Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Hit Book Series - Is the World Your Oyster or are you Pigeon-holed?

I just read this article about Jeff Kinney and his musings on life and writing with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise going stronger than ever. He describes the surreal moment of seeing his main character Greg Heffley as a giant helium balloon floating over him in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and he mused

"That was a real moment of joy, along with a feeling of ‘It can’t possibly get any bigger than this.’"

He's working on the sixth Wimpy Kid book now, which by any stretch of the imagination is a wonderful, every-writer-wants-this-kind-of-success, story. And yet, Mr. Kinney said he'd also like to write a non-Greg sitcome and feature film. "“I don’t want Wimpy Kid to be my one thing.”

Which brings up an interesting question: Does a mega successful series mean it will be harder or easier to do something else? Will you be pigeon-holed for life? And always found wanting?

Of course not, you say. There are many examples of writers writing other things beyond their successful series or novels. But what are the odds that the next thing you write would be just as successful as that hit series? The expectations from readers are huge. Writing that Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games or, the mother of all hit series, Harry Potter, is like catching lightning in a bottle - so rare, so once in a lifetime, that writing two hit book series is a rare, rare beast. But who cares, you say? That author got five, six or seven books out of this lightning. Years of being a successful writer. Mega bucks. Mega fame. Complete nirvana. And yet…

Would that kind of fame and success be stifling creatively? I mean we all know what happened to Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) right? And that was just one book that did it to her. Having a series success, a series success that builds with each book mind you, that has to be even more stifling and stress-inducing. You've spent years only writing about these characters, this one world, questions must enter the authors mind when the series is over like: Will I ever be able to write another story? Will it ever be as big as the one before? Will anyone accept another character's world as they did the first one?

I know how hard it is to emerge from even one story and then start another so I can't imagine spending YEARS writing about the same characters and then, all of a sudden, switching to completely different ones. The worry about repeating things/character types because they've become so ingrained in your writing repertoire must always be lurking at the back of the author's mind. I know the last time I read an interview with J.K. Rowling she was writing an adult crime/mystery novel I think. Maybe the answer is to go off with a completely different genre like she's doing and keep challenging yourself as an artist by trying new and different things. But I haven't heard anything about a new J.K. Rowling book coming out. And Stephanie Myers seems to have become a recluse. Hmmm.

I guess what's important to remember is, as Mr. Kinney said, as long as what you wrote before doesn't become your 'one' thing, you can appreciate that success and try not to let it defeat you, then keep creating more 'things'. And maybe keep your perspective by not expecting the next thing to be a big thing.

What do you think? Would writing a hit series be the be and end all for you? Or just the end?


  1. As cool as it would be for so many people to love characters I created, I'm not sure I'd want that kind of success. In a way, I do feel they are pigeon-holed. Of course, as a writer, I'd like to find success but with the freedom to write about a different character. I know that A.A. Milne didn't like the fact that he was known for Winne the Pooh and no one would take his adult writing seriously. It does happen. And I think it's extremely hard to top something so famous.

  2. I can't speak from personal experience on this, but I hope to someday. ;) If I could choose my ideal career path, it would be to write several more books in the light urban fantasy series I'm working on (Tor bought the first two), while simultaneously branching out into other genres (romance, mystery, suspense). If an author's name gets too "branded" by a popular series (yeah, I know -- I should have such a problem), s/he can always publish other things under another name.

  3. Hi Laura: It's like that 'be careful what you wish for' warning. With every success comes its own sets of worries and problems, I guess.

    Hi Linda: You're right - there's always the possibility of using another name. But I wonder if a Jeff Kinney or a J.K. Rowling could get away with using another name by the publisher? I'm sure they'd want the world to know J.K. had another book series ready to go so even if she called herself Jane Doe it would be "J.k. Rowling writing as Jane Doe" on the promotion!

  4. I think you should just be proud to have written something so successful and well-liked. A lot of highly-lauded writers are mostly known for one or two of their books, it's not unusual.

    As Joseph Heller said when people opined he'd never written anything as good as Catch 22 again: "Who has?" :D

    I don't think any writer can expect all their books to be successful - some are bound to be more well-received than others. So if I wrote a series of, say 5 books that were bestsellers, well, I'd be happy. Five great books is a lot more than many people manage.