Monday, December 8, 2008

THE DEBATABLE NECESSITY OF SEQUELS

As a writer who likes to think he has some measure of artistic integrity, I am constantly at war with the concept of the sequel, not to mention the trilogy.

My issue with sequels and series novels in general is the exploitation of an idea. In many cases, writers are milking something that would have been brilliant in a single novel for all it’s worth. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs to make money and if it can be done while writing, that is the dream most of us will never realize.

However, when someone stretches a premise only because they want to capitalize on its success, they run the risk of diminishing whatever merits the original possessed. In addition, writers that do this tend to be one of two-trick ponies with very little else in their literary arsenal. Thus we wind up with the multi-epic, especially in the Fantasy field, that never seems to end or satisfy. It’s like tantric fiction.

None of my comments are meant to indicate I am opposed to writing sequels, however, because I have and probably will again. The difference is I don’t make the decision to write a sequel lightly. In fact, in most cases I write my novels with the intent of making them a single volume, but sometimes the concept simply outgrows the constraints of the format.

I have what I have termed an “urban dark fantasy epic” whose first novel is already written. I think it’s my best work, and many agree. But I really wanted it to be a single volume work. Unfortunately, it grew and grew to the point where, if I had stuck in all in one book, it would’ve been easily comparable to Stephen King’s “The Stand” in size!

So, I mentioned to my publisher that it would need to be broken up into two volumes. Ignoring the dollar signs in her eyes, I forlornly told her how I felt like I’d failed in my initial idea. Her response was to say, “Do you think you could make it a trilogy?”


I grabbed a hanky and wiped the drool from her mouth, although I think I skidded in some as I walked away, contemplating.

She told me to sit down in front of the computer and think about it. If I came up with anything, I was to let her know but if I didn’t, I had to scrub the toilets and bathe her neighbor’s cat. With the pressure on, I…okay, I’m lying. But something odd happened: a sequel idea came to mind that did not in any way compromise the vision! In fact, it fleshed it out perfectly.

I sat down and wrote out a basic synopsis in about ten minutes and showed it to her. She loved it and so did the other writers and artists in the room. I felt validated by that. In the months since, I have truly fallen in love with the idea.

Trilogies aren’t a big deal to me, though. It’s those obscenely lengthy series I have a problem with. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series comes to mind. If not for untimely demise, Jordan would most likely still be writing those books.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are ideas that require multiple installments. Every follow-up or sequel isn’t akin to the Hollywood approach of placing the same characters into different locales and calling it a continuation. Years ago, long before I had any inkling what I was doing, I came up with an epic of Star Wars proportions that would require a minimum of five books to tell the whole story. I wrote the first one in the back of Sociology classes when I was supposed to be paying attention. It is a huge novel filled with ideas and characters and complex motivations and spaceships and love and politics and…well, you get the idea.

My theory is that most writers of the non-literary elitist variety have at least one multi-epic in their headS doing rapid orbits. That’s not the point of this piece.

Simply put, those who write sequels and series merely for financial gAin have no artistic integrity and should be writing commercials for television. In my view, they contribute negatively to the world of writing and in no way distinguish themselves as good storytellers.

I am no fan of the Harry Potter books. I’ve never read them and I don’t find the concept even slightly interesting. But I must give JK Rowlings credit for one thing if nothing else. She designed an epic tale that required six books to tell it. Perhaps it’s not as complex and creative as Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series, but Potter novels were justified in their length.

Writing about a character in a series is also a different matter. If, for instance, Robert B Parker wants to write for years about his Boston private eye Spenser, he is following a noble literary tradition. The crusading detective is a character unto himself and is more a plot device for mystery and intrigue than an ongoing story arc.

My forthcoming novel, “Dreamers at Infinity’s Core,” started off as a single volume novel as well. Once I’d finished it, I truly believed it was over. What more was there to be said about those characters or the concept? However, one early morning as I was headed out to work, I realized the story wasn’t over yet. It is now a trilogy, possibly increasingly inaccurately named, but I hope not.

My problem is I love the characters too much to let them go. They’re my children and I refuse to let them grow up. I don’t have much family left and have very little to do with them at this point in my life, so my writing has become family in many ways.

I suspect that may be true for a lot of writers, even those surrounded by family. We’re a lonely bunch by breed and definition and our characters transport us to somewhere more interesting and less difficult to understand.

Life is the series we try to capture. Some of us do it only for money, some do it for love of the craft. All of us should be mindful of the fact that there just might be somebody out there reading out work whose life is much worse and whose only refuge is his or her favorite novel.

That is also our family, and we have a responsibility to them to remain honest to who and what we are. Anything else is simply a TV commercial~

7 comments:

Priscilla said...

I think the books I have enjoyed the most have sequels or are some how a piece of a larger body of work, I love it when I'm reading a book and there are characters and references to another story written by the same author, Marquez and McCarthy two of my favorite writers do this very skillfully :) I can't wait to read your books cause up til now it's just been short snippets on your blogs here and there, this showcases your sense of humor, ingenuity and creativity, but now, its time to see the craftsmanship son!! hurry up already!!

green said...

I agree with your assessment of Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, which could have been easily completed in five books, which was going on twelve before he died last year. Now I'm stuck with an unfinished story that should have been finished years ago.

Some of my favorite Fantasy series include "The Belgariad," by David Eddings,[shameless plug warning:] which is my books of the month selection for December. I also enjoyed "The Sword of Truth" Series by Terry Goodkind,[another shameless plug warning:], which I also plugged as a Books of the Month selection in Dec 2007, I believe.

I'm looking forward to reading your novel too, if it ever gets published.... ;>)

ca nadeau said...

Yeah, like I'm the one that's holding everything up.

Priscilla said...

excuses excuses

ca nadeau said...

I'm just passing them on to you...
:(

Priscilla said...

wah!!

ca nadeau said...

:(