Saturday, February 10, 2018

Author Mike Martin on knowing when to let go

As our guest author this weekend, I am pleased to welcome friend and fellow Ottawa writer Mike Martin. Mike is the author of the gentle, atmospheric Sgt. Windflower mystery series set amid the rugged capes and whimsical villages of Newfoundland. There are six books in the series, the latest being A Tangled Web. The previous book, A Long Ways from Home, was shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Award as the best light mystery of the year. Take it away, Mike.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King’s advice to authors refers to our beloved characters and it’s true that most of us have trouble killing off our main players. But if that’s hard, how can we ever let go of a whole series? That’s one of the questions on my mind these days as I weave my way through Book 7, just barely dribbling out of the creative ooze, of my Sgt. Windflower Mystery Series.

Some people say that 3 books are enough in a series and others claim that there are no limits on how many books an author can pen in that type of medium. That the story only ends when the author dies. Like the alphabet ending at Y when Sue Grafton passed. But I have to admit that I had doubts while writing A Tangled Web, Book 6 in the series. Midway through I stopped, and I almost didn’t finish. But then another wave of something, I like to think of it as inspiration, came along and carried me over the finish line.

But when is the right time to let go? And is it just my decision to make? Once I create a character and a story line and put it out into the world, I think I have more obligations that my ‘egocentric little scribbler’s heart’. Maybe I owe something to readers who have committed to the series, and even to the characters themselves, as crazy as that sounds.

Loyal readers of a series are more than passionate bystanders. They are part of the process. Without them, the words on paper would have no life, no echo. Being a writer is like yelling down into the canyon. Without readers we are talking to ourselves about imaginary lives. They give our voices resonance and make the stories real. Because they are to them. So, however I decide to stop writing this series, at Book 7 or 11, I have to think about them.

And the characters. Our precious darlings. I know that some writers, famous and infamous, have just dropped them because they were bored or tired or wanted to do something more exciting. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but that sounds to me like giving up your long-term spouse for something younger, flashier. It doesn’t feel right. I have no idea how to consult my characters about leaving them behind, but I’m prepared to at least listen and let my conscience guide me.
Finally, I believe that if I am too old, or too tired, or if my writing dulls, I hope that my beta readers will tell me that I have reached the end of this series. If I return to the same crime or the same set-up, motive or start to mirror past stories, I think they will tell me. I also think I’ll know myself. We all want to write forever. That is what we do. But maybe it will be time to do something else, to test the boundaries of the written page. To find new adventures. Or just quietly let the characters and the series fade to black.
There is ‘a tide in the affairs of men’, as Sgt. Windflower might quote the Bard. But so too is there a tide in the life of a series. Knowing when to sail or to stay in port may be our greatest challenge. As you might have guessed, I have many more questions than answers. What do you think? When is the right time to suspend or even cease a series? 
To learn more, check out Mike's website at


Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

I love the comparison to dropping a spouse! I think when to end a series depends on the series, though I remember Margaret Cannon, Globe & Mail reviewer, saying a Bouchercon that in her experience most authors hit the wall at book 9. Tell that to John Sanford's Lucas Davenport, book 26 I think he's on now...but Lucas has aged in time, from brash detective to married with kids.
Great post, Mike!

Rick Blechta said...

Interesting post, Mike! Thanks for dropping by!!

Sybil Johnson said...

That's an interesting question. I think, in general, it's probably about book 6 or 7. However, I have read and enjoyed series that last considerably longer. I think it probably just depends on the series.