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.