Jilly: Series – What’s Your Catnip?

Series - What's Your CatnipDo you read, write or watch series? What keeps you coming back for more?

Series was one of the buzzwords at this year’s RWA National. There were workshops with titles like Writing a Series That Sells Forever, Building the Successful Single-Title (or Category) Series and Payoffs and Pitfalls of Writing Connected Books; a quick look at Amazon.com’s romance bookstore is enough to explain why. Here’s a selection of their top twelve editors’ picks for this year so far, in best-selling order:

Written In My Own Heart’s Blood, Diana Gabaldon
Eighth book in the legendary Outlander time slip romance series.

Night Broken, Patricia Briggs
Eighth book in the Mercy Thompson shape-shifter/werewolf/urban fantasy series.

Blossom Street Brides, Debbie Macomber
Latest book in a long-running series set in the tight-knit community around A Good Yarn, a store in a Seattle neighborhood.

Shield of Winter, Nalini Singh
Book thirteen in the Psy/Changeling paranormal series.

How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying), Kerrelyn Sparks
Book Fifteen of the Love At Stake Vampire paranormal romance series.

Once in a Lifetime, Jill Shalvis
Book Ten of a series of contemporary romances set in the small town of Lucky Harbor.

You’ll notice that the above selection includes historical, urban fantasy, contemporary and paranormal romance. Some of the books are stand-alone stories linked by a place (Lucky Harbor, A Good Yarn) or by a world (Psy/Changelings, Love at Stake), while others are the latest instalment in the continuing story of a protagonist or couple (Outlander, Mercy Thompson). The most impressive thing is the authors’ ability to continue to grow and develop a series of connected stories over eight, ten or fifteen books and still leave their readers wanting more. Take a minute to read the reviews. Wow.

Like those four and five-star reviewers, I’m a sucker for series. I don’t care about sub-genre. I love community, and if an author has done a great job in building a credible world with engaging characters, I want to know more about them, with the following caveats:

First, I’m all about the love story, and I want a satisfying resolution when I get to the end of a book; I don’t like it when the hero and heroine’s relationship is left on a cliff-hanger and I know the next book won’t be out for six months or a year or whatever, and I hate it even more if the series (and their relationship arc) is open-ended. I’m not prepared to wait indefinitely for my HEA. I may be in a minority here, but over the years I’ve wandered away from fascinating characters like Stephanie Plum, Sookie Stackhouse, and recently Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson, because I’m not willing to sustain an unfulfilled emotional investment. It’s too frustrating. Instead, I’m currently re-reading Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green books because each one is an excellent standalone love story that’s also part of a developing community. The world moves on, there are continuing storylines and unanswered questions, but each book has a satisfying payoff.

I was talking last week with Elizabeth about TV series (my husband’s a big fan of NCIS), and she suggested that younger viewers might have a higher tolerance for unresolved storylines (hope I got that right, Elizabeth).

Second, I’m a greedy reader. I can devour a book in a few hours, and if I’ve had a great time, I want more. Now. I haven’t tried the Kerrelyn Sparks vampire series, but it sounds fun, and the idea of fifteen books in the same series gets me very excited. If I can’t have that, at least I want to know whether there’s a sequel, what it is, whether there’s a sample I can read now, how long I have to wait, and whether I can pre-order it. If I can’t find any of that information, I’ll probably wander off, read another author and forget about the series unless I’m crazy about the story or I get reminded about it later.

Given the evidence, it’s not surprising that an editor I spoke to recently and the agent I pitched last week both asked me if my book is part of a series. Of course, it is. I want to write at least three more stories about Ian and Rose’s friends and family – and as the agent asked for blurbs on the second and third books, I have to find better titles for them than Cam’s Story and Rob’s Story, condense my rambling notes into something punchy, and make sure I’m ready to write them.

