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Home » Books & writing

Serial Reader

Submitted by on March 25, 2010 – 12:58 am71 Comments

This topic has come up a few times for me recently so I thought I’d open it up for discussion. If you’re about to start reading an author who writes a series, how important is it for you to start at the beginning? If you’re a reader who has been reading that series from the start, how much backstory do you want the author to include to fill in those who don’t read in order?

My husband was reading Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden Files adventure, Changes. It was the first one he’d sampled but 12th in the series. He said, “I wish Butcher had included more details on past events so I’d have a better understanding of what’s going on.” I said, “Well, if you’re curious, you can always go back and read the other ones. At least he didn’t spoil them for you.”

See, we’re not sticklers about starting with book one. What if the author doesn’t hit his/her stride until book 8? You might stop reading after the third one and miss out on a masterpiece. I know writers who’d prefer you don’t judge their series by the first book, like actors who try to steer you away from their very first gig in Children of the Corn: Impaled on the Cob. I’ve also known readers who quit a series too soon and no nagging on my part could get them to hang on for the breakthrough book.

Now, I’m not talking about a finite series with serialized plots heading towards an ending that’s already been planned out. If anyone ever advises you to start the Harry Potter series with Goblet of Fire or the Millenium trilogy with The Girl Who Played with Fire, just slap them hard. It’s like saying you should watch the Star Wars movies by starting with The Empire Strikes Back. You’d be sitting there, thinking, “What is a Muppet doing in here and why does Luke keep hearing some old dead guy in his head?” No, I’m only discussing series with self-contained installments here.

And let me be clear that I’m not against reading in chronological order. I’ve often done so and am all for it if that option is available/feasible to you. The experience will be richer if you know all the backstory before embarking on a new adventure. Which brings me to the second question in my opening paragraph: How much background is needed in each subsequent book?

When I’ve been following a series from the start, I sometimes get impatient as it progresses because the author has to include details from past books so new readers don’t feel lost. Depending on how well the writer incorporates those threads, I find myself skipping passages, thinking, “I know that already. Get on with the current story!” I’m also averse to TMI if I jump in mid-series: “The dead guy in the last book wasn’t really dead? Guess I won’t be reading it now.” It’s like I said to my husband: New readers can research the backstory on their own.

Do you ever feel this way? Am I being Grumpy McBitchy? What are your preferences when reading a series?

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71 Comments »

  • Patti says:

    I’m definitely a serial reader. I want to start from the first book and work up from there. And while I do appreciate the author summarizing in later books, especially if it’s a long series b/c I may have forgotten some bits, I hate when they drag out the “previously on…” bit.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      What if you discover you have to read 14 books before the current one in a series, which is getting great buzz and winning awards? Does curiosity ever make you want to just jump in and see what everyone’s talking about?

      • LolosLetters says:

        Your hypo is a rough one. Can’t say I’ve faced that decision before. Jen Forbus recently turned me on to both Craig Johnson and Louise Penny. Despite raves about the most recent, I went back to start at the beginning.

        However, Jen (who is obviously going to bankrupt me) also raved about Craig McDonald and despite having #2 Toros & Torsos, I picked up and read Print the Legend first.

        Considerations: Whether I get the feeling I’m going to like the series enough to continue. If I think it’s a sub-genre that’s not my normal fare, I may be more likely to pick up an installment later in the series.

        With Craig, it was more the fact that the concept of Print the Legend really spoke to me AND I had been told by multiple people that the Hector Lassiter series (which I HIGHLY recommend, masterful stuff, thanks Jen!) does not need to be read in order.

  • Jen Forbus says:

    I use to be obsessive about reading a series in order. Since I started blogging, though, I don’t always have the luxury of going back to start at the beginning. So, I think the best serial writers write so that they don’t have to include a bunch of back story for you to understand the present story, but if you have read the previous books you recognize characters, events, etc, and maybe get a little more out of the present book.

    I love Linda Fairstein but that’s always been an irritant with me in her earlier books. I don’t think I’ve noticed her doing it quite as much in the later books. But when I started the Alex Cooper series the first books all re-tell Alex’s story about her fiance dying. After I read it the first time, I didn’t need or want to read it several more times…and like you I just wanted to skip ahead.

