Nonetheless, I still think that the demand for series is eroding the quality of some of them.

I’m not saying writers shouldn’t write series. Quite the contrary. As I said, I love long stories. But as Nancy Kress once said, every time a story begins, whoever wrote it makes a promise to the readers that things will happen and that the readers will understand why those things happened. Series who go nowhere break this promise.

So what I ask from series writers is that they remain true to the stories they started. After all, solid series means satisfied readers, which means more money will follow towards the author — as it should, by the way.

§ 12 Responses to Book series"

  • Paul says:

    After being burnt by the Wheel of Time, I now never start a series that hasn’t been finished.

  • Ronaldo says:

    Quite right you are. :-)

    I’m thinking about avoiding the next books in the series I’m currently waiting for until they are done but I don’t know if I will be able to wait that much. For newer series, however, I’ll be doing just that.

  • Jedidja says:

    I totally agree with your Wheel of Time synopsis; I myself stopped in a similar vein. ‘Sword of Truth’ was a refreshing change :)

    Have you tried David & Leigh Eddings? The Belgariad, the Mallorean, and the three accompanying novels are a truly great series (that has completely finished, unfortunately). The first two (Belgariad and Mallorean) are sets of five books each.

  • Ronaldo says:

    I never read anything by Eddings, but I always heard good things about those series before. If they’re finished, I might very well consider them for my next book purchases. Thanks for the suggestions. :-)

  • SFSignal says:

    Book Series

    This rant on SF/F Book series got me thinking, which in and of itself is a formidable feat. I have mixed feelings about book series and wanted to hear what others have to say……

  • A.R. Yngve says:

    The subject inspired to me to write this MAD-style poem:

    See the hack writer.
    Hack, hack, hack.
    See him write a new book.
    Type, type, type.
    He writes one book a month.
    He makes enough money to live
    as long as he can write a book per month.
    On his table is his medicine
    to help him write faster.
    It is called “alcohol.”
    Glug, glug, glug.
    The hack writer has to take his medicine
    twenty times a day!
    So what is his new book about?
    Same as the book he wrote before.
    It’s about a boy who must save the world
    by finding a lost magic sword
    which is hidden inside a castle
    which can only be reached through a magic portal
    which has been split into six magic shards
    which must be taken from six evil wizards
    whose castles are guarded by dragons
    who can only be slain with a magic wand
    which is hidden in a cave
    which is guarded by trolls… but you get the idea.
    The hack writer has a problem with his “trilogy.”
    It was supposed to be three books.
    But now it has grown to seven books in a series
    and he can’t stop writing new ones.
    What are the two words
    that fantasy writers
    and fantasy fans
    hate the most?
    “The” and “End.”

  • Rodney says:

    I wholeheartly agree on your assesement of the wheel of time series. I gave up on book 6. My opinion of good series is that as long as the quality of the series is high the series doesn’t have to end.I think Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is probably the best fantasy series in print. I also highly recommend Erikson’s Malazan empire series as well for intelligent fantasy of a really epic scale. Here is a list of fantasy authors who write either single-volume fantasies or just trilogies:
    5. DAVID COE
    9. JV JONES
    15. MODESITT

  • I really like Stephen Donaldson’s stuff. I know what you mean about the series. I am really leery any more with any series that seems too long, don’t usually trust ’em any more.

  • Annika says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I am tired of waiting for long series to end before I can find out the big picture, which is usually anticlimatic anyways. I also dislike books that have too many story plots going along at one time. And I am probably the only person in the world who didn’t like Lord of the Rings, books and movies. Both were boring and utterly too complicated.

  • Derek says:

    I am currently reading the WOT series (on book 5) and I am wondering where to jump off. I guess you really appreciate series like LOR and Foundation (original trilogy) as there is no wasted words, concise with each book holding together. I also liked the Vorkosigan series as Lois Mcmaster Bujold treats each book as a separate story even after 10 or so books the series really holds together. When I think she had felt that the series had come to a natural end she simply moved on to another theme. Surely Robert Jordan is qualified to do the same. Thanks for the essay

  • Dave Limon says:

    I frequently find myself in two minds over The Wheel of Time – Jordan’s writing gets more detailed as the series goes on, his charaterisation gets richer, the books are more of a joy to read, but on the other hand less and less happens. I don’t think the later WOT books are necessarily worse, it’s just that they are in a very different style to the early books. I think that’s the problem, Jordan started writing one thing, then switched to writing another mid-series.

    As an aspiring fantasy writer, I’m in the middle of writing my first proper fantasy novel. It’s turning out to be a lot longer than I originally intended, and I’m wondering whether I would be best served by ploughing on and committing to a trilogy, or re-writing what I have already written and “strip it down to the bone” to get it into a single volume. Some single volume fantasy is very good – The Barbed Coil by JV Jones springs to mind, but there is always the risk that it will seem sketchy and rushed – The Redemption of Athelus by Leigh and David Eddings is a pattern I wouldn’t want to repeat.

  • Ronaldo says:

    I see you point, and I believe it may well be true. But I can’t help but think that Jordan doesn’t know where he is going. It’s much like the Matrix movies. The interest generated by the first one was so big that anything the writers could come up with later wouldn’t be as satisfying as the magic shown before. But they went and did the movies anyway because the money was there to be earned.

    Anyway, as you said, stories tend to grow big. But as Jim MacDonald said, any word that doesn’t support plot or doesn’t advance the theme or doesn’t reveal character should be left out of the story. It’s a hard thing to do (and I know it, being an aspiring writer myself — in Portuguese, my native language, of course) but Jordan seems to have forgotten this a long way back in the series.

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