Monday, July 22, 2013


Earlier this week, a blog on what I would call "trilogy-itis" appeared on YALSA's The Hub.  I think the author of the piece has some very valid points although for me, most would apply to movies.  (Red 2.  Fast and Furious 4.  IronMan 3.  Die . . . Whatever.  Seriously?)   And even stringing folks along with endless sequels isn't new; just think back to the old Saturday matinee serials, like Captain Marvel and The Perils of Pauline (which are, really, more legitimately considered continuations rather than sequels but go with it).  Heck, if you want to blame someone for creating a recurring series character, go talk to Arthur Conan Doyle.  Yes, pretty much each story was a standalone, but over time, reader familiarity bred an expectation of more of the same.  Doyle didn't bother to keep track of every detail, but his readers sure did and still do.  That poor guy couldn't get clear of Sherlock Holmes--and even so, Doyle's embrace of a recurring character owes itself to a) Poe, a writer Doyle quite admired and who wrote two stories featuring the same detective and b) the well-established practice of novel serializations/installments, something Dickens and many other writers did because that was the industry back then.  In a way, they had to; it's how they made their living because they were paid by the word or installment.  Dickens and Collins and their ilk were the pulp fiction writers of their day.

So, really, multiple parts to stories that stretch over long periods of time is nothing new (or even confined solely to literature).  Serialization, continuations, and recurring characters are part and parcel of the mystery and thriller genres. 

Anyway, I'd encourage you to read the piece (it's relatively brief).  For those of you not so inclined, the gist of it all is that, in the author's opinion, there are just way too many trilogies out there these days--and, more importantly, not all of them seem justified.  That is, the story being developed doesn't seem to support or call for that much material and, by extension, an investment of time (and money) by her, the reader. 

Okay, I can sort of see that in certain cases and, like I said, the author raises some good points.  (Tell the truth, did you really expect a sequel to the original Star Wars?  The answer is no; the production company manufactured the need.)  But I can also categorically say that three of her contentions are dead wrong.  Of course, we're only talking about my experience; I can't vouch for other authors.  But here's where I take issue.

One is with this notion that keeping track of long, over-arching plots after a year's absence is so hard.  Come on, really?  Are you telling me that you really didn't remember what happened between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back?  Return of the Jedi?  The whole Lord of the Rings trilogy?  Yes, I picked movies, but they're not necessarily "easier."  Really, if you've connected with a character's story, I'm not sure why it should be that tough to get back there in a sequel (and without a dreaded recap).  To a certain extent, thriller and mystery writers routinely expect that readers will recall pertinent details about recurring characters and previous plot lines (and again, without the need for a recap) even if what they're presenting is a (sort of) standalone.  I say "sort of" because many mystery series feature characters with families or friends, who all change over time--and you, the reader, have to keep up (or invest some energy and read the earlier books--or just gloss over what you don't know and go on with the story).  My own prejudice, I guess, is that if a writer does her job, there's no need for an info dump to clue you in on what's gone on before.  (Certainly Dickens didn't think it was necessary.)  When people become invested in a character, they tend to remember the important bits.  

So maybe what we're really talking about here is that this is a new request?  demand? investment? on the part of the writer for the YA reader.  I agree with the author here.  For heaven's sake, if you don't feel like expending the emotional energy or brain space to keeping track of this and that, don't do it.  But just because some writers do info dumps doesn't mean all do (I didn't), and that's because I trust that my readers have a brain.  The trick is putting in pertinent details to jog memories (for example, I don't give a blow by blow about a character having been shot in a previous book; that would be boring: "Well, you know, Bob, I really thought you were a goner when the bad guys popped out from behind those bushes.  Do you remember when that happened?"  "Why, yes, Stan, I do.  Near around April, wasn't it?  Yeah, and by golly, gosh, I took one in the leg. Want to see my scar?"   But if I show a character having some trouble with a bum leg or massaging a scar or whatever . . . I trust that this is enough to help the reader recall: aha; right, he got shot.  See?  No info dump.  That was a show, not a tell.

