Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Serial Killer



I am very fond of series fiction. I always have been, going back to The Hardy Boys and their (much) lesser known peers, The Walton Boys (not the ones on the mountain). I probably will be for as long as I am able to read. I’m having a problem, however, with that wonderful and delectable corner of the genre or whatever you want to call it where the new book in the series builds upon what has happened before. More often than otherwise, a year or more passes between books in the series, I’ll go to pick a new one up, and I have no freaking idea what happened previously. I can remember the main characters, and usually a supporting character or two, but past that…it can be really hit or miss.

Some authors are aware of this and do an excellent job of doing a back-and-fill to bring new readers (and yes, older, forgetful ones) up to snuff without bringing the narrative to a grinding halt and having the characters engage in an awkward dialogue designed to summarize the mayhem that has occurred over the past x number of books. Others don’t. That’s fine. But let’s not put too fine a line on it. We have an aging population and not everyone who reads a series is necessarily going to remember, in the words of my favorite limerick, who was doing what and to do twelve months ago. Accordingly, when Detective M shows up in the squad room sans the ring finger on his right hand there are a few of us who might not recall how that happened.

If you write series fiction, why should you care? Someone probably has added the information to a Wikipedia entry somewhere that lays it all out. Maybe so. I would submit to you, though, that most readers don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative and look things like that up. If I had ten bucks for every reader who has told me, “Yeah, I used to read them but it got so I couldn’t figure out what was going on” I’d have a house next door to Sandra Bullock in New Orleans’ Garden District. Well, maybe a room over a garage in rear of the house next door to Ms. Bullock’s; but I hope you take my point.

Here is what I would request of those wonderful authors who labor mightily in the grammar mine of series fiction, and yes, those who publish them, and to whom I have been grateful for over fifty years and will continue to be so: take a cue from your cousins in the television medium. Each time I turn on an episode of Justified or Hell on Wheels or 24 any of the other half dozen or so dramatic series I watch the first thing I hear and see is, “Previously on (you fill in the blank)…” and short clips of what has happened before, as are relevant to the current episode, are presented. Could we have a “what has gone before” introduction of anywhere from a few paragraphs to two pages to refresh our memories --- if you don’t do so elsewhere in the narrative --- in the latest installment of your series? And maybe, if appropriate, could we have a listing of characters as well once you have more than say, seven folks with histories bumping into each other on a regular basis over the course of several books? I would consider it a favor to me, and to your legions of readers, acquired and potential.

So tell me: is this a problem? Or I am just grumpy today? Or both?  Or neither?  Is what I advocate reasonable? Or is it too much trouble to go to for what is a minor problem? 


23 comments:

  1. That's a great idea to add for books, Joe! In old-timey books, I used to occasionally see a list of characters. But a "Here's what's happened up 'til now" summary would be brilliant.

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  2. Thanks Kathryn! I had forgotten about the summaries that used to be presented as a matter of course back in the day. I wonder why the practice stopped?

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  3. I think it's a great idea for both reader and writer. Takes away the writer's need to explain, and gets the reader right back into the characters.

    I'm writing book two in my Maybe series, almost done, and I'd love to incorporate this idea. I'll do a very short character explanation as in how each character relates to Mabel, and a quick summation of book one.

    Think I'll go do that right now. Cheers, Joe!

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    1. Thanks, Amanda! I hope it works for you. And good luck with new book!

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  4. I agree with you Joe. When I pick up a book by an author I haven't read I often see slight references to prior events that leave me curious. If I like the book, I usually find his book list on the web and start with the first one then read them in order.

    I once saw Lawrence Block at a bookstore event. Someone asked him if they should read the Matthew Scudder books in order. He replied, "Well, I wrote them in order."

    But some readers wouldn't take the time. Imagine going back to the first Spenser book. Speaking of Spenser, in several of his books there is a reference to a young girl he lost in L.A. while in his protection. I never could find that book, and I have read almost all of them.

    A character list would be nice, and some "prior to the story" notes with references to prior books.

