Essay–The Series Disease

My mind is infected. Hell, my soul is infected. And I’m not the only one. The infection? The scourge? The greatest threat humanity faces is the disease that medical science has not only ignored, but seems incapable of addressing. What am I talking about? Why, the dreaded “series disease,” of course.

What is this terrible malaise sweeping our bookstores, our movie theatres, and even our playhouses? Sequels. Series. The never-ending parade of related titles that feature a common main character, a common antagonist, or a common world is strangling our ability to consume a single piece of entertainment and be satisfied.

How many times have you, as a consumer, watched a film or read a book, been satisfied, and then freak out when you see a sequel for that same property is in the works?

If a property sells well, the market cries out for a continuation of the story. Even if the only way to produce another related story requires shoe-horning reasons, characters, and circumstances to make it possible, the producers will make it happen. It’s about money. It’s about popularity. And quite often, it just doesn’t need to happen.

And yet, we go see it or purchase it. Why the hell do we do this? Don’t we know it just encourages this ridiculous behavior? It emboldens the money-folk to finance more of the same. And while we bitch about it on social-media and media pundits scream about it in articles, the public continues to hand over their cash to get another glimpse of a world or characters they fell in love with.

But that just covers “sequels.” It doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the series disease. The series disease is a special kind of illness. It is an infection that riddles one’s creative mind. Once the terrible virus takes over, it reorganizes our grey matter so we invent a world or characters to tell multiple tales that may or may not need to be related.

Sometimes the disease is actually doing us a favor. Multiple, related books allow authors to tell a much larger tale than they could in a single installment. Trilogies are, of course, the most popular example. Star Wars was meant to be a trilogy from day one. And as much as I’ve grown to loathe it (mainly due to its insane fan-base that are willing to forgive shitty story-telling because they love its universe), I have to give it props for its intention to be that way from the beginning.

Trilogies are special exemptions to the series disease. Forgive me if I choose myself as an example, but hell, it’s my essay. The Black was supposed to be a one-shot. But I left myself plenty of room for another story that takes place somewhat simultaneously. Why did I do this? Because if The Black was successful, and the publisher willing, I wanted to write the other story. And even then, I knew a third book was likely if not inevitable.

Why not just stuff all three books into a single title? First off, it would have been nearly 250k words. Secondly, it would have taken the better part of a year to write. Thirdly, I wouldn’t have been paid a single dime until all three books were slapped together and put out into the world.

If you’re trying to get paid, and yes, I need money to do this full time, you have to decide the titles you’re going to publish as well as their timing. In addition, you can’t afford to spend an entire year on a “maybe” when you have so many other stories to tell. At least that’s my excuse. Plus, finding a publisher willing to take a chance on a 250k novel when it’s the first one you’ve written of that length is extremely dicey. If it’s a flop, everybody loses.

So trilogies? Cool. Series? Well, let’s talk about them a little more.

I think it’s important to get something out of the way. First off, I was addicted to Harry Potter. The same with Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.” While Potter had a definitive ending in sight, Butcher’s doesn’t. At all. It’s open-ended. Like the iconic Marvel/DC characters which have had books written about them in the hundreds, Butcher’s Dresden will be around as long as he wants to write them and as long as fans want to read them.

In TV land, we’ve watched open-ended series like Buffy, Angel, Dynasty, Dallas, CSI, Law and Order, and etc stick around long after they reached their pinnacle of popularity and craftsmanship. They regress into parodies of themselves. Given time, any good idea deteriorates into utter shit when it sticks around too long.

The best television series, Babylon 5, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Justified, and others in the same vein, had definitive endings in mind from the very beginning. They were designed to be seasons of character arcs all shooting toward a finale that stripped the brain and left fans feeling as though the trip was entirely worth it. If you miss the characters at the end of series, but also feel as though there was nowhere else to go, then the creators did what they were supposed to do.