A second point the author makes is that she figures a 
writer can't sell sf or fantasy these days "if you're not willing to divide it into pieces."  Nope; not true.  I know because I have and plan to keep doing so.  [In fact, my fans complain because they want sequels to books like Draw the Dark (a paranormal mystery) and Drowning Instinct (a contemporary, but I'm just saying).]  

Further, her statement presupposes that an author has somehow got some huge book that's only waiting to be divided--and, uhm, that would be no.  I can't imagine any writer plopping a twelve hundred page manuscript on an editor's desk.  (Well, okay, Stephen King did that with The Stand--he really did; I was in the audience when the editor told that story--but I'm talking us mere mortals.)  More often than not, I'll bet that trilogies come about as a result of an author having finished only the first book of a projected story (notice I say story not trilogy) that she hasn't really developed all the way or even begun to write.  Anything else is just a vague idea: a six-page synopsis or, maybe, only a few paragraphs.  It was that way with JK Rowling (in fact, I don't believe she really envisioned some huge series; she wrote a modest little middle-grade fantasy that did only okay and then she tried a couple other stories and then things took off).  

With ASHES, I had a finished book and an idea of where the story ought to go and that's it.  I said as much in an article that came out late this week on PW.  [That piece featured nine authors (including me) whose series are coming to an end and what that feels like and is all about.  You can read the first part of the article here; for those of without a subscription, you unfortunately can't read what we authors had to say, although I did post my portion on my Facebook page.]  

With ASHES, I had a big story, with multiple plotlines and characters, to tell.  But I only written the first installment and originally planned on one other book.  It was a (very gifted) editor who understood, even before I did, that I had much more going on in the ASHES universe than I knew at the time.  

But I hasten to add that this is not the same as the author's other point with which I take issue: that editors somehow wring three books out of authors whether they're ready or not.  No way; listen, an editor would be putting his job on the line if he pulled crap like that.  Publishing houses spend money to acquire these things; people don't realize the amount of work that goes into the production of even a single book.  No editor's going to pay a writer for a story that might turn out only half-assed or crappy.  That's ridiculous.  

For me, if the ASHES story hadn't supported or needed three books, I wouldn't have agreed to write them (and, again, my ASHES editor had nothing to do with crafting or demanding or writing the story).  In a way, that trilogy grew as I came to know and understand my characters--something that can only happen when you've got the luxury of time to let things spin out.  I was so incredibly fortunate to have that time, too; I can't tell you.  These characters truly took on lives of their own.  Now, I know I could tell more stories in that universe.  I've got the rudiments of a fourth book in my head; I know where I'd go next.  But for that series as a whole, I've done pretty much what I set out to do--and, as I said, even that changed over time.  

For me, I think the bottom line is that I write as much as the story requires.  Sometimes that's a standalone; sometimes that's a trilogy and at other times, as with my forthcoming WHITE SPACE, that's two books.  Could I write more books in either the ASHES or DARK PASSAGES series?  Sure.  For example, I am only now beginning the WS sequel, and it's possible that the ideas churning around in my head could expand and beg for a third book.  Not planning on it--I know the end I'm working toward here--but you never know.

Because characters and their stories really surprise you.  They do, and sometimes you have to give them the time and have the patience to allow their stories to grow.


Sechin Tower said...

Great post, Ilsa!
When writing I find that I have to hold back so many worthy ideas that it almost demands a series of its own. Don't know if serialization is good or bad for the world in general, but it's definitely worth thinking about!

Ilsa said...

Sechin, whyever not? Mystery writers do it all the time.

Jordan Dane said...

I saw an interesting interview on TV with someone from the movie industry. They talked about hollywood resorting to formulaic sequels because of the big foreign market and not having enough budget to promo as they do in the US. Sequels don't have to be explained or promoted as much because they've already been out there, so they can launch a worldwide release without much international promo. It's not very original, but it makes good business sense.

I see a similar notion with books, that there is a readership base to grow from. Thanks for this interesting post, Ilsa.