Present Tense

I haven’t written a sequel yet.  I know that I will do it one day, and I’m not against sequels in general.  I also know I have no particular fondness for sequels in and of themselves.  It’s apparently just not hard-wired into me to yearn for them.  While I loved Pacific Rim, I walked out of the theater perfectly content if that was the one and only story to told in that universe.  My absolute favorite film is The Incredibles, and I’ve never been eager for a sequel to that either.  I don’t know why I’m like that.  I know it’s a unique attitude to have, especially in this day and age when everything is viewed as a potential franchise or series, and I even get why creators like doing it, why publishers find it worthwhile, and why the audience gets excited about it.

But not me.

This definitely makes me the outsider on this topic.  Logically, I have nothing against sequels or series.  Creating something original is hard, and asking the audience to get excited about something original is even harder.  It’s easier to build on something that already exists, both as a creator and as a product to sell, and that’s just a fact.  It’s never easy to tell a good story, and series and sequels are a good jumping off point.  Also, there’s no denying that a continuing universe can become richer and more detailed as more stories are told in it.  That’s an advantage a standalone story doesn’t have.  Star Wars is so popular precisely because it is a universe in itself with so many characters and ideas and tales floating around that you can immerse yourself into it.  And when it works, it works marvelously.

I get the power of series.  I do.  But there’s also the downside that rarely gets talked about.

What happens when a series is used up and continues to shamble along like a zombie, feeding on nostalgia and the audience’s good graces rather than justifying itself with a good story and worthy characters?  What happens when the sequels and the spinoffs and the reboots all merely end up diluting what is great, leaving us with what is okay?

As much as I loved Pacific Rim, I’m not eager to see it transform into a franchise because that leads down a dangerous path.  Star Trek and Star Wars have become accidental parodies of themselves.  As has the Die Hard series.  I don’t find their newest incarnations bad.  I just find them well short of the masterpieces that spawned them.  Part of this is just the law of averages.  A great story is difficult to create.  Even the greatest creators don’t always produce great stories.  And so it is that any string of sequels is probably not going to capture the wonder and beauty of an original work.  It’s not exactly a criticism.  More like a fact.

In my once beloved medium / genre of comic book superheroes, there are a few masterpieces, a lot of great stories, a lot more okay ones, and more than a few bad ones.  Thor remains one of my favorite superheroes, but more from a fondness for those stories of his I’ve loved in the past than for the stories being told now.  Of course, a big part of that is just changing times.  Stories I loved as a kid wouldn’t really fit with modern comic book aesthetics and sensibilities, and I’m okay with that.  That’s just the byproduct of creator, cultural, and medium changes.  And, yes, even changes in myself.

But, really, my dislike of sequels has little to do with their tendency toward declining quality and a heck of a lot more to do with the attitudes of the modern day audience toward them.  It seems as if the audience has been conditioned to not only expect sequels, but to demand them.  It’s to the point where the talk of sequels starts before the story is even told, and I think we’re definitely poorer for that.

There is something unsettling to me about a culture that isn’t invested in its present, that sees its stories as setups to other stories in the future rather than something to be enjoyed now.  I don’t remember anyone walking out of the original Star Wars, wondering what the sequel would be about.  At the time, you paid your money, went to the movies, and enjoyed yourself.  Some of my favorite novels have been standalone tales.  Indeed, much as we seem to have forgotten it, some stories work best as standalone tales.  Some universes weren’t meant to be explored further.  Some characters aren’t interesting enough to carry an ongoing series.

Even this though is beside the point.  I like good stories, and if they happen to be original or sequels should be largely irrelevant.  I liked Hellboy quite a lot, but disliked Hellboy 2 almost as much.  And while some of that was a loss of the charm and some inconsistencies between the films, a lot of it was also the fact that Hellboy 2 just isn’t a very good movie, story wise, regardless of anything else.  So it is that a good Pacific Rim sequel would always be welcome in my world, but I can no more get excited about the prospect of a bad one than I can convince myself that The Phantom Menace is in any way a good film.

