Friday, 27 January 2017

Temporality and passage of time in serial fiction

I’ve been binge watching Star Trek: Enterprise lately. I didn’t see it when it aired in 2001-2005, but thanks to the streaming services, I’ve been able to indulge. For those who aren’t familiar with the series, it’s set a hundred years before the adventures of the original series with Captain Kirk and his fellows, and follows the crew of the first starship Enterprise. I’ve always been a Star Trek fan and I’ve liked it in all its incarnations, but Enterprise might be my favourite. There are many reasons for my preference, but what sets it apart from other series is how it allows the passage of time to show.

Scott Bacula as Captain Archer, and his crew.

Many episodic TV series, regardless of the genre, are curiously atemporal. Passage of time is only implied to, maybe with the compulsory Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day episodes, or if the series is set in the school world, with the start and end of the term; if it’s a long-running series, the students move from one grade to the next from season to season. Other than that, the episodes are fairly self-contained, and even if a story arc spans several episodes, its events seldom affect the following episodes or are barely referred to in them. There are almost never any references to events in the previous seasons.

Star Trek series arent an exception. Every episode opens with a star date, but unless you’re keeping tabs, it’s difficult to know how long has passed between the episodes. Each episode is a self-contained story and whatever happens in it – injuries or lessons learned – is forgotten by the next episode. And since they dont even have the compulsory Christmas episodes, the passage of time disappears almost completely. The only indication of it is the child characters growing up, and even that is often downplayed. Children may grow, but adults don’t seem to age, even if the actors do. The viewer is given windows to the life on a spaceship or station, but the overall illusion is that those places only come to life when the viewer is there. Relationships spring to life only when there is audience, with the curious notion that nothing happens to it when no one is watching.

Enterprise is different. From the first episode on, the passage of time is evident. Star dates haven’t been invented yet, and it’s easier to keep tabs on the chronology when it’s expressed in days, months and years. The passage of time is part of the narrative. If a character injures him or herself in one episode, they’re not miraculously cured by the next, or at least some mention of it is made in later episodes. If the Enterprise has a technical malfunction, it may continue in the next episode too regardless of the story arc. Events of the first season affect, and are returned to, the following seasons, and they play crucial role throughout the series. Relationships come to life, grow and die their natural courses throughout the series. All of this creates an illusion of lives lived even when the viewer isn’t there to witness it.

The first Enterprise

Time is actually the driving force of the narrative. From the first episode on, references are made to a Temporal Cold War that the agents from the future wage in the past. Enterprise and its crew are forced to be a part of this war, with some interesting story arcs. The entire season three is one continuous story about the time war. And when disturbances in time take place, entire timelines change. All of this forces the narrative to pay attention to the chronology in the lives of the characters too. The end result is an enjoyable series with characters that the viewer can grow up with and get attached to.

(As a disclaimer, I haven’t seen the last episode yet, which I’ve been given to understand is appalling. I hope it won’t ruin my experience of the entire series.)

There has been a boom in recent years of series with continuing story lines, which to me indicates that the viewers want that kind of experience, but episodic series are still the stable of any network. Why else would we have three different versions of CSI or NCIS, to mention just two. Police procedural and crime series are often those most marked by their opaque passage of time. The case and solving it is what matters. Within an individual episode, time can be crucial – and often is – but between episodes, it’s only referred to in passing. When it comes to TV entertainment, it kind of works. I seldom miss the references to time, and only notice its absence when treated to a different kind of experience, like with the Enterprise.

I haven't followed this, but it too has Scott Bacula in it.

Similar tendency to atemporality can be seen in books also, especially in serialised genre fiction. Most notable this is in crime fiction and for the same reason than on TV too: the case matters, not the lives outside it. Once the case is closed, it’s not returned to, and it has no effect on the events in the subsequent books.

But what works well for TV series, doesn’t necessarily work for books. A book is a commitment; we devote time and attention to a book, and the longer the series, the more we want in return for our commitment. If nothing ever changes in the lives of the characters, if nothing changes the characters, we get disappointed. If the author hints of developments in the characters’ personal lives and then doesn’t deliver, we feel let down. The worst are the books where exciting changes take place, only to be forgotten in the next book. My current pet peeve is Stephanie Plum series, which I continue to read in the hopes that it reaches some sort of conclusion despite the evidence to contrary.

There is, of course, a good reason to write a series that is set a bit outside of time. One is the longevity of the series. If the main characters never grow old, the series can continue forever. Also, it’s easier for new readers to pick up a book in the middle of the series and start reading without the worry of missing out on something important. Both help with the popularity of the series.

Harry Dresden

Nevertheless, my personal favourites are series that manage to combine the case by case stories with a continuous plot or developments in the main characters’ lives. I think the best examples come from urban fantasy. UF series often have a plot that spans the entire length of the series with a case-based plot for each individual book. My all-time favourite is, of course, Harry Dresden series that has managed to progress rather far from where it began in the course of fifteen books (though I haven’t given up hope that there will be more).

