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Friday, April 02, 2004

More on the durability of series novels 

The comments section for the previous post is getting very lively, and I'm going to respond to Olen Steinhauer's thoughts here:

This is all interesting to me because I've launched on a "series", but one with an announced death--it's five books, that's it.

My editor is honest with me--she says that by book 5 she'll be bugging me to do a 6th. I appreciate her honesty and reply just as honestly with a "sorry."

As a writer I can't really imagine beginning a series with no proposed end-point. Why not? Because I tend to view a series as a single book that happens to be in volumes. Once that multi-volume book is done, it'll be time for something new. The open-ended series just isn't interesting for me beyond its potential as a cash-cow.

Maybe, though, by book 5 I'll look at my bank balance and change my mind. Never know.


For those unfamiliar with his books, Steinhauer's series is set in post-WWII Eastern Europe in an unnamed country of his creation. The first book, THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS, is up for the Best First Novel Edgar and the next, THE CONFESSION, is just as good if not better. But the point is that Steinhauer's series is perhaps more "unusual" than what is considered typical in the genre: books which focus on a single character, or a small group of them. Although there's a recurring group of players, so far, a different protagonist has taken center stage in each book, and what connects the books is the sense of political upheaval and personal struggles that the characters face that is set against a backdrop of great change. If I didn't know this was a five-book series, I'd think it could go on indefinitely simply because the books are not tied, per se, to a single character. This isn't an instance of a Spenser-like figure who never grows, never ages, and devolves into a cartoon-like character, solving cases that border on the ridiculous.

That being said, I think it's refreshing that Steinhauer's upfront about the series having an endpoint--even if it may end up happening later than he thinks. Take the opposite tack, where authors have it in their mind to do a long series and get it cut short if their three-book deal is shortened, cancelled, or not renewed for a second term. Then what? The series is left dangling, never to be finished. But speaking only for myself, I'd rather that than a series that goes long past its stale date.

Ultimately, and this point is coming across in the comments below, if a series still has something to say, if a character is still changing and still affects and is affected by what is happening around him or her, then there's no reason to stop. Series that still have viability after many (8 or more) books include those written by personal favorites like Ian Rankin (14 books) Peter Robinson (14) Laura Lippman (8 with this year's BY A SPIDER'S THREAD), Lee Child (8 including THE ENEMY). Why? Because Rebus, Banks, Tess Monaghan, and Jack Reacher are still fairly fresh, not unwilling to change, and likewise, the authors' writing has grown tremendously since their debut books. So as long as that keeps happening, I'm still there.

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