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.

48 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2008 #13: Diminishing Returns”

  1. “What? Another book on Earth?” And he didn’t even make up that planet! It’s an open source planet!

    Heh, you’ve just made my day with that one ;-)

  2. Hi John,

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I think you have exactly the right attitude about serializing your work, and I’ve been disappointed many times with other authors that do not share your approach and healthy fear of killing the golden goose. Thanks.

    Slightly OT, I’m a new fan of yours, courtesy of the free OMW download from Tor’s new website promo thingy. Your writing is exactly what I’m looking for in a hard SF novel, and I’m thrilled to have found you. I plan to buy an analog (dead tree) copy of OMW now, and likely many other of your books. Hopefully you are seeing this kind of response on a broad basis, and I also hope that perhaps the value of a free download can come to be more widely appreciated in the publishing industry.

    Thanks for the amazing stories. I am still chuckling over “kicked myself in my uvula”. Brilliant.


  3. I’m an unapologetically commercial writer, both stylistically and as a matter of personal philosophy

    Heinlein was also and he did O.K. :-)

    I can tell when a series is going to be crashing and burning when the books get longer and sloppier. There’s one major sf series that has gone from tightly written novels to long, preachy rants interspersed with tedious space battle scenes. I blame this on a lack of editing. Heck, look at the messes that Tom Clancy now puts out compared to the first couple books – politics aside, “Hunt for Red October” was tightly written and induced willing suspension of disbelief. The later books in the series read like they went straight from his word processor to layout and printing. There are quite a few 600 page books that would be better off as 300 page books. I’d pay the author the same price, btw.

    From reading Jerry Pournelle’s blog, it seems he and Niven still listen to their editor even though they are big enough names that they could push their way past all those pesky revisions and insist that they print what they turned in. A good editor can make a good book excellent – listen to their input.

    BTW, for those of us in the space business that read sf, you’re on our “must read” list. And Banks has done a pretty darn good job with the Culture books. I only dislike “Player of Games”, though many like it. “Use of Weapons” is really, really good and the technique he used in it’s structure makes it doubly awesome.

  4. I’m sure you’re aware of this–and if you’re not, then you’re probably writing your books in your sleep–but I recently read The Last Colony and, had I NOT known what Zoe’s Tale was about (but I did), I would have thought, “There’s some serious stuff here going on in Zoe’s life, especially that whole climax thing on another planet that we don’t even see. What was that all about?”

    That is to say, TLC was told from John’s pov. He’s the narrator, for God sakes, and although there have been some excellent books of late that mix first person with third person (note, Robert Crais’ L.A. Requiem”), you didn’t. So, in TLC, there is a whole helluva lot of stuff going on in the background, especially where Zoe is concerned, that makes this a particularly good book for a spin-off. I’m looking forward to it.

    That said, I like The Android’s Dream and I’m curious about what’s next in that universe, although that book strikes me as being perfectly capable of standing on its own.

    And on yet another hand (ahem), ya know, as I’m sure ya do (do-whop, do-wah), although TLC sorta SEEMS to have wrapped things up in the OMW universe, there’s certainly potential for, like, the CU to be sorta PO’ed at John and Jane and for the CU to REALLY have to come to the rescue of Earth, etc., so there’s plenty of meat for you to cook with.

  5. I second Peter on the Open Source world line. Made me chuckle. (Although I will admit I’ve long thought it would be fun to create an Open Source Fantasy World that could have other people contributing, altering, rewriting, switching continuums, etc.)

    I can think of plenty of series I wish hadn’t continued. And series I wish had been edited tighter. But I can also think of series that I still legitimately enjoy and am falling over myself to read the next one. Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books (to be fair, she does sort of mini-series using the same world), Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (although my boyfriend liked the last book less than I did, but we both found it a good read regardless), and Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga have held fairly well over an extended time. (Lois currently seems to be taking a break from the Miles-verse by writing several fantasy series.)

