The Serial Killer

I am very fond of series fiction. I always have been, going back to The Hardy Boys and their (much) lesser known peers, The Walton Boys (not the ones on the mountain). I probably will be for as long as I am able to read. I’m having a problem, however, with that wonderful and delectable corner of the genre or whatever you want to call it where the new book in the series builds upon what has happened before. More often than otherwise, a year or more passes between books in the series, I’ll go to pick a new one up, and I have no freaking idea what happened previously. I can remember the main characters, and usually a supporting character or two, but past that…it can be really hit or miss.

Some authors are aware of this and do an excellent job of doing a back-and-fill to bring new readers (and yes, older, forgetful ones) up to snuff without bringing the narrative to a grinding halt and having the characters engage in an awkward dialogue designed to summarize the mayhem that has occurred over the past x number of books. Others don’t. That’s fine. But let’s not put too fine a line on it. We have an aging population and not everyone who reads a series is necessarily going to remember, in the words of my favorite limerick, who was doing what and to do twelve months ago. Accordingly, when Detective M shows up in the squad room sans the ring finger on his right hand there are a few of us who might not recall how that happened.

If you write series fiction, why should you care? Someone probably has added the information to a Wikipedia entry somewhere that lays it all out. Maybe so. I would submit to you, though, that most readers don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative and look things like that up. If I had ten bucks for every reader who has told me, “Yeah, I used to read them but it got so I couldn’t figure out what was going on” I’d have a house next door to Sandra Bullock in New Orleans’ Garden District. Well, maybe a room over a garage in rear of the house next door to Ms. Bullock’s; but I hope you take my point.

Here is what I would request of those wonderful authors who labor mightily in the grammar mine of series fiction, and yes, those who publish them, and to whom I have been grateful for over fifty years and will continue to be so: take a cue from your cousins in the television medium. Each time I turn on an episode of Justified or Hell on Wheels or 24 any of the other half dozen or so dramatic series I watch the first thing I hear and see is, “Previously on (you fill in the blank)…” and short clips of what has happened before, as are relevant to the current episode, are presented. Could we have a “what has gone before” introduction of anywhere from a few paragraphs to two pages to refresh our memories — if you don’t do so elsewhere in the narrative — in the latest installment of your series? And maybe, if appropriate, could we have a listing of characters as well once you have more than say, seven folks with histories bumping into each other on a regular basis over the course of several books? I would consider it a favor to me, and to your legions of readers, acquired and potential.

So tell me: is this a problem? Or I am just grumpy today? Or both?  Or neither?  Is what I advocate reasonable? Or is it too much trouble to go to for what is a minor problem? 

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The Serial Killer

I am very fond of series fiction. I always have been, going back to The Hardy Boys and their (much) lesser known peers, The Walton Boys (not the ones on the mountain). I probably will be for as long as I am able to read. I’m having a problem, however, with that wonderful and delectable corner of the genre or whatever you want to call it where the new book in the series builds upon what has happened before. More often than otherwise, a year or more passes between books in the series, I’ll go to pick a new one up, and I have no freaking idea what happened previously. I can remember the main characters, and usually a supporting character or two, but past that…it can be really hit or miss.

Some authors are aware of this and do an excellent job of doing a back-and-fill to bring new readers (and yes, older, forgetful ones) up to snuff without bringing the narrative to a grinding halt and having the characters engage in an awkward dialogue designed to summarize the mayhem that has occurred over the past x number of books. Others don’t. That’s fine. But let’s not put too fine a line on it. We have an aging population and not everyone who reads a series is necessarily going to remember, in the words of my favorite limerick, who was doing what and to do twelve months ago. Accordingly, when Detective M shows up in the squad room sans the ring finger on his right hand there are a few of us who might not recall how that happened.

If you write series fiction, why should you care? Someone probably has added the information to a Wikipedia entry somewhere that lays it all out. Maybe so. I would submit to you, though, that most readers don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative and look things like that up. If I had ten bucks for every reader who has told me, “Yeah, I used to read them but it got so I couldn’t figure out what was going on” I’d have a house next door to Sandra Bullock in New Orleans’ Garden District. Well, maybe a room over a garage in rear of the house next door to Ms. Bullock’s; but I hope you take my point.

