Recently, a discussion on GoodReads was started by a reader who loved stand-alone books, but every book he was offered seemed to be part of a series. The thread quickly turned ‘anti-series’ with complaints about sequels being less good than the first novel, stories become repetitive, single volume books being enlarged to fill several volumes to make more money from gullible readers, writers becoming too lazy to invent new characters, and so on.
As I write a suspense fiction series, I want to address these issues in this blog article.
When I wrote Reprobate, I had some excellent ideas for additional plot lines that would explore other sides of the freelance assassin protagonist, so I decided to develop the Amsterdam Assassin Series as a series of stand-alone novels and short stories that have the same characters but enjoying one book does not rely on having read the other books/stories. No cliffhangers beyond readers want to know what will happen next in the lives of the protagonists.
As to the concerns addressed in the GoodReads thread:
“Can’t you put just everything in one book?”
No. The books are all over 100K and all have a different theme. The first book, Reprobate, deals with the protagonist breaking her own rules and the consequences. The second book, Peccadillo, has criminals trying a hostile takeover of her legitimate business, unaware that they’re dealing with an assassin. In the third book, Rogue, Katla comes to the attention of global intelligence communities when she kills the wrong target. I’m currently working on the fourth novel, Ghosting, which will show yet another side of the character.
“The first book is mostly good, but the rest is repetitive crap.”
Most reviewers agree that the second book is superior to the first book. I just published the third novel. Feedback from the beta-readers convince me that Rogue is both different from Peccadillo and Reprobate, but just as interesting and entertaining. Just because some people force themselves to turn a stand-alone book into a series doesn’t mean every series writer succumbs to this laziness.
“You write a series to cash in.”
If I wanted to cash in, I’d write short novels in a hot genre, not suspense fiction about a freelance assassin in Amsterdam. And as I sell somewhere around 30-60 books per month, I’m not ‘cashing in’. If I listened to ‘market experts’ I would abandon the series due to the meagre sales. However, I do have fans who want to know what happens to the protagonists and are eager for future books (check my reviews), so I just ignore the sales and keep on writing what I love to write.
“Series are just fluff/sugar coated candy/throwaway books.”
My series is pretty dark, which is quite normal for a suspense fiction series with a freelance assassin protagonist. I’ve been praised for the brief instances of wit that lighten the mood and ground the story in reality. In keeping with the need for verisimilitude, the events in the books have real moral/ethical/physical consequences and I received feedback from fans on how scenes made them reconsider the reader’s own attitudes.
“You’re just too lazy to invent new characters.”
Writing a series is actually more difficult than writing stand-alone novels, mostly because you need to satisfy both the new readers and the readers who read the other books, which requires a fine balance of putting in just enough back story to please both. Meanwhile, I dedicated myself to writing about characters who might never ‘hit it big’ with fans. Writing stand-alones with new characters doesn’t require any referencing to published stories.
Also, the series does feature new characters. Granted, they may be antagonists, but if the antagonists don’t measure up, the protagonist will fall kind of flat. I go by the principle that any character I create should be able to hold their own as protagonist of their own stories, so they have to be fully developed, not just sounding boards for the main characters.
Still I understand how readers don’t want to read series and prefer stand-alone books. In that case, Reprobate would work as a great stand-alone novel because it has all the characters, but all the plot lines are resolved in the end and you don’t need to read the other books.
Except if you want to know what the future holds in store for Katla and Bram…
Beginning writers have a tendency to over-write, producing bloated manuscripts with stories that feature redundant scenes, scenes that are shown instead of told (because they want to avoid the ‘show, don’t tell!’ admonition from their peers), and unnecessary storylines like excessively detailed mundane scenes in the lives of the characters.
So, beginning writers often get the advice to edit their work and bring down the wordcount to manageable numbers. While most manuscripts can lose 10% of their words without serious consequences, a writer can go overboard and edit out the parts that made the story shine, eliminating ‘scenes that do not forward the plot’ and robbing characters of the extra dimensions, reducing them to bland archetypes that fail to engage the reader.
The difficulty lies in the decision what to keep and what to weed out, and how to cull the dross from the scenes the writer wants to keep. In the area of what to keep and what to weed out, consider Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘skip the boring parts’. Don’t write about going to bed or getting up, brushing teeth, doing the laundry, taking a bath, going to the toilet, are you eyes glazing over yet? What to keep? Keep descriptions succinct, trust the reader to fill in the unwritten parts. Describe only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to form a picture, but don’t embellish to fill in the reader’s ‘mind picture’ unnecessarily.
The ‘rule’ that scenes always have to ‘forward the plot’ is more a guideline [most writing rule are, but beginning writers tend to view ‘rules’ to be akin to ‘commandments’]. Scenes that help flesh out a character don’t need to ‘forward the plot’, as long as the writer doesn’t ramble too far from where the story is supposed to be going.
As an example from my own work–I received comments by an editor that my DEA characters weren’t as interesting as my protagonist. Although I could reiterate that it’s difficult for a DEA agent to be more interesting than a freelance assassin, the burden was on me to render a good girl as interesting as the bad girl. And I had. I had written a chapter and two follow up paragraphs where the DEA girl turns the tables on a mugger and the legal consequences of her righteous action versus Dutch law. Except that I had edited these scenes from the manuscript to reduce wordcount because ‘they didn’t forward the plot’. Well, yes, but they did flesh out the DEA character, which was important to get the reader to root for her also.
So, instead of wondering whether a scene ‘moves the plot forward’, analyze whether the scene brings a valuable contribution to the manuscript, so you won’t edit all the life from your manuscript in order to comply to a rule that might only be applicable to an action adventure with cardboard characters.
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