I’ve tried to keep the passage of time in mind in my own writing too. My Two-Natured London series has an underlying – and slow-moving – plot even though each book has a self-contained love story. And my new series, Tracy Hayes, P.I., will put an equal emphasis on Tracy’s private life and her cases. I want my character to grow as the series progress and be a different person by the time it ends. It also means that I have to write with the end in mind. It limits the span of the series, but I think that’s a good thing. It’ll keep things fresh.

What do you think? Do you prefer your series atemporal or set in time?


In news: Tracy Hayes 2, P.I. and Proud is now out. You can find it here. And the first book in the Two-Natured London series if finally free on Amazon too, having been free for years on other platforms. You can download it here.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Cover design for self-publishers: series

I’ve been making my own book covers ever since I started publishing in 2012, partly because I can’t afford professionally designed covers and partly because I really enjoy making them. My first covers weren’t very good, but I’ve made an effort to learn and improve my skills. I’ve learned a lot about techniques, visual effects, colours and fonts. One thing I’ve learned is that individual covers are different to make than the covers of series. You have to take into consideration the cover visuals from the first book on to make the readers immediately see that the books belong together. Not always easy for amateur designers, however enthusiastic. So what to do?

1. Use of fonts

The simplest solution is to use the same fonts on every cover; author name with one kind of font, the title with another, and so on. Even if you’re not writing a series, you can opt to use the same font for your name in all your books as a sort of a calling card. If possible, you can also use the same layout for all the covers – place the texts in the same places on all covers – to create a continuous look.

2. Use of colours

Another good way to tie the covers together is to use one or two signature colours on each cover. That can include the fonts or there can be a visual element on each cover that repeats a certain colour. Most stock photo sites have an option to search for a colour, but if this doesn’t yield results, you can try your design skills by adding the colour yourself. The simplest way is to add a transparent colour layer over the stock photo. (You need software that uses layers for that. GIMP is free and fairly easy to use.) Or, you can use the same photo and change the colour layer for a new look – the opposite of a signature colour.

And of course, you can use the combination of colours and fonts to create a uniform look for your series.

Same photo with a different colour, and same fonts and layout.

3. Themes

It’s not always easy to find photos that look reasonably similar to create a uniform look. So choose a theme that repeats throughout the series. Maybe each book can have a photo of a bare-chested man, if you’re writing that kind of series. Those are easy enough to find, even if you haven’t planned the theme ahead. The simpler the theme, the easier it is to repeat cover after a cover. Add to that the fonts and/or signature colour, and you can have a uniform look for the covers.

With my Two-Natured London series, I decided that each book should have a moon and a man – with a shirt on. Since they don’t usually occur in the same photo, this has required quite a lot of work on both finding suitable backgrounds and men, and then fitting them together. I also have the same fonts and layout on each cover.

Covers for Two-Natured London series.

4. Photo series

Most stock photo sites have photo series with either the same model or a theme, or both. If you know you’re going to write a series, you can check these photo series already before you design the first cover. Downside is that it’s not as easy to find photos that exactly match your series, but you can occasionally get lucky.

An example of a photo series: same girl in different settings. Create your own look.

5. Planning ahead

The easiest way to have a uniform look for your series is to plan the covers ahead even before publishing the first book. Or if you’ve already published one or two books, you can redesign the covers to match the rest. Choose one or two elements that you repeat a book after a book and elements that change so that the reader knows with a glance that it’s a different book in the same series.

For my new series, Tracy Hayes, P.I., I wanted to repeat an idea I saw in a poster: a silhouette of a human and a city skyline on a single colour background. Since the books are set in Brooklyn, I naturally wanted a Brooklyn skyline, which took some searching to find. The silhouette of a woman was easier to find, but selecting the one that fit the genre the best took some time. From the start, I decided to change the background colour with each book, as well as the font colours to fit the background, though the fonts remain the same. The girl changes a little too. Each book also has one element that reflects the contents. The first one has a little dog, the second an outline of a body.

I only have two covers ready, but already I can tell that designing the rest is much easier than if I had to start from the scratch with each of them. What do you think?

Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I.

Tracy Hayes, P.I. and Proud

The first book, Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I. is already published and you can find it here. The second book, Tracy Hayes, P.I. and Proud, will come out in January 26th. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Reading resolutions (and resolute reading)

It’s a new year and time for a new reading challenge. I’ve participated in the challenge on Goodreads for four years in a row now, and each year I’ve added to the number of books I’ve read. Last year I read sixty books, though I’d originally pledged to read fifty-five. To be on the safe side, I kept it to fifty-five this year too. I usually pick my reading based on how I feel, and it seems I’ve felt like reading quite a lot of urban fantasy and fantasy last year. You can check out here what I read last year.