    Perhaps publishers see this as a means of hooking readers into reading backlists to boost sales. If so I think it is a risky move. Many would just get irritated and not read any more from the author.

    As usual, great post.

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    1. Thanks so much, Dave, not only for your kind words but also for the Block quote, which I'll be laughing about all day.

      I started Spenser with MORTAL STAKES, the third book in the series, and then read the first two. Then I had to wait for the fourth one to be published. I have read every one since, including Ace Atkins' excellent continuation of the series. That being said, the plot you mention doesn't ring a bell for me...I remember Spenser and Susan going to San Francisco at one point, but not to L.A. Can anyone help us on this?

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  5. Joe, great idea!

    Ah, The Hardy Boys. I read every single one as a young boy. They, probably more than any other books, were responsible for my interest in fiction.

    Your idea is wonderful. Your premise is correct. It may have some additional benefits, such as causing a reader to become interested in going back and reading earlier books. It could also allow the writer to make transitions between books, i.e. provide back story, in a simple and straight forward way. It could hint at things to come in future books.

    So, no, you're not grumpy. This is great advice: "The Joe Intro."

    Any updates on your daughter's photography?

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    1. Steve, thanks so much. "The Joe Intro..." at first I thought "no, that gives me too much credit" and then I thought "but it DOES have a nice ring to it."

      Thank you for asking about Annalisa's photography. Things were starting to level off and then Ashton Kutcher posted it to his Facebook page and things exploded again. She was in St. John V.I. last week and had people coming up to her. We're still amazed.

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  6. I'd say grumpy. I'm in the same chronological boat, and my wife says I'm getting forgetful (I don't remember why she said that) but I prefer a writer who can backfill gracefully without the heavy handed, "Here's what you missed." George MacDonald Fraser was particularly good at it in his "Flashman" books, dropping names and hints like bread crumbs in the forest, leading back to earlier adventures and conquests. As a kid I preferred the Rick Brant Science Adventures to Hardy Boys (still have the entire collection in a box in my closet) and because the characters never aged or changed, like Frank and Joe Hardy, too much filling in would have just highlighted out how impossible it all was. Same with the Spenser stories – hinting at all that past is fine. Spelling it out would be awkward.

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  7. John, I'm with you on Parker, one of the guys I was referring to in my second paragraph who does so well with giving the reader what back story is needed without interrupting the flow of the narration. Same with James Lee Burke. Lee Child, up until the last three or four Reacher novels, didn't even have a backstory, other than "ex-MP." Start anywhere in the Reacher series and you're good to go. My suggestions were for those series which keep building and building on what has gone before. Not every series does, but many of them do.

    I love the Rick Brant books. I even bought RICK BRANT'S SCIENCE PROJECTS. Some of them are available for free (free! jewels for FREE!) on Kindle and there is an ebook collection available for less than two bucks as well. My favorites are THE ELECTRONIC MIND READER and THE BLUE GHOST MYSTERY. They still stand up well, lo these many years later.

    So... I gotta know...does that box in the Chumbucket closet include the highly prized but rarely seen THE MAGIC TALISMAN?

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    1. No, don't have The Magic Talisman. But since that was privately printed after the series was completed, I'm not sure it counts. And I sure wouldn't keep it in a box on my closet floor. Maybe the honored space on the bookshelf. More likely a safety deposit box. Think my two favorite Rick Brants were The Flying Stingaree and The Rocket Jumper.

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  8. It is of utmost importance for me to confirm, with each Hardy Boys volume, that Aunt Gertrude is still "tart, angular and peppery."

    Seriously, yes. I'm surprised publishers don't mandate that authors write series books that are equally comfortable to read as a standalone or a series continuation. I know it drives sales to make readers feel like they have to start at the beginning and buy every volume, but I suspect it also stunts sales if readers get the idea that they have to buy eleven other books in a given series while they're contemplating the current series volume in a bookstore. Because they may be willing to spend money enough for one book, or maybe even two ... but not twelve.

