Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oh, But I'm Tired of Holding On to a Feeling I know is Gone*

Most authors will tell you, if they’re being honest, that they love it when readers really enjoy their books and want more. It’s a very heady feeling, and it means a lot. Trust me. So most authors work hard to make sure that their characters are interesting and believable, their plots strong and that there’s something that makes readers come back for more with each new instalment. But the fact is, no matter how skilled the author is (and we all have our lists of best authors), no matter how innovative the plots, well-evolved the characters or strong the premise, there comes a time in just about every series when the author is best off making some major changes or ending the series. Readers – even devoted readers – of series are often aware when that time has come, and while they’re willing to forgive the occasional slip, most aren’t as willing when it comes to staleness. Talented authors who are really dedicated to what they do know, too, when that time has come. Knowing when to make those changes or end a series takes a lot of skill and awareness. It’s very tempting, too, to just keep on with what’s always sold. But an author who is willing to take a hard, honest look at his or her work and make those difficult decisions will find that the work stays fresh and interesting (and therefore, sells better, too!).

Agatha Christie’s work sold as well as it did (still does, really) and remains as popular as it is arguably because she was willing to try new things, revamp her style here and there and create new and different characters and situations. For instance, her best-known sleuths, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford get involved in all sorts of different mysteries. They travel, they meet with all sorts of characters and their investigations run the gamut from quiet “personal” murders to international espionage to psychological crime. Had she written only traditional “English village murders,” or only “country manor murders,” it’s quite possible that her work would have turned stale.

But it’s more than that. Christie also featured other sleuths in some of her novels. For instance, in Ordeal by Innocence, we meet Dr. Arthur Calgary. He re-awakens interest in the murder of Rachel Argyle when he is able to prove that her son Jacko, who was convicted of the crime and died in prison, was innocent. Calgary wants to find out who the real murderer is and clear Jacko Argyle’s name, but the rest of the family is all too eager to let the matter rest and assume that Jacko Argyle was guilty. In this novel, we get a fresh perspective and a fresh sleuth, so to speak. Christie wrote other stories and novels, too, of course, that do not feature her most popular sleuths. That willingness to try new styles no doubt challenged Christie as a writer and certainly challenges readers. That challenge in itself adds freshness to an author’s writing.

Dorothy Sayers took a different approach. She completed eleven novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, seven of which also featured mystery novelist Harriet Vane. As Wimsey and, later, Harriet solve mysteries, Sayers also tells the story of their evolving relationship. In Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of the novels Sayers completed, Wimsey and Vane finally marry and begin their lives together. At that point, the series ends (although there are some short stories that refer to the Wimseys’ married life).

Sayers was faced with the difficult decision of what to do with this series when she’d finished telling the story of how Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane met, worked together and eventually married. In fact, she began a novel that takes place after their marriage. But she presumably knew that the series had come to a graceful ending point with Busman’s Honeymoon and in fact, wrote that she didn’t much like the follow-up to that novel, so she never completed it. Sayers’ decision was to end the series at a natural place. No doubt she could have gone on with her Lord Peter series, but she chose to end it while it was still strong.

Other authors have also chosen to let a series end naturally. For example, Ian Rankin’s final Inspector Rebus novel, Exit Music, has as its background Rebus’ retirement from active duty. He’s nine days away from his last official day and busy wrapping up some of his cases when dissident poet Alexander Todorov is murdered in what looks at first like a mugging gone very wrong. What’s interesting about this novel is that, although Rebus and Siobhan Clarke and their team investigate the murder and find out who killed Todorov and why, this doesn’t change the fact of Rebus’ retirement. At the end of the novel, Rebus doesn’t suddenly decide he wants to remain on the force. Rather than go on and on with the Rebus series until it gets too repetitive, Rankin decided to end it gracefully – well, as gracefully as John Rebus ever acts ;-).

Colin Dexter opted for a different way to end his Inspector Morse series. Throughout the thirteen Morse novels, we see the development of Morse’s character and the evolution of the character of Sergeant Lewis. As they investigate cases, readers also see the relationship between Morse and Lewis evolve and change over time. One of the recurring themes in this series is Morse’s refusal to take care of his health. He’s far less concerned about his diet and his habit of drinking more than is good for him than he is about solving cases. So, in The Remorseful Day, it makes sense, although it’s sad, that Morse’s lifestyle catches up with him. In that novel, in which Lewis and Morse investigate the two-year-old murder of a nurse who actually treated Morse at one point, we also see, if you will, the torch being passed to Lewis. It’s Lewis who does most of the work on this case, and at the end, readers feel the series coming to a natural end.

