Beginning A Series

by John Gilstrap

On Wednesday, Joe wrote of the trauma of ending a series. He likened it to a death in the family, and that seemed apt to me. I think that’s also the way fans feel when they know that a series is coming to an end. I confess to feeling a certain melancholy when J.K. Rowling placed the final period on the Harry Potter series. There was a sadness to the conclusion of the saga, of course, but for me it was more than that. I had come to look forward to my annual or biannual journey into the story. It was a passion and a pastime that I could share not just with my son over those years, but also with people on the subway.

Remember Jack Ryan? In the early ’90s, you couldn’t board an airplane without noticing that 80% of the male travelers had their noses buried in one of the Tom Clancy novels. Personally, I lost interest in Jack Ryan’s saga toward the end, but during the time he was important to me, he was very important to me.

Steve Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger, Bob Crais’s Elvis Cole and John Miller’s Winter Massey are more literary friends with whom I love to spend time. Oh, and Jeff Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, too. Sneaky Pie Brown not so much, but then I’m not much of a cat person in real life. Once they start talking, my powers to suspend disbelief fail me. That said, I’d walk a mile to hear her friend Rita Mae give a speech. I heard her once at Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, and she was a hoot. More recently, I’ve bonded seriously with Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas.

In June, I launch a series of my own, and I confess that I’m worried. I’ve always written stand-alones in the past, and I find the prospect of this long-term relationship with Jonathan Grave and his friends to be a bit daunting. In the early draft–all 750 pages of it!–I found myself developing so much fodder for future books that the main story for Grave Secrets (the first installment of the series) became hopelessly bogged down. I fixed it, and now the story is really tight, and I’m thrilled with it; but now I have to write another one. Same characters, different story.

And more pressure. It’s one thing when fans buy your books because they like your writing–that’s the main (only?) dynamic in stand-alones–but now some percentage of fans are going to buy the next book because they like the characters to whom they were introduced in the first. That’s a good thing, of course, but it adds a whole new dimension to crafting the story. The last thing I want to do is disappoint readers, and it seems to me that by creating a new series, I’m increasing the likelihood of doing that. Remember when Clarice Starling fell in love with Hannibal Lecter at the end of Hannibal?

Okay, I could never disappoint readers that badly, but I still worry.

3 thoughts on “Beginning A Series

  1. Nice post, John. And you’re right. Disappointing readers is a concern we constantly worry about. The bad news is we never know until after the fact.

    In the case of our protagonist, Cotton Stone, we kept hearing the same question from readers throughout the series. As the clamor grew we began to prepare for the inevitable. Halfway through book 2 of the four books, we envisioned how we would address it. And the crazy thing is, it finally came down to one word—the last word of the last sentence of the last book. Leaving that word in or taking it out meant the difference between giving the readers what they wanted or not. Lynn and I made the decision to leave it in, and I can honestly say that the fulfillment and resolve of the series and character rests with one word.

    Now we’re working at developing a brand new protagonist. Will she be just another Cotton Stone with a different name and job? Or will she be someone new and exciting? Will our current fans like her as much, or at all? It’s all part of the job, and that’s what makes it so exciting and challenging.

  2. Series fiction does have special challenges. I’ve never written a stand-alone book, and I have one in my brain’s “back drawer” that I’m itching to write, but for now I’m carving out the third story in the Fat City Mysteries. Readers told me they didn’t like Kate’s romantic choice at the end of Book 1–well, turns out, neither did she. She gets to turn that around in Book 2, and in Book 3, her whole world gets turned upside down. I love being able to continue character and story “arcs,” but you’re so right that it’s challenging and risky.

  3. Great post John! I have only written series but the disappointment factor is high and I am now intrigued by Joe’s comment. To resolve in one word.Wow! I can’t wait to also face the stand-alone challenge.

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