This post is a combination love letter, book review, and meditation on writing books in series…
Picture this: About three and a half years ago I got off a red-eye from Australia to learn that my eight a.m. flight out of LAX didn’t leave until eight p.m., which gave me and my family twelve unanticipated hours of quality airport time, and oh-by-the-way the small bulge on the disk between my fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae was HERNIATING into a much bigger problem.
There’s not enough Vicodin in the world to deal with that kind of nonsense.
Some time that afternoon, I picked up a book by Janet Evanovich at the airport bookstore. Plum Spooky is one of the accessory novels in the Stephanie Plum series. My strongest memory after that was reading on the flight home, as stoned as you please, and LAUGHING so hard my husband worried the flight attendant would escort me from the plane.
Those monkeys in the foil hats still make me giggle.
Maybe you had to be there.
Or maybe you just have to be a Janet Evanovich fan, the kind of die-hard who’s read every one of the Stephanie Plum novels (but not necessarily seen the movie because the casting was all wrong). The kind who would pay full price for a hard cover copy in an airport bookstore. The kind who honest to God cares whether Stephanie ends up with Joe or Ranger.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, Stephanie’s a bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey. She works for her sleazy uncle, her sidekick is a former prostitute named Lula, and her grandmother is crazy, but not as crazy as Joe’s grandmother, who regularly zaps Stephanie with the evil eye. The author has a quick wit and a deft hand with the details; in Takedown Twenty, she describes a crowded room at a funeral home as “filled with the smell of carnations and failed deodorant.” Even without the Vicodin, there’s usually at least a half a dozen places in each of these books where I laugh out loud.
But here’s the rub. There are twenty books in this series (plus the four holiday Plum novels) and the essential conflicts haven’t changed. They are:
- Is Stephanie going to catch the bad guy?
- Is Stephanie going to be able to pay her rent?
- Is Stephanie going to marry Joe or go off with Ranger and have bottle-rocket sex for the rest of her life?
I started Takedown Twenty knowing Stephanie would go up against someone big and mean. I knew she’d fumble around and get beat on a little (this time the mobsters hang Stephanie over a bridge and she gets dumped into the Delaware River). I knew she’d probably shoot something inappropriate (this time it was some bad guy’s ear). I knew she and Lula would eat donuts and fried chicken and her mother would get dinner on the table every night at six.
Pretty much I had the first two conflicts answered before I even opened the book. Somehow or other, Stephanie would catch the bad guy, and therefore earn enough money to make her rent. She did, although in all honesty the suspense wasn’t that suspenseful, and the wrap up was really kind of blah. It was almost like the author didn’t even care about those parts of the story, but knew they had to be there to make, you know, a plot.
Which means there’s only question either of us is still interested in: Joe or Ranger? The problem is, Stephanie’s spent so much time playing with the possibilities she may not be able to make a commitment. Readers expect the mystery, the humor, and the violence.
And they expect Stephanie to flirt with Ranger, then go home to Joe. But committing to one leaves the other one out, which is a problem.
One of the things that makes Takedown Twenty a little different than the other books in the series was that the Joe/Ranger conflict seemed to have a broader reach. Rather than just asking which guy she will choose, the author seems to be wondering if Stephanie’s ever going to move beyond a crappy little rental in Jersey and a dangerous, sometimes unpleasant job. While I welcome this hint of character development, it’s come at such a slow pace I was left with an overwhelming feeling of desperation.
And not the good kind.
I never once worried that Stephanie might not survive her dangerous escapades. I do worry whether Ms. Evanovich is going to be able to write herself out of this pickle. I don’t think her problem is her commitment to the character. Her problem is her reader’s expectations.
See, my mom reads these books, and she thought Takedown Twenty was JUST GREAT. It has everything she likes: humor, action and (very light) naughtiness. The book was released last November. Today, it has over three thousand reviews with an average of 4.1 stars (and almost 2000 5-star reviews), and a current Amazon sales ranking of 254. Those numbers come from a huge fan base, and I’d argue a solid percentage of those fans keep coming back because they know what they’re getting. If Mrs. Evanovich makes any substantive changes that would actually allow Stephanie to develop as a character (i.e. find another line of work, choose Joe, choose Ranger, do SOMETHING for pity’s sake) she’ll lose a chunk of her audience.
A couple weeks ago, my friend – and fabulous urban fantasy author – Jami Gray did a blog post about how long was too long for a series. She argues that six books is a good length, long enough to really develop the characters, but not so long that things get stale. I think her point is valid, and though I’m writing as someone who hasn’t done the series thing yet, the introduction of a major new conflict can keep things fresh. It may not be the safest choice – think of all the readers who STOPPED after Anita Blake caught the ardeur – but it can keep the story going.
But when you’re talking the kind of numbers Ms. Evanovich generates, do you really take that risk?
Pardon me while I go all fan-girl for a minute…Ms. Evanovich is fantastic writer. She’s my idol, I want to be her when I grow up, and her book How I Write is something every author should read and re-read. Her characters are lively, her language is fresh, and her voice never falters. That said, Takedown Twenty was mostly an exercise in frustration for me. I laughed some, I admired the author’s craft, I was entertained. More or less. And I’ll read (Fill In The Blank) Twenty-One because, you know….
