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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Series, Trilogies and Readers with Susan Wiggs

Hi everyone!  It is my pleasure to bring to you, author Susan Wiggs!  She is an author who frequently visits Jack's Bar and is considered a friend by many there!  For those of you not familiar with my style, my asides are in brackets [] and usually exist throughout the post. 

The Neverending Story
by Susan Wiggs

Susan WiggsWhat’s up with all the sequels and connected books these days? Check out any recent bestseller list, and you’ll find recurring sleuths, spinoff romances, trilogies, epic cycles, thrillers with characters who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Genre writers and children’s authors practically invented the connected or series book, although the tradition can be found as far back as Homer and Chrétien de Troyes.

It’s less prevalent in literary-style books, often because the protagonist, beloved or not, dies. Or is already dead. The Lovely Bones is an amazing book but personally, I would rather have a root canal than read The Lovely Bones 2: The Lovelier Bones. A follow-up to The Kite Runner? Hit me in the head with a hammer, why dontcha? Maybe the best of these books–To Kill a Mockingbird, Bastard Out of Carolina, Snow Falling on Cedars–are so complete in and unto themselves they don’t need a sequel.

[I saw and read To Kill a Mockingbird - I can't see why there would be a sequel made when you consider what the story was really about.  Even after reading it or watching it, it seems so emotionally satisfying that anything more would be "overkill."  I guess I feel the same about Bastard Out of Carolina.  This was an excellent movie that I find the need to watch whenever Lifetime feels the need to show it.  The main theme of this story was about the girl.  Again, the ending was emotionally satisfying and we want to think that anything that happened to the girl from that point on was better than what she had already endured.  The last thing we would want to read about is if this girl had worse things happen to her because it would, well, break our hearts because we all wanted the best for her by the end of the story.]

Then there are the authors who are so popular, they continue to publish after the author is dead. The late J.R.R. Tolkein topped the charts recently with The Children of Hurin, which his son Christopher finished. Poor Ian Fleming is a hundred years old, and he’s still writing Bond books. He’s a ghost with some of the best ghostwriters in the business–John Gardner, Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks. Robert Ludlum , who died in 2002, has been publishing a bestseller or two every year since departing this life. Twenty years after her death, V.C. Andrews is as prolific as ever. I wonder if the recently deceased George MacDonald Fraser will keep going with his bullying, hugely entertaining antihero, Flashman. In my dreams, my post-mortem books are written by authors far better than I.

[Why do publishers think we can't tell?  Of course, this works for some of the newer generation who doesn't bother to research an author they like.  It ruins the existence of the author himself because it makes many people wonder just how many people really write under the moniker of Ian Flemming and, did he really exist?  When you think about that, then you tend to wonder if that's going on with other authors.  Oh, as much as I love JAK's Arcane society, I hope they do not ever get a ghost writer for her.  If someone carries on the tradition, fine, but don't try and tell me your the real thing!]

In genre and commercial books, that thread of connection is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Publishers tend to like series books, because it helps with marketing. They can create a consistent look to signal to readers that there’s a new addition to an old favorite. They can build anticipation and schedule the books at regular intervals, accelerating the building of numbers.

[Let's not forget the possibility of toys, games and expansion into graphic novels, which seems to be a growing trend, in an effort to reach a wider audience.]

Writing books with continuing threads is a natural fit for many writers, myself included. Just because you’ve written “The End” doesn’t necessarily mean a story is over. Characters take on a life of their own, and we–and our readers–find ourselves imagining where they are now. It also saves us from the post-partum depression we sometimes suffer once a book is over.

A lot of series start organically, when a writer’s story grows beyond the scope of one novel. A secondary character steps onto the page, and you suddenly realize he’s on a journey of his own. Maybe you build a world–a town like Mitford, or Cedar Cove, or some other made-up place that suggests story after story. There might be a workplace–Precinct 87, anyone?–filled with enough situations and characters for book after book. Stories multiply like the mythical hydra–you make a Herculean effort to finish one off, and two more appear in its place.