    So in no way do I see a series as the kiss of death. But in each case I describe, the series may have an over-arching story, but the individual books vary a LOT. Pierce writes series-within-a-series, changing the main character every four books or so. And both Pratchett and Bujold experiment a lot with hybrid stories and mixing in other genres and themes. Bujold added a dash of mystery to her SF series, then a dash of regency romance. Each book seems to contain its own new challenge.

  6. Actually, I think that alot of authors get tired of the series before the readers do. Then the author gets pressure from the readers and the publishers to go back to a world that no longer interests them, and then the story that they tell is stale, flat, although usually profitable….

  7. Agree with ech on the point of Clancy, though I would place Jack Ryan’s point of diminishing returns after Sum of All Fears. I suppose it depends on one’s tolerance for exposition and digression.

    And I like novelists who are unapologetically commercial, provided they stay good – success breeds success, does it not?

    It would take a crazy man to want daily doses of, say, Dostoyevsky every day of every year for goodness-knows how long. If I want art, I’ll go to a museum; if I want food for thought, I’ll read history; if I want entertainment, well, thanks Scalzi! (et. al.)

  8. I was talking to my wife recently while I was reading TGB and she was trying to read a Daniele Steele novel, a hand-me-down from a gal pal and was having trouble choking it down as the writer had descended into hackery, in her opinion.

    I quit reading Sci Fi many years ago with Heinlein. My nephew left an extensive library in my garage while relocating and a box burst open and a signed, first edition copy of the Android’s Dream fell out (how does one acquire these signed, first editions?).

    I read it. I was amazed. Heinlein is back, reincarnated as John Scalzi.

    Here is a quote from Starship Troopers which I just read again: “…no ‘Department of Defense’ ever won a war; see the histories. But it also seems to be a standard civilian reaction to scream for defensive tactics as soon as they do notice a war. They then want to run the war – like a passenger trying to grab the controls away from the pilot in an emergency.”

    Your novels are also full of memorable quips and quotes. Sorry I can’t think of one off the top of my head; Starship Troopers just happened to be sitting open beside me.

    My point is that you can run the OMW universe on indefinitely as long as YOU have something to say in these novels. A quality “Big Idea”, fleshed out with well drawn characters and compelling plot lines along with YOUR take as an observer of the human situation will sell me many novels based in the OMW universe. I want a well written novel, full of memorable quips and quotes that have the aspect of unshakable truth to them. I do want or require you to cook up another universe as well.

  9. Oops! Should have previewed. Read: I do not want or require you to cook up another universe as well.

  10. I think there is also the notion that – again, depending on the writer – sometimes series actually improve rather than descend into hackery. Sometimes it takes a book or two to figure out what you want to say and how to say it. Speaking as someone who read all of the Discworld novels in order (yes, I’m that much of a nerd), it took Pratchett almost half a dozen novels before he really hit stride with that. Now, the first ones are good, don’t get me wrong – they’re really funny. But once he gets going, they get funny AND thought-provoking, which is a good and rare combination. Pratchett himself once said that he couldn’t be as cavalier with the fate of Ankh-Morpork in the later novels as he was in the first, because it took him a while to realize that people lived there. So sometimes series don’t merely avoid hackery as they get going – there is always the chance that they will improve as the author gets to know their world better.

  11. Seems to me there are two separate dangers. One is the when authors get lots of cool ideas but feel bound to tie it into one “future history”. It leads them to contort their cool ideas into a continuous history, and I think the results often suffer. The way to avoid that is to deliberately choose to avoid the setting of the paycheck world when the ideas require. (Banks seems to very deliberately write outside the Culture more than inside, which, I think, makes the Culture books better.)

    The other danger is that the author simple stops caring at all about the ideas, and starts writing entirely for the paycheck. Once you stop caring at all about your craft, of course it is going to suffer. This is not the same as not writing for pay. Most of us get paid for what we do and yet (I hope) most of us have some pride in our work. Obviously for the reader, this second danger is the worst one.