    On the flip side, Robert Crais often sneaks in minor characters who played parts in earlier books. You don’t need to know they were in earlier books at all. Their roles are completely self-contained within the new book and you don’t lose anything not knowing, but you might get a chuckle or a smile or a knowing nod if you do know.

    Unless you purposely have a story arc crossing multiple books, you shouldn’t NEED backstory to understand the present story. If you have a multiple book story arc, then assume your reader is going to read them in order and don’t weigh the following stories down with repetition…if you do that each book will be a third longer just so the author can repeat info, and I also don’t want to pay extra for those pages I don’t need!

    My preference is still to read a series in order from beginning to end, but I’m no longer so obsessive about it.

  • Christine says:

    Whenever possible, I’m a serial reader. On occasion, I’ve even tried to read short stories involving the series characters in their proper order within the series. (Anal retentive, anyone? ;-) In my defense, I started that when I read a short story that had a wee spoiler for the next book in the series I hadn’t read yet.) I love reading how the characters change/grow or being able to appreciate a little inside joke that only someone who’s read the whole series would get. Like Patti said, I’ve got no problem with a little backstory as long as it isn’t dragged out. If it’s too much, then, like you, it’s “yada, yada” and skimming ahead to get back to the current story. The times I’ve been in touch with my inner “Grumpy McBitchy” (stealing that phrase, btw) has been where I’ve been introduced to a new series and I’m reading the books back-to-back; in those cases, even a little backstory repeated can get on my nerves. Much easier to accept when you’ve had a year or so between novels.

    By the by, Himself and I are green with envy yet again because you’ve already got your little hands on CHANGES! (Speaking of a series where I tried to get the short stories/novellas read in the right place.)

  • Eddy says:

    For the most part I like going in order if a new author has been recommended me by someone I trust. I came late to the Michael Connelly, Harlin Cobin, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, G.M. Ford (among others) trough, so I have read them in the order they were printed and been happy with them. On the other hand, I read Patricia Cornwell’s first two books and will probably never read another one of hers. I like Robert K. Tanenbaum’s (I mean Michael Gruber’s) Karp and Ciampi series, but I started in the middle. Had I started from the beginning, the first few books wouldn’t have kept my interest.

    I read the second book in W.E.B. Griffin’s Presidential Agent Series not knowing that there was an earlier book. Unfortunately, for no good reason, he rehashed the ENTIRE plot of the first book in great detail. I eventually read the first book, but I knew everything that happened ahead of time.

    I think that good authors writing a series can find a way to give background to new readers in a way that teases them to go back and read earlier works without spoiling it for them.

    Maybe authors should add an appendix with summaries of earlier books that new readers can reference before they start the current book, or regular readers can check out to refresh their memories.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      So, if someone you don’t really trust or know well recommends a series, you don’t feel as compelled to read in order?

      I agree that skillful writers know how to tease about past events without spoiling them for you. I don’t understand those who rehash everything. Don’t they WANT readers to go back and read the others?

  • Not important; it’s unlikely I’ll read more than one book in a series. Actually, I tend to take a dive somewhere in the middle, figuring the first couple of books were probably setting the scene for what’s to come.

  • Poncho says:

    Serial reader here, too! While I might not have a problem starting a series “late” in publication, it’s just that I’d rather start at the very beginning.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Have you ever started in the middle and regretted it?

      • LolosLetters says:

        I have a response to this. I read Alafair’s Angel’s Tip because I had been talking to her about it and it had just come out. I hadn’t yet read the first Ellie Hatcher installment. Angel’s Tip talked about a major plot point in the first book. Not Alafair’s fault, it had to be done in the context of the second book. I had every intention of going back and reading the first, but have to admit that knowing that huge fact has me delaying it. We’ll see if I ever go back and do it. In fact, am reading third installment, 212, right now.

  • Gina says:

    For me it depends on the series….there are quite a few (as you mentioned) that you simply must read in order…otherwise they make absolutely no sense. There are others that you don’t lose anything (or at least anything that you are aware of) by starting at a different point. For example, James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series, can definitely me read at any point. Also, Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series, the only one I read was book 12 or 14 (somewhere along the way) without even realizing it was that far into a series and I was perfectly content!