One of the most interesting ways that a series ended was the end of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes is facing off against his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty. He’s about to be responsible for the arrest of Moriarty and most of his criminal gang, but Moriarty finds out about it. Holmes’ life is now in danger, and he and Watson have to flee England for the European Continent. They end up in Switzerland, but Moriarty finds them. He and Holmes have a final confrontation and both end up going over the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle imagined that this would be a fitting end to Holmes’ brilliant career. The only problem in Conan Doyle’s logic was that the public wouldn’t allow an end to the Holmes stories. There was such an outcry after the publication of The Adventure of the Final Problem that Conan Doyle felt forced to resurrect his creation. Holmes returned for another series of adventures and didn’t really end his career until His Last Bow, in which he and Watson solve a case of espionage that takes place just before World War I.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series is still ongoing, but Connelly hasn’t let that series get stale. He’s created a new protagonist, attorney Mickey Haller, who is Bosch’s half-brother. Haller, of course, has his own backstory, characteristics and so on. But he and Bosch work together in some of Connelly’s novels, and readers can see how that’s given Connelly several options. He can continue having both protagonists; he can choose to end the Bosch series and carry on with Mickey Haller (who’s already got a strong fan base); he can also choose to end both series and begin something completely different. But not now, please: I haven’t read The Reversal yet ;-).

It’s really difficult to know, sometimes, exactly when a series should end. Readers sense it, though, when enough is enough. So do authors who work hard at what they do and want to continue to write well. Although I’m only into the third entry in my own Joel Williams series, I’m already thinking about how the series might eventually evolve, move on and later end; I don’t want it to go on too long, nor end too abruptly.

What’s your view? How do you know that a series has gone on long enough? If you’re a writer, have you thought about what you might do to end your series and perhaps move on to a new one?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Time For Me to Fly.


  1. I find that once the ideas are gone, the series should end but that rarely happens in mysteries. I don't know what I would do to end my series, I don't have an end it view. I have so many stories yet to tell. I'm looking forward to writing each one. Maybe when I get bored, I'll stop.

    Thanks for all your support, Margot, you're one of the first I've told.


  2. CLarissa - You put that quite well. New ideas are the core of a good series. If they are gone, the series falls flat. Maybe that does start with the author's sense of ennui. I know what you mean, too, about having a lot of ideas - I do, too :-). I look forward to reading yours for a long time. Congratulations on getting your series picked up for publication!

  3. I guess a series should end when the characters stop being interesting, which means, I guess, that the writer is bored. If that's the case, of course the reader will be bored too!

  4. Ann - You've put it succinctly but quite well. If the characters stop being interesting, and the author isn't interested in them, then why should the reader care? When an author starts sensing his or her interest waning, it's probably time to pay attention and take that "little voice" seriously...

  5. I don't imagine there's an easy answer to this question - for writers or readers.

    IMHO the Elizabeth George series featuring Lynley and Havers is well and truly over though the author doesn't seem to have realised it yet. I haven't read the most recent book but the previous one was such a stultifying bore that I vowed never to pick up one of these tomes again. This is despite the fact that I think George has tried to shake the series up by having her main character epxerience and awufl event in his personal life and even writing one book virtually outside the series (focusing enitrely on the leadup to the event that changed Lynley's life for the worse). Despite all this though I no longer have any interest in the series.

    Another long running series, Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe books, have somehow maintained their interest for me. The last two books are as good as anything else in the series that I've read. Hill has tried new things (writing styles and story format and so on) and these have been, for me anyway, a successful way to keep the series interesting.

    On reflection I think the difference probably does lie in what Ann suggests...the writer's level of interest in her/his characters. With the George series I feel she is just going through the motions whereas I get the feeling Hill is still energised by what his characters are doing and where they are leading him.

  6. Oh and you shoud know Margot that I have got a whole new playlist in my iTunes library - it's called Margot's songs and it features many of the songs you have used in your blog post titles - most of which I had in my ridiculously large music collection and a few of which I have purchased just for the purpose. So now I take you with me everywhere I go on my iPod :)

  7. Bernadette - You make such an interesting contrast between George and Hill. As you discuss Hill, I think you bring up a really important point: it has to do as much as anything else with whether or not the author is enjoying the experience of working with the characters, developing them and so on. If the author doesn't enjoy what she or he is doing, it's going to come through, and that can make a novel flat.