Readers are drawn to series books. My love affair with series books started when, at the age of nine, I rewrote the ending of The Yearling (that kid Jody Baxter was a wicked bad shot) and made up stories about Charlotte’s spider babies. I collected books about the Bobbsey Twins, the Little House books, even the Three Musketeers, although these became more lame as time went on. In contrast, Georgette Heyer actually outdid These Old Shades with its spinoff, The Devil’s Cub. I was recently at a reading by fantasy author Terry Brooks, and in the audience was a guy who had been reading his Shannara books for thirty-one years.

[I can list three off hand that I love to read and will read all books that come out:  Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta Books - as much as I love the character, Cornwell has aged her and will, to my utter disappointment, have to have her die at some point waah!; R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden Saga - I'm behind, but that doesn't mean I won't catch up; J.D. Robb's In Death series - Eve and Roarke are really enjoyable and the audiobooks are wonderful performances!]

Readers tend to get proprietary about the books they love. As far as I know, Annie the Number-One Fan of Misery, is a figment of Stephen King’s dark imagination, but readers with that kind of passion do exist. I have no doubt that Laura London, aka Sharon and Tom Curtis, has been fending off shrill cries for Cat’s story for decades. Robin McKinley surely has Sunshine fans camped out on her doorstep. Elizabeth Lowell hinted at doing a sequel in her medieval series about the character Eric but this reader is still waiting.

Readers are a demanding lot. They want Daisy’s story. Or Seth’s. Or (fill in name of beloved secondary character here). They fell in love with something about a book, and they want to revisit the world of the story again and again. They’re looking for a familiar story tone or author voice. Small-town settings are a big draw. A small town, where everybody knows everybody else, where there’s history and old friendships and rivalries, is a good bet. People yearn for that kind of connection in this fast paced life.

[Yes, this should be the ultimate kudos to any author.  If you can make us care so much about a set of characters in some real or imaginary town, that we want to keep reading beyond one book that we beg you for more, that is really the ultimate success and demonstrates the power of your talent.]

It’s tricky, though. They insist on the comfort of familiarity, yet they want something new and exciting and fresh. Disappoint them at your peril.

Finding a uniting theme is key to creating a successful franchise. A boarding school for wizards, anyone? A family of vampires? How about a mystery that unfolds over the course of many books? Or a highly specialized, dangerous career with Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters. A summer camp, a yarn shop, a quilting circle or a cooking school. A family like Mary Balogh’s Cynsters or Jo Beverley’s Mallorens. Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie and Claire. Sometimes the concept for a series is as simple as a character you adore–what’s Stephanie Plum up to next?

I once wrote a trilogy about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which saved me months of research. Instead of researching three separate eras or events for the books, the one big event yielded three stories. And yes, there is a book about Phoebe, who one day will turn my trilogy into a quadrilogy.

The Mistress[I listened to the abridged version of The Mistress.  I really hope that the unabridged audio versions of your books exist on CD somewhere (If not, they should!) because I detest abridged versions because it inevitably feels choppy and confusing in parts.  However, I didn't realize until just now that it was part of a trio, so now I am on a quest for the other two because I did find Kathleen O'Leery and Dylan Kennedy to be quite interesting!] 

How do you know if you’ve stayed too long at the party? It’s a judgment call, like everything else in this business. The three musketeers fizzled (sorry, couldn’t resist). Anne of Green Gables tried readers’ patience about the fourth or fifth time she straightened out a wayward child. And does Gilbert still love her? (Duh.) Writers walk a tightrope, trying to strike a balance between keeping a series fresh and avoiding repetition and staleness, while not disappointing readers with a big twist or switch. When Elizabeth George killed off a beloved character in her long-running Lynley novels, she found herself explaining the situation on CNN. Dorothy Dunnett was a ruthless killer of characters. J.K. Rowling has declared that there will be no more Harry Potter.

[For me, I don't always want the story to stop at the supposed HEA, I want to know, do they really stay in a state of HEA, or does fate throw them even more twists and turns, as it does to many people in real life?  So, a story doesn't have to end with a marriage or the birth of a child, because - as far as I'm concerned - this is where the real story begins.]

Like the characters in a long-running series, we move on. We ride off into the sunset to explore new horizons. See you around, pardner.

