Ramblings from the Desert

The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either. ~Benjamin Franklin

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Location: New Mexico

Author of the urban fantasy novel, The Music of Chaos, and the paranormal romance, The Canvas Thief.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Jumping The Cartilage Fish

Probably by now most have heard of the term, "jumping the shark," applied to formerly good television shows that went careening off the edge of the canyon 'o crap. Typical reasons for shark jumping are the addition of the cute kid and protagonists who fall in love with each other. Well, it's not so much the "falling in love," which makes for nice sexual tension, but the "falling into bed."

Recently, after reading The Monsters of Grammercy Park, I started thinking about the phenomena in novels, notably series. One of the novel's protagonists is a writer (what is it with writers writing about writers?) of bestselling procedural mysteries. Although her books have made her famous, lately both she and her readers are feeling a sense of disatisfaction with her books. When her latest novel receives a flurry of bad reviews, she wisely, realizes she needs a new schtick.

Too bad most real life series writers don't do this.

This got me thinking about series I've read, especially those series I've abandoned when they started looking sharky. As a writer, the idea that a good idea can go badder than that blob of mystery meat in the fridge is fascinating. What ruins a good series? How do you get new readers while retaining the old? How do you avoid the pitfalls that so many other writers have fallen head over heels into?

First is what some call continuity, e.g., storylines that aren't self-contained and depend on knowledge of earlier novels in the series. Though applied to comics, this site has an amusing take on the issue.

For example, imagine the typical mystery series featuring a usual P.I. protagonist. Basically, if 80-percent of book six relies on events in books one through five, it isn't accessible to the new reader. Also, if a big chunk of the storyline is devoted to the protagonist's angst, angst that the reader wishes the protagonist would "get the fuck over," even fans of the series may start looking for shark hunting gear.

Another way to look at the above is this. The writer falls in love with their characters, starts digging around in the character's backstory and decides the the reader "must" explore the character's tortured past. Even weirder are writers who use their protagonists as a kind of therapeutic Mary Sue, working out their own "issues" on paper.

I get the impression that no writer has nailed this mentality as well as L. K. Hamilton. While I'm no fan, I'm not jumping on the "skewer Hamilton" bandwagon. To date, I've read one and a half of her novels. Told by first readers that one of my novels reminded them of Hamilton's work, I read the first Anita Blake novel. Anita, IMO, was interesting but ultimately unlikeable and possessed of an enormous chip on her shoulder. I immediately revised my novel, taking care to insure that my protagonist was nothing like Blake.

The second novel, a Merry Gentry book, was little more than "Our Bodies, Ourselves" for Fey folk. Tentacle sex and other kink with no plot. After about 100 pages, I skipped to the back, found more sex, but no resolution, and bounced the book off the wall. That was enough to put me off her books forever.

Her so-called fans, however, stick doggedly with her, reading and then verbally excoriating her on blogs, and LJ communities. (The aforementioned community is worth a visit because folks recommend other writers worth reading.)

Granted, on her own blog, Hamilton does seem a tad...maladjusted. I sometimes talk to my characters, but I have the good sense to keep it to myself.

It seems, that while her series, Anita Blake anyway, started out as interesting, gritty urban fantasy, at some point it devolved into the sort of erotica young teens read to learn about sex. The theory is that Hamilton sees this as some sort of feminist statement--sex is good, plot is boring.

On the other side of the spectrum are series where a cute idea gets stagnant. Witness Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. The first five or six books are hilarious--Stephanie Plum, Jersey girl extraordinaire, bribes her cousin Vinnie into a giving her a bounty hunter job. Hilarity ensues. I pick them up and give a read whenever my funny bone needs a tickle.

The problem: the funny is predicated on Stephanie's incompetence. By book ten, one starts to wonder how she can still be such a nincompoop. Meanwhile, the love triangle between Morelli and Ranger still tilts from side to side with no resolution.

It seems not even more venerable mystery writers are immune. While, to my knowledge, there are no Tony Hillerman Lashout LJ communities, my mom, a fan ,admits that the earlier books held more charm than the newer. The book I read, a later installment, had a romantic side plot involving Jim Chee's relationship with a female public defender. My reaction, "Meh. Who gives a shit? More mystery please."

Stuff I've Learned About Writing Series By Reading Series That Jumped The Shark
*Don't use your characters as a means of therapy. If you need to work out your emotional issues, see a shrink.
*Character development is good; character assassination isn't.
*Torture your character, but remember no one likes a whiner. At some point, your protagonist needs to "get over it."
*Nobody likes a cute kid. Really, we don't. It's a myth that all humans, women especially, will fall over themselves at the appearance of a cute kid. Cute kids will not redeem a failing series.
*Just because it was funny the first time, doesn't mean it'll be funny the tenth.
*Too many characters spoil the plot, especially if your nice little cast of three in book one has become a cast of hundreds by book ten.
*Remember your readers. Remember that there are a zillion other things vying for their attention, and hence, that long-ass, convoluted story arc that you "eat, sleep and breathe", is just fucking confusing to them.
*If readers are expecting a funny book, just like all the rest, give it to them. Don't change rules midstream. On the other hand, ye old "exactly the same plot, only the names have changed" approach will get old fast.
*Sex isn't a substitute for character development or plot.
*Nobody likes it when a favorite character gets killed off. But conversely, nobody likes it when everyone is immune to peril. Pick a few characters who will live throughout the series; everybody else is cannon fodder.
*When possible, set everything in the context of a finite story arc, a la, Harry Potter. After six books, most series start to suck.
*Listen to your editor.
*When you are rich and famous, don't release an anthology of crappy stories that no one would buy when you were poor and unknown. Nothing's changed. They still suck. Cute backstories about secondary characters will not revive your sagging series.
*On again, off again romances are tiresome after about five books. Make a decision already.
*Your heroine will not have curly hair. I repeat, no curly hair.
*Sometimes...not always...but sometimes your fans are right.

Wednesday is a writing day, hence the longish writing post. Midweek, yay.


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