    I think, too, that publishers may have an effect on it too. I can well imagine that a writer might want to make a major change, end a series to start a new one, etc, but the publisher presses for another instalment of the series "as is" because it's doing well. That said, though, I do think that the author's sense of excitement, interest and so on really do matter quite a lot.

    You also make another interesting point about trying new formats and writing styles. That's another way for an author to keep a series fresh if she or he still enjoys the main characters. That sort of thing does mean taking risks, but Hill does it quite well.

    And thank you so much for the kind musical words :-). Actually that means a lot to me, as I love music. If something I share musically makes you happy, too, that just makes my day. Music is just such a universal, I think...

  8. Funny, but after reading your post on Tommy & Tuppence, I was thinking the same thing yesterday. Of how AC has three levels of series- the HP mysteries where she was prolific, Miss Marple who did a few but not enough and the T&T or Sergent Blunt where you are left panting for more.She remained fresh in all three levels, because she kept reinventing herself, but when she realised a character had to go, he did.

    A graceful exit is perhaps the most difficult thing for anyone. Like a sportsman said about his (almost premature) retirement- "I want to go when people are saying 'Why?', instead of 'Why not?'"

  9. I think when the *publisher* wants more, it's probably hard to stop writing books. But I do know a writer who was asked for more books and told her publisher that she thought the series had come to the perfect end. She was glad to be the one who decided that.

    I've always gotten a chuckle at Sherlock basically rising from the dead! Such a great series, though...

  10. Rayna - I agree with you about Agatha Christie's ability to re-invent herself and try different things. I agree, too, that she was willing to take a close and honest look at her writing and make changes. I hadn't really thought of her writing as being at three levels, but you have a point; one can really think of it that way.

    And I really like that quote about wanting to leave when people say, "Why," rather than "Why not." Those are wise words, and I'm going to keep that one in mind.

    Elizabeth - Oh, it was a great series! And yes, it was very creative of Conan Doyle to find a way to bring Holmes back.

    I agree with you, too, that what the publisher wants can have a powerful effect on whether or not the writer continues with a series or ends it. I am happy, too, that your acquaintance was able to make the decision for herself that her series had gotten to a graceful end point. Lots of writers can't do that.

  11. Very interesting post and discussion, as usual for this wonderful blog!
    I like the way that Michael Connelly revitalised his series. He did introduce new characters before (Terry Caleb) who eventually intersected with Bosch, but I think his newer creations are working better. I think he hit a bit of a low around his Void Moon/one with Bones in the title, but his series now is better than ever in my view. Part of this is the character of Harry and the character of the city (which is very much a character in the books), and some of it is just the ability to tell a very good story whatever else is going on.

    Some series just go onto autopilot and I lose interest, eg the Eve Dallas series (J D Robb/Nora Roberts) which I loved at first but which I no longer read as they are boilerplate. (attractive formula, but not deviating from it). Another example is Lee Child, he sells astronomically but his books are purely autopilot now, the last one was a parody of itself!

    Other series really plummet from the good to the dire, eg Scarpetta (Cornwell), Alex Delaware (J Kellerman) and as Bernadette says, Lynley et al.

    Another way to end a series is to set out to write a specific number of books - this seems quite Swedish (Sjowall/Wahloo, Nesser, Ake Edwardsen and, before he was stopped too soon, Stieg Larsson). Asa Larsson's series, she writes in prefaces, is intended from the outset to be six novels. "Nicci French" has just announced a finite-length series (having previously written stand-alones).

    There are the series that won't lie down and die! For example Ann Cleeves has said she's writing another book in her Shetland quartet after having published the fourth (good!). And John Harvey bought back Resnick after finishing his 10-book-series (good!). And there is always the Master, Conan Doyle, who did something similar I seem to recall, bringing back Moriaty/Holmes after Reichenbach.

    I think it is fascinating how some series go from strength to strength, others become stale and formulaic but stay on a steady keel, and yet others plunge into "taking the mickey out of the loyal readers".

  12. Maxine - You are very kind :-) and sinfully good for my ego :-). I think you've done a fine assessment of the Bosch series, too. Connelly's newer characters do work quite well, and although I agree that not every single novel is his best work, the overall result has been a strong series that continues to be interesting, fresh and well worth reading. You're right, too, that the ability to tell a good story has something to do with how long a series should last, too.

    It's interesting that you mention series that have gone on "autopilot" (love that word, by the way). There are several authors - and you've mentioned some of them - who stay with a formula that did well and was interesting at one time, but no longer is. On one hand, I can certainly understand the pressure from readers and publishers to stick with something that's been popular. On the other, it's also important, I think, to re-evaluate from time to time, to add something new, to do something to keep the series interesting. And then of course, there are authors whose novels have plummeted quickly, as you say. And yet, some of those authors have quite loyal readers...