    There’s a certain irony in that the way you can tell that an author has crossed over to complete suckitude is that he (or she) starts writing exactly what the fans want.

    In that sense, I honestly look forward to fewer “Old Mans War” books. Hopefully this means better ones, and means all sorts of other cool stuff we’re not expecting.

  12. I am not an accomplished and/or published author, but I think perhaps you’re overthinking this. Worlds and characters hit diminishing returns when they stop being explorations of new ideas and/or telling of new stories.

    Banks’ Culture novels are a great example, and I don’t think that the time between books has anything to do with their continued quality (beyond possibly that being as fast as he can turn them out and have them be quality). What makes those books good is that they’re more than just a “hey, look how cool this universe is” bunch of wankery and they don’t go over the same territory over and over again. He’s looked into the lives of people in and out of the Culture, how the Culture’s meddling/diplomacy impacts people inside and outside the culture and what it looks like for those who are involved in that meddling and those who are the targets of the meddling.

    But in each case, there was something new to say, whether it was about the world or the people in it.

  13. So much science fiction is set in series of universes that it’s clear that it can work well.
    Apart from the ones you’ve mentioned there is, off the top of my head:
    Niven’s known space.
    OSC’s Ender series.
    Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 series & Rama series
    Whilst all of these have had up & down points I’ve never felt the writer was just churning it out.
    Talking about Banks I think that one thing which has always kept his science fiction fresh is that he tends to alternate one SF book with one Mainstream book.
    This meant that even when he was writing one Culture book after another he was writing another book between each culture book.

  14. It certainly is not limited to SF/F that you can get hackery. My wife tried to get me interested in Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series, and I’ve got to say by #3 the formula was pretty well laid down, just the names changed.

    Niven’s and Heinlein’s universes have the benefit of wide, wide spans of time, and wide ranges of characters — RAH may have tried a little too hard to bolt them all together at th end, but there’s no repetition in plot (just repertory characters, but you can say that about non-series writers such as Dean Koontz).

    An author whose world is constant, and whose kept the same characters, yet kept the books fresh is Stephen Brust’s Jhereg cycle. The tone of each book is different, as the character changes and has change thrust upon him.

    And sometimes, it doesn’t take many before you descend into trash. “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” is one of PJ Farmer’s — nay, the genre’s — very best, but by book 3 it had all fallen apart into, well, silliness.

  15. The “product” distinction is key – there are a few series where I was left with the distinct impression that while the author still had stories they wanted to tell, they also had mortgage payments and the result was an “every other book” series. In some ways this is worse for a reader because it’s not obvious which category a new book falls into whereas with, say, Larry Niven you can simply use the date to determine whether or not a book is worth reading.

    On preview, I’m reminded that I’ve been remiss in my nephewly-duty of mailing the other Scalzi books to Jon.

  16. As long as you don’t open the sequel to The Android’s Dream with a chapter-long piss joke, I think you got nothing to worry about quality-wise, John.

  17. At the risk of indulging in some shameless self-promotion, I’ve been thinking a lot (a lot) over the last couple of years about how to write a good series. See here.

    I’m trying to make mine get better over the course of the series, rather than worse. We’ll see how it goes.

  18. The problem with series is that we as consumers allow the author’s descent into hackery. In today’s society, its rare to have more than a few close friends. Books provide the illusion of intimacy – in many, you are privy to the most personal thoughts of the main characters. When you read a really good book, you are making friends. No one likes to see a friendship die, so instead of breaking it off, we keep buying books with the hopes that maybe this time they’ll be the friend(s) we remembered.

  19. John, I like you with your cranky writer hat on. Open source planet indeed.

    Question: as OMW series goes on, does it become much harder to keep all the plates spinning?

    For random descent into hackery, one can do no better than to read the Sherlock Holmes stories about a book or so after The Return. It’s like watching an old friend rot away in a nursing home. (And it’s not like Doyle cared about consistency; detailed consistency was never really a concern even in the best of Holmes stories.)

