Sustaining a series

I came across two unconnected conversations today that meet at one point: the difficulty of sustaining a series.

First I saw this review at Paperback Reader.

"Single title romances that bloom into multi-book connected series carry a terrible burden. They must simultaneously stand alone, so that new-to-the-series readers can start at any point without feeling uninvited to the party, and they must effectively bridge the older books with the new, all the while setting up the books to come. Failing at the first leaves readers in the dark at best, or wondering if the plot and conflict were setup and resolved in another book—or books—at worst. Failing at the second makes writing a series pointless"

Then I saw Lee Goldberg's post about his brother's screed on mysteries. Lee comments:

"Stephanie Plum, Nero Wolfe, Phillip Marlowe, Shell Scott, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Millhone, Jack Reacher, John Rain, Inspector Rebus... none of these characters have really changed in the course of their respective series. That's one of the pleasures and comforts of the know exactly what you're going to get when you open one up."

True. But that's why I stopped reading them.

A successful series writer (in any genre - romance, SF/F, mystery) re-uses the same characters and situations that led to success in a first outing and DOES change the characters. Any worthwhile book involves character growth. When authors run out of ways to make their characters grow, they start writing bad books. Or they start focusing on other characters who were at first more peripheral, and move those who were once holding center stage off to the left a bit.

I've noticed Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth George both doing the second. Diplomatic Immunity, latest in the Vorkosigan series, focused on a much wider range of characters than previous books just about Miles. Of George's three latest, one, A Traitor to Memory was written almost entirely from the point of view of a new character, and another, A Place of Hiding, heavily involved previously minor characters.*

Conversely, Elizabeth Moon, otherwise an excellent writer, seems to have lost control of her very popular Serrano series. Moon successfully transitioned from three books centered around Heris Serrano to a new arc centered on Esmay Suiza; her latest two entires suffered from fragmented action and multiple POV issues.

What are some series where the author has been successful in maintaining quality? Suggestions are very, very welcome.

*The other one I haven't read yet.


Anonymous said...

Not sure if this counts since it's probably considered "classic" now, but Georges Simenon's Maigret detective series was successful in its day and is (mostly) still in print. Inspector Maigret doesn't change much over the course of the series, but what he eats and drinks does...

mapletree7 said...

Maigret, Christie, Patterson are a lot like TV series, as Lee noted. The reader is definitely looking for 'more of the same'.

Frankly there's a lot in common between them and the 'Nancy Drew'-type series such as Babysitters' Club, Sweet Valley High, and category romances.

Banana Martin said...

Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone has definetely changed throughout the series more than Evanovich's Stephanie Plum.

Grafton's alphabet series is set in the 1980s -- every book takes place approximately a month or so after the previous one. The first one was set when it was written, say, 1985, so new books are set in, like, 1988 or something. I say this to explain why she never uses a computer and why everyone's fashion is so outdated. But it works wel, I think, because it gives the character realizstic time to develop.

Kind of like how on "Lost" the characters have only been on the island for, say, 50 days to date, while the series is well into its second season.

Kinsey Milhone ages, has birthdays, goes through relationships (which sometimes last more than one book) -- as do her peripheral characters.

She exercises regularly (though she admits when she has been lazy lately) and her daily routine is directly affected by the consequences of the previous books. For example, at the end of one book she was shot in the arm. In the next book, she was going to a gym for physical therapy, as she was still not fully recovered. And for several books after that, she still mentioned it.

Her personal life has changed. An orphan, she has reconnected with her extended family, and her personality seems to undergo a realistic ebb and flow of highs and lows -- when she first meets them, she's recalcitrant and scared; she's very private and independent. When one of the cousins is especially nice, she becomes softer towards the family. When something else happens, she ends up somewhere in the middle.

Having been divorced twice, Milhone is tentative towards men. For awhile -- several books -- she was seeing one man, but things didn't work out. Both of her ex-husbands have surfaced in different books.

For a truly terrible example of a mystery serial, look at the "Goldilocks Catering" series. I forget teh author's name (David, maybe?) but the titles are like "Lethal Pancakes" and "Killer Ice Cream." Truly, truly terrible writing.

mapletree7 said...

Agreed on Grafton. I think part of the key to the Milhone character is that her background has enough depth that different issues have continued to come out over various books. I mean, it took her fifteen books to deal with Millhone's first marriage (in O is for Outlaw).

Just thought of another very successful, high quality mystery series - Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books. They actually got better as she aged, beginning with Christie-esque whodunnit puzzles and ending with the literary tour-de-force that is Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon.

Of course, Sayers was a theologian as well as a mystery writer, and had resources unavailable to those not raised by late-Victorian Vicars and friendly with the Inklings.

Maxine said...

Harry Potter! I know opinion is divided, but I avidly look forward to each.
If the question relates solely to crime fiction, I think Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly develops, and the books certainly maintain interest and maybe even increase over time. The author also provides nice touches by having characters from one series or stand-alone appear briefly in each other's books, or even not so briefly. (One of Connelly's books has Bosch and the other character with the heart transplant -- Terry? -- given equal billing.) Harry Bosch was a vietnam vet before the books began, he's a cop at the start, he finds out a lot about his past over the series, he retires, does some personal detective work and now is back with LAPD working cold cases.
Robert Crais Elvis Cole novels are similarly well-sustained over the series, I believe (have not read his stand-alones).
Authors who started out writing brilliant mystery and who have not sustained the quality, in my view, are Jonathan Kellerman and Harlan Coben. I still read their books, but JK's Alex Delaware stories are very mechanical these days compared with the first few, which had a unique angle, focusing on psyschotherapeutic insights, family relationship traumas and the like, as well as legal and "cop" issues. JK perked up with his standalones which he began writing a few years ago (seems quite a common pattern, to establish a series and then alternate it with stand-alones). Like Connelly, he is now integrating his stand-alones more and more with his series.
Harlan Coben writes really well and again, I read all his books. He's begun writing more stand-alones now, but his Myron Bolitar series has become more formulaic, especially that "best friend" character, who has gone from wooden to frozen.
My best example of a series that started out well but is now truly terrible is the Alex Cross series by James Patterson. JP wrote compulsive thrillers, but these days they are truly appalling.

mapletree7 said...

Patterson and Connelly cleary suffer from BAD - Big Author Disease. But more on that in another post.