But that doesn’t happen very often. Instead, the television or publishing gods deem a series is no longer popular enough to warrant more money. They give the creators one last chance to wrap it all up. The result? Utter shit. Continuity problems, deus ex machina, and ridiculous subplots leading the overall experience into disaster. Fans get pissed. Critics wail. And everyone walks away from the experience feeling cheated.

And that’s the true problem with the series disease. If not checked with heavy doses of antibiotic inoculations and antiviral capsules, the infection will run amuck and off the rails. The result is damaging to creators’ reputations, the money-folks’ wallets, and to the series’ readers, viewers, and fans.

So what am I doing to prevent this? Good question. At the moment, I have four series (not counting The Street). Although Fiends may not be a series so much as a collection bin for stories that deal with serial killers and paranormal problems, it is a world of related stories. Garaaga’s Children is most definitely a series. But guess what? I have a finite number of tales planned for it. And when it’s over, it’ll be over. Tony Downs is much like Butcher’s Dresden. Tony will have as many tales as make sense and, again, that will be that.

The Black? It’s a trilogy. Plain and simple.

If I were to wait and publish all of Garaaga’s Children at once, it would be at least a million words. That, um, is a bit much. Also? I don’t want that to be my entire life. Especially since no one seems to “get it.” As much as I enjoy writing those tales, I too need a break. And maybe one of these days it’ll catch fire. Until then, I have more “marketable” tales to write.

I have several one-shot novels I’m going to write for Severed Press. At least I hope they’re one-shots. If I get myself back into writing more series, I may need an intervention. Some say I already need one. Flames is the next book I need to finish. It’s in the Fiends universe, so to speak, but it also shares some threads with GC. I’m looking forward to finishing it and then going back through and cutting relations where I can. Why? I don’t want folks to think they have to read every book in that world to understand a single story. But I still want some characters to wander in and out of those tales where appropriate.

Call it marketing, call it cheating, call it what you will, but referring to other stories means that readers may actually find the back catalog of interest. And that’s well worth the risk of tangling up the lines. I just have to do it very carefully.

So, yeah, I’m one of the infected. And you readers are partly to blame. If you quit patronizing this narcissism, it’ll stop. I promise it will. If you cease purchasing the 80th Dresden book or seeing that 12th Paranormal Activity disaster, then the market will readjust. SO QUIT IT!

The next time you witness a series jumping the shark or an unnecessary sequel show up in the movie theatre or bookstore, think about what I’ve said here. The market responds to what people purchase. Pure and simple. Publishers want books that sell. Writers want to make money. Audiences want more stories with their favorite characters, disasters, and plots. We’re all creating this cluster fuck together. We’re all culpable. And at some point, we need to stop feeding this madness. Unless, of course, it’s MY world, MY series. In which case, you need to just give me your money.

3 comments on “Essay–The Series Disease
  1. Dave says:

    I’m going to slightly edit your final paragraph.

    “Publishers want books that sell. Writers want to make money. Audiences want more stories with their favorite characters, disasters, and plots. AND IT’S AWESOME!”

  2. Lucie Le Blanc says:

    I don’t have problems with series or sequels, really. In fact, I like going back to a universe and characters I enjoyed. So shut up and take my money already. 😉

    What I hate, though, is this maddening trend of cutting a whole book in pieces and then call it a series. I see that a lot in the romance and erotica genre.

    Take The Black, for example, and cut it in five equal parts, without taking care of where and how each part ends. Then don’t tell your readers that each part isn’t a standalone and leave a “to know what happens next, buy the next part!” note at the end.

    Yeah. Makes me want to punch through things. How has this become an ok thing to do? I don’t know. Greed, I guess. But it drives me freaking mad.

    • Paul Cooley says:

      That’s pretty shitty to readers. Readers are our patrons and sometimes I think indies forget that just like the heartless corporations they loathe so much. And I’m damned happy to take your money. 🙂

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