Like a lot of media in the information age, we seem to have become slaves to our every indulgence.  We binge on TV shows and books, devouring them eagerly and expecting to be given a steady stream of our favorites.  Meanwhile, we don’t enjoy what we have because we’re so busy thinking about what we’ll get tomorrow.

One of the reasons I write standalone novels is because I love that you can enjoy one of my books in the present.  Because it isn’t a sequel (yet), and it isn’t setting the groundwork for a series (yet), you can actually sit down and experience it for what it is.  A good story (I hope) told well.  You can partake of the story with an absolute freedom that only a standalone story allows, and rather than getting stuck pondering how it fits in with previous narratives or anticipating what it might mean to future tales, you’re experiencing a story in the now.

That’s something worthwhile.  It’s a powerful thing, and it is important.  It only grows in importance as it increasingly becomes more rare.  I don’t doubt that, unless something radical happens, I’ll have to switch to writing a series of some sort someday.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Series offer a lot of great things, and if that’s what the audience wants, I can give it to them.

But while I can offer an alternative, I will.  Life is too short to be living in the past or permanently gazing into the future.  Sometimes, you just have to stop and enjoy the moment.

And that’s what an A. Lee Martinez novel is all about.  That, and laser pterodactyls.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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4 Comments

  1. mike c.
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    If you ever give in and start writing a series, please pepper in a few stand alone novels too. Series are fun to read, and it is enjoyable to revisit favorite characters and places, but reading something unique is a pleasure not to be missed.

  2. John
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    The problem (if you could really call it that) is that you create such interesting worlds that it seems like a waste to discard them at the end of a single story. Not all are like that, but there are several that I would enjoy spending some time in exploring further.

    So for me, the anticipation is starting to build for your Kickstarter book of short stories from your various worlds. Just like Helen and Troy… I pre-ordered it, sight unseen, and can’t wait…

  3. Posted July 31, 2013 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Gotta say, Lee, one of the things that initially drew me to your writing was the fact that you don’t make everything part of a series, or a “saga” or a “cycle” or what have you. Don’t get me wrong, I like some series, but the draw to make everything sequel-fodder has created a monster I don’t think we know how to kill. Movies are setup for other movies. 1,000 page books are mere setup for the next six or seven to follow. Comics are written for the trade, so you have to read six issues before anything happens. It’s a problem.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote short novels with beginnings, middles, and endings, and while they were extremely easy to read, they were far denser than most of what we have now. Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison could write a single book and fill it to the brim with awesomeness. It can be done, and I think we as readers are richer for it. Telling a story in a single book also forces the author to say everything they have on a single subject, which keeps the message intact, and perhaps prevents it from being tainted with time.

    Hence, I am glad you stick to your guns and create new worlds every time. That said, if you ever do get around to a sequel, I won’t say it’s a bad thing. I imagine if you did so, it would be for the right reasons, and you’d have another truly worthwhile tale to tell.

  4. Posted August 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve written series and I’ve written standalone novels. I don’t really go into it saying “This is going to have 7 sequels!” or “This will never have a sequel!” If you’re just thinking artistically and not worrying about money (as I do because I hardly make any money from my writing, thus I have the luxury of concerning myself with the art) the benefit of a sequel is you can explore the character deeper.

    For example, in the first of my Tales of the Scarlet Knight books, Emma, the main character, is 19, an orphan with no boyfriend. By the last book she’s almost 30, has 2 daughters (one biological and one adopted), and a steady boyfriend. There’s no way I could have charted all that growth in just one book unless it were 2,000 pages or so. That’s the benefit of a sequel.

    The problem is so many sequels, especially movies, do it wrong and instead of worrying about growing characters just throw more stuff on the screen–more explosions, more elaborate fight scenes, more secondary characters, etc. Those are the kind of sequels where at best you say, “That was fun, but what was the point?” And there really is no point except to make money.

    By contrast my literary masterpiece “Where You Belong” will probably never have a sequel. Someone suggested I do one but I have no idea what it would entail. The book already follows the main character from birth until he’s almost 40, so there doesn’t seem like much of a point to a sequel except to show him get old and die.

    So I guess the point is that if you can develop the character as much as you want in one story then you only need one. But sometimes you can’t and a sequel can be beneficial.

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