Saturday, 16 September 2017

Watch out: Serial Killer at Large!


Yesterday (Friday ~ adjust to whenever you are reading this), the other Grumpy Old Sod and I had our letters from Cambridge University confirming that they will take our bodies (post mortem) for students to cut up, thus saving You Must Be Mad around £16k jointly in funeral expenses, and helping youthful medics to appreciate that age is no barrier to being useful. Plus it's the nearest to Cambridge Uni that we'll ever get. All of which has no connection whatsoever with what follows.

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 90+ reviews on Amazon, has now developed 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, and Death & Dominion,, which came out in October 2015. Rack & Ruin, the fourth outing for Stride & Cully, was published in Oct 2016. The latest book, Wonders & Wickedness came out a few weeks ago.

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 teenage 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.

Having now reached the dizzy heights of book 5, I am not sure whether I shall carry on or not, because in my opinion, based on avidly reading crime series, 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. (Lee Child manages it brilliantly, according to GOS; Janet Evanovitch does not ~ 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, so I am now sitting back and waiting for it to arrive. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth book. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ...

So what's your experience: Do you prefer reading 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....

11 comments:

  1. Just a quick recap; do these places take anybody? I quite like the idea of being helpful after I shuffle off! And just for the record, I don't see your series slinking off, they are far too good for that...

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    2. Google Leaving Body to Medical Science...they will tell you your nearest teaching hospital. I think there is a form of dementia they won't take...but it's worth doing. Costs nothing.

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  2. The nearest I've got to writing a series is my occasional Woody's Cafe stories for The People's Friend. I write them when new ideas fail to emerge and I can loose myself in well-loved characters and a setting I know like the back of my hand.

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    1. There is a lot to be said for that ~ if you really like a character, as in real life, you want to get to know them better!

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  3. As you know, I've a series of travel books, and am beginning to review where I go with that. But I'm hugely fortunate - I'm not totally dependent on my writing for an income. So if I decide to change the format (or even the genre) and that upsets regular readers, well, we'll just have to get over it!

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    1. I know..and I am wondering whether Book 6 will be a bit different...

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  4. Getting to book five when you were not intending on it being a series is amazing, Carol, congratulations. I intended on writing the trilogy and could plan accordingly. However, having just completed what I thought was a standalone, only to have several readers asking me when the sequel would be out has been a little unnerving. I just need to come up with a plot, now how hard could that be...

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    1. It is such a compliment when readers fall in love with your characters! Howevs...for book 5, which tells the backstory of a character in Book 1, I had to revise all 4 books so make them compliant!

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  5. I loved writing the trilogy; so much so I went on the write the prequel. Still I couldn't let go, so i wrote short stories about the miner characters. Sometimes I wonder if I'm just scared to move away from them

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    1. Y'know, I wonder that about mine....got so used to the characters and genre, the thought of writing anything else is scary!

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