Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Series Potential

When my agent told me that MIRA wanted to buy not only my first thriller, but two subsequent novels, there was an understandable amount of joy, anxiety, fear, and eagerness on my part (not to mention a few emotions that aren't printable on a family blog). While writing THE MARK I knew my characters had life in them far beyond one book, but when I completed it I was hesitant to begin a sequel. If THE MARK didn’t sell to a publisher, I was left writing the next installment in a series whose first book nobody would read in the first place. But if I started a standalone, I was putting a novel and potential series I’d poured hundreds and hundreds of hours into on a backburner that would grow cooler every day. Thankfully the good folks at MIRA saw the potential, and I have two more Henry Parker novels under contract.

But there are inherent risks and rewards in writing a series, all of which I'm trying to keep in mind as I go forward. First the good:

1) You have a returning character that readers can fall in love with, whose adventures they eagerly await with each new installment.
2) There’s a greater chance they’ll buy your second novel, since, like you, they’ve invested themselves in the lives of the characters you’ve created.
3) A whole canvas of opportunity opens up, creating exciting new scenarios for your characters. Brand new conflicts, lives, loves, thrills and kills. It's kind of like SimNovel.
4) Many of the most successful crime authors today work in series (Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Patricia Cornwell, John Sandford, etc…) and if you hook the reader from the beginning, they’ll stick with you a long time.

The bad:

1) If the first book doesn’t work, the chances of the next two (let alone more) working are slim to none. Dan Brown disproved this theory (THE DA VINCI CODE was his second Robert Langdon novel, ANGELS AND DEMONS didn’t really hit until CODE took off). But that’s more the exception than the rule.
2) You have to keep the series fresh, otherwise the characters become stale, the scenarios become implausible, and you’ll lose your readership pretty fast. Not to mention the respect of the characters you breathed life into.
3) And the most stressing in my opinion, there seems to be an inherent negativity towards series novels that baffles me.

A few colleagues and I were having a discussion today about the most successful books over the last few weeks, including the strong possibility that Harlan Coben’s new novel, PROMISE ME, has a very good chance of becoming his first #1 bestseller. But then there was laughter (not from me), and somebody said, “We’re assuming that people buying it don’t realize that he’s bringing back a stock character, and this isn’t a standalone thriller. And when people realize that sales will slow down pretty quick.”

Now this confused me. As a longtime Myron Bolitar fan who’d been longing for the snarky sports agent’s return for years, I was thrilled when I heard Coben was bringing him back. And I assume that if PROMISE ME does hit #1, it’s both because the Bolitar faithful are buying it as well as the new fans he’s gained with his standalones. But the gauntlet had been thrown, and I could tell this wasn’t an isolated opinion. So is there inherent skepticism within the industry about series novels? Do they have a lower ceiling than standalone mysteries and thrillers? I don’t think so, but I also didn’t think Paris Hilton would sell 200,000 copies and look where that got me. So when you, the reading public, buy a book, do you buy it because of the author, or the characters?

Dennis Lehane, who broke in with his brilliant Kenzie/Gennaro series, and Coben with Bolitar found their highest readership after leaving their regulars behind (Lehane with his masterpiece MYSTIC RIVER and Coben with TELL NO ONE and GONE FOR GOOD). By the way if you haven’t read MYSTIC RIVER, get your ass to a bookstore and pony up $8 for one of the most searing and memorable books you’ll ever read. It’s in my top 5 all time. I bought it in hardcover just so I wouldn’t wear it out. Sometimes I sleep with it under my pillow.

So I wonder whether my series will fall into the first group or the second. Would I write a standalone? Absolutely, though it's not in the cards for at least the next few years. In the end whether Henry lasts past the first three books up to you, the readers, but regardless I’ve got him penciled in for at least three books. And if those work (knock wood), many more. I have much of book 2 already mapped out in my head. I have a good title. I know who’s returning from THE MARK, and who ends up in the morgue. I have new characters I want to introduce, and a kickass villain I can’t WAIT to unleash. I also know how book 3 is going to end. If all goes well, my publisher will finish book 3 and sign me up for more just to see what happens.

So Patrick Kenzie, Angela Gennaro, Harry Bosch, Myron Bolitar, Kay Scarpetta, Matthew Scudder, Jack Reacher, Rina Lazarus, Lucas Davenport, Alex Delaware, Gabriel Allon, John Rain, Maggie O’Dell, Temperance Brennan, Dave Robicheaux, Lincoln Rhyme, Philip Marlowe, Spenser…in 2007 there’ll be a new guy knocking at the door. And hopefully you’ll have no choice but to let him in.

7 Comments:

Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

You are the second person who's so fiercely recommended Mystic River. Don Maass was the first. Now I have to go buy it -- and I just ordered John Donohue's Sensei and a new writing book. Sheesh, pile on the reading, why don't ya?

Well, who needs sleep, anyway. :-) It's Mystic River for me!

12:16 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Forget sleep. Just read the darn thing. But do it BEFORE you see the movie (hopefully it's not too late).

12:30 PM  
Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Not too late... didn't even know there was a movie! :-)

BTW, Silent Hill was a blast. Deliciously creepy.

4:13 PM  
Blogger December Quinn said...

Personally, I love series books, and like nothing better than discovering a new writer several books in (because then I can read all the other stuff in the series.) I actually think I'm more inclined to give a writer a second chance if it's a series book--by which I eman, even if I'm not crazy about the book I'll try nother in the series, whereas I don't necessarily do that for non-series books.

I will give Mystic River a go...as soon as I finish the rest of my enormous TBR pile!

3:59 AM  
Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

I don't think there's an inherent negativity against series books but I think they do reach a ceiling sales-wise and that's usually when the stand-alone marker is brought in.

I agree that Promise Me will be Coben's first #1 bestseller. Michael Connelly's first #1 wasn't a standalone, it was his first Harry book back after a couple stand alones.

I think if Lehane would have come back with a Kenzie and Gennero book after Mystic River or Shutter Island it would have been an almost guaranteed top 5 bestseller.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

According to today's bookscan report, there's a VERY good chance Coben will hit #1 (PROMISE ME sold over 20% higher than Mary Higgins Clark at #2).

With books, like tv, there might be a kind of, "start from the beginning or don't come in at all" mentality. So if the author's on book 5 of his/her series, people might not buy it because you they haven't read the first 4. With standalones, there's no catching up to do. But I agree, should Lehane ever come back to Kenzie/Gennaro territory, it'd be a hit. Of course his stock has raised so much after MYSTIC RIVER that he could poop in a bag and it would make the top 10.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

I enjoy series.
You've described my dilemma exactly.
I'm flogging it as a stand-alone with series potential.

2:35 PM  

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