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Do we dare to disappoint?


Dark series collage

I’ve just finished writing my fourth novel. It is currently in the editing phase and we are about to begin designing the dust jacket. It’s a satisfying and exciting time for a writer. To see the final product take shape and to hear people’s feedback is daunting, but at the same time exhilarating.
My books are part of a series. The same characters appear in all of the stories, although each novel will introduce a few more. I enjoy developing the personalities of my key protagonists and showing how their relationships have changed over time. However, as I was finishing this latest instalment, I decided that for my next project it might be the right moment to depart from the pattern. I felt that a stand alone novel would be challenging for me as a writer and provide an interesting diversion, so I set about plotting this new book and even started penning some of the charater profiles.
When I mentioned my plans to members of my immediate family, they looked firstly shocked and then alarmed. They proclaimed that my readers were really enjoying the series so far and would be truly disappointed to discover that my next book wouldn’t have the same characters.
I thought very carefully about this. Some of my favourite writers have written books which run as a series; Agatha Christie, of course, Ruth Rendell and P.D James to name but a few. Each one of those authors has written stand alone novels and introduced new lead characters. But to achieve this switch, they must have had to shoulder the short-term disappointment of their readership. We do our very best, when we are creating a compelling narrative, to ensure that the reader cares about our protagonists. They need to feel empathy for them and yearn to know what happens next in their lives, otherwise the whole process wouldn’t work.
So do we dare to break that pattern? In a market so driven by sales, it is a scary prospect to think we might alienate those very people who have supported us over the years. Yet without taking risks with our writing and endeavouring to break out of the mould every so often, our creativity would surely stagnate and die.
It isn’t an easy question to answer and I am still pondering it. Ultimately, I shall end up doing both; the series will carry on but other books will be written in parallel to them. I can see now, why many authors decided to adopt another pen-name (Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, for example). it gives them a chance to diversify without offending their loyal fans. It is certainly another option to consider.
My advice would be to think carefully when you decide upon the direction of your books. Whether you plan writing a sequel, trilogy or an entire series, what you do now, will undoubtedly guide the direction of your novels for many years to come.


Short story v. novel, which is best?

Short story v. novel, which is best?

If I were to describe myself professionally, it would be as a novelist. I write books. When I began writing seriously, I didn’t start with the shorts. I plunged straight in with a standard, 90,000 + word mystery novel.
I took this path, largely because it is full length books that I enjoy reading most. I certainly have worked my way through many anthologies of short stories and prose in my time, but I have always found something lacking in them. I think it might be that the constraints placed on the author by a limited word count mean it is difficult to fully develop the characters, or to subtly and gradually draw you into the story.
So, when I decided to write a short story to accompany my series of mystery novels, I was faced with something of a challenge. I wanted the piece to be a self-contained story, with all of the usual components of a full-blown book. It needed to introduce new characters whilst maintaining the dynamic between the usual protagonists. The puzzle itself had to be just as well-plotted and full of red-herrings as it would be over 300 pages. As I began the task, to be honest, I didn’t believe it was possible.
In fact, I really enjoyed the process. I found it quite liberating. I was able to quickly come up with a tight plot which I thought would successfully pan out over 50 pages. I didn’t need to consider whether the storyline was strong enough to support a whole novel, I could simply revel in the writing. The bit I liked best of all, was experiencing that wonderful sense of satisfaction you get with the ‘big reveal’ at the end of the book, far sooner than I would usually have done. I could really get used to that – its a form of near instant gratification.
Suddenly, I understood the appeal. In only an hour, the reader receives the edification provided by a neatly solved mystery. They get an insight into the characters they already recognise and identify with. The author might also drop in a little tit-bit of information that they aren’t planning on putting into the books. It’s simply a pleasant little treat, without too much effort required on anybody’s side.
So now I am re-thinking my long-held bias towards full-length books. It’s always going to be my preferred genre, but I’m keeping an open mind. Like the short stories and novellas of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ( which I loved as a child), there is certainly a place for shorter fiction and I will definitely be exploring the format again in the near future.

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