Wednesday, June 5, 2013

In Praise of Standalones

by Sandra Parshall

Mystery writers hear it all the time: the surest route to success is with a series – characters that readers will grow to love and want to see again and again. Even the majority of thriller writers have taken this course (ex: Lee Child and his Jack Reacher novels).

That leaves readers like me, who love standalone suspense, with little to choose from. Yet a look at bestseller lists should tell us a vast audience for this kind of novel exists. Which author is about to celebrate a solid year in the top ten? Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, her third standalone. Its success has brought new sales of her first and second books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. No one, to my knowledge, is clamoring to see 20 more books about any of Flynn’s characters. Instead, we’re dying see what unique creation she comes up with next.

Harlan Coben had a moderately successful series about sports agent Myron Bolitar. Then he wrote a standalone called Tell No One and became a #1 worldwide bestselling author. He’s written a string of standalones, all huge hits with readers. I tried his Bolitar books and couldn’t get interested. I never miss one of his standalones. Laura Lippman also broke out to greater fame when she began writing standalones.

As a reader, I’m not happy when a favorite author goes the other way, turning from single titles to a series, although as a writer I wouldn’t challenge someone else’s decision to take any direction that feels right. I loved the standalones by Nicci French, a pseudonymous husband/wife team, and I was disappointed when they started the Frieda Klein series about a quirky  psychotherapist who works with the police. In the first book, Blue Monday, the insomniac psychotherapist seems a cold and off-putting, not the sort of passionate protagonist I expected from a French novel. In the second, Tuesday’s Gone, Frieda seems warmer and we learn more about her, but the story is less a suspense novel than a police procedural.

Many series, of course, are popular and regularly make bestselling lists. Even those that aren’t bestsellers (such as mine) have their devoted fans who want them to go on forever. However, when a series continues indefinitely – book 15 or 20 or beyond – fans may tire of the characters and the plots may seem increasingly unrealistic. Readers begin to skip books, then stop reading the series altogether. 

Among the authors who have kept their long-running series fresh, Margaret Maron stands out as a shining example. Her characters have grown older, their lives have evolved, and they are never boring. The Buzzard Table, #18 in the Deborah Knott series, is one of the best. Karin Slaughter has held onto most of her fans, myself among them, by making drastic changes in her characters’ lives and merging two series. A few fans may be unhappy, but her sales have never been better. I never miss one of her books and have usually read each one without a week or two of publication. I also read several other series that have held up well.

Standalones, though, have an attraction all their own. The author captures the protagonist at a crisis point, undergoing the most dramatic experience of his or her life. We know the character's life will never be the same after the events of the book.

I've found several new favorite authors of single title suspense in the past couple of years. I was hooked by Still Missing, the first novel by Chevy Stevens, and also loved the second, Never Knowing. Her third, Always Watching, comes out in the U.S. on June 18, and I will grab it as soon as I can. The first standalone by Elizabeth Haynes, Into the Darkest Corner, was unforgettable. Her second, Dark Tide, was radically different and equally absorbing. Her third, Human Remains, will be out in August. S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep is phenomenal (and it's being made into a film starring Nicole Kidman).

These authors produce what I love most: unique stories of psychological suspense. That intimate emotional intensity is nearly impossible to sustain in a long-running series without making the protagonist look like a basket case with the world’s worst luck. In a series, the writer has to move outside the protagonist, building a story out of external elements. A series can be tremendously satisfying for both author and reader, but it’s not the same type of storytelling that’s needed in a standalone.

I intended my first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, to be standalone suspense. It’s intense, personal, and told in first person by Rachel Goddard. To build a series around Rachel, I moved her to a new environment, switched to third person, added the viewpoint of Tom Bridger, a Sheriff’s Department investigator, and began writing murder mysteries with strong suspense/thriller elements.

But I’ve never lost the desire to write what I love most to read: standalone psychological suspense. And one of these days, probably after I finish the Rachel mystery I’m working on now, I will do just that.


Steve Liskow said...

Sandy, I thought my first book was a standalone, too, but people liked the characters and wanted more.

For the writer, I think the appeal of a series is that you know most of the backstory on the main characters and can keep building on it. There's also the prevailing (debatable) wisdom that a series builds readership. The downside is that the characters have to survive (usually), which cuts down some of the suspense near the end.