Susan Wiggs’s neverending Lakeshore Chronicles series is published by Mira Books. Lakeshore Christmas is definitely not the last. Artwork courtesy of her fellow writer Suzanne Selfors,

I want to thank Susan for joining us today!  Be sure and leave a comment, because one lucky winner will win a set of her Tudor Rose Trilogy - At the King's Command, The Maiden's Hand, and At the Queen's Summons!  Of course each of these is a reprint of the following titles: Circle in the Water, Vows Made in Wine, and Dancing on Air - but who cares, it's a free set of books!  I know I wouldn't mind a set of these!  The new cover art is fantastic!

At the King's Command   The Maiden's Hand   At the Queen's Summons

Tell us, what favorite series did Susan's post make you think of? 

16 Moonbeams (comments):

Molly Daniels said...

I love love LOVE series books! I used to read my favorite books and then try to continue the story with my sister, only inserting ourselves as other characters, and 'interact' with the original ones. Case in point: I was 12 when I read Flame and the Flower. What would happen if Brandon and Heather had another child, a girl, who wanted to be a tomboy, but at a party where she's totally bored, meets her match? And regular sibling rivalry existed between her and her older brother Beau?

I also loved Anne of Green Gables and had most of the books; I am known for digging through book piles at garage/rummage sales, in hopes of finding more Cherry Ames, Bobbsey Twins, Honey Bunch, Vicki Barr, or Dana Twins Mysteries.

As a pre-teen, I also fell in love with Anne Emery and Rosamund Du Jardin's books, and would love to own them. I wanted to be an archaelogist after reading Dinny Gordon, and looked forward to HS after reading the Pam and Penny/Sally and Jean books. And LOVED any First Love books which stayed with various characters (Janine, Todd, and Polly come to mind).

I also love several trilogies of Nora Roberts, and several Robin Cook and James Patterson have stories with the same main characters.

Great post, brought back a lot of memories!

And exactly the reason I began writing my own series...characters entered with their own issues, and I thought, 'Why not?'

Even my alter-ego wrote a stand-alone book, but with one simple request from a reader, she now has a trilogy. Stranger things have happened:)

Carrie said...

Hey Molly - how many dozens of virtual roses do you have now lol? As always, it's great to see you in the moonlight!

You mention some interesting titles that I have not heard of before. However, according to a website, Cherry Ames is available for purchase.

Molly Daniels said...

I have most of them, but the very first one is missing the first 10 pages (my fault; they came loose and I managed to lose them. I was only 9 or 10 when my mom let me have them!) I'd love to replace it someday:)

And long as they're a solid color, I'll take 'em:) Don't get many flowers from hubby; just dandylions from the 5-yr-old!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the chance to share this blog post! FYI, the mysterious missing graphic attributed to Suzanne Selfors can be seen here:

Looking forward to hearing about everyone's fave series!

Sophie Littlefield said...

I thought that what happened to Elizabeth George was fascinating, perhaps cautionary, and a little sad. I love her work and admire her bravery and determination - and I thought that it was very cool that she wanted to push herself to write a new kind of book and follow the character arc that made sense to her. I was really disappointed in those fans who took it as a personal affront - and from what I hear some took it extremely personally.

I love series as much as the next person, but I believe in the author's right to go unexpected places - and that's where some of the most gripping stories come from.

MargaretD said...

Hi Carrie...Margaret here.

I was so excited when I opened my FB account, saw your post about your guest blogger, THE Ms. Susan Wiggs.

I love reading her blogs about the authors thought process. Whether its how to put your story together, piece by piece...or Sequel or not to Sequel. When I read blogs like this, I have a much better understanding on how the background of a story is built. Linda Lael Miller blogs like this, and Emilie Richards. Let's get to the nitty gritty of building characters and how they relate to each other in the story.

And yes, SW is correct. Disappoint your readers at your own peril. I have been shocked at how my fellow readers can pick apart story lines and characters.

I'm not in this category. I haven't met a series that I didn't like yet. My bigger disappointments have been in stand alone books.