  • EIREGO says:

    I began the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child with One Shot. I liked it enough to go back to the first one in the series and have remained an avid follower. Child gives the reader a little more of Reacher’s history each time and though he does do a bit of recap, it is never enough to bother me. This is probably why I remain such a fan.

    The Parker series by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) is another series I am a little crazy about. As with Child, I read one and was hooked enough to pick up the rest. Each one of the Parker installments are pretty much stand alones. Except for one, which still infuriates me. I just happened to pick up Dirty Money from the library one day. I read a few pages and was hooked right away by the lean writing. I had no idea of how many rabid fans there were. The old lady at the counter who checked the book out for me almost didn’t let me take it.

    “Where did you find this?!?!”, she said.
    I felt like my 5-year old self who had once peed my pants in school.

    “Uh, over in the New section.”
    “Just make sure you return it on time. And you make sure you use a bookmark!”

    She glared at me all the way out the door. Really. I looked back and she was glaring. I think she even muttered a curse or two.

    Loved the read and immediately went back to the library to read the rest of the series. Since then I have read them all except for a few.

    But the one I still search for is Ask The Parrot. Nobody Runs Forever ends with Parker heading into the woods to evade the cops on his tail. Ask The Parrot is the story about what happens while he’s in the woods. CAN’T FIND IT ANYWHERE. I live in a city with three libraries. They each list a copy in their databases. EACH ONE HAS BEEN STOLEN!! When I ask at used book stores if they have it, they laugh at me like I just requested the Holy Grail!

    I continue to search.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I’ve tried looking for the ASK THE PARROT, too! That thing’s hard to find. Please lend if you do get your hands on it.

      I laughed at your story about the librarian being a Stark fan, especially her comment about your using a bookmark!

  • Patti O says:

    My name is Patti & I am a serial reader :) . It’s important to me to start at the beginning. I also like having a whole series to look forward to if I’ve come late to the party. But like Jen, I occasionally am sent books for review that I have to read out of order, and I can make that work :) .

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I get sent middle books for review, too. If I start at the beginning of all those series, I’d be buried. Or my reviews wouldn’t surface until 2013, after those books have gone into their 7th printing.

      BTW, where does your support group meet?

      • LolosLetters says:

        Not to take the inquiry down yet another path, but how, if at all, do you think it impacts a review if you have/have not read the entire series to date? Have you ever looked back and thought differently of a book you reviewed after reading prior installments? Maybe not answerable, but when you’ve had a shitty week and don’t feel like working, it’s worth pondering. :)

        • Pop Culture Nerd says:

          Good question. If I haven’t read the earlier books, maybe I wouldn’t be able to comment on any insider jokes, but I don’t think it’d affect my overall feelings towards the book.

          In reviews, I’m only commenting on that one book, not the entire series. If it’s a weak installment, it’s going to remain that way even if I go back and find previous ones to be stronger. Conversely, if it’s good, it’s good, even if I discover later the first few books were lame.

  • SuziQoregon says:

    I’m a real stickler for reading series in order. I also read the Sunday paper in order ;-)

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I’m impressed by your discipline. I read the Sunday paper in order of whichever sections have the catchiest headlines/prettiest pictures on the front.

      Love the name of your blog!

  • Jann says:

    I tend to find a “new” author when browsing the libray or poking around on a blog, then I read everything I can get my hands on if I enjoyed the first book. I read everything out of sequence, and it can be fun to find out the pre-story after reading about some character or incident. But then, I read magazines from the back forward, so maybe it’s my own personal character flaw.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Are you Japanese, by any chance? Kidding, but that’s what I thought of when you said you read mags back to front. It’s not a flaw; I find that interesting. Why do you do it? Do you like puzzles?

      • LolosLetters says:

        I’m going to guess left-handed. As a left-handed person, my natural inclination is to hold a book/mag in my right hand and flip with my left, which would require going from front to back. Further proof this is a right-handed world. Don’t get me started on grade school scissors.

        • Pop Culture Nerd says:

          Thanks for explaining yet another puzzle! (Well, I’m assuming you’re right about Jann.)

          I have many left-handed friends and they had a hell of a time in school with those chair/desk combos that were made for right-handed people.

          • LolosLetters says:

            Try sitting in one of those, left-handed, taking a chemistry test and thus having to juggle pencil, multi-page test, answer sheet, scratch paper and calculator. And they wonder why I’m a lawyer and not a scientist. I had no chance. Perhaps I would have cured cancer but for those d*** desks.