Joe or Ranger?
I’d love to see your comments on whether character development is a necessary part of every series. Is putting out an entertaining product enough?
6 thoughts on “Takedown Twenty, or, How Long Is Too Long?”
I think every story has its own timeline, but the writer needs to decide in the beginning what that timeline is. Sometimes it’s really nice to settle into a series that seems endless, like you’ll never have to leave that universe and the characters you love so much. But, like the series you’ve pointed out here, sometimes you realize that the author should have ended the series a long time ago and that’s heartbreaking. Instead of cuddling up with your favorite characters you glare, side-long at a book you wish you hadn’t spent money on because you can’t seem to get past chapter 5.
You pointed out the Anita Blake series. I loved that series. But it fell into that same problem as your Stephanie Plum series – there came a point where I didn’t think there was anything more this series could give me. The characters were all doing the same thing, working on the same issues, and some of the things that used to make the series fun, were let to fall by the wayside. I committed myself to some 16 or 17 novels (I can’t even remember where I actually stopped) and said enough.
People made the argument that Charlaine Harris should’ve ended the Sookie Stackhouse series long before she did even though they kept buying the installments. So yeah, you don’t what to disappoint fans, but you need to be true to your work. You don’t want to finally come to the end of your inspirational rope and hang yourself.
I’ve thought about starting a series that has the possibility of never-ending, but then I think of these two series I’ve mentioned and the sour note they’re leaving fans with and I don’t want to do that. You need to decide what the story is that you want to tell, draw yourself a map from book one to book X and know where the ending is, even if it’s 3 books or 30, it needs to be satisfying because it’ll be that much more entertaining.
“You don’t want to finally come to the end of your inspirational rope and hang yourself.”
I just wonder what would have happened if Joe and Stephanie had gotten married, say around book 10. She could still be a bounty hunter, with all kinds of opportunities for humor over the marital friction that causes. Ranger could still be around, in case she ever wants to leave her husband. Or even better, the series could have ended with their wedding, and Ms. Evanovich could have had more creative energy to invest in her paranormal spin-off Deisel & Lizzy series.
I’m with you on Ms. Charlaine – that series was done after about book 9, but I’m still plugging along with Anita Blake, I think because the character’s still evolving. There is a bit of recycling, as you note, but not enough to turn me off…yet.
I’ve written two novels that I hope to turn into series. One has a three-book arc, with maybe a couple novellas thrown in, and the other will be five books, though each one will focus on a different sibling in a family. Haven’t actually stared book 2 in either one,yet, and am a little nervous about how to thread in material from book 1 so it makes sense. We’ll see…
I think sometimes, when a series is doing really well with a particular formula, there’s the possibility that the writer is scared to make a decision, like choosing Guy A or B, that will alienate or disappoint a chunk of their readers. It’s a risk I think should be taken though. If it turns out people hate hate hate it, you can change it in the next book, if it makes sense to the story.
I’m writing a trilogy right now and just finished book 2. It was probably the hardest book I’ve ever written and I realized why. My beta reader, our own Scribe Nicole Evelina, said that too often the second book in a trilogy is just a bridge from book one to three without much driving force of its own. It is a difficult task to accomplish. My first series was five books, it was always going to be five books, and looking back I realized that book 3, the middle book, was the hardest to write. There’s just something about that middle book so maybe people want to avoid it by stretching out the series so there is no real, one middle book? Who knows.
One author, who I think handled a long series well, is Jeaniene Frost and her Kat and Bones series. The series closed at seven books, but she started writing spinoffs for secondary characters. This was brilliant. She was able to give a finite end to the series while still carrying it on with other, different but familiar characters. I think more writers should try this tactic.
Love Kat & Bones! Haven’t read all their books yet, but the ones I have read were awesome. Along those lines, I think Nicole Peeler’s got the right idea, too, with the her Jane True novels. I think there are five in that series, she’s done a couple spin-offs, and now she’s moving on to something else (Jinn & Juice, which I’ve preordered…).
Your comment about the middle book being the hardest reminds me of my swim coach telling me the 3rd 100 yards were the hardest of a 500-yard swim. That was so many years ago, but I still remember the truth of it – that’s where you had to dig down deepest.
Thanks for the comments, Shauna!
I haven’t read any of the Stephanie Plum books, although have often been tempted. I confess now I know there’s 20 with the issues you cite, I’m not feeling too inclined. The idea of ‘Joe or Ranger’ for 20 books does my head in. Having said that, one thing I hate about a lot of TV shows is the tendency to destroy a relationship they’ve just spent several seasons creating, just because they have to keep up with the conflict.
I heard Keri Arthur speak a month or so ago on moving on from her big bestselling series… it wasn’t a popular decision with the publisher, but she needed to move on as an author. I totally respected that. I reckon 6 books per series sounds reasonable to me!
There’s a big difference, though, between episodic series of this nature (often found in crime and it seems paranormal) and epic fantasy series, though. The latter are serialised, no matter how long (think Wheel of Time!). They have their own issues, I daresay, although I’d personally prefer that style of series.
Aw, you should read a couple of ’em Ellen. The first few are REALLY good – there’s a reason Ms. Evanovich got so popular. That said, reading the first one – or even the first six – doesn’t obligate you to read them all. Unless you want to…