Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I Don't Start With First Books

I don't have a Friday Favorite this week.

I was going to review J. J. Murphy's Murder Your Darlings, but it turned out to have first book disease. (I'll get back to that book in a minute.) So it isn't a favorite - not yet anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I surprised someone when I said I like to start a series with the fifth book or so. And from what I've seen in surveys, I am not alone -- especially in the mystery field, where readers like to start a series when there are six or seven books. (Although they will often start with the first book -- but they wait until there are six or seven books until starting that first one.)

There are a lot of reasons readers like to wait for a writer to mature.

The first reason applies to most readers -- whether they like to read books in order or not, and whether they like series fiction or not:

1.) Readers make an emotional commitment to books and authors. And with fans of series fiction, they commit to the characters and the world and the mindset of a series. They want more than a single book, and they want to be sure you'll follow through. So often, even if they are eager to read the first book, they'll wait to start until there are several books they can read in a row.

2.) While there are a very few great one-book wonders out there, for the most part, how many books you have out is a very good indicator as to how serious you are about writing and whether you can follow through or not. In other words, it's an indicator of quality. (A much much better indication than a bazillion 5-star Amazon reviews -- which tend to be the result of how well the author solicited reviewers.)

Not all readers consider the above to be that important, but when they browse, and they see a stack of books by an author, the number of books still sends the subliminal message "established author." And some readers use number of books as a more conscious ruler. (My mother, when she goes to the library, looks for the length of the shelf the writer takes up.)

Readers who like series tend to have lots of more complicated and conscious rules -- often based on the way series are published in their genre.

3.) Readers want to know if you're going to finish the darned story, and if they are going to be able to get their hands on all the "episodes." In sf and fantasy, many series are written as trilogies and serialized larger stories. It's a bunch of books all telling one big story, and you need to read them all in a row. Readers of this type of fiction want to read it in the right order -- but they want to be guaranteed that they will be ABLE to read through the whole series.

Traditional publishing, unfortunately, treated these readers badly by letting books go out of print, so that reading such books becomes incredibly frustrating. But readers have also been burned by Indie Authors who start a series and then don't finish it. (This is particularly bad when the author writes a serialized novel and abandons it before even getting to the end of one story.) Because of this, a lot of readers won't start a series until they see that the end has been written.

Mystery series, however don't tend to have closed plot arcs. They may have some sort of character arc over the long term, but it tends to move forward like life, or like a soap opera, and the stories inside each book are complete in themselves. Which means that you can read them out of order, and if one is out-of-print it doesn't doom the rest of the series.

HOWEVER... mystery readers tend to be the most demanding of a series being long, and therefore we want writers with stamina. (And this is also something that traditional publishing has screwed up over the past twenty years -- by canceling series before they're ripe. It's frustrating, but it mostly drove readers to old classics.)

So my main reason is the fourth reason:

4.) First books tend to suck, and when they don't, they're different enough from the mature series that you can't judge the series by sampling the first book.

So my personal practice all my life, in discovering a new series, is to look for a shelf of books, determine which is the fifth book, and start there. If I find myself investing deeply enough in that story, I'll go back and read from the first if I can. Because even if there are flaws in the first, or something odd going on, I already know I like where it's going, so I don't mind.

Sometimes you find a series where the first books are the best -- not necessarily the best written, but the most interesting in terms of subject and favor. One series in particular where I found this was Charlotte MacLeod's series about Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn. The first book was a great romantic suspense -- a very personal story about something which changed the characters lives forever -- the second was good enough... and then they settled into a completely different tone. One full of screechy, nasty, annoying, bullying characters: which is the one thing I really really cannot abide in a cozy mystery. So even though I like MacLeod's other series, I was bitterly disappointed in that one. (I started those other series with later books.)

Now, to this week's book, Murder Your Darlings (which just got nominated for an Agatha, I hear):

There's a lot to love about this book. It's about the Algonquin Round Table (aka "The Vicious Circle") -- a sparkling group of literati (and others - Harpo Marx, who was practically illiterate, was a great pal of Alexander Woollcott) who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel. They were a bunch of witty but immature smart-asses, who possessed egos too big for the room. But they were also incredibly talented and and interestingly flawed people.

And any story about the round table runs the risk of being yet another story about screechy nasty bullying people I don't want to hang out with. Or it could be shiny madcap comedy, reminiscent of the 20s and 30s, where the characters are like verbal Wiley Coyotes, as often being zinged themselves as zinging others.

J. J. Murphy pulls off the latter, for the most part. She presents us with something remeninscent of the 30's madcap movies (though it takes place in the early 20's -- she plays liberally with the timeline, though, so it all feels coherent anyway). The sleuths in this series are Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Parker was known for her particularly sharp zingers, but she was also never comfortable with that image of herself, or the constant one-upsmanship of the group, and though this is a young Dorothy Parker who is only starting on her career, Murphy gives us the feeling of someone a little uncomfortable in the role she's playing so well. Part of this is that her life IS a role, in particular her relationship with Benchley, who is married with two children.

Parker and Benchley have this sort of "bromance" relationship going. Always together (when he's in New York) sleeping on each other's couches, out until 5am -- but though Parker pines for Benchley, all sexual tension remains unspoken and under the radar.

The mystery plot is not very good. It'll do, but it's shoved off in a corner -- like one of the later Thin Man movies, where it's all about Nick and Nora and Asta doing their schtick and you forget there IS a mystery. It's got to be that limited, though, because most of the characters are historical characters and therefore aren't really suspects in the mystery.