This year, I decided to be more organised about my reading. So I made a list. I never make them, or if I do I don’t follow them, but a list of books to read has to be easy to stick to. Especially since I didn’t make any difficult promises, like reading classics in their original language.

My list has fifty-six books at the moment, so there’s some room for changes.  And it seems I’ll be reading a lot of urban fantasy (27) and fantasy (22) this year too, and quite a lot of it from authors I’ve read before. There are measly four sci-fi books and three crime books on my list. And oddest of all, I haven’t added a single romance, whether historical or contemporary. But there’s some wiggling room, so maybe I’ll re-read my favourite Georgette Heyer books.

I can’t help my bias – or favouritism. There are really good books coming out this year from my favourite authors, like the last book in Robin Hobb’s Fitz and Fool trilogy, Assassin’s Fate (May 5th), the latest Cassie Palmer book, Ride the Storm (August 1st) (the previous book came out ages ago), The Chosen, a new Black Dagger Brotherhood book (April 4th), and many more.

I did try to liven it up. I added a bunch of new authors, both traditionally and self-published, based on Amazon recommendations. That’s how the list got books like Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennet, and Demon Moon by Brad Magnarella.

There are also a couple of books I’ve meant to read, but haven’t had time, like Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets, which ends the excellent Skyscraper Throne trilogy. It came out ages ago and has been sitting on my shelf ever since. Also a couple of second and third books in series I’ve started but haven’t been so excited about that I’d immediately read them all, like Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, the second book in his Craft Sequence series.

All in all, I’m happy with my list. I’ll add it here in full, so you can check it up for your favourites. Recommendations are always welcome. If you like to know how I’m doing with it, my Goodreads Reading Challenge is here.

In other news, Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I., the first book in my new funny and fast-paced detective series, is out. You can find it on Amazon, iTunes and B&N, among others. Take a look.

Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I. by Susanna Shore

My Reading List for 2017

Ben Aaronovitch: The Hanging Tree (Peter Grant 6)
Patricia Briggs: Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega)
                     Fire Touched (Mercy Thompson)
                     Silence Fallen (Mercy Thompson) (March 7)
Gail Carriger: Romancing the Inventor
                  Romancing the Werewolf
Karen Chance: Dragons Claw (Dorina Barabas novella)
                    Lovers Knot (Dorina Barabas novella)
                    Ride the Storm (Cassie Palmer) (August 1)
Darynda Jones: Eleventh Grave in the Moonlight (Charley Davidson) (January 24)
                     For I have Sinned (Charley Davidson novella)
Laurell K. Hamilton: Crimson Death
Benedict Jacka: Taken (Alex Verus 3)
                      Chosen (Alex Verus 4)
Stacia Kane: Made for Sin
Katie MacAlister: Dragon Unbound
Brad Magnarella: Demon Moon (Prof Croft Book 1)
Karen Marie Moning: Feverborn
                            Feversong (January 17)
Tom Pollock: Our Lady of the Streets (The Skyscraper Throne 3)
Diana Rowland: Vengeance of the Demon (Karen Gillian 7)
                      Legacy of the Demon (Karen Gillian 8)
                      White Trash Zombie Gone Wild
                      White Trash Zombie Unchained (June 6)
Nalini Singh: Silver Silence (Psy-Changeling Trinity) (June 15)
J.R. Ward: The Chosen (Black Dagger Brotherhood) (April 4)
Jaye Wells: Meridian Six

Rachel Aaron: No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished (Heartstrikers 3)
C.J. Archer: The Watchmakers Daughter (Glass and Steele Book 1)
Victoria Aveyard: Kings Cage (Red Queen 3) (February 9)
Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows
Robert Jackson Bennet: City of Stairs
Aliette de Bodard: The House of Binding Thorns (A Dominion of the Fallen 2) (April 6)
                         In Morningstars Shadow: Dominion of the Fallen Stories
Amanda Bouchet: A Promise of Fire
Trudi Canavan: Successors Promise (Millenniums Rule 3) (September 19)
Genevieve Cogman: The Burning Page (The Invisible Library 3)
Paul Durham: Fork-Tongue Charmers (The Luck Uglies 2)
Max Gladstone: Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence 2)
                      Full Fathom Five (Craft Sequence 3)
Robin Hobb: Assassins Fate (Fitz and the Fool Trilogy 3) (May 9)
Bec McMaster: Mission: Improper (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy Book 1)
China Mièville: Last Days of New Paris
Daniel Polansky: Those Above (The Empty Throne 1)
                      Those Below (The Empty Throne 2)
V.A. Schwab: A Gathering of Shadows
                   A Conjuring of Light (February 21)
Maria Snyder: Dawn Study (January 31)
                   Scent of Magic (Healer Book 2)
                   Taste of Darkness (Healer Book 3)

M. R. Carey: The Girl with All the Gifts
Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Kameron Hurley: Stars are a Legion
Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Janet Evanovich: Curious Minds
                        The Scam
                        Turbo Twenty-three