  20. Well… maybe. From a readers perspective, here’s how I see it.

    I generally characterize direct series by a cardinal number, the number of books, beginning with the first good one, which do not suck. By my count, the ‘Honor Harrington’ series made an exemplary 6 novels before hitting the wall. Arguably #7 and #8 are also tolerable, so David Weber is at n=6-8, a very good score (YMMV).

    The ‘Jani Killian’ books finished before hitting the wall, so Kristine Smith stands forever at n=5 for that series, by my count.

    Other series have done less well, IMO. One nameless author I’ve read stands currently at n=0, and probably falling. I stopped reading at one.

    I also exempt groups of books like Banks’ Culture books, because there is no serial continuity of character or story. Each book pretty much stands alone. The same with most of Heinlein’s books, even his early ‘Future History’ stories. I deny that some of his later works exist.

    I have yet to determine the terminal cardinal number of the OMW series. :) Good luck.

    Jack Tingle

  21. The “world-building” aspect is not entirely restricted to speculative fiction; it is only most obvious there. Consider, for example, Scott Turow’s tales set in Kindle County (an alternate-history Chicago without Mrs O’Leary’s cow). Consider, too, Faulkner’s writings set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and more others in “mainstream” fiction, and particularly in mysteries and thrillers, than I can shake a stick at.

    On the other hand, remember what happened to Arthur Conan Doyle. He got tired of Sherlock Holmes (whose adventures to that point had consumed only about 70% of the length of the OMW saga thus far), killed him off… and was forced to resurrect him after a fall reminiscent of Butch and Sundance. So, Scalzi, if you “definitively finish” the OMW saga and announce it, don’t be surprised if legions* of fans waving pitchforks, torches, and slabs of bacon show up outside your door.

    * For some value of “legion.”

  22. Another thing to consider: how much can a character grow? Many people cited Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan, or David Weber and Honor Harrington. In both of these series there’s a strong protagonist, who starts in a marginal role (anonymous analyst at the CIA, newly promoted captain of a little ship in a big space navy) and in the first book we can easily suspend our disbelief while our hero overcomes great difficulties and is rewarded in terms of social position and personal growth. But how long can this continue?
    Jack Ryan starts with a couple of secret missions, but then uncovers a conspiracy and force a impending president to effectively renounce to his position, becomes deputy-director, save his country from a nuclear war, becomes vice-president, then president, defeats an epidemic, etc. etc.
    Honor Harrington starts a yeoman’s daughter without too many friends and some strong enemies, then becomes a war hero, a grand noble in two planets, a confident of kings, the most respected officer in her navy, etc. etc.
    It is rewarding for the reader to find that at the end of the book the character he followed for years is better off than when he started, but for how long this mechanism can continue before it becomes logically unbearable?

  23. To paraphrase Dr McCoy: “The series, it’s dead Jim… er John”. Take off that unsightly cranky writer’s hat and get cookin’. Don’t you writers know it’s a multiverse out there. How are we supposed learn how to kill innocent space lifeforms? The Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator is so yesterday. We demand satisfaction from our $8.95 dead tree read pads. Or we just might go all pirate on you and rip the goods right out of your pixel stained techno-peasant hard drives using our slashdotty Linux jujitsu. SPROING!

  24. Just as long as you don’t do a Douglas Adams and write a books that guts everything previously written and craps on the fans, and then die before you can fix it.

    That’s all I ask of an athor (except Terry Goodkind).

  25. John – this isn’t directly related, but the thread here made me think of it…

    I assume you’ve seen the NY Times story on HarperCollins new imprint or unit which will shift from advances to profit sharing ( ).

    What do you think of that versus the more traditional publishing advance model?

  26. I didn’t like it when PublishAmerica did it; I don’t like it when HarperCollins does it.

  27. On an never ending series in SF, does anyone know if Dumerest ever found Earth? (Actually I’ve never read any of them.)


  28. John think Star Trek, Marvin Martian, and ninjas and all will become clear. Unless your cranky writers hat is lined with especially thick tinfoil today.