Since I'm now self-pubbing, it's less of an issue for me because no publisher is pushing the spreadsheets at me.

I have ideas for a few more books in my series, but my next book, due this fall, is a standalone. I have ideas that could lead to two or three more books with those characters if it seems warranted, but I do like the possibility that one of the main characters could die. Hey, it worked for Hamlet, right?

I agree with you about Gillian Flynn, too. I thought Dark Places was one of the best novels of the year. But I certainly wouldn't want to spend any more time with that protagonist.

Unknown said...

I'm definitely with you on stand alones. So, so many NYT authors I have dumped after the first three or four books because I became very bored with them. Same old, same old time after time. I can tell you the entire story before even opening the cover. So far, Karin Slaughter has been the exception but even that is dwindling. Thank for this great post.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I have made the shift from writing my two-book series to standalones for exactly that reason...I now prefer to read standalones. However, I found the transition a lot like starting over. I hope I have a couple of publishable manuscripts now. I guess we'll see.

Sandra Parshall said...

It seems to me that if a series doesn't "break out" immediately, it probably never will, and the longer a series goes on, the more reluctant readers are to start reading it. Writing a dynamite standalone is the route some midlist authors have taken to bestsellerdom. What I don't understand are the bestselling authors of standalones who suddenly decide to settle down with a cast of continuing characters in a series.

Cindy Carroll said...

I do love stand alone suspense novels. I'm not a huge fan of series because I like to read them in order and sometimes the first books in the series are hard to find.

That said, I can't seem to come up with stand alone ideas anymore. Every idea I get lately screams series at me so loudly I can't ignore it. I do have a few stand alones that I intend to write and release. It's just a matter of finding the time. :)

VR Barkowski said...

My affection for standalone psychological suspense started years ago when I first discovered Ruth Rendell's non-series work. The fact that so few standalones existed on bookstore shelves was what first motivated me to pick up a pen. I thought there was a demand not being met. I didn't get that standalones weren't being published because publishers weren't interested.

There are interesting approaches to series. Karin Slaughter's is one, but also Tana French, who writes about the Dublin murder squad, each time featuring a different protagonist. I also enjoy Michael Robotham's Joe O'Loughlin series. There is a definite series arc, and it's less episodic than most.

I hope with the success of Gone Girl, publishers will see there is an audience for standalone suspense. After all, it's what I write, and I'm still self-serving and naive enough to dream of publication.

VR Barkowski

Marina Sofia said...

Interesting - I agree with so much of what you say. I like reading both standalones and series, for different reasons, and yes, I do find it disappointing if a writer gets pushed into doing something that they shouldn't or wouldn't otherwise. Nicci French is a good example: I read one standalone thriller of theirs and then immediately went out and read all the others I could find. The new series? Mmmm, bit take it or leave it...

L.J. Sellers said...

I love to read both, and I like to write both. So far, my standalones don't sell as well as my series, and I know many authors who have the same experience. But I just finished a thriller that I hope will change that. Of course, the protagonist would make a great series character too.

Sandra Parshall said...

There's a big difference between suspense and mystery. A suspense protagonist is tangled up in something threatening and may even be part of a criminal enterprise. A mystery character is trying to solve a crime. A continuing protagonist in a mystery series must be admirable in some or many ways. A suspense character doesn't necessarily have to be admirable. Think of the characters in Scott Spencer's A Simple Plan. And the characters in Gone Girl. As much as I admire those books, I wouldn't want to read 20 novels about the characters.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hmm, some obvious exceptions: Agatha Christie's Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple series, Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series, Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series, and Stieg Larsson's Girl Who... series. Like Steve Liskow, I didn't start out writing series, but they evolved. The challenge: if you write a series, can you make each book stand alone? I think that's the best bet. Those readers looking for the old, comfortable characters are happy; those who focus more on plot are too. The proof in the pudding: I've read most of the series I just mentioned out of order and it didn't matter one iota to me.

Polly Iyer said...

I always wrote standalones, including Mind Games. Then I wrote a second book with the same characters, and, well, series sell. I put up another standalone in between, but I'm working on a third in the series. I actually had a reviewer that was mad the standalone she read wasn't part of a series and said she wouldn't read another standalone. Bottom line, series sell. I will continue to write standalones, but I'll add more to the series too.