One of the things I love about writing is that I constantly discover new challenges and learn new things, about writing as well about myself. I've encountered a new phenomenon this week as I progress through the first draft of the second book in a series starring the same central characters. The challenges of maintaining the story arc across all the books while at the same time creating individual books that can be read on their own is greater than I anticipated. Actually, let's be completely honest--I didn't think about these matters at all until I had to deal with them. And that's one of the reasons writing is such a joy.
One of the issues that I am encountering as I write what is essentially chapter two in what I hope will be one huge story about Harry and Dee Shalan is that I have to plan for the fact that someone may pick up any book in the series and read it without benefit of reading the series from the beginning. So I have to do a certain amount of explication and character development in every book. That's not to say I have to create the exact same character; like we in the meat world, to borrow a phrase from the online realm, change and grow, my characters are different in every book because they've encountered new things, learned, grown, or, in some cases, regressed in some way. But I can't leave out vital information that lets the reader know, for instance, the characters' histories that give them depth and reality.
At the same time, though, I have to consider the fact that, like me, many readers insist on reading series fiction in the correct order. I can't have so much background and characterization that readers of previous books get bored hearing the same stories over and over. So I'm having to learn shortcuts to get new readers up to speed quickly without belaboring material that "veteran" readers will want to skip. I toss in a line or paragraph here and there that briefly sums up an event that someone who has read the previous books will recognize while giving the basic information the new reader needs to fully understand where Harry and Dee (and Harry's best friend Otis as well) come from. I know as an avid fan of both Robert B. Parker and Craig Johnson, I enjoy the little Easter eggs, so to speak, from previous books that are only fully understood by those who've read those earlier works. They're like inside jokes that I feel like the writer and I share without making other readers feel like they've missed something.
Another challenge is illustrated by a commercial I saw last night. It was for a travel website. I won't say which one, but it starred William Shatner and Kaley Cuoco. In it, Shatner has climbed up the outside of a hotel and used a laser to cut a hole in a window. He throws his daughter's gentleman friend out the hole (he lands in a pool so no one gets splattered). The problem is that when they cut back to Shatner, his little suction cup thingies he had used to climb up the building are now on the INSIDE of the window instead of the outside. Now when I see that commercial, all I notice is that lack of continuity. The beauty, I imagine, of writing books that are completely stand-alone, is that I wouldn't have to worry about whether something in this book fits with the mythology I've created in previous works. I can't decide in the eighth book that Harry was an orphan when his parents have been central characters up to then. That's kind of a silly example, but people like me who are driven crazy by tiny continuity issues in other media are the same way with books. Serious fans will be turned off by mistakes like these.
I'm sure there are other challenges I'll encounter along the way, but I fear this entry has gone on too long already. If you have made it to this point and are a writer of a series, I'd love to hear your input. What challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome them? If you're a reader of series fiction, what have you seen that you think is important for an author to either emphasize or avoid? I'd love to hear from you too.