Friday, August 3, 2007

STAND ALONE or SERIES? by Robert W. Walker

-- How Much Can One Character be Put Upon? How Does One Decide?

When I set out to write City for Ransom, I knew it would be too large a canvass for a single book, that it was a series from the outset. How did I know this? 1) the number books handed to me by a Chicago historian and bookstore owner, Kenan Heise--as the stack was almost too heavy. 2) Once I conceived of Inspector Alastair Ransom, I knew him so well that I felt certain his shoulders were large enough to carry the weight of several books if not more. 3) Alastair and men of his time, handicapped by a lack of relevant science applied to police work, had been kicking around in the back of my mind since the early 80s due to a book that Dean R. Koontz insisted I read.

I have since learned that when another author "truly insists" that your read a given book that it is incumbent upon you to do so, especially when you have shared with this author a notion for a book. For an entirely different novel, I followed the advice of J.A. Konrath to read yet another title and it proved invaluable to my writing project. The book Dean Koontz suggested was the invaluable Century of the Detective by Jergen Thorvald (on my shelf now), and the tomb that Konrath suggested for a horror-thriller entitled Fleshwar ( serialized novel) was Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. You see where this is going? An author who does a busload of research often does the wise thing and telegraphs to others the project he is working on so as to gather really good information on said subject. This means much of my writing is predicated on much reading or factual materials. You have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

Perhaps it is the teacher in me. Even in sixth grade I was unofficially "tutoring" other students from the kid who was held back to the cute girl next door. It spills over in my books. There are few chapters over the years that I've written that don't have a research based point to get across be it to remind folks that the mayor of Chicago was murdered on the grandest night of his life--the closing night of the hugely successful World's Fair to the fact that ants have it rough with parasites too--poor ants. Never felt sorry for an ant in my life until I read Carl Zimmer's book.

Getting now to Shadows in the White City--I naturally wrote it as a sequel but as with every sequel I write, I wanted it to stand on its own—do double duty as both sequel and stand alone. Stand alone. What is this thing I rarely do? Ever try to stand a single volume up on a table and keep it from falling over? Yuk-yuk. No, a stand alone is closer cousin to a shorter work, say a novella, even a short story. A stand alone does not beg a sequel. A stand alone novel is often so unique, the character(s) and plot so wedded that it is hard to see, feel, smell out the possibility of continuing on with another plot utilizing these characters—principally the main character. Not all stand alones but many are plot-driven as they have a one-in-a-life-time feel to this unusually twisty storyline. At least, this is the case with me, an author whose first book, written in high school, was a sequel to Huckleberry Finn.

Woo-woo: S-S-Shadooows in The Whhhite Cityyy (Twilight Zone music here please) sees the demise of the Phantom of the Fair in the first portion of the novel, just as in City for Ransom the big surprise of the book is revealed in the first 70 pages or so. Shadows moves on to Alastair's next difficult case, the murders brought about by a maniac the press is calling The Leather Apron Killer--who may or may not be an import from London. I wanted this to be an atmospheric, creepy case and it really is. How do I know? When an author can creep himself out...feel the fear his characters must be feeling, well let’s just say an author knows his child—even if it is a “brainchild” so to speak (or is it conjure?). It's like when you create a frozen death scene and your fingers become too cold to work the keys, or when you're doing a heat-wave scene and you begin to perspire at the keyboard and you're dripping sweat onto the keys, or your character is awash in a tsunami and you’re quite sure that you yourself are drowning! You just know you are hitting the right stride when you can cause physical and mental changes in yourself, your first reader. It's what they mean by the power of the pen.

I have just finished a stand alone entitled DEAD ON which was requested by the editor as a stand alone. This sets up different wheels and cogs turning in the head. I felt more concentrated on this story and this character and not “setting” him or her up for future challenges. I simply didn’t give a thought to future ills, evils, and catastrophes that Morgan Strydwell, a suicidal cop whose suicides keep having to be interrupted by such irritating things as curiosity, anger, duty, and action. While working on the novel with the idea of it being a stand alone, I felt in many ways more focused on the moment in the story, and I had a sense of compactness and directness (not that my series lack these important elements). As a “long distance” writer, doing a one-shot set in Atlanta and the Georgia woods, I felt not constrained but rather free and concentrating heavily on the heart of the matter. I didn’t have loads and loads of research to do, and I didn’t go in expecting Morgan to carry many books or stories on his shoulders. It was an altogether different experience. Once finished, however, I had that same old curious desire to know what happens in a future for this character that does no exist unless I write it? A sequel. It comes of always wanting to “predict” a final chapter in the life that isn’t in the story. Ever read a short story and you wanted to write a new ending for it, or extend it, to predict what happened AFTER?

But of course there are economic concerns as well. If a publisher/editor calls for or wants a series character, you have to take this into consideration, and visa-versa or in the case of crime writing—vice-a-vice-ahhh!

The author in the end determines if he can or cannot find a new, twisting, challenging, compelling set of curve balls, sliders, fast balls, sinkers to throw at a character created some time back. In my case, often, a series dies a natural death and I am NOT through with challenging the main character. It’s why Morgan Strydwell is, in a sense, an extension of Lucas Stonecoat from my 4-book Edge Series. Strydwell is a shadowy cousin, a reflection of Stonecoat. Alastair Ransom is a composite of many earlier characters—both male and female. Dr. Jane Tewes who works cases with Alastair is quite similar to Dr. Jessica Coran of my 11-book Instinct Series.

Finally, to think clearly on this topic of Stand Alone vs. Series—think TV episodic drama. Each hour-long science fiction tale and crime drama from Star Trek to Law & Order do not reinvent the main characters who become staples of the drama but rather each episode –after establishing the main characters bedrock traits—challenges those traits. If Detective Lenny is an alcoholic, we want to challenge his AA commitment. If Captian J.T. Kirk is brave, what circumstances can we place him in to challenge that—to bring him to his knees? In series work, the reader/viewer is comforted by the returning hero/heroine, but bored silly if that hero/heroine is not put through excruciating paces.
It comes down to this. In the stand alone novel as with the one-shot TV drama, we are finished with throwing rocks at our hero. However, in the series novel as with the series TV drama, we are hardly done tossing rocks and even soda cans at our heroine. Sometimes sticks as well as stones, sometimes and often mental as well as physical anguish and horrors to the delight of the reader/viewer. Two key words in writing either a stand alone or a sequel: challenge and compel. Make the challenges to your fully-realized, well-established character as compelling as you can.

Happy Authoring, Noveling, and Sensationalizing,
Rob Walker

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