Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne on "First in Series Syndrome"

Seems fitting to me at least that the first post of the month is a guest post from Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Library discussing the first read in a series…

First in Series Syndrome

I’m one who prefers to read series in order.  Over the years I’ve noticed that sometimes a first book in a cozy series isn’t a particularly good indication of whether or not I’ll enjoy the rest of the books. I’ve wondered why that is.  Here are my best guesses:

Too many characters: Often, it seems to me, the author has already mapped out the town’s inhabitants and cast of future books and is anxious that readers meet everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE.  The lead’s  parents, siblings, best friend, the waitress at the diner, the cute cop, the mean girl/guy, the mechanic, the mail carrier, the town drunk, etc. etc. not to mention the soon to be victim and suspects.  It’s nice to know that our hero has friends and acquaintances, but I don’t need to meet them all at once. 

Too little character development: when you have a lot of folks to introduce, there isn’t a lot of time to develop them as individuals.  They come off as cookie cutter pieces who serve little or no purpose in advancing the story.  As a reader, I’d rather spend my time meeting fewer people but getting to know those few better.  Alexander McCall Smith has built up quite a cast in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but he began with three core characters who were carefully – well, I was going to say “fleshed out” but then I remembered Mma Ratmoswe is a “lady of traditional build” so let’s say “well realized.”

Too much background: some authors feel the need to introduce the lead’s entire background and character in an information dump.  Heroine (or hero, but mostly heroine) describes herself physically, tells us some of her quirks, explains that she moved to new town to escape a broken heart, details her sad/happy/indifferent childhood, and so forth.  This is much easier than to gradually reveal the character’s personality and background, and frankly more boring.  Lily Ivory in Juliet Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mystery series tells us the bullet point version of her past but leaves out a lot of detail, whetting our interest for more little reveals as the series progresses.  (Just what did happen with her father?)

Too little plot: again, often this is because too much space is taken up with all the new characters and in trying to establish the lead’s job/hobby/reason for existence.  I’m a character driven reader, but characters need to tell a story.  If nobody really cares about the mystery or spends all their time rehashing what we know, then I don’t care whodunit either. In which case, I had better be really really invested in the characters or I’m going to put the book aside. I have no examples because if I didn’t care about the mystery or the characters, why would I both to remember the book?

Too much exposition:  this ties into to all the above.  There’s a tendency to tell instead of show.  I find it much more interesting to learn about a character in bits and pieces and from other people’s perspectives than it is for our heroine to flat out tell us she has low self-esteem because of losing a tooth in first grade. Jane Cleland’s Josie Prescott has a great deal of integrity, and I know this because she has refused to take jobs if she has any doubts about the merchandise or the sellers.  She’s also a cautious, by the book sort of person, one who calls her lawyer to sit in when she’s interviewed by the police—even though the chief is a close friend.

All of these comments come with a silent but emphatic unless it’s relevant. Lea Waits spells out a great deal about Angie Curtis in the Mainely Needlepoint series, but given that the victim is her mother who disappeared when Angie was a child this is all information we need to know. It helps tell the current story. Some of the human characters in the Pru Marlowe Pet Noir series by Clea Simon may not be exactly necessary themselves in advancing the story but their companion animals are; in the case of Growler, his relationship with his human influences how he interacts with Pru.

Please note these aren’t rules, because rules are made to be broken.  A talented writer can carry off almost anything: execution is everything.  However, it’s very easy to fall into the formula trap and be so busy laying groundwork for the next in series that the first book suffers.

It’s like having the circus come to town. It begins with cheerful anticipation but I can only take so much of watching the bigtop go up.  Unless I’m being intrigued or entertained, I start noticing that the benches are hard, the tent smells funny, and I have to go to the bathroom. I may have wandered off in search of popcorn by the time the ringmaster introduces the trapeze artists.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

A well-written discussion of series mysteries. I am also a fan of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Series.

C. T. Collier said...

Very good discussion! I think Julianne Holmes does an effective job introducing the setting at the start of her first-in-series, Just Killing Time. The protagonist is returning to her hometown because of a death in the family, and she drives slowly through town thinking of the loved one's mark on so many of the properties, plus those key memories that make it painful for her to be back. Far from being a backstory dump, the author is foreshadowing motives and throwing in some red herrings right from the start. Skillfully done by a debut author!

Brenda Buchanan said...

Nice analysis, Jeanne. Spot on, right down the line.

BPL Ref said...

Thank you all for the comments! They are much appreciated. I'll make a note of Julianne Holmes and look for her book. That's a good technique. Mary Kennedy in her first Dream book did a neat thing: the main characters have a candy shop and are trying to figure ways to market it by getting other local shop-keepers to do a promotion with their products, such as getting the florist to do flowers and candy. Anyway, I was absorbed in the marketing possibilities and it took me a bit to realize I was being introduced to the cast. Then near the end the heroine did something really stupid which was a let-down. I haven't yet read the second though I did go ahead and buy it.

Again, thank you very much!