Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Guest Post by author Christine Amsden

Today I'm handing you all over to the very capable Christine Amsden.  Enjoy yourselves!

The Life and Death of a Series

The world is full of series for one simple reason: They make money! Readers who enjoy one story clamor for more – more of the character or of the world, the mystery or the romance. Whatever it is they loved, they want to recapture that feeling in a sequel.

Problem is, people don't always know what's best for them. There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. Some books are better off as stand-alones, even if there are loose threads at the end. When does life ever come to a neat conclusion anyway? Not every secondary character needs a story of his or her own just like we don't really get to know all the people we meet. And as far as I know the world has never come to a neat “happily ever after” – wars come and go, politicians rise and fall, movements ebb and flow.

There are several different types of series, many of which it would probably be more accurate to call serials. A serial is a story that is relayed in installments, so that in actuality you are reading one big story broken into chunks. The Lord of the Rings is a classic example of what I mean. A true series is a collection of closely related stories, but in fiction the term has come to be applied to both types of stories, and to those that fall in the gray area in between.

My own Cassie Scot series falls in the gray area. It consists of four individual mysteries that begin and end in each book (a series) and a bigger story arc that connects all four books such that you wouldn't want to read them out of order (serial). This is a popular pattern these days and there is a good reason for it: Each book provides some sense of closure, while the developing serial arc allows the author to tell a richer, deeper, more complete story. Cliffhanger endings are very common in these middle-ground stories.


The biggest danger with a true series (a collection of related stories) is that it outlives its spark. You can look to television for examples of this happening – a great idea that develops a following tends to run about two seasons longer than it should. This happened with Friends over a decade ago, and it's happening right now with How I Met Your Mother. I suspect, though I'm not yet done enjoying the show, that this is going to happen to The Big Bang Theory, which was just renewed through season ten.

To find parallels to the death of the once-great TV show in literature, you need look no further than the mystery and suspense genres. I don't know how many people have told me that James Patterson used to write good books. I myself have seriously burned out reading Jayne Ann Krentz's novels, which have formed something of an amalgam in my mind. These authors are good. These books are good. But then they keep going, doing the same thing over and over again until you're sick to death of it or, in the worst case scenario, doing *almost* the same thing over and over again – but without the spark that once made it great.

Series usually come to life because an author wrote a great book and fans clamor for more. Series die because the “more” doesn't stop when it should. Ideally, a series should stop before the freshness and fun wears off. If you shoot past that point into nostalgia, you're probably still okay. It's when you pass nostalgia and find yourself in “they're still making those?” land that you're in trouble. Unfortunately, the market tends to drive the length of series, which means they go as long as they make money.


Serials are a different story. Serials were written to be a long story chunked into volumes. They usually have a preset beginning, middle, and end. For those who enjoy what is essentially a very long story, they work as long as the author has done a reasonable amount of planning. And that plan must include rising tension throughout the serial. Flat-lining is not an option. This is what happened to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Conversely, Jim Butcher's Codex Alara series was exactly six books long (clearly planned from the start) and the tension grew in each installment. (Note: These installments come to a stopping point, if not an end.)

The accidental serial usually falls flat. This is what I call books that would have worked well as a stand-alone, but then the author kept going. The Hunger Games is an example of what I mean by this. The first book in this series could be enjoyed as a stand-alone scifi psychological horror with a bit of a twist. The ending left a small romantic subplot hanging, but I could have lived with that. In the sequels, the author expands upon the world that created The Hunger Games in the first place, exposing the underlying weaknesses in the world and character-building that didn't really matter in the first book because it wasn't about any of that. The entire series continued to get good ratings, but a quick look over at goodreads showed that the average rating for this series went down, especially for Mockingjay. I more commonly see the average ratings for series go up slightly due to sample bias – readers who enjoyed the first book are more likely to rate/review the sequels. Readers who gave the first book one star are usually done.


Yes, I'm biased, but I definitely prefer the kind of series I wrote – the kind that combines aspects of the series and the serial. This is very popular in contemporary, urban, and paranormal fantasy. You get the kick-ass hero or heroine going on one adventure per book, while the character and world develop over time. The stakes often get higher in each volume, which makes this type of series a little different from the other types in one important aspect: How it comes to life in the first place.