  29. Hi John,

    Re: “…it’s hard to think of a science fiction/fantasy author who gets by only on standalone books.”

    You know, off hand, I can’t think of anyone? Oh, sure, my first thought was Robert Charles Wilson, but Bob just wrote the first sequel of his career in ‘Axis’, and I can’t think of anyone else who would be on my first string author’s list.

    But, y’know, I would bet that there’s an inverse correlation in money to egoboo, eh?

    To wit: the longer the series, the more money you may make but the less critically appreciated your work (in that universe) will be. Familiarity breeding contempt? For example: Niven’s (and Lerner’s!) ‘Fleet of Worlds’ – I thought that was one of the best of the recent entries in the “Known Space” series, yet it didn’t even rate a sniff in Locus’ Recommended Reading List or any other Year’s Best.

    Henceforth, this will be known as ‘Stephens’ Law’. Ah, immortality!



  30. Pixelfish:

    I will admit I’ve long thought it would be fun to create an Open Source Fantasy World that could have other people contributing, altering, rewriting, switching continuums, etc.

    I was just thinking that same thing, but with sci-fi. Maybe the Scalzettes should all get together and set up some world-wikis or something. Wouldn’t it be cool to know, as a writer, that you had entire galaxies (or dimensions, or both) to play with, already created, without worrying about fan-fic limitations or having to do worldbuilding, if you weren’t so inclined?

    I mean, sure, it’s fun and considered good form to create your own. But damn, having a ready-made universe just sitting there for you to play in would be so very much like the sort of role-playing fun I’m already a fan of (Greyhawk, anyone?)

    I’m seeing forums and boards where fans can track favorite authors or collaborations, series, characters, cross-author world or story tracks, etc. Not to mention a horde of wiki editors feverishly updating the world with the latest, greatest adventures, characters and events. (With, I imagine, some sort of minimum critical mass of group approval for significant changes – i.e. you can’t just blow up the central sun in X solar system unless the piece it goes kablooie in rates above y number of votes or downloads. Either that, or it just gets its own timeline/continuum. Hmmmm…)

  31. Just as a hopeful aside, if anyone gets a wild hair to start up some sort of Open Source universes, I’m all in for helping out. I just don’t know enough to do it on my own.

  32. I think there’s another angle on this. There are certain musical artists who produce essentially the same thing, over and over again, with each album. Enya, for instance. But I happen to really enjoy that formula, so even while I can recognize that there’s nothing really new about it, I can still bliss out to the latest album quite happily. I pick up an Enya album, I know what I’m going to get – and I’m OK with that.

    A lot of people hate on OSC’s Ender sequels. And I can definitely understand where they are coming from. I can read them (both the Ender series and the Bean series) and see where they are more self-indulgent and formulaic than Ender’s Game. But it’s a formula that hits a sweet spot for me, and so I go on enjoying them even while I understand why a lot of the people I know gave up on the series. I also like Heinlein’s later, preachier books; they don’t work as well as novels, but I happen to be one of those people who enjoys a good Heinlein sermon for it’s own sake.

    Which is not to say I don’t like to be surprised and blown away, but there’s something to be said for familiarity. I’m also one of those people who goes back and reads certain childhood favorites over again every few years, for whatever that’s worth.

    There’s a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) line between routine and outright decline. As examples of the latter, after a certain point the Vampire Chronicles got just plain crappy. Same with Tom Clancy. Same with the later Ringworld books, which devolved into furry sex travelogs. But familiarity in a series doesn’t always equal badness.

  33. It’s actually a very simple thing, in my opinion. An author can write as many books in a world as he wants, as long as he’s not telling the same story.

    Pratchett is an excellent example of this— for the most part, he’s told many different stories in the same world. Then again, I’m not particularly fond of Carpe Jugulum because, at its heart, it’s the same story as Lords and Ladies— namely, that people are not things. He even used the same et of characters in both book. But for the most part, he’s told different stories, or at least different facets of the same story. (The “people are not things” is a fairly common theme in his books, though usually it’s a sub-note.)