  • LolosLetters says:

    I’m in Christine’s camp – too anal to read things out of order, but it happens on the rare occasion. In fact, used to be an AR hoarder and wouldn’t read the most recent book til the next installment came out. You laugh, but what I wouldn’t give to have one more Spenser novel sitting on my shelf waiting.

    Altadenahiker – why do you not read more than one book in a series? Too many, too little time? Very interesting.

    As I told PCN earlier, my horrific memory means that a little backstory doesn’t bother me, so long as it’s not over-done. And if I didn’t read in order, I couldn’t really bitch about the giveaway of prior plot points if they were events that truly impacted a main character and his/her development.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I’m going to make you cry. I haven’t read any Spenser book so I have the ENTIRE series waiting for me.

      How is this possible, you ask? I guess it’s like having a really nice pair of shoes you want to save for special occasions so you keep them in their boxes. Then eight years go by and you realize you’ve never worn them. When Parker passed away recently, I told myself, “It’s time.”

  • This is a great discussion, and, as a writer with a series (and next year a standalone) one I am extremely interested in.

    The reason my publisher wanted to go for a standalone is that with a series it becomes harder and harder to gain new readers unless something fluky happens. So the thought is the standalone with widen the reach, and bring new readers to me.

    Now, looking at series from the writer’s pov, at least mine, I write each book so they can hopefully stand on their own. I seed in an info that’s needed from previous stories so new readers don’t get lost. But also there is a much larger arc that continues from book to book that people who read from the beginning will also enjoy (but will hopefully not distract from new readers jumping in on a later book.)

    As a reader, I don’t mind picking up a book in the middle of a series. If I like it, there’s a good chance I’ll go back and start at the beginning. If I don’t, no time lost.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Thanks for sharing your writer’s point of view. I actually was wondering about that. Is it difficult to determine how much information from past books to include and where to insert those recaps without impeding the flow of the current book?

      I understand your publisher’s reasoning. I discovered Ken Bruen through London Boulevard and immediately scrambled to get my hands on his Jack Taylor series.

      • It is definitely difficult to determine how much to put in. My old editor and I used to struggle with this. She was always trying to get me to putt a little more in. Finally I’ve done that with the next Quinn book (not out yet), and now that I have a new editor, he wants me to cut back on that kind of stuff! You can never win. Hahaha.

        The one thing, though, I always try to do (jury’s out on whether I’m successful or not) is to seed that stuff in where it is most appropriate, and say just enough to get the info across without impeding the action. (Boy, that sentence sounds great…now I really hope that’s what I’ve been doing all along!)

  • Donna says:

    I much prefer reading series in order if possible. Until I really got into reading mysteries, it wasn’t that big a deal. There are times I can’t wait and will read the book anyway. The anxiety level can get pretty intense. Lol! Otherwise, the library is my first choice to look for the earlier books. Ft Worth has plenty of those and there are ummmm…3 library cards in my possession. If not on the bookshelves there’s always interlibrary loans. Also retail and used bookstores. Have been known to hit quite a few in one day if desperate enough. The down side of reading in order is finding the novels. The pros? It’s like meeting a new friend/friends and learning about them. Good friendships are cherished and taking time to know them well worth it.

  • le0pard13 says:

    I’m pretty much a serial reader. Especially if a series can carry a momentum with characters and story-line (cough… Robert Crais… cough). I have been known to come in on series in the middle somewhere because of 1) availability, and 2) I have enough of an idea about it that I don’t think it has the qualities I stated above. Meaning, I’m curious about it, but know enough that I’ll get to scratch that itch (and will be done with it). Unfortunately, in those cases, I haven’t been surprised. Thanks for the post, PCN. A lot of interesting and though-provoking comments here.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Interesting. Sounds like if you value a series (or think you will), you’ll take time to treat it right by starting at the top. But if you’re only mildly curious, you’ll just read one from anywhere in the series and cast it aside. Kinda like the girl you marry and the kind you…uh, what was the question again?

      I hear your cough; see my picture.