Straight serial and series readers are rarely going to give a second book a try if they didn't really enjoy the first. But readers of the harmonious middle ground have come to understand that sometimes, while the first book in a series is only okay, the series itself still has potential. This is never any truer than in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Storm Front, the first book in this long-standing series, is frankly meh. So's the second. The third whetted my appetite. After the fourth, I couldn't get enough! Series aren't all like this, and there is some truth to the question, “Why should I have to read three books to fall in love with a series?” You shouldn't. I can't explain why I was willing to do it for The Dresden Files, except that I didn't think the first book was bad, I just didn't love it, and I saw an underlying spark of potential I wanted to see fulfilled. I did not, however, give Kim Harrison even a single volume to win me over despite many readers telling me that it gets really good in the second or third book. I'll take their words for it.

The difference between Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher is character. Harry Dresden was someone I immediately wanted to get to know, even if the story-telling was a bit weak right off the bat. I can't remember the name of the witch in Harrison's series, but nothing at all drew me to her. Plus, I got lost in the world building. I can't say for sure, but I suspect readers who stuck with Harrison were more likely to go for a cool world than a compelling character.

I'm a character girl. :)

There is no “right” length for a series like this. They can continue indefinitely as long as one thing is true: Something has to change or move in each book. They can't stagnate. If things are moving – if the character is developing and the stakes are getting higher – I will still be clamoring for your fifteenth book in a series (Harry Dresden). If things stagnate I'll drop it. This is what happened with Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books. The main character never seemed to change at all (only the men she dated). It is possible that this series is yet another example of how taste can influence you – I wanted Sookie to grow and she didn't. The world was developing, I just didn't care enough about that part. It is worth noting that in The Dresden Files, which has kept me going longer than any other series I've ever read, both the character, the supporting characters, and the world are in constant flux. I doubt it would have worked without all of that going on.

I planned my own series to be four books long. I actually wanted to try for seven because I made a point of saying that seven is a powerfully magical number, but I didn't want to drag the romance out over seven books. Four was just ... enough. And if there's one thing I want to make sure of, it's that people walk away from each volume in my series feeling energized for the next, and walk away from the end feeling satisfied. It doesn't need to keep going forever. I can always write another series.


It is worth noting that there are even more types of series than what I've mentioned here. The romance genre is fond of the sibling parallel, in which each of three to eight (I haven't seen more than eight) members of a family each have their own turn at a romance. These books are almost always readable in or out of order. Essentially, each one is a different story but you get glimpses of the other characters from a distance, adding that sense of nostalgia. I often think of these as more of a marketing gimmick than a true series, unless something more connects them. For example, Sabrina Jeffries has a Regency Romance series in which a mystery has been spanning the books. We get a new clue about who really killed their parents in each one. I'm finding it refreshing and it is making me look forward to reading the last book.


There are a lot of different types of series out there to suit individual tastes. Many try to hang on longer than they should because people will buy them. But many tell a wonderful, complete story that is bigger than any individual book. In fact, when people ask me what my favorite books are I sometimes blank. I read so many books that remembering a single one is difficult. I remember authors. I remember series. I'm thrilled to be offering readers a chance to spend four books with Cassie Scot so they can get to know her as well as I have.

About the author:

Christine Amsden has been writing fantasy and science fiction for as long as she can remember. She loves to write and it is her dream that others will be inspired by this love and by her stories. Speculative fiction is fun, magical, and imaginative but great speculative fiction is about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. Christine writes primarily about people and relationships, and it is in this way that she strives to make science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone.

At the age of 16, Christine was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a condition that effects the retina and causes a loss of central vision. She is now legally blind, but has not let this slow her down or get in the way of her dreams.

In addition to writing, Christine teaches workshops on writing at Savvy Authors. She also does some freelance editing work.

Christine currently lives in the Kansas City area with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success. They have two beautiful children.

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Find out more about Stolen Dreams, the conclusion of the Cassie Scot series.
Also check out the 1st three novels in the series:  Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective, Secrets and Lies, and Mind Games.

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