Friday, February 11, 2011

SERIES books or STAND-a-LONES...why one or the other?

In answering a question posed by a reader, I felt this worth sharing with a lot of readers and possibly of interest to many a writer:

Dear Joe et al --- There are too many variables to gain a simple answer to your reflections and questions regarding why an authur chooses to do a series rather than a "series" of stand-a-lone titles. I will give it a stab at some sort of answer(s), and you will see some of the variables and reasons why an author does a stand-alone and why he or she does a series.

First - money. A series is often bought in a crop of two, four, etc. books that have as yet to be written. Publishers seek out characters strong enough to shoulder multiple storylines...plots. Multiple plots to challenge a character or ensemble.

Character + Plots - plots are easy if an author truly establishes what I call a fully-realized character. Take the notion to TV's Star Trek or any TV drama with continuing character or ensemble, say Law & Order, for instance and the situation is thus: We writers establish the bedrock character traits of our principal characters first, as is done with HOUSE, The Sopranos, etc., and once well established, we know what a Jim Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise is all about and capable of. Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame - once we know what kind of character we are dealing with, what we have in hand, then we can "attack" that character which is exactly what we do as novelists and storytellers.

Obstacles vs. Goals - We then go about the business of throwing curve balls, brick-a-brack, stormes, obstacles at him--whoever she may be. We know what character X is capable of in the first story established, so now what is he capable of if we perhaps double the threat? My one 11-book series is a model of this type of writing, and each can stand alone, yes....I work to make that so, but in order of 1 to 11 the reader gets all facets and all exploits in the order the character got them.

Love that characters - Writers do fall in love with certain of their characters and without prompting of a contract or a publisher's blessing, they often want to keep exploring the nature of one or more characters, asking WHAT IF Jessica or Alastair or Kirk or Tony or Matt Dillon is put into this position...what if given this to problem to solve (or medical mystery to solve - House). What size hoop to jump through? What will the character do and how will readers react to her being relocated to say Hawaii or London or some back bayou outside of New Orleans? What if I could get Alastair Ransom aboard the good ship Titanic on a clear April night in 1912?  

There are as many reasons to continue with a character as one has storylines or obstacles to throw in front of him her. Often a publisher will stop paying for a series--effectively END an author's series way before the author is finished making life hell for said character. Long before the author is DONE...leaving the author wishing to explore the complexities of a James T. Kirk or a given medical examiner or detective.

Back to Money - When a publisheer's balance sheet says a character or series is over...when this fate occurs and you hold a wake for the series character rather than a book signing, the series typically is dead in the publishing waters, and the author has nowhere to place a new story. No placment, no sell, no money said character is making! Comes back to money and the author's time.

New Life for Dead Characters or Series - However, now with the advent of Indie publishing, the Indie author, thanks again to Kindle technology and Amazon cajunas, we who wish to continue on with a "dead" series can do so at our pleasure. No wake necessary. Rather a RESURRECTION is in order....

As I have done already and am continuing to do--I resurrect out of print books and therefore "dead" characters. In other words my four-book series called EDGE or my trilogy with Ransom, or my 11-book "franchise" with Dr. Jessica Coran can have any number of additional books tacked on now as Kindle books has expanded the possibility of new life in an old series, reaching out to gobs of new readers, young and old.

Stand-a-Lone Titles - I have done a number of stand-a-lones as well as creating eight series characters, and the stabd-a-lones also have their appeal for the writer. Threre is of course much faster CLOSURE. A feeling of beig Done With It! Some stories and characters do not "demand" a repeat performance, and often it has do to with how the plot works out...what kind of an ending do you have here? And ending that does not lend itself to a sequel.

While many stories end with little desire left on the part of the author to continue with this particular set of characters, setting, circumstance, etc. "Desire" on my part to go forward without incentive, reader interest, publihser's check makes it easier to step away from a book finiished and put to bed. I typically find myself going back to those characters I loved from the outset but a stand-a-lone doesn't fuel that kind of interest. The alone titles either come to a frutiful end and no sequel makes sense, or the characters are either exhausted by the author or hold no more allure for the author to explore, and sometimes it is the storyline, as in my historical fiction thrillers, it ends where history tells me it ends. If the storyline follows closely the time line of say the Salem witchcraft episode or the Titanic episode, yeah, it just ends where history says it ends. But sometimes a story just claims a finale, finis, end. The Thorn Birds jumps to mind. Moby Dick jumps to mind. Sea Wolf jumps to mind.

So you see the complexity of answering such a question...Wow...I think this is going to make for a series of blogs for me, Joe. Thanks!

Rob Walker
50 books that shall remain in circulation thanks to technology

Titanic 2012 - Curse of RMS Titanic
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jenny milchman said...

It's funny--I can't see myself writing a series, at least not a traditional one with a repeat protagonist, but one of my favorite authors (Lee Child) does exactly that. Maybe we most admire what we don't or can't do?

Interesting response, Rob.

Morgan Mandel said...

My work in progress may be part of a short series of two or three books, depending how things go. I always have trouble thinking up new plots for my characters. Usually once they've been through the mill, my mind says to give them a break and let them enjoy life then. (g)

Morgan Mandel