    • Christine says:

      “I have been known to come in on series in the middle somewhere because of 1) availability…”

      I have a favorite series that I had to start in the middle because the first 3 and the 5th were not published in the U.S. Have you read any of Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox series? The first U.S. published was First Drop (actually 4th in the series). I was able to get my hands on #3 and #5 (Hard Knocks and Road Kill), but the first two, Killer Instinct and Riot Act, even in paperback, were WAY out of my price range. So, I was thrilled when I heard that BUSTED FLUSH PRESS, bless ‘em, were reissuing those 4 in the U.S., starting in May!

      So far, that’s the only series where I’ve run across problems acquiring if not published in the U.S. You ever have that issue?

  • I’m late to the party, as usual. You summed it all up for me, PCN: If I think I’m going to enjoy a series, I want to begin at the beginning. If I’m mildly curious then I’ll jump in with whatever is at hand, figuring if it turns out to be better than I expect then I can always return to the beginning.

    I only ever read past the first two Spenser books because the series was so popular. I’ve read The Godwulf Manuscript twice and I still don’t get how anyone thought that was going to be the springboard for a great series. Just shows what I (don’t) know. But once past those first two books, Parker hit his stride, and I’m glad I kept reading.

    Something I’d like to know: Do you ever get into a series and then, maybe at book 7 or 15 or whatever, just say you’re done with it? Either the author is offering nothing new or has written a book so out of whack with everything that went before that you just can’t face reading more?

    • Christine says:

      Other than a few abridged audiobooks on road trips years ago, I have yet to read a Spenser novel myself. I enjoyed them, but just never got around to reading the series. I’m interested in his Everett Hitch/Virgil Cole western series which starts with Appaloosa. Have you read those?

      If it’s a series I really like that starts faltering, I’m more likely to, for lack of a better phrase, phase-out. By that I mean, that when the next book is published, I’d still probably buy it; but if it still seemed to be not up-to-par, then the next book I’d wait to check it out of the library. If it still isn’t doing it for me after that, probably drop it but keep tabs on reviews.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      That has happened to me a couple times, with Janet Evanovich’s and Sue Grafton’s series. I thought the first few (3 or 4) Stephanie Plum books were hilarious. Then around book 5 or 6, I got tired of her never evolving, making the same boneheaded mistakes over and over.

      With the Kinsey Millhone series, I loved books A-C. I read them over 20 years ago and still remember the impact they had on me. But somewhere around P or Q, the cases weren’t as compelling and, if I remember correctly, there was one that just ended without the case being solved at all. I skipped a few installments after that but then last year, I picked up U is for Undertow (old habits die hard) and really enjoyed it. The quality of the writing had returned to what I loved about A-C so I’ll probably read V, too, but won’t go back and read the ones I skipped.

      • Christine says:

        “I got tired of her never evolving, making the same boneheaded mistakes over and over.”

        I would definitely dissuade anyone from reading that series back-to-back precisely for that reason. Evanovich’s Plum series is one I would categorize as a guilty pleasure. But as frustrating as they can be, I will continue to read them, with the year or so in-between to publish, because at least once I laugh until I cry.

        By the by, I once read a comment I thought hilarious re: the Ranger-Stephanie-Morelli triangle. In response to someone lamenting that Stephanie needs to choose, one person suggested that Ranger and Morelli walk up to Stephanie and say, “Screw you, Cupcake, we’re going gay” and walk off holding hands.

        • Pop Culture Nerd says:

          Haha! That should teach her! Her indecision about those 2 guys is another thing that drove me crazy. I doubt they’d still be hanging around waiting for her to make up her mind; they’d be long gone.

  • Wow, this is a popular topic, PCN!! It’s a while since I’ve read a series {not counting the Millenium trilogy which I’m just starting and obviously with the first!}. Hypothetically speaking, I would prefer to start at the beginning but I could look myself in the mirror if I had to leap in part-way through. If that was the case, I suspect that unless something really intriguing from an earlier book was referred to and made me curious, I’d be inclined to continue on in chronological order from there and skip the predecessors altogether ~ or just go back to them once caught up to wherever the series currently ended {assuming my PCN Recommended Reading List had actually been reduced to zero by then!}

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I’m like you, Shell. If I start in the middle and the book doesn’t reference anything interesting from previous ones, I’ll probably keep moving forward from there unless there are no more new installments.

      I’ll check in on your progress with Tattoo so we can discuss!

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