Archive | October, 2013

Standalones, Sequels, and Series

8 Oct

As a fantasy writer, I used to dream of “the epic series I’d finish one day”. The intended quantity of volumes was seldom constant, varying from day to day, but it usually ranged from a trilogy to ten books. This sort of thing is not inherently bad, but it sends me warnings of a story that stretches out too far, or one that does conclude but whose world is reopened excessively for sequels. Sometimes these are fine, but all too often, they feel recycled or drawn out. There seem to be several possible reasons, and here I intend to explore some of them.

One big thing I’ve noticed in young-adult fantasy series (broadly including actual, “pure” fantasy as well as science fiction, horror, dystopians, and even the endless slew of paranormal romances) is what anyone with a critical eye can spot in Hollywood today: monetary gain. There may be other reasons behind Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the Star Wars prequels, which I will identify in a bit, but the reason is often money. As if the writers, directors, producers, actors, and so forth were starving…. Money, to me, seems to affect many people as if it were a drug: the more one receives, the more one craves. Mother Theresa once said, “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” Most simple lives do not require millions upon millions of dollars, even in Southern California or New York City. Am I mistaken?

Another reason for endless familiarity in books and films, according to the late Blake Snyder in his screenwriting reference book Save the Cat!, is not the greed of the makers but that of the consumers. Audiences sometimes cannot bear to part with certain characters or settings. Honestly, I understand the desire for more Captain Jack Sparrow, more lightsaber duels, more Middle-Earth – and it seems we will receive all of those and more, in the years following this entry’s publication.

When I was thirteen, I wanted my own saga to be long because I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my characters, my settings. Seeing as I was younger and relatively inexperienced, I begrudge my past nothing. However, many people today haven’t the time to invest that sort of time into such things while still reading other writers’ work. In time, I came to realize this truth and decided to begin with standalone novels (perhaps even short stories, poems, or essays) before attempting anything huge. Brandon Sanderson’s advice comes to mind here: “Write a standalone, but with series potential.” In doing so, one allows for flexibility rather than depending on the next installment. One writer I admired as a child was actually very derivative in his first series, and yet I think he has potential to do better in the future. Indeed, when I met Christopher Paolini last autumn, he told me he planned to write a science-fiction novel before returning to the fictive universe of his Inheritance Cycle with a fifth novel set in the same fantastical land of Alagaësia, but intended as a standalone. Christopher has improved greatly as a writer by his prose’s quality, but his series was still unoriginal. (That being said, I  enjoy reading them.) Even so, I think he has potential. Each book in his series at least ends with a decent conclusion, if not a total resolution. Some things rely on cliffhangers to entice audiences to await the next installment. I do not care for cliffhangers as I once did. They should be used sparingly, if at all, and usually only before the final installment. More than one ending attempting to draw consumers back just seems excessive. Granted, there are some good ones, such as The Two Towers (book); The Subtle Knife (book); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (film); and The Empire Strikes Back (film). Being used well on occasion does not excuse excess.

Brian Jacques was a wonderful writer. His novel Redwall contained some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve ever read (apart from those by Rachel Neumeier and Margo Lanagan). The feast scenes and the mild nature settings were among my favorite descriptions to read. However, I had two issues with his numerous sequels, prequels, and other books set in Mossflower Wood. One was racism: rats and foxes and stoats were almost always the villains, while mice and badgers and squirrels were seen as heroic. But the more pertinent issue was that more often than not, his novels had nearly identical plots. All the ones I’ve read so far (RedwallMossflowerMattimeoMariel of Redwall, and Loamhedge) involved very similar quests spurred by rhyming riddles. And three of the primary antagonists were rats. Cluny the Scourge, Gabool the Wild, and Raga Bol made interesting adversaries, but this sort of repetition forms both racism (speciesism?) and plot recycling combined. Besides, Slagar the Cruel (a fox) takes the cake for me as a villain. And Jacques’s final installment, published posthumously and titled The Rogue Crew, totals the series to 22 novels, plus picture books and a cookbook and a few guidebooks. Still, I find myself going back to his stories every so often out of short-term nostalgia (I initially listened to the first three audio books in 2011, shortly after the author died). Much as I love Brian Jacques’s work, repetition is a flaw, especially when done over twenty times. But to end on a more decorous note, I now say: Rest in peace, Brian; I love your books, and I would have loved to meet you. I’m glad you had such a happy life.

If I ever write a series – it’s certainly an idea – I will try to avoid “sequel bait” (as Christopher Nolan called it in reference to the films in his Dark Knight Trilogy) and try not to exceed three books (four if I do a prequel). Seven at the most. And now, I must go write a bit of my short story and possibly plot either my novel or my screenplay. Loads of balls to juggle!

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Darker Beauties

6 Oct

While I do not care to conform to societal standards, I want to reread some of my favorite tales of the macabre, especially Dracula, Frankenstein, and a couple of Stephen King novels: ‘Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary. Additionally, I need to finally get around to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Shining, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. (Actually, I’ve read a couple of Lovecraft’s early tales, but that’s it.) Am I suddenly in a horror mood due to the approaching holiday of Halloween? Probably, but not because of any strictly conventional norm. I simply love horror, and the impending thirty-first day simply reminds me of what was already prevalent.

OK, so my favorite genre overall is actually fantasy, but I also love its neighbors of horror and science fiction. In fact, my all-time favorite novel – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – could be viewed as all of the three, though it is mainly considered horror. Right now I have a copy and will try to reread it and Dracula soon, provided I can slog past all this schoolwork first. Another great resource for horror fans is the Podcast known as Pseudopod, which consists of audio narrations of horror short stories. The main host, Alasdair Stuart, is awesome. Recently I’ve listened to “The Crawlspace” by Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “That Ol’ Dagon Dark” by Robert MacAnthony, and “The Strange Machinery of Desire” by Justin A. Williams – all great, especially “That Ol’ Dagon Dark”. And I believe Dagon is something related to Lovecraft, though I wouldn’t know firsthand just yet.

Why do some people hate horror? Perhaps they dislike being frightened, which is understandable. I do not spook easily, but even if I did, I would appreciate horrific fiction as an art form. Scaring is more than bloody and startling images; when done well, it needs neither. True fear stems from the mind, and from candor regarding human nature. Stephen King is great at it. And that is why I love this genre, whether or not I am joined by the masses.