Thursday, 20 May 2010

But Seriesly... - John Dougherty

I like series fiction. Or, at least, I like the series fiction I like: Discworld; Jeeves and Wooster; Narnia; The Church Mice; The Sandman... It’s a lovely feeling when, browsing the shelves in the library, I come across an unfamiliar volume of a well-loved series.

And I like writing sequels. Zeus on the Loose and Zeus to the Rescue will next year be joined by Zeus Sorts It Out, and I’m currently working on a couple more ideas about the egocentric deity and his long-suffering high priest. Jack Slater, Monster Investigator returned last year in Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom. Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy is soon to be followed by Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en.

I would, however, hate it if someone decreed that from now on series fiction was the only legitimate form and no-one was allowed to read, write or publish anything else. Just imagine a world in which such a law had always existed: a world in which Hardy’s The Return of the Native came between The Native and The Native Returns Again; in which Watership Down was followed by Watership Up and Watership Left A Bit; in which Treasure Island was but one book in the Treasure Archipelago series. A world, in other words, which had no room for the stand-alone novel.

Of course, that would be ridiculous.

And yet... it would appear that something not a million miles away from this is happening in children’s books, or at least in books aimed at the newly-confident reader. It seems as if, no matter what I submit at the moment, the question comes back: “But does it have series potential?” A quick glance at my ‘recent rejections’ file comes up with this sort of thing:


“We all enjoyed reading this... The writing is really good... pitched at the right age range... very much like Roald Dahl... the main problem was that we can't see this working well over a series”

“utterly charming... truly very funny... loved the concept...What we’ve had a little difficulty seeing past is how to truly make this into a series.”

This can’t be right. I know there are economic imperatives to consider, but surely there are also cultural imperatives? Should we be teaching newly confident readers that all good things come ready-branded; that no story is self-contained; that one is never enough? Can’t we make children into readers without also turning them into consumers?

Worse, I suspect that for certain publishers the ideal is a series which can be pitched in a maximum of three words, and which combines two concepts from a limited and familiar range. Superhero Pirates! Football-playing Dinosaurs! Vampire Fairies! Ponies in Space! Better yet, slap some vapid celebrity’s name on the front and pretend that (s)he wrote it. What could be better?

For the publisher’s bank balance, probably nothing. I just can’t help feeling that someone’s being short-changed.


John’s website is at www.visitingauthor.com

11 comments:

Rosalind Adam said...

I agree with you, John. Children should have access to a full range of styles and formats. Most of our classic novels are stand-alones. Unfortunately this seems to be yet another example of the finance department over-powering editorial decisions.

Juliette said...

The first comment, which refers to Roald Dahl, seems particularly ridiculous - surely nearly all Dahl's books were stand alone stories? (I can only think of the two Charlie books as the exception).

Charlie Butler said...

Of course you're absolutely right, John. I wonder whether the publishers' argument is even that sound in purely financial terms. If you have a successful series, that's one thing - but what if you lay out a big advance for a trilogy, only to have the first book bomb? Haven't you then committed yourself to a money sink?

And there are bound to be readers (like me) who have a special fondness for writers who do something different every time, like Geraldine McCaughrean and Frances Hardinge. What are we to do?

Anne said...

I think there's only one way to sort out this rivalry between series fiction and stand alone.

As Harry Hill would say

FIGHT!!!

Nick Green said...

AAARRGH!

Katherine Roberts said...

John, let me know the names of those publishers, because I WANT to do some series fiction!!! (My refusals are more along the lines of "X books are a lot to ask a publisher to commit to... can we just make it one?")

Ideally, though, I think the story should dictate the form, not the other way around. Some stories make obvious series projects, whereas others cry out to be stand alone novels. I don't think you can force it. Planned sequels are fine, but sequels written (or more likely filmed) only because the first one was a runaway success are nearly always a disappointment.

John Dougherty said...

Katherine, I suspect you're writing series for an target audience for which the publishers don't want series.

There are so many ways of not winning!

Leila said...

So true, John! I noticed this as a bookseller, too. And then there's the sequels-to-classics phenomenon.
Hmm, Treasure Archipelago sounds quite good, though...

Miriam Halahmy said...

It sends the wrong message to emerging readers,also, that books always have to be part of something longer and can't just be stand alone and complete. I've nothing against book series but do sympathise with this gripe!

Linda said...

I really want to write about Vampire Fairies - it's a brilliant concept! Twee, twinkly . . .and deadly . .

Linda

Charlie Butler said...

Glittery boggarts! Remember, I thought of it first...