I think most of the other 8 Ladies are also writing linked books. Justine has stories for Nate’s boss and Susannah’s sister, Elizabeth has the whole of Michael’s regiment to choose from, Michille’s book is the third(?) in a family series, I’m sure Kat said she had plans for Cheyenne’s newly discovered half-brother, and Kay got a fantastic idea from her editor pitch meeting last week.

So … do you like series? What’s your favorite? What are your likes and dislikes? We need to know 🙂

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Series – What’s Your Catnip?

  1. I moved away from Stephanie Plum for the same reason you did, Jilly. I love characters/stories with sexual tension that’s sustained over a series of books, but I’ve found most authors can’t sustain it in a way that satisfies the reader beyond a certain point (for the reasons you mention).

    Having said that, I have found that there are exceptions–Outlander for one.

    I love this series because it doesn’t follow the rules, which is why I believe it’s successful. Claire and Jamie get together half-way into the first book so the reader isn’t waiting for the HEA in the traditional sense. Once the love story is established it’s solid, but there are external forces that continually threaten to tear it apart (war mostly). The love story deepens and grows (as do the characters) in each subsequent book. Time passes, the community of characters grows and changes, the external forces become more threatening, but the love story deepens (unlike say, Stephanie Plum).

    Each book stands alone and is satisfying, but Gabaldon manages to leave the reader salivating for the next book. To me, Outlander is a primer on how to write a series. It’s number one on the list for a reason.

    • Confession time, Kat – I have only read the first Outlander book. This is going to sound crazy – I really enjoyed it, but when I realised it was only the beginning of Claire and Jamie’s story and there were another six (now seven) BIG books in the series, I shied away because I had the feeling that if I started the second book I would be totally hooked and wouldn’t do anything else until I’d gobbled them all down, and I just didn’t have the time or emotional energy to spare. I don’t re-read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (which I adore) for the same reason. I know once I start I can’t stop, and I know I’m going to be put through the emotional wringer and I have to be in the right frame of mind for that, too. I’ll read them one day, I’m sure of it.

      Fifteen light-hearted vampire books or historicals, though – I could read one or two in a weekend, enjoy myself thoroughly, and then save the others until the following weekend without driving myself crazy.

  2. In general, for me, series are all about the community or the author’s voice. I want to spend more time with one or the other and see what happens. Sophie Kinsella and MaryJanice Davidson (Queen Betsy the Vampire) do that for me — a light fluffy tone, and continuing adventures. Oh, yeah, PG Wodehouse is the granddaddy of that sort of genre, and I LOVE him.

    I am not crazy about cliffhangers (although I recently read one that didn’t bother me too much because it finished up the main story — can’t remember what it was right now), and I hate it when a series goes in circles instead of spirals. I want a major milestone completed with each book. It can be a campaign in a war, or a life milestone, or a magic/career milestone, but I want to feel some progress through the series.

  3. I love a good story, and if there’s more than one book per character, l’ll usually follow along.

    Catnip: humor (even if it’s dark); smart, stubborn characters who fight for what they want; the sense that there is a world that the characters connect with (even if it’s only to push the world away); banter, especially smartass comebacks; a sense that they are not the same person on page 200 of the 5th book as they were in the opening chapter of book 1 (Not fond of Jack Reacher or other mysteries where the characters are outside observers rather than active, involved and changed-by-the-action participants.)

    Turnoffs: passive, navel-gazing, whiny “protagonists” who wait for the plot to happen to him; emotionally divorced, uneffected cardboard characters who never engage with what happens to them.

    I may not be 100% sold on the series ending, but I love the Artemis Fowl series, read over 30 Xanth novels (and plan to catch up), am reading through the Discworld series, and can’t think of anything but fantasy series right. More importantly, once I trust an author to have those elements I adore and avoid the ones I hate, I’ll seek out their new works. Having just done the “I’ll read a chapter before bed… wow, that was a good book and tomorrow / today is going to suck” book hangover with Jill Barnett’s Carried Away, I plan to read all her other work.