    Likewise, I got tired of a certain “science fiction” series with dragons once the author went past the logical stopping point, because the stories were not really necessary. (The fact that the series needs a copyeditor for certain pieces of continuity— names— doesn’t help much either.) I went back and read one book set in an earlier time period in the hopes that it would be more interesting and found out something critical— while the author could still, technically, write (the prose was engaging and the anecdotes interesting)— there was something eddential missing. Namely, a point. Or possibly even a plot. There had been an entire book and it had about the amount of plot for a good short story. So that one got marked down because the only thing worse than telling the same story over and over is not telling a story at all.

    This is not to say that themes can’t be similar, or certain motifs reappear. But if there’s only one story you have to tell— the luckless waif makes good, for example— you had darned well better be able to dress it up in lots of different outfits before you expect me to keep buying it. And to stretch the metaphor to its limits, you have to do a good job with the costuming. At least shave the sucker before you put him in drag.

  34. Who hasn’t had a job where they did good work for a while then got burned out but didn’t have the guts to quit? Kept the job even though they were doing halfassed work? Writers are just people. Some of them should change jobs. But hey the publishers are still publishing the halfassed stuff and the readers are still buying it so what the heck. I really miss Calvin and Hobbs, but some of my former favorite comics are still cranking it out and some of them should follow Watersons lead.
    Scalzi’s is early in his scifi career, lets hope he can keep cranking em out and failing that knows when to hang it up.

  35. Pixelfish @#5:

    I will admit I’ve long thought it would be fun to create an Open Source Fantasy World that could have other people contributing, altering, rewriting, switching continuums, etc.

    Been done. Check out the Thieves’ World series, edited by Robert Lynn Asprin. Personally, I thought it got kind of disjointed – authors have this tendency to have Big Meaningful Events happen in their stories, and they tended to, well, sort of step on each other.

  36. Thanks for the fantastic response! I don’t think that series all have to experience that downward slope, since some simply end appropriately. I’m also glad to hear that you still have stories to tell in the OMW universe!

    I think, as you and many other commenters have noted, the real danger comes when the story has been told, but the narrator lingers regardless…

  37. Some series last far longer than others before becoming crap, as has been pointed out. Then there are some (like The Invaders Plan) that start out as crap and still manage to go downhill. Are there any series that started out mediocre and improved?

  38. #45 JJS- Probably plenty who would disagree here, but I feel the Harry Potter books went from pretty awful to actually readable.
    Also, the Dresden Files books. The first couple feel like early author work, and in my opinion they get much much better. In the beginning though, you can see Butcher trying to find his writing stride and playing with things that might or might not work…

    I personally feel that all series should be as good or better by the end then the beginning, in a perfect world. Writing practice supposedly makes people better writers, right?

  39. The Tom Clancy books got me back into reading for pleasure after finishing college. At that time I would have openly recommended that everybody should have read them. But now….. not so much. Clancy has now become much more interesting to me as a personality rather than as a writer. In other words as a business success story.

  40. There’s one fantasy series out now where the characters in the first book were made from carboard recycled from old Raymond Chandler and early Zelazny covers. Not poorly written or actively bad, but… I bought the second book in the hopes things had improved (this is the most rewarding thing about reading webcomics) but no joy, so I’ll put that series aside.

    What’s worse is another series I ended up dropping a few books ago. The writing and characterization were fine, but I got the feeling that the author had become trapped in an increasingly desperate attempt to dream up kinkier and kinkier sex acts to keep readers buying books. I have nothing against kinky sex–it’s the desperation that killed it.

    (And there is an Ace Double in which the author came up with a WONDERFUL idea and dropped it into a literal mudhole within the first two chapters so they could convert a SF story to a barely interesting Irish fantasy. And it was popular enough to have a sequel!)

    Please note I’ve restrained myself and have used no names. Do I get a cookie?

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