Sunday, 20 November 2016

Serial Offender


As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and score 83+ reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, Death & Dominion which came out last October. Rack & Ruin is the fourth outing for Stride & Cully and  I am currently putting the final touches to a fifth book.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out''; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The *Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

I have never got further than book 5 (and Usborne turned it down) so I cannot speak from experience, but I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat readalike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst, (bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought!)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ...

* These books will be re-published in 2017 by Accent Press

So what's your experience: Do you prefer a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts ....

22 comments:

  1. I've read three of yours, Carol, loved them all, and am now looking forward to the fourth. When it comes to crime fiction, this is not unusual for me as I love 'getting to know' the main characters, and following their progress and lives. However, with other genres, I rarely read more than three of a series. I don't know why, but three is enough, and yes, there's often that issue of what is or isn't plausible. I remember reading the Diana Gabaldon Outlander books and thinking that by the end of book 3, she'd already stretched my belief system to breaking point, even allowing for the fantasy element of time travel, so I stopped there. I've never tried to write a full series and am full of admiration for you and those who do.

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    1. THanks!!! It is a totally different way of writing...and I now have to say, having done 2, that it IS a lot easier to get 'noticed' if you can link all the titles

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  2. "you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one" Yes - this! Thanks for a very informative piece Carol. I'm currently on Book 2, but fortunately with clear ideas about where Book 3 is going. Book 4 is going to be a tough one for me - maybe it will end up as a trilogy...

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    1. Mind, as I said, they do tend to take over! I think if you have a broad setting...so you can move characters around & it doesn't become like Midsummer Murders. I've focused on some backstories for book 5.

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    2. Yes, that's what I plan for Book 3, and the action moves abroad as well. Agree Midsomer murders is to be avoided. Also some authors write so many in a series that the sheer number of things which have happened to the characters becomes implausible. I'm thinking Patricia Cornwell and to a lesser extent Lee Child with Jack Reacher.

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    3. OH has just discovered Lee Childs..I wonder if it matters so much with these sort of thrillers, as they are ( IMO) written more for a male audience ...so the intricacies of characterization may not be so important, compared to the fast-paced action....

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  3. I love a good series - and only if they're good. I've read a few second books and wouldn't dream of starting the third. While there are others that leave me longing for the next one.

    Not sure what that shows ... as for writing them, I seem to have written a travel book or two, using the same structure each time, But that's very different from a novel. I've not recovered from the first one yet, so you'll have to ask me in a few months what I'm doing next!

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  4. I gave up on Harry Potter half way through Book 5, but I have no intention of doing that with your books, Carol, as I enjoy them so much more!

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    1. That's really kind of you¬ And Harry POtter are aimed at 8 year olds....so no prob giving up!

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  5. There is the series from Lindsey Davis about the Roman PI Marcus Didius Falco. 20 volumes and an offspring. There are fantastic ones, good ones and not so good ones. But it looks feasible. Falco isn't living longer than any other human being. Which equals? 20 Stride and Cully novels are possible

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  6. And there are more. Donna Leon, Commissario Brunetti in Venice more than 20 books (even as films by German TV don't know how many, but a lot of 'em) (books don't exist in Italian, authors request). Estelle Ryan, books with Genevieve Leonard, editing no 10 at the moment. So...

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    1. Donna Leon is one of the 'should have stopped' writers! OH loved the first 10, now they are repetitive, he says.

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  7. Question of taste. But I could recommend Estelle Ryan. If you (OH in this case) like "strange" characters

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  8. I wrote a four book crime series. I think a lot of series become dull because the writer is thinking, 'Oh I can't do that...' because what on earth do I do with the consequences of that further down the line. So sometimes the characters seem to atrophy. Used to read a great many series but haven't read any in a very long time because they can feel a bit as if the writer is treading water.

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    1. I do think a lot of pressure comes from publishers....series are BIG sellers...or books that have the same main protagonist

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  9. Bad call by your agent! You are a marvelous writer and none of yours have fallen short from the first! Way to go! I've done 6 Texas Miz Mike for the "Bridge" series and have a 7th ready to go...but I will probably stop there. I think it must be limited mileage after 7! Looking forward to your new one. You are simply fab!

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    1. YOU are so nice ~ many thanks. Seven books is VERY impressive!

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  10. I'm writing a series. It was a complete accident. I had a stand alone novel (or so I thought), and then there were other characters who had stories waiting. So, here we are. I'm constantly hovering over my own timeline, to make sure I don't create a mess from one novel to the next, though!
    Thank you for this post. And, ha! to Stephanie Plum. ;)

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  11. Jaye is just finishing the third book in her trilogy, and says it was the hardest on to write. She also says she has no intention of writing book four.
    She said that about two and three, so we'll have to see...

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  12. I love a series, seeing the characters develop and reconnecting with them. It’s like meeting old friends and I’m always sorry when they come to an end. I can’t believe your first book was rejected, Carol. It was like a breath of fresh air, different and so enjoyable.

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    1. Thank you, Cathy. It was. Twice. I still have the email....though not the agent who sent it!

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