Crime writing workshop

Workshop Three: Stand alone or series?

Objectives:

  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series
  • Make a decision about your novel  – will it be the first in a series or a stand-alone novel?


If you’re a fan of crime fiction (and I assume you are) then you’ll be familiar with the crime novel as part of a series. As with other types of genre fiction, the series is a popular format in crime fiction.

There are two reasons for this: readers and publishers. Readers enjoy crime novels that involve the same character in different settings. Think of the great crime fiction characters  – Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Myron Bolitar, Jack Taylor, Morse. etc – and chances are they belong to a series. As for publishers, it should be pretty obvious why a crime series is so appealing to them. It’s a tried and tested formula. If the book-reading public has already bought one book with a central character, chances are they’ll buy a sequel. And the sequel to that. And so on.

For these reasons, writing a series is a tempting option for the aspiring crime writer. It’s a chance to develop your character over time and, if you get it right, a publisher may be more interested in working with you.

However, writing a series is not a shortcut to getting published. In fact, starting with a series might not be the a good idea at all. Don’t believe me? Refer back to the list of crime fiction characters listed above. The world of crime fiction is already full of complex, memorable, fully-rounded characters. Can you create a character that’s compulsively interesting? Are you certain your character is strong enough to carry a series? Do you have enough stories in your head for one character?

Also, it’s worth remembering that many of the greatest crime novels are not part of a series. Writers like Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Cathi Unsworth, Dashiell Hammett, and John Grisham – to name but a few – have all made a name for themselves writing great, stand alone crime novels. Two of the most popular crime novels in recent years – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson – are both stand-alone novels.

The important thing is to write the story you want to write. It’s possible you already know what that is. If not, and you’re still dithering between a series or a stand alone, take some time to do the exercises below. It should help clarify exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve.

  1. Think about the sort of crime fiction you like best. Do you prefer a series or stand-alone novels? It’s likely your preference will influence the sort of novel you’re trying to write.
  2. Think about your central character. What is their story? How much of that story can be contained in this novel? Can you honestly see their story progressing across a minimum of three further books? Do you want it to?
  3. Is your central character a detective of some sort? If not, it’s highly likely you’re not writing a series, even if you think that’s what you you’re doing.
  4. Whatever sort of novel you want to write, it’s a good idea at this stage to think about your next book (I know, not easy if you’ve only started the first one). Spend a little time brainstorming some ideas, thinking of what you might like to write next. Think about what you want to say and the characters you want to explore. This should help you work out which direction your writing will take in the longer term.
  5. Choose any crime series and three stand-alone crime novels. Read the first three books in the series and the three stand alones. When you’re finished, think about the key differences between the series and the stand alones again in terms of: characters, plot, back story, pacing, location and themes. 
  6. If you’re certain you want to write a series, consider these questions:
    • Is your central character really strong enough to hang an entire series on? 
    • Do you know what happens to your character after this novel? Remember, a series will take your character on a journey. You need to be clear about that journey – what will happen to your character and how will they change as a result? What will be different about them at the end of the series?
    • Are you absolutely certain you have enough fresh ideas to carry a series? Don’t risk boring your reader by introducing similar themes and storylines each time. The character is the same so each story must be unique. Your character needs to face fresh challenges in every book. Otherwise you risk boring your readers.

It is worthwhile thinking about these questions now. You should know the sort of novel you’re writing from the outset. That will help you structure your story and make it as good as it can possibly be.

In the next workshop (28 March 2013) I’ll be looking at crime fiction clichés and how to avoid them. See you then.

Thursday
14
March 2013
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