Thursday, July 5, 2012

Series, Or Serial?

So you have this idea for a novel that is just too big for one book. Or maybe it’s an ongoing saga told via installments. Is it a series, or a serial you’re writing? You see, there is a distinct difference between those types of tales. Each has their place in the minds and hearts of pulp readers. Handled properly, presented in the appropriate context, either one can be a satisfying read.

In a series, there are multiple stories or novels dealing with the same people and places, and there may be elements that build upon past installments. Yet each one feels like a finished sculpture—you can view it from any angle and not find an unpolished section or have to guess what this part was leading to or that one was supposed to mean. A problem is presented, characters are introduced, action is taken, the drama goes back and forth between the white hats and the desperados, and then there’s the big climatic scene… It ends with some sort of resolution and a strong sense of closure. If you don’t read another story in the series, you still have that feeling of satisfaction that you get from a standalone novel or story. Things got accomplished in the course of the tale. Whatever was laid out as a problem has somehow has been resolved.

Now, serials are a cat of a different color. The whole premise of the story is to hook you into an ongoing, evolving piece of fiction that has no end in sight. A serial leads you breathlessly along and then abruptly stops by cutting off the action just before something very exciting or scary happens. Generally speaking, the next installment has a quick recap before we get back to the cliffhanger segment or the place where a question of sorts was left unanswered. Done properly, it can be very effective, and boost sales and readership. Serials lend themselves well to magazine issues that come out regularly or small, quickly printed novels where you don’t have to wait a year or three to find out what happened to our heroine this time.

I enjoy reading series novels. I enjoy writing them too. They are the stuff that epic fantasy is built on. I’m just not crazy about ‘To Be Continued’ serials. Even if it is only the first of many tales using the same character and setting, I like a story to end on a high and final note; with whatever it was our protagonist went out to do in the world now accomplished. There’s nothing like that great feeling of completion you get when you finish a rousing good book and realize the rollercoaster ride is over. That makes me eager to dive right into the next story, and see what new thrills and chills the author has in store. But chop off the natural ending, and leave me dangling, and I’m going to toss that tome in a pile and move on. To each her or his own I guess.

For me, serials get old fast, if I don’t get to read them in order or for some reason the storyline gets dropped for any length of time. They’re also darn hard to write well! I lean toward series stories, where while ideas might carry over from one book to the next, you can pick up, #6, #14, and #2, read them out of order, and still have a good idea of what is going on. And since I am far from a linear thinker as well as a very disorganized writer, that works for me on a couple of levels. There are times when characters or settings mentioned in passing take on a life of their own and beg to be part of the series. In that case, a standalone story carved out of the normal timeline can be very effective. I have a little more freedom to do that with a series than I would with a serial, which is very dependent on continual forward progression.

That is unless you introduce the dreaded flashback. Oh, how I hate flashbacks! I don’t like reading them, and I don’t like writing them either. When I need to use one, it will be as brief as I can make it, and I move on rapidly. Nothing infuriates me more than a story that goes back and forth between past and present all the time. I suppose it can be done skillfully, but I’ve seldom seen it handled that way. Most of the time I find that ‘blast-from-the-past’ stuff pretty clunky and off-putting.

So yeah, I tend to prefer stories that have enough independence to stand up on their own merits. That way if I read one out of order, I’m not feeling lost. You might not mind the cliffhanger endings, but they make me frustrated because with my wonky schedule, it could be months if not years before I get back to that storyline to see what happened next. By then I’ll likely have forgotten where the previous tale left off. Or if this is something hard to find, like many out-of-print volumes, there always seems to be one or two you just cannot locate no matter where you look. If those missing stories have information I need to make sense of the following ones, it can be aggravating to have to guess what was meant. I find it hard to enjoy what comes afterward when part of the puzzle is missing.

So should you end your book in a cliffhanger? I’m not going to tell you not to do it. Cliffhangers are, after all, a long standing Pulp tradition. Whether it works for you really depends on your ability to build all around that kind of abrupt ending, how fast you can get the next tale into print, and your audience. If they’re eating it up, you’re writing like a fiend, and the feedback is all positive, then by all means—go for it! But I can’t help thinking every time I sit down to write, what kind of satisfaction is this book going to give someone who sees it twenty years from now?

If in the future someone picks up one of my books in the middle of a series and reads it; will they enjoy it enough to look for more of my titles? Or are they going to spend the first thirty pages trying to figure out what the heck is going on and then get bored and set it aside? I’ll tell you, I have done that with both poorly conceived series and serials, and it is frustrating to wade through material that makes no sense unless you read the previous X-amount of stories that came before. Some of my most beloved authors I discovered long after their heyday and it always was that one particular book that caught my eye and brought me into their world. Series characters begin to feel like dear old friends after you’ve read a few of their tales. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books come to mind here, because you can start almost anywhere and figure out what is going on.

And then there are the crossover serialized-series things, which further complicate matters. Of course, you are getting the best of both worlds, as well as the clunkiness factor too. Take for instance Harry Potter: pick up book 3 and read that first, and tell me if you can figure out what’s going on. I sure couldn’t, and because my reading hadn’t kept up with the movies, I was lost as to what was happening by the time #4 came out. Even though the books and the movies each had some definitive ending, you really needed to know what happened before to ‘get’ it. The pantheon of characters alone was mind boggling. Oh I love the movies and the books, but you must take them in order or you are going to be lost in the woods for most of the tale. I’d call Harry’s stories more of a serial than a series. I read one of Orson Scott Card’s ‘Alvin Maker’ books and felt the same sense of confusion throughout. I had no idea where it took place, who these people were, or what they were supposed to be doing. You have to read them from one volume to the next I guess. Sadly, I could not get interested, so it was a one-shot deal. A pity, because he’s a very talented author.

In New Pulp, we are trying to emulate the past with familiar feeling stories that have that gloss of high excitement—which could very well come from a breathless open ending. Still, this is a different world and audience than our classic forebears wrote for, when biweekly and monthly magazines were the norm, and you could find them on most newsstands. Today we have far more evolved and elaborate delivery systems, but you are less likely to blunder across New Pulp books without going out and looking for them. Serial tales by subscription should do marvelously well on electronic devices, where they can be paid for and downloaded in an eye blink, and toted around everywhere. But for the good old fashioned (or new fashioned with POD) novels, give me standalone stories, or series books that can be savored and then set aside fondly with that feeling of contentment that this tale has been told, so now on to the next one when the time permits.

Series or serial? It’s really up to you.

Many thanks to author Kevin Rodgers for coming up with the idea for this week’s column!

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