    • Excellent catnip, Flo – and even better, I’ve never read Jill Barnett. I just looked up Carried Away – definitely going to give that a try. I have a week of not-particularly-fun family stuff ahead of me and it sounds like exactly what I need to lighten the load.

      • I just read Carried Away. Almost a fairy tale, lot of fun, beautifully written, I really enjoyed it. I will definitely read more Jill Barnett.

  4. I’ve also given up on Stephanie Plum, but for a different reason. The thing that engages me the most about a story is the character arc.That’s why I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips so much. I gave up on Stephanie because she never changes. She never learns anything, she never gets any smarter. Which, in turn, is why she can never pick which guy to settle down with.

    I like the idea of a linked series, like you’re planning, where the protag/antag in one book are minor characters in the others. It’s like they’re waiting in the wings for their turn in the spotlight.

    • I think many (most?) readers prospect for clues as they read and expect interesting secondary characters to get their day of glory. Recently two different people have asked me about a minor character who’s on the fringes of my opening scene. They both engaged with him and wanted to know if he’d be coming back later and if he’d get a story one day. The answer was yes, but I was amazed, pleased and a little bit scared that they were already registering the possibility.

  5. I am sitting here right now, on Sunday, exerting every ounce of self control I possess to not buy the sixth book in Nancy Martin’s Blackbird Sisters series on Kindle.

    I came down with a virus on Friday evening and immediately ordered the first eight books in the series for overnight delivery on Saturday. Based on my husband’s symptoms over the previous two days I knew I’d likely be sick in bed for the whole weekend and I wanted to make the most of it. Four books a day seemed a reasonable estimate.

    Oh, but they are delicious. I read five on Saturday. I would have read six, but, horror of horrors, the sixth book has been delayed and will not be here until Monday!!! This is my fault- I should never have trusted anyone but Amazon to get my books to me on time. All to save a couple of dollars! I am an idiot. Now I have to stop myself from buying the book on Kindle since the paperback will be here in the morning. It has been an agonizing day.

    So I’ve had some time to think about what makes me completely insane for a series, what will bring me back no matter how long I have to wait or how much money I have to spend. Here’s my catnip:

    -I want a large cast, and I want it to grow. I don’t mind struggling a bit to keep track of everyone for the first third of a book as long as everyone is fascinating and I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing most of these people again and again in later books. And I get VERY excited when new characters are introduced as obviously-regulars-to-be several books into a series.

    -Lots and lots of hot guys. In a stand-alone book, one or two is fine, but that’s not going to carry a series, especially a series with one primary romantic couple.

    -If the series has one primary romantic couple rather than a couple for each book, I want to see the relationship grow and deepen over the years. I find these types of romances more fulfilling and believable than the meet-to-forever in 80,000 words that you get in a stand alone.

    -To make me TRULY desperate for the next book, there has to be an overarching story, not just a world. I’ll certainly read just for a world, but I’ll beg, borrow, and steal for the next in a series with an overarching story.

    Okay, back to forcing myself to do housework even with a temp of 102. I need to get ahead on everything, because come hell or high water I WILL be finishing all ten books in The Blackbird Sisters series in the next two days.

    • I feel your pain, Jennifer. I came back from Derbyshire this week feeling ill. It turned out to be the mother of all colds – hardly life-threatening, just gross and debilitating. I prescribed books for myself too – I tried a historical that had some great reviews and sounded really good, and I was shocked by how bad it was. Dull and anachronistic from beginning to end. Depressing. So I moved on to Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US) as recommended by Michaeline, and absolutely loved it. Best thing I’ve read in ages – I’d add it to my Word Candy list. I loved his voice, and the characters, and the setting – not just London, but the bits of London I know really well, and he absolutely nailed it. I downloaded the second book immediately and I’m pleased to see there are two more.

      I haven’t read anything by Nancy Martin, but now I HAVE to try the Blackbird sisters. And thanks for your shopping list of the things that really hook you on a series – lots of good stuff there to think about. I might have to print that out and paste it in my notebook 🙂

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