When is a Series Not a Series?

Posted by on March 24, 2010 in uncategorized, when good wishes go bad | 14 comments

I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction.  Early on, I learned the pain of falling in love with characters, immersing myself in their stories, only to wait for a year or more for new books to come out.  At the same time, I mastered another type of pain — finding a new book that looked Super Amazing Cool, only to discover that its series-cohorts were out of print or otherwise unavailable.

I’ve committed Series numerous times in my writing career.  While THE GLASSWRIGHTS PROGRESS (second in the Glasswrights series) can be read without reading THE GLASSWRIGHTS APPRENTICE (first in the series), the other three volumes rely pretty heavily on series continuity.  Same with the Jane Madison series — you can read SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL for the stories contained therein, but to understand the character arcs, you should read them in order.

So, I decided to try something different with the As You Wish series.  I decided to write a series that could be read in any order.  The trick, I quickly realized, was having a series-unifying character who stood somewhat outside the action in each individual volume.  The trick was to have a genie.

Teel, the wish-granting genie, appears in each volume of the As You Wish series.  The genie, though, helps different heroines, in different venues, in each volume.  While a reader *can* read the books in order, s/he can just as easily start with WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD.  In a way, Teel is like a detective in a traditional mystery series — you can pick up any Hercules Poirot mystery and read it, without knowing the detailed lives of the cast of characters.  (Yes, Poirot (and Teel) evolve(s) in some relatively minor ways, but that’s not the true focus of each volume.)

So?  What are your favorite series-not-a-series?

Mindy, with less than a week to wait, to learn how readers react


  1. Well, it’s only a semi-not-in-order series. I love the Lord Peter Wimsey books. In the early ones, order totally doesn’t matter, but once Harriet Vane came into the picture, it was literally a different story. But I didn’t mind because the characters all matured.

    Because Harriet is a mystery writer, too, people said Dorothy L. Sayers had fallen in love with her own character and written herself into the stories so she could marry him. If Teel falls for a fantasy writer, I shall be suspicious.

  2. I like Dorothy Dunnett’s mysteries, which she apparently wrote for relaxation between her huge historical novels (two true series). The unifying character is a portrait painter who travels the world in his yacht–who is secretly a British spymaster. However, the protagonist of each book is a different woman–a nanny, a doctor, an opera singer, a cook. In the US they were published as “Dolly and the Nanny Bird,” “Dolly and the Doctor Bird,” etc. Dolly is the name of the yacht.

    Like your examples, the portrait painter (named Johnson Johnson–first name same as last) has some character development, but not enough to make it essential to read them in proper order.

  3. My favorite series-not-a-series is Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld. Though it’s not a perfect non-series series in that some of the books do follow the same main characters, and those ones should be read in order. But most of them are good stand-alones as well.

  4. I’ve been scanning the U. S. Service Series for Project Gutenberg—books with titles like The Boy With the U. S. Naturalists or The Boy With the U. S. Census—which are each about a young man at his first job, working for a government agency that he thinks is the most exciting thing ever. More of historic than literary interest, but I thought I’d toss it out as another solution to the problem.

  5. i think I gotta go with Darkover. While I am not as passionate about these works as I was when I first encountered them decades ago, they definitely had a lasting impact, and were my first (AFAIR) experience with a fantastic world where one could tell stories with a common link that didn’t have to be read in order.

  6. Yours, of course πŸ™‚

    Since I am lucky enough to me in the midst of the new one, I can say you’ve really pulled it off.

    So much fun!

  7. For some reason I’m thinking of meta-series, for lack of a better phrase. For example, Webber’s Honor-verse, which has a couple of series placed in it. You don’t have to read more than one of the series, you don’t have to read them in order. Similarly, Bujold’s Barrayar-verse. Falling Free is a stand alone, but not, right? There’s a character arc for Miles, but there are books he’s not in, or barely in. Or Lackey’s massive Valdemar which contains sub-series and standalone books.

    Picking a favorite, Barrayar. Miles Vorkosigan….I actually think he’s culturally important wrt mainstreaming disability issues.

  8. I find that I like sinking into a world, so I tend to read continuity-dependent series. But Spider Robinson’s Callahan books fit the bill for me when it comes to not-a-series.

    If I ever wrote a not-a-series, I’d have to approach about my writing more Jack Garcia stories set in his Scandal Sheet universe. Mostly because the whole comic has a Callahan’s-bar-if-it-were-set-at-a-tabloid feel to it.

    • I say that, of course, having not quite cracked the As You Wish series (but that’ll be soon. Very soon.) πŸ˜‰

  9. I don’t read too many series-not-a-series because the idea of a series that can be read out of publishing order deeply deserves some part of me. This is probably the same part that spent several weeks of lunch in seventh grade alphabetizing the bookshelves in my English teacher’s classroom because having them out of order was just driving me up the wall.

    Seriously, though, I like series where I can see growth from book to book, and you don’t usually get a lot of that in series that aren’t really series. The closest I get to one tends to be Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, although I think it’s getting harder and harder to read those out of order as the series continues.

  10. Deborah Adams had an interesting mystery series that could be read in any order. It was based in the small town of Jesus Creek, Tennessee and featured a different main character for each book. She changed the main character of one book to a supporting character in another.

  11. I’m sure there are quite a number of mystery series that fit the bill. My favorite for a while was the Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman. I don’t know if Delaware himself changes a whole lot, but his personal situation certainly does, and it’s pretty much not important to know this for the main story. Anything about his personal situation that might be relevant to the current book is covered, but not in an annoying way.

    I’ll note that I stopped going out of my way to find his books after some of them started seeming just too similar to each other. Maybe this is something that’s hard to avoid in mystery/detective novels, especially if you’re writing dozens of them.

  12. I actually read the Jane Madison series out of order because I got them through interlibrary loan. They were still readable out of order. πŸ™‚ I think I read 2, 1, 3.

    That said, if I had realized #2 wasn’t book #1, I would have held off reading them. I tend to be obsessed with reading a series in order, especially since there have been many time’s I’ve missed on a book that it was part of a series.

    For your Genie books, I’d get all that were available and start with the first one published.

    • Coming late to comments, with so much else going on…

      I think that GIRL’S GUIDE and SORCERY can be read *pretty* interchangeably – you don’t lose major plot elements. MAGIC, though, pretty much needs to wrap up the series!

      For the As You Wish books, they are *much* more independent of each other; each truly functions as a stand-alone.