I got started on the Trixie Belden series and Boxcar Children. I never read Nancy Drew. I had the opportunity to read the Mitford series, which I own.

Of course, you can not get enough of Lakeshore, or Cedar Cove. There is the Stone Creek series...gotta love those cowboys, and gals too.

Not really a series, but reoccuring characters from historicals and contemparies written by Judith McNaught. I enjoy seeing the characters "age"...unfortunately she is one of those that had to explain the age of Matt Farrell. Well, that's it for me.

Hey, we need to go for lunch again.

Molly Daniels said... the hell did I leave out Trixie Belden? I think between my sis I, we owned nearly every copy! I own a few Nancy Drew, but the majority I borrowed from the library.

I have heard several authors talk about authors 'betraying' their readers when the character does something unexpected. But don't characters evolve over time, rather than staying stagnant? I agree to some point; you wouldn't want a beloved character to switch gears IMMEDIATELY; something would have to 'flip the switch' to cause a certain behavior. And yes, I cried when my favorite western series killed off beloved characters, but it was for the sake of the storyline and natural deaths DO occur. You can't have a series which spans decades, but a character never 'aging'. Anyone else read North and South (John Jakes), or Wagon's West (Dana Fuller Ross)?

Anonymous said...

Hi :)
Thank you for sharing Susan.
A great post!
It made me think of The Black Stallion books.
All the best,

MargaretD said...

Molly, We, and I have to say "we" because I am the oldest of 2 other sisters...own ALL the Trixie Belden books. They are in safe keeping at my parent's home. It is a debate as to who actually they belong to. Yikes!!!

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I guess my first series was Nancy Drew. Every cent I made babysitting went to those books! I love the Lakeshore Chronicles, Virgin River, Mitford, Covington (Joan Medlicot), Staggerford (Jon Hassler's books).

I usually find an author I enjoy and read anything they write (stand-alone or series).

Great post, Susan!

Kathleen O said...

Great interview Susan and Carrie
When I think of a series, one must go to your Lakeside Chronicles, which your readers want to read more and more about the people who live in and around Avalon..
But I also think about Robyn Carr's Virgin River or Lisa Kleypas Wallflower series.
I think we find it fansinating to imagine how we might fit into these peoples lives and the towns they live in..

Sheila Deeth said...

I think my husband is a series addict. He likes predictability, and I guess series do tend to give the reader that. He's also a genius at finding new series that he knows I will like, and getting me likewise addicted.

You mentioned abridged audio-books. I've found one excellent use for them - long trips to meet kids at college. The real thing might require too much thought and memory. But the abridged versions are just the right length for the journey, and just the right complexity to keep us all awake.

Carrie said...

Hmm, you know, I still can't take them and I've tried! I'm glad there are some readers out there like you Sheila who can appreciate the abridged versions!

Thanks to everyone who shared their memories with us so far today, because they've all been interesting!

Please continue to comment, though, because we would like to hear more!

Anonymous said...

My name is Emmanuelle and I'm a series addict.
No really, I enjoy stand alones but not as much as series. The main reason is that I HATE to say goodbye to character I've come to know and love.
I'm very glad to see y
ou blogging here today and very excited about your upcoming releases.
I just read The You I Never Knew last week-end and loved it (second chance at love/reunion is probably my favorite storyline).

Anonymous said...

Wow, when I was a kid I read all the Trixie Beldon, Sweet Valley High books. I also used to get the Bobbsey Twins out of the libray but there were a lot missing because it was an old series. Now I still love series. I love Debbie Macomber's cedar cove series, Fern Michaels Texas and Vegas series, Sherryl Woods has a few series that I devoured. I am also addicted to the lakeshore chronicles. I am sure there are more that I have read, Rachel Gibson has a few stories that are connected as well.
I agree with the abridged and unabridged books on CD, I buy the audio books for work and the abridged ones really do make you feel like you are missing something, especially if you have already read the book.

Anonymous said...

I do enjoy the series books as well. I am alsways trying to change the ending of a book or imagining what happens further in their lives past the story read. I alos love Robyn's Virgin River Series, D.Macomber's Cedar Cove series and many more. So keep up the good work and we will keep reading them. Diana