Takedown Twenty, or, How Long Is Too Long?

This post is a combination love letter, book review, and meditation on writing books in series…

greetings-from-trenton-new-jersey

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?

Peace,
Liv