Saturday, September 05, 2009

Wandering in the Wilderness

A couple of weeks ago I attended an author event featuring Sean Doolittle, Michael Koryta, and Christopher Reich at Poisoned Pen Bookstore.  Last week, I schlepped up to Scottdale yet again in order to see Tim Hallinan and Thomas Greanias.  All of these gentlemen write thriller-type mysteries.  During both events, the topic of conversation turned to series writing and the problems thereof.  

Both groups agreed that once you have written three or four books in a series, you find yourself beginning to want to shake things up a little bit.  Series tend to move forward in time, and things happen to your protagonists, often horrible things.  It would be unrealistic if nothing changed in your hero’s little world from book to book.  If your hero’s spouse/partner/friend is killed in book 4, or your hero his tortured by the Taliban, then if he is human at all, he’s going to be changed in book 5.  

Yet, often Our Hero’s life proceeds through book 5 as though nothing untoward ever happened to him.  Why is this?  Anyone who writes a series understands the impulse not to change things too much from book to book, not to stray too much from the template. You fear offending your faithful readers.  They like Our Hero’s wry sense of humor and glib tongue, and don’t like it if he becomes dark and brooding as the series goes forward.  And yet, you nearly killed him in the previous novel, and his girlfriend disappeared when her plane went down in the Andes.

I’m finding myself faced with the same conundrum.  In my series, time marches on.  The children are growing up.  The world is changing.  Things have happened in earlier books that must be acknowledged.

Will readers be disappointed if everything doesn’t turn out so well for one of the children?  Would it be too jarring if I suddenly wrote one of the books in first person instead of third?  What if I jumped WAY ahead in time, or moved the family to Argentina? 

I’ve heard from some veteran series writers that fans can raise a ruckus if you mess with a popular series element.  And yet, what kind of writing life is it if you keep cranking out Model T novels?  Can’t tell one from another, but you surely know what you’re going to get when you buy one. (“You can get it in any color you want, as long as it’s black.”  Henry Ford) 

With a series, you walk the razor’s edge, I think, hunting for that sweet spot where each novel is full of surprises, yet satisfyingly familiar for the reader. And you have to keep yourself interested as well. I understand why so many authors intersperse their successful series with stand-alones, or even juggle two or three series at once! 


Vicki Delany said...

With a series, I think you can do almost anything, except change the tone. That is to say no cats can solve the mystery and Alafair can not be slaughtered in the Great Oklahama massacure of `12. Otherwise, it`s all game. How about having one of the kids take over for once, or Shaw. That might be an interesting twist.

Donis Casey said...

I have a very great urge to do exactly that! You've read my mind, Vicki. Is it a sign?