Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is It a Series or... What?

Sandra Parshall

Humans are downright compulsive about labels. Everything has to be clearly identified, quantified, categorized. How else are we to know what “it” is? If we don’t know what “it” is, we become insecure, unsure how to feel about “it”.

Nowhere is this compulsion more evident than in the field of crime fiction. The labeling often starts before the writer has concocted a single sentence of a book. We hear from every side that we must have a clear idea of exactly what subgenre we’re writing in, so we can follow the rules for that type of book. Crossing subgenres, inadvertently or intentionally, is considered risky. And we are doomed if we approach agents with the news that we’ve written “a novel that combines elements of traditional mystery, suspense, romance, chick lit and paranormal.” It could be a terrific book. It could be a groundbreaking book. But just call it a mystery and pray they won’t notice it’s more than that.

We also face another question: Is it part of a series or is it a standalone? I’m getting that question a lot now, with my second published book, and I have to admit I don’t know how to answer. My first book, The Heat of the Moon, is psychological suspense, told in first person by veterinarian Rachel Goddard. Rachel also appears in the second book, a mystery called Disturbing the Dead. But DTD is told in third person from the viewpoints of both Rachel and Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger. The story takes place in the mountains of southwestern Virginia rather than the DC area, the primary setting for THOTM.

Am I writing a series? If so, I’ve been asked by librarians and booksellers, what am I calling it?

I’m not calling these two books anything collectively. Some people have labeled them “The Rachel Goddard Series” and I haven’t objected. At least one bookseller has labeled DTD “First in the Tom Bridger Series” and I haven’t objected to that either. Maybe both labels are accurate.

Some writers would want to keep such matters private, but I don’t mind admitting that I wrote Disturbing the Dead at a time when I believed The Heat of the Moon might never be published. I didn’t conceive DTD as a direct sequel to THOTM. I wrote it as the possible beginning of a new series. I gave Rachel a different name in the original version. Later, I changed her name again, but neither of these alternate names felt right to me. She was Rachel and always would be. When Poisoned Pen Press bought THOTM (bless them) and expressed interest in DTD, I was relieved that I could let Rachel be herself again. I didn’t put the book into first person, though, and I didn’t downplay Tom Bridger’s role. The two books are certainly related, but maybe someday I’ll write a Tom book that doesn’t have Rachel in it, or another Tom-less Rachel book. Who knows?

There’s a lot to be said for placing emphasis on different characters throughout a series. In her last few books, Elizabeth George has rotated her continuing characters as the focus of the stories. In one book, Barbara Havers (my favorite) stars and Tommy (not my favorite) is barely mentioned or seen. In another novel, George gives center stage to my least favorite of her people, Deborah and Simon. In most of her books, George gives Tommy the most time onstage and varies the importance of the other characters. Doing this can keep a series fresh for the readers. P.D. James, in recent books, has given Dalgliesh a smaller role while introducing younger cops. (A good idea, since Dalgliesh must be, what, about 125 years old by now?)

One drawback of writing continuing characters is that readers feel they have a personal relationship with these fictional people and do not hesitate to tell writers what to do with them. More of him, please, and less of her. Don’t let those two get together; he’s not good enough for her. And God forbid the writer should kill off a popular character. Ask Dana Stabenow about the consequences of doing that. In the long run, bumping off someone who is loved by readers might not hurt a writer’s sales, but she’s going to get plenty of grief about it in the short term. (For the record, I was terribly upset about Stabenow’s Jack, but I was delighted to see George’s Helen go, heartless creature that I am.)

Despite the drawbacks, the readers’ intense involvement with characters is a good thing because it means the writer has done her job well and it brings readers back for future books. I can only hope that someday readers will care enough about my characters to jump all over me when I do something awful to them. (And if that happens, I hope I’ll be able to remember that I asked for it.)

In the meantime, I’ll let readers decide what to call The Heat of the Moon and Disturbing the Dead. Series books? Related but non-series books? Standalones? I don’t care. All I care about is whether you read them. If you like them, let me know. If you don’t like them, I’ll probably be happier if I don’t hear from you. You may label them any way you like.


Anonymous said...

What I'd label them as is "great!"

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, the one opinion about what your books are or "should" be that you don't mention is your publisher's. It seems Poisoned Pen is giving you more creative autonomy than most writers get, except for the well established and hugely successful. So give us a hint: what is Book 3 to be?

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, my editor at Poisoned Pen, Barbara Peters,is wonderful to work with. She doesn't pressure writers to produce a book a year and she doesn't dictate that every book should be a perfect sequel to the previous one. In answer to your question, I'm writing a suspense/thriller that has different characters. My agent will market this one to NY publishers. But I'm definitely planning to write more about Rachel and Tom -- I have another book plotted out already, an exciting story that I'm eager to get into, and will probably write it after I finish my w-i-p.

Lonnie Cruse said...

And it goes beyond the question of genre: mystery, to genre: mystery, cozy or no, if it's a cozy, does it have a craft in it, which means it has to be labeled as: scrapbooking, knitting, candle making, etc. Gives the writer a headache just thinking about it. Thanks for sharing.