Here is what I would request of those wonderful authors who labor mightily in the grammar mine of series fiction, and yes, those who publish them, and to whom I have been grateful for over fifty years and will continue to be so: take a cue from your cousins in the television medium. Each time I turn on an episode of Justified or Hell on Wheels or 24 any of the other half dozen or so dramatic series I watch the first thing I hear and see is, “Previously on (you fill in the blank)…” and short clips of what has happened before, as are relevant to the current episode, are presented. Could we have a “what has gone before” introduction of anywhere from a few paragraphs to two pages to refresh our memories — if you don’t do so elsewhere in the narrative — in the latest installment of your series? And maybe, if appropriate, could we have a listing of characters as well once you have more than say, seven folks with histories bumping into each other on a regular basis over the course of several books? I would consider it a favor to me, and to your legions of readers, acquired and potential.

So tell me: is this a problem? Or I am just grumpy today? Or both?  Or neither?  Is what I advocate reasonable? Or is it too much trouble to go to for what is a minor problem? 

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Top Ten Writing Influences

A common interview question for writers is, Who were your literary influences? I’ve given it some thought over the years and have come up with a list of my top ten. Here they are, in no particular order:
Franklin W. Dixon
This was, of course, the cover name for the Hardy Boys series. Several authors did the actual work (a Canadian named Leslie McFarlane was the first). From The Hardy Boys I learned that you could make readers read on by ending a chapter with an exclamation point! Today I don’t use the actual punctuation mark, but try to achieve the same feeling—so readers have to turn the page.
The Classics Illustrated comic books guys
I loved the old Classics Illustrated series. I got acquainted with much great literature that way. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Men of Iron and on and on. Beautifully illustrated and written. I learned pure storytelling from these little gems.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
My first “grown up” novel was Tarzan of the Apes. I loved the experience of being pulled into a big story and then not wanting it to end.
William Saroyan
My beloved high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, encouraged me to read more than sports biographies. At a book fair she got me to buy My Name is Aram, which is still one of my favorite collections of short stories. I love Saroyan’s whimsical voice.
Ernest Hemingway
In college, Hemingway knocked me out. I think he is the greatest short story writer who ever lived. His style is easy to satirize, but no one has ever been able to do it better—not even the lionized “minimalists” of current fashion. I am very proud to have been a semi-finalist one year in the Imitation Hemingway Contest.
Jack Kerouac
I think most college guys who are into literature go through a Kerouac phase. I ate up On the Road and Kerouac’s idea of  “be-bop prose rhapsody.” Even now I try to follow some of his writing techniques, like:
–  Submissive to everything, open, listening
–  No time for poetry but exactly what is
–  Believe in the holy contour of life
Raymond Chandler
Oh man, when I discovered Chandler, I was in heaven. Still the best prose stylist of any hard boiled school you want to name. Nothing more needs to be said.
John D. MacDonald
Storyteller supreme. Great stylist of “unobtrusive poetry.” I’m thinking mainly of his 50s stand alone novels. The Travis McGees are enjoyable on their own and have much to commend them. But his output before that was amazing and the top quality of the paperback writers of the day.
Dean Koontz
I learned a lot from Koontz about how to write a flat-out page turner. Koontz also wrote a superb book on the craft, How to Write Bestselling Fiction. It’s out of print and goes for about $200 on the open market. I got mine off a library giveaway shelf and still refer to it.
Stephen King
King puts it all together. A great stylist, plotter and character creator. I read King and sometimes just shake my head at how good he is. Please don’t bring up the fact that he also sometimes seems to be the king of F-bombs. He succeeds in spite of, not because of, that little fact.
So writers out there, who are some of your writing influences? What is it about them you like?
If you’re primarily a reader, what writer would you pick as someone you’d recommend to a writer to learn from?
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