by J.D. Rhoades
this a new series?"
It’s the question at least a dozen people have asked about BREAKING COVER, once
they find out it’s not a Jack Keller book (despite the fact that several online
sites have called it ‘Jack Keller, Book 4." It took WEEKS and e-mails from
several sources to get Amazon to correct it, and by then the error had
Anyway, the answer is, "I don’t know." I didn’t plan it as anything
but a stand-alone, and the current WIP (working title: STORM SURGE) is a
totally different (and I mean really different) character.
Then again, I didn’t set out to write a series when I wrote THE DEVIL’S RIGHT
HAND. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the first draft of the manuscript that
I realized "hey, this character might have some legs."
Writing a series as opposed to a stand-alone presents certain challenges. For
one, there’s the question of stakes, of what’s at risk. If I know a book is a
standalone, sure the main characters stand a better chance than average of
being alive at the end, but there’s always the risk someone could pull one of
those Hamlet endings, or perish in a noble act of self-sacrifice like in A TALE
OF TWO CITIES.
In a series, however, particularly a long running one, you know the main
character is going to survive til the last page and beyond. So, to a certain extent, you know how the
story’s going to end. They may not live happily ever after, but they will live,
and that takes one way of building suspense out of the equation. It takes away
the sense that everything’s at risk, even survival. Some people seem to like the comfort of that, I guess, and that may be why series are so popular.
But then, you have to find
other things to dangle over the abyss. It could be a beloved character,
although at some point, if you put the same character at risk book after book,
it starts to get ludicrous. Superman can only rescue Lois Lane so many times before people
start going “why doesn’t the silly twit just move the hell out of Metropolis
and stay away from that Kent character?”
God forbid, however,
you should actually follow through on the threat and kill off a favorite
character. An friend of mine did that and got roasted over the coals on a
couple of the book blogs.
How I addressed that problem in the Keller books was by making it clear (I
hope) that what’s at risk is Jack’s already tenuous hold on sanity and
his recovery from PTSD. Even if Jack survives all the horrible stuff I
put him through, he may not be functional psychologically by the end. But
again, how long can that go on? How much pain can I put the poor bastard
through before the reader screams "enough!"
Another challenge in a series, and this is one I really struggle with. is the
question of backstory. Older mystery series tended to be self-contained within
each book, with no reference to what came before or after. I read an interview
with Rex Stout, creator of the wonderful Nero Wolfe books, in which he said
that he did this deliberately, so that you could pick up any one of the dozens
of books in the series and not wonder about whether it was number one or number
twelve. This of course had one major advantage: you could read the books in any
order. The disadvantage to that is that it takes away a lot of the realism and
to me, the believability of the story. In real life, people are affected, often
catastrophically, by their pasts. They change. They grow over time. This
is one of the reasons that I loved Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie/Gennaro series when I
first read them. They took damage that they carried with them from book to
book. But the challenge of that is to carry the thread of the long story from
book to book, while making the short story of each book self-contained so as
not to alienate the reader who may not have read the earlier books and who’ll
put the book down if they don’t know what’s going on or why the people are
acting this way.
hard. You have to fight to keep from drifting into long expository passages, or
even worse, long spoken exposition by characters: "As you know, Bob. the
last time this happened, we…" Yecch. It almost makes me wish we
could get away with one of those short synopses like they used to do in the
movie serials: "In our last episode…."
I will say that one of the people who does this right is our own Zoe Sharp. I
just finished Zoe’s SECOND SHOT, and she does a masterful job of weaving the
threads of the past into the story of the present. And it’s necessary to do so
because Zoe’s character Charlie Fox has taken some pretty severe damage of her
own that she’s trying to get over. I learned a lot about how to do quick,
concise backstory from studying the way Zoe does it.
Still, people do seem to love series. Hell, I may bring Tony Wolf back. Or Jack
Keller for that matter. Maybe I’ll put them in the same book, thus creating
some really tough problems of backstory!
‘Rati, both writers and readers, who do you know who handles these
problems–creating risk and weaving in backstory–particularly well? How do you
writers meet those challenges? Do you prefer series to standalones, or is it the other way around? And why?