    And I am so glad that you mentioned the finite-number-of-books approach to this question. There is definitely something to be said for a series that's planned for x number of novels. The author can plan, readers can plan, and so can the publisher. And if the series is a good one, and does well, the author can always move on to another series.

    Of course, you never know what may happen if a series really takes off. I'm sure Conan Doyle never expected readers to get so upset at was supposed to be the final instalment of the Holmes series. He was talented and flexible enough to respond to it, which I admire.

    You're right; it is so interesting to consider what makes some series stay strong so that they don't need to end, while others should end far sooner than they do.

  13. Philip Kerr took a fifteen year rest from writing three Bernie Gunthers, and then brought him back refreshed to write four more including the Elllis Peters winner in 2009 If the Dead Rise Not.
    I think if the writer still has plot ideas then a series can go on and on. Reginald Hill has great characters but he experiments with different formats to keep them fresh.
    Cornwell ran out of steam and resorted to bringing back people killed in previous books, and hairy wolf men, that she metaphorically and literally lost the plot.
    Concerning the ideal length of a series I find it intriguing that R.G.Wingfield only wrote six Inspector Frost books, but the TV series with David Jason ran for 42 episodes over 18 years!

  14. I wonder about writers such as Lilian Jackson Braun. I haven't read the Cat Who books in a while but all those I did read had the same photo and biographical description. It always felt to me that she wasn't quite a real person, but I've never read anything to confirm that thought.

    I wonder what the longest running series is. For myself, if a series' character never changes; or if there is a relationship that is never resolved, I get bored with the books. I like to see change and growth, though I don't care a bit that Hercule Poirot is always the same. Perhaps he had grown as much as possible as soon as the first book appeared. Oops, it sounds like I think he's real. :<)

    In general I don't like it if the main sleuth is killed off because for me it spoils the earlier books and I tend not to reread them.

    And so very strange that John Thaw died also.

  15. Norman - That's an interesting point about the Gunther series. Sometimes a bit of a break like that can make a great deal of difference. And those novels show that series can be kept strong. The same is true for the Dalziel/Pascoe series. Again, it seems to be a matter of the author's interest, willingness to do new things, and interesting plot ideas.

    That's a well-taken point about the Frost series, too; I hadn't thought about that, but it is interesting how a television series can win viewers long after the series that spawned it ends...

    And I'm not a big fan of resurrecting dead characters in future novels either...

    Nan - It's funny you would mention Braun. I've read in more than one place, actually, the speculation that she herself stopped writing those books long ago and for the last number of years they've been ghost-written. I don't know if that is true or not, but many people believe her last six or eight novels (maybe even more) have been formulaic enough that it could be true.

    It's funny about Hercule Poirot. You're right that major changes don't happen in his life as the series goes on. And yet, Christie's plots vary, the other characters vary, and so the overall effect is not stale. Perhaps that's why Poirot is as durable as he is. And he does seem real, doesn't he??

    So very sad about John Thaw.....I wonder whether there would have been more Morse novels had he lived. The relationship between the novels and the show was unusually close...

  16. I don´t think many series have survived more than 10-15 books and maintained the same, high quality as the first volumes. I cannot recall other examples of that than Sue Grafton´s alphabet series (which is excellent on the whole), and Rendell´s Inspector Wexford series (generally fine but still I think she has begun to seem a bit detached from the modern world *I* live in).

    I just wish that the producers of TV-series knew that quantity is not quality. In my opinion most series should stop after the first season, and the best 10 % could be allowed a second year but no more than that. Then we would rave and rant because we missed the characters, not because we loathed them :D

  17. Dorte - LOL at your comment about TV series! You are right that many of them just go on for far, far too long! There are such a limited number of series that I ever watch that I think I am very picky about what I see. I do miss Inspector Morse, though...

    And I'm glad you brought up Sue Grafton's series, too: a solid example of a series that has not lost its touch overall. The Wexford series is good, too, although I got the feeling that Monster in the Box was the last one. We shall see...

  18. A series can go strong for some time but when you can figure out who the killer is half way through then it begins to lose it's appeal. A series is enjoyable because you feel like you're visiting old friends again.

    Thoughts in Progress

  19. Mason - Oh, you've put your finger on such an important thing. When the reader knows the pattern so well that s/he can pick out the murderer halfway's time to make some major changes. On the other hand, as you say, a long-running series does gather in lots of loyal friends...