Michael Walters on series of books

I received a comment from author Michael Walters to a post I wrote the other week addressing the question of whether the sequel is more suited to crime fiction than to other genres. As his comment is far more interesting than my post I thought I would create a post of its own out of it. Thank you, Michael! he writes:

I'd draw a distinction between writing a 'sequel' (which sounds like an afterthought) and consciously setting out to write a series of linked books. I think the latter does work particularly well with crime fiction. I embarked on a series because I was attracted by the idea of balancing a fast-paced thriller plot against the slower narrative arc of the developing characters and their interactions. I'm a great fan of writers who manage to sustain that over numerous books – Reginald Hill or Ed McBain, to take two quite different examples. It's possible to think of non-crime examples – in fantasy and science-fiction, of course, and also series like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, or even non-genre examples like Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time' series or John Updike's Rabbit books. But they do seem less common, perhaps surprisingly so, outside the crime genre. 

As for branding, whatever that means, well, it's not surprising that publishers and agents are keen on the idea, particularly given the growing influence of the supermarkets, as Clare points out. They're keen to lock readers in to their particular products, and a successful series is a pretty good way of doing that. And I don't think that applies only to individual authors. It's also about trying to relate newer authors to established 'brands' through cover design – which is why crime books tend to look so 'samey'. And many readers, if they're fond of a given author, do look for more of the same, so it's a reasonable commercial strategy.

I suspect the danger is that, in constantly promoting the new J K Rowling or the new Ian Rankin, publishers sometimes forget that those past successes initially came, not from trying to replicate something else, but simply from having faith in the creativity of talented writers. Publishers can no doubt make money by copying what's already there, but I suspect the real (commercial as well as artistic) successes will always come from left field – from Alexander McCall Smith (I bet most publishers wouldn't have seen those as best-seller material) through Stieg Larsson to David Peace.

My own view is that, unless perhaps you're James Patterson, writers shouldn't worry themselves about this stuff. My own approach is just to try to write something I'd like to read, in the hope that some others will like it too. I suspect that trying to write a best seller or to second-guess the market is probably the surest route to writing unreadable rubbish. On the other hand, that might not stop it being a best-seller.

Michael Walters is the author of the Nergui novels – a series of crime thrillers set in modern-day Mongolia. My reviews of these exciting and highly recommended books can be read at Euro Crime. Michael also has an engaging blog, which can be found here, and will be attending Crime Fest this year.

9 thoughts on “Michael Walters on series of books

  1. Fine idea to make this excellent comment into a post on its own.
    As a crime fiction fan, I agree that series & crime go extremely well together. I can also see an obvious advantage for the writer: even though readers may be disappointed by one weaker book, they will probably give a favourite series a second, perhaps even a third chance.
    “I suspect that trying to write a best seller or to second-guess the market is probably the surest route to writing unreadable rubbish. On the other hand, that might not stop it being a best-seller.”
    Agreed; readers & the market are fickle LOL

  2. Another excellent post and, yes, it is well that these terms should be distinguished, especially ‘series’ and ‘sequel’, which have been rather muddled of late. A sequel is surely a novel that takes up the story of a preceding book where it left off, though the predecessor may in some cases stand alone. Pierre Magnan’s The Murdered House and Beyond the Grave, recently discussed on Peter’s DBB, furnish a perfect example. Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time is not a series but a sequence, really one novel in twelve volumes. A series I should rather say is made up of discrete novels, each standing alone while having in common certain characters and features. There has been a bit of a tendency for some seeming series to take on characteristics of the sequence of late, subsequent books depending a little too much upon knowledge of the preceding to totally stand alone — there is a little of that in Robert Wilson’s Falcon books and rather more in Jo Nesbo, two exceptionally fine crime novelists. One just has to be on the q.v. for this — the more references to events in earlier novels, the more important they be read in order.

  3. I have found the date of Maxine’s original post and found I was driving back from Glastonbury. That was the reason I missed it.
    I think that if the character is interesting a the series will sell. The problem is to continue to develop that character or characters and I think that is why those series with a larger cast such as the 87th Precinct and the Martin Beck books work better over a long series. A modern equivalent would be The Wire on TV.
    I agree with Philip, the Nesbo trilogy of novels from The Redbreast to the Devil’s Star were sequels inside a series and it is a tribute to the writer that English readers enjoyed them even out of order. It was a sign of a total lack of communication or the usual problem of people failing to actually read the books that caused them to be published in a weird order.
    What I really admire is those authors who set out to write a series of ten books such as Sjowall and Wahloo and succeeded. I twonder if both Hakan Nesser with his Van Veeterens and Henning Mankell with the Wallanders intended to pay tribute and write ten books also.

  4. “What I really admire is those authors who set out to write a series of ten books such as Sjowall and Wahloo and succeeded. I wonder if both Hakan Nesser with his Van Veeterens and Henning Mankell with the Wallanders intended to pay tribute and write ten books also.”
    Norman, so do I (admire them, I mean). Yet, the last Martin Becks are not quite as good as the first which proves how difficult it is. I don´t know about Mankell and Nesser, but I presume it was what Stieg Larsson intented as he stated that he was planning 10.

  5. Indeed Dorte, and since I read that about S. Larsson intending a decathlon, I have been a bit apprehensive in case book 3 ends with too many loose ends unresolved. I didn’t mind it in the case of books 1 and 2 because I thought that he’d get around to them in book 3. Now I know he was only 1/3 of the way through…
    I have read the first 8 of the Martin Beck books and have not noticed a drop in quality, but maybe that happens at the bitter end. Certainly, Ian Rankin’s Rebus series was variable as is Donna Leon’s. I felt that John Harvey’s Resnick novels (originally intended as 10, but after finishing them Resnick kept popping up as a minor character in other books, so the author has bowed to the inevitable and written a proper 11th).

  6. Sorry – should have read that the Resnick books maintained a consistent (high, in my opinion) quality.

  7. Gosh – I’m very flattered to find my humble comment promoted to headline status! Thanks to Maxine for elevating my comment, and to everyone else for the very interesting responses.

  8. You are welcome, Michael, I very much appreciated receiving such a thoughtful comment to that old post.

  9. Maxine, I can understand your worry with regard to Stieg Larsson, and it is not as if there are no loose ends at all, but stopping after no 3 is much better than if it had been after no 2.
    No spoilers – I won´t say more🙂

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