Reader Request Week 2008 #13: Diminishing Returns
Mike Lyon is concerned about:
The Law of Diminishing Returns in Series Science Fiction & Fantasy.
Don’t tell me it hasn’t come up before. And no disrespect to you, Scalzi, since thus far the three Old Man’s War novels have been of a uniformly excellent quality, but everyone from Orson Scott Card to Frank Herbert have suffered from the endless serialization of their greatest successes.
How far can a high concept and beloved characters be taken before they descend into fan-service for a paycheck?
I don’t know, Mike. Let me write six other “Old Man’s War” books and get back to you on that.
Having just written a fourth book in the OMW universe (which, depending on how you want to slice it, is the fourth book of a quartet, the second book of the second of two duologies (OMW and TGB being one, about military life in that universe, with TLC and ZT being the other, about colonial life) or just a simple stand-alone, with the possibility of being the first book in a sub-series; really, take your pick, and the answer could very well be “all of the above”), this is something that I do think about. As most of you know, after The Last Colony I said I was probably going to take a step back from the Old Man’s War series and do some other stuff — and yet the next novel to come out will be a OMW series book. Was it because I suddenly had a good idea I just had to do in the universe, involving a character there? Or was it to cash in on an increasingly successful series, and strike while the iron was hot?
The answer, as you might expect, is: Yes.
Which is to say they are both correct. After I finishing TLC, I developed an interest in Zoe as a character, and thought it would be a worthy skill challenge both to try to credibly write a 16-year-old female protagonist and to write a book in parallel time to another story in the universe. But also, I know what my sales and royalties are, and I know that the OMW series is selling at a very nice clip, and I knew that Tor would be very happy to have an OMW-universe hardcover to put out when The Last Colony was slated to go into mass market paperback, so that each could build sales for the other.
So I talked to Patrick, my editor, about this, and the conversation went a little like this:
Me: I know I’m supposed to be writing something else, but I have an idea for another OMW book and I was wondering if you’d like me to go ahead with that one first.
Patrick: You’re kidding, right?
And here we are.
It’s pretty obvious that publishers like series, since they put out a whole lot of them; it’s hard to think of a science fiction/fantasy author who gets by only on standalone books. But publishers like them because people like them, and the reason people like them, as I said to another writer friend recently, is because when they read them, they know when to stand and when to sit. Which is to say, they know the players, they know the rituals and they know the lay of the land. Even when the series takes place in world that’s aggressively fantastical, once you’re in, you’re in.
It works the same way with the writers, too —
<cranky writer hat>
— because, look, people: World building is hard. You want us to have to build an entire universe from scratch every single time we write a book? Well, okay. You want us to have to run a marathon every time we walk down to the corner store to get some milk, too? Or maybe assemble a car from the wheels up, every time we want to drive to the mall? We spend all this time building this ginchy universe and its rules, and then you say “Oh, that world again?” No one ever pulls that shit with other genres. People don’t go up to Carl Hiaasen and say “What? Another book on Earth?” And he didn’t even make up that planet! It’s an open source planet! Damn slacker.
</cranky writer hat>
So that’s why it’s nice to have a series, and why so many of us write them.
How far can you take a series before it turns into hackery? It really depends on the writer, doesn’t it? I’m reading Iain Banks’ Culture series at the moment, in a backwards way — I read Matter, the latest, before reading Consider Phlebas, the first, and if there’s a descent into hackery from first to last, I’m missing it. On the other hand, without naming names, I can think of plenty of series which should have been strangled in the womb, preferably by going back in time, sneaking over to the author’s computer, and replacing the very first as-yet-unsubmitted manuscript in the series with the sentence “GET A DAY JOB” repeated out to novel length. Lesson: Authors are important.
I don’t think series decay is inevitable, but I do think you have to work at it to make sure it doesn’t happen. One thing working against that, from a practical point of view, is that publishers want books on a regular schedule — Tor would have rather have had Zoe’s Tale ready a year after the release of The Last Colony, and if given their druthers, I’m sure they’d want another OMW universe follow-up roughly a year after Zoe’s Tale goes out the door, too. And that can be a real challenge in maintaining really high quality. To come back to Banks, Matter is high-quality stuff (I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it as a Hugo contender next year), but it’s also been eight years since the release of the last Culture novel. And maybe that’s made a difference; sometimes letting the field lie fallow works.
As for me, well. I don’t ever deny that I keep an eye on my financial bottom line when I write — I’m an unapologetically commercial writer, both stylistically and as a matter of personal philosophy — but I also know myself well enough to know that writing novels in a series just for the paycheck would bore the ever-living crap out of me. Which would mean books that suck, which is not something I want. I’m fine with people not liking my work for whatever reason, but what I don’t want is to have people get the impression that I don’t care about what I’m writing, quality-wise. I write books for money, but if I was just writing books for money, I can make more money writing other things that take a lot less effort. I did very well financially as a writer before I started writing novels; I could do just fine financially without them. This is actually a positive thing for you guys, because it means that I don’t actually have to stoop to mere hackery to pay my bills. There has to be something else going on there, some element that makes the writing of the book in itself interesting to me, or else it’s not worth my time.
This is something I’ve talked to the Tor folks about as well. I don’t think it’s any secret that Tor would like more OMW books, because, to be blunt about it, they sell great and two of the three titles in the series to date have gotten Best Novel Hugo nods. If Tor didn’t want more of ’em, they’d be dumb. They’re not, so they do, and this has been communicated to me — which I appreciate; it’s nice to feel wanted. But to Tor’s additional credit, it’s also been communicated to me that their quality control concerns mirror mine. We’ve both got a good thing going here, and it would be dumb for either of us, writer or publisher, to let the series descend into mere hackery. So we do work hand-in-hand to make sure a) individual books don’t suck, and b) that I have enough opportunity to other stuff so that when I come back to the OMW universe, it’s fun for me and not a drag, which is key to making sure the rest of you enjoy those books too. It’s a nice partnership so far.
I think maybe the answer to your question, Mike, is that the distance you can take a series until it descends into hackery is the distance after which neither the writer or publisher sees the novels as work, but simply as product. I’m happy to say we’re not there yet with the Old Man’s War series. And we’re working to stay off that particular road.