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    1. I am HOWLING, Jim. I forgot about peppery Aunt Gertrude! Indeed. Sarah Selby in the Mickey Mouse Club serialized version of THE TOWER TREASURE was perfect.

      I agree with your driving sales vs. stunting sales scenario when a series reaches a certain length, though I think that if a reader likes a series well enough after reading a couple they'll go back and catch up. My older son dove into John Sandford's Lucas Davenport novels after reading a couple a few years ago, and my younger one did the same with John Connolly's Charlie Parker books. And my wife... she was totally unfamiliar with Tarzan (Oh! The Humanity!) but after reading the first one sat down and read the first ten practically without stopping. This might be the summer that she finishes the series. Of course, if those first couple of books that you pick up don't grab a reader, they're gone to something else. It's a tough market out there.

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  9. Okay. I tend to lurk, but you brought up The Hardy Boys and I took a trip down memory lane. I read all the old Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and more (I had no television but had a great tree house), but one of my favorite series was The Three Investigators with Jupiter Jones, their chauffeured Rolls Royce, and the end-of-the-book meeting with Alfred Hitchcock, who later became Hector Sebastian, where they summed up the mystery. What you're suggesting, Joe, but at the END of the previous book in the series.

    Great post for so many reasons!

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  10. Thanks so much, Becky. Lurkers are very welcome here but it's good to hear from you. That tree house as you describe it beats a television with cable or otherwise. If there had been a tree house in my childhood it would have been stuffed to groaning with series novels and comic books as well! Hope you're still enjoying those.

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  11. I suppose it's important to note the difference between a series in which each story builds off, or at least follows the next and the chronology is important – Lord of the Rings, or Flashman, for instance – and things like the Hardy Boys and Rick Brant and Nancy Drew, where it was the same characters engaged in a series of pretty much autonomous adventures. The Janet Evanovich stories, for example. I really don't think it matters much or at all what order you read those in. I read the three "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" stories backwards – just the way I happened on the books – and I could tell it made a HUGE difference in my appreciation of the story.

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  12. Joe: It doesn't have to be in series fiction. More and more I encounter what should be pretty straightforward plots. Instead, I get endless side-trips to nowhere with a bunch of silly characters. Somebody's sister's uncle and what a tough time he had growing up with an abusive auntie. Ya gotta keep and maintain that list yourself. And right from the start. I know I've been tempted and I think on my very next read I'm going to make a list of the characters and maybe do a few relational diagrams, too.

    I skip a day reading. Pick up the book. And right away there's some character you've never heard of--or maybe not. It's kinda like the cast of Hair--they just kept coming out.

    And then each one of these guys has some ridiculous story to tell, none of which you come to find has nothing to do with nothing. Oy!

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  13. You hit on the reason why I don't read much science fiction anymore, Jim. Read the opening sentence of DUNE. It's a great book, but it took me forever to get through. Bene Gesserit my posterior! Thanks for the reminder.

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  14. Manga does this, both with a summary of the story up to the current point, and with a character list/summary. I love it, and am seriously considering doing that with my own series.

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  15. I wish more comic genres did that, Amy. I would probably still be reading comic books if they did. I had to give up X-Men, et al., as I had no idea what was going on from month to month.

    Good luck with your own series!

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  16. I have just stumbled across this blog after being "Followed" by a US author. I'm in the UK and write a series - typical English village mysteries which one reader described as "children's adventure stories with gin instead of ginger beer", which I took as a compliment. About four books in, a different reader said "I wish you had a cast list so I remember who everyone is". Suggested it to the publisher, who agreed, and now they all have it, as they issued new editions of the whole series. They also have a map of the village. I think it helps! Very interesting post, thank you.

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  17. Lesley, welcome! It's nice to have you aboard and we hope that you continue to visit and participate frequently. I love that "gin instead of ginger beer" description of your Libby Sarjeant novels, which are available as eBooks in the States on Kindle. I also love what you and your publisher did with the cast list and map. Best wishes for your continued success!

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