And that's probably where the biggest flaw here lies: as a first book with a very colorful milieu, melding the history and the story just doesn't go smoothly. There's just too much stuff here. Secondary characters have a way of stopping to speechify in ways that don't advance the story at all. A lot of the book feels like research and world building.

And that leads to the moment which very nearly caused me to throw my Kindle across the room: in the midst of a madcap, keystone cops car chase, they run over and kill a horse. Actually, they don't kill the horse, the horse is lying there screaming and one of the cops shoots it. And then it's off to the races again.

This is not a spoiler... because there is no purpose to this scene at all. Murphy makes no use of this whatsoever. It doesn't affect anyone really, it leaves the characters a little uncomfortable with the blase way they treat the world -- but they were already uncomfortable with that. (Maybe if it had happened earlier, and incited the discomfort, that would have at least had some purpose in the story.)

What it feels like is research rearing its ugly head. Horses undoubtedly got killed in traffic accidents at the time, and there was all sorts of collateral damage in gangster/police car chases. But not in madcap comedies. And this story plays fast and loose with history and sets up a madcap comedy, not a gritty realistic drama.

And that's what I mean by first book-itis. This is not necessarily the fault of the writer. (Well, I do hold her responsible for that imaginary horse -- its blood is on her soul -- but creatively speaking it's more excusable.) The series, the world she is creating, is finding its legs. It's a hard world to write, and very often the only way to find the voice of the series is to write it. So the speechifying and the dead horse are a part of that process.

As a reader, I would have been better off to start with a later book, but I'm stuck in a Catch-22. See, it's a commercially published book, so if readers don't buy this one now, the fifth book will never happen. That's not a problem for indie writers. (Not unless they're easily discouraged.)

In this case, the book has an Agatha nomination, so the series has a better chance of sticking around for a while, so I can dip in again later and see if I like what happens with the tone. But with series which don't have nominations? I can't afford to go buying every first book on spec. And I really don't want to invest the time and soul into it either. Sure I'll try some of them, but they're more likely to sit in my TBR pile for a long time.

So it will have to be up to the author's guts and determination -- can they keep it going long enough to capture the reader like me? Another Agatha nominee this year is one I'll probably try again. Jacqueline Winspear's series was one which I hated the first book so badly I couldn't get through more than a couple of chapters -- I found the main character manipulative and creepy -- but which may have matured into something I like better.

Here's the great thing about sampling once authors have enough books: With samples, I can quickly dip into several books across a series and tell pretty quickly if I'm interested in the character and voice, even if I still have to get the whole book to find out how the endings are and if there are going to be dead horses.

Okay, enough blathering. Later I'll dig up some first books and singletons that did get my interest and are worth it, and let you know about them.

(For perspective on my own first book-itis, you could check out my own thoughts about the writing of a first book in the Man Who series "A Look Back At The Book" post from December.)

See you in the funny papers.


Sarah McCabe said...

With a series where each book is a complete story, it makes perfect sense. In most such series nothing significant changes from book to book and you can start wherever you like.

I had thought you were referring to a series which is essentially one story divided up into many parts. Such as a fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. If you don't read them in order, you're missing a lot and are going to be mightily confused. It makes no sense to not read them in order.

Of course, a lot of people will wait until the series is finished before starting it at all.

I read almost exclusively in the fantasy genre with a dash of science fiction on the side, so that is always the type of series I am most concerned with.

The Daring Novelist said...

And many fantasy/sf writers also write shorter trilogies and such at first. Also they write books outside the specific arc.

As a reader, I will often start some of those types of series out of order, and then go back -- but it's better when you can enter the series in more than one place.

You may not want to read Lord of the Rings out of order, but you can read The Hobbit before or after.

However, I'm a dyed in the wool mystery fan, and I grew up when a TV series was a SERIES dang it (not a mini-series -- we had 30 or more episodes a year!) and so my preference will always be for much longer series.

David Michael said...

I enjoyed reading the first 7-8 Sue Grafton alphabet books. It was interesting to see her style evolve over those books. And then I hit "H" and that book rather ... blew. Someday I might continue the series, but I'm in no rush. The voice of the main character started out very dry, almost like Dragnet, but she became warmer and more chatty as the books went on. More internal dialogue. It was just the story of "H" that was a big nothing. I do hope she recovered from that one...

I recently learned about the series of books starring Cadfael the Benedictine. Just finished the first book in that series. Before that I read the first Midsomer Murder book.

I remember back when I read fantasy I tried to avoid reading series that weren't finished. I also tried to avoid reading books out of order. Always annoyed me to start a book and discover I was in the middle of something--and now the first book(s) was spoiled. But those are books with a larger story arc, not a series of episodes.

I've pondered those new writers who start their career with a series. To them, they're writing their opus. But to the rest of the universe, they're writing their first book, with all that entails. Not sure there's a solution to that, though.


The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, and I was talking about "first book-itis" as referring to the first book in a series, not the first book of the author.

For the author in a genre where the series tend to require reading in order, it's a real problem. Especially if they want to make a career out of one world.

The problem for those writers is that the audience only has one entry point for the whole body of work. And if there is an inappropriate dead horse, that's all she wrote. Turn off a reader, and that reader is turned off for life.

The key is to create other entry points. Okay, so your septology really has to be read in order... so write off-shoots. Write novellas about secondary characters. Write about the backstory of this or that.

And if the series is long enough, it won't matter so much whether the readers enter via the wrong book, either. It'll be like a soap opera, you just have to jump in. (Sure some readers just can't do that, but most readers can. Think about all those conversations out there on the internet, where people debate on which Miles Vorkosigan story to start with. "Well, this one is best for backstory, but that one will get you into the mood of the series, and this will will do this other thing.")