Series-Good Idea or Bad?

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The idea of serial stories is as old as Scheherazade, and readers and listeners have always loved them. We like revisiting characters we enjoy, catching up with their lives like we do with old friends we see infrequently.

Series writers tread some dangerous waters. We might offend our readers if a character does something they don’t like. In television they call it “jumping the shark” when a series goes too far (It relates to Fonzie on HAPPY DAYS, who actually did that in an episode late in the series.) Letting major characters marry is often a mistake, since it removes the sexual tension (e.g. MOONLIGHTING). As a reader I’ve been disappointed when authors take their characters into so much personal trauma that I feel like I’ve left the mystery genre for melodrama.

I understand the problem, though. How does an author write book after book with the same characters and keep readers’ interest? There has to be growth and change, doesn’t there?

As a writer, my solution thus far has been to limit my series. When an idea occurs to me, I make a mental estimate: How far can this/these characters arc from Situation A to Situation X, a logical stopping place for the “big” story? For my historical series, I saw Simon working with Elizabeth Tudor at several important points in her life. It laid out as a five-book series in my mind, so the readers sees Elizabeth as Henry’s daughter in HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER, Edward’s loving sister in POISON, YOUR GRACE, Mary’s distrusted co-heir in THE LADY FLIRTS WITH DEATH, a queen dealing with threats to her throne in the upcoming HER MAJESTY’S MISCHIEF, and finally, as an old woman, successful but quite different from the innocent young girl we first met (HER ROYAL HIGHNESS PLOTS, still an idea in my head.)

In my Dead Detective series, four books seemed reasonable. We introduced the idea in THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, continued to a second case in DEAD FOR THE MONEY, found Seamus a partner in DEAD FOR THE SHOW, and he’ll solve his own case in the final book, also still a little sketchy at this point.

The Loser Series took three books. Meeting the damaged Loser in KILLING SILENCE, we saw her heal a little in KILLING MEMORIES. In the last book we will see how she ends up, and I think readers will approve (KILLING DESPAIR releases in 2014).

Any one of these series could go on, but as a writer, I don’t think I want them to. If I grow bored with my characters, it will show. If they simply repeat what they’ve done before, it will bore me and my readers. And if I let them get too crazy, they’ll kill the affection we have for them.

So is a series a good or a bad idea? I think it’s good IF the author considers the readers “arc of discovery” and her own “arc of interest.” Could I write ten books in a series? I suppose so, but I have so many other ideas! Will readers wish there were more than three or four or five? Maybe, but isn’t there something about it being better to leave the audience wanting more?

The Golden Age of Publishing: Here or Gone?

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At lunch with a friend who aspires to be published, I was griping (not unusual, I assure you) about the difficulties of getting my work noticed in today’s world. She’s even worse off, trying to get that foot in the door with an agent or publisher but competing with zillions of other wanna-bes.  A comment she made struck me, that perhaps the Golden Age of publishing is over. Her contention is that there was a period of time in the 1900s (Why does that sound so long ago?) when authors wrote for a living and were published by entities that saw to it the books were edited into shape, attractively presented, and noticed by readers.

It’s easy to get published today. A chimp with an iPad might release a book by mistake (and some idiot out there would buy it and claim it tops Shakespeare). But recent research shows that most authors make less than $1000/year. The Big Guys are playing it safe by franchising authors who are dead or dying and pressing their top writers to crank out more books per year. Plenty of small presses support those of us who aren’t named James Patterson or Janet Evanovitch, but nobody’s getting rich in such ventures.

It should be a golden age: more opportunities to be published, more resources to make sure it’s done well. Every book out there should be a gem, because in the computer age nobody has to retype the whole thing after each edit!

Sadly there are too many writers who don’t care–possibly don’t even realize–their work is shoddy. Two examples.

Last night I finished a book by a major author, though I knew about half-way through it was flawed. By the end I was thoroughly disgusted. The killer was so unbelievable as to be a caricature, and the book slewed every once in a while into totally irrelevant chapters that should have been edited out.

The other example came yesterday when I sampled a book by an author unknown to me but who offered the first of his procedural cop series for free. It had so many errors in the first three pages that I couldn’t make myself go on. It was obvious no editor had even glanced at the manuscript.

Here’s the kicker: The book had 17 reviews on Amazon, all of them 4 or 5 stars. Not  one review mentioned problems with commas, run-ons, fragments, spelling, point of view, and stereotypical description. They were obviously bought or solicited or whatever, and if you haven’t noticed that trend, consider this: If some big-name authors really read all the books they blurb, they’d never have time to write their own.

So how can we have a golden age when neither writers NOR readers seem to care if the end product is as good as it can be?

The tools for a golden age are here. We have access to good editors, publishers, cover artists, and formatters. It’s up to readers to reject shoddy work and tell the author/publisher, (privately if you prefer) “This is terrible,” or “This needs work.” Authors and rival publishers can’t do it, because it looks like sour grapes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see it.

Readers, when you find a book riddled with errors or bad writing, tell the author or publisher. I don’t mean if you didn’t like the way the author dealt with the topic: that’s personal taste. I’m talking about serious problems with the writing, editing, or other basic elements that could be corrected if responsible people work to make a decent product. A book is (should be) a joint effort, and someone should care if it isn’t the best it can be. If it isn’t, tell someone!

If that doesn’t work, there’s always the one star review on Amazon.

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We Need an Algorithm–If We Knew What That Is

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Algorithm: a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps.

There, that does it, right?

No?

Algorithms are used in the computer world to do certain tasks, and any explanation beyond that results in confusion for non-tech-minded folks like me.

What I do understand is that listings of products, say on Amazon, are based on algorithms.  So if you type “mystery” into a search engine, you get mysteries, lots of them.

But what if you’ve read Sue Grafton’s series right down to “W” and you’re pretty much caught up on Jack Reacher’s adventures? What if you’d like to try a new author?

That’s where the algorithms fail us, because you’d have to wade through more pages than you’re willing to attempt in order to find me.

Authors like me write good books. We get good reviews from reputable places like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. We win prizes like Best Mystery of 2012 from EPIC (for The Dead Detective Agency). We have publishers who are vigorously enthusiastic about editing, cover art, and proper formatting.

But we don’t have an algorithm. You can’t type in “new mystery authors” and get a result from Amazon. (I tried it. I got Laura Lippman, Peter Robinson, Charles Todd and Deborah Crombie. Really?)

You can’t type in “Underrated Authors” or “Good but unknown authors”.

The least the list-makers could do is let readers bypass the first ten pages and get past the people they already know about and have probably read if they’re ever going to. (I don’t care how many books Janet Evanovitch writes, I’m never going to read one.)  As a reader, I’d like to see some other choices. As a writer, I’d like to see my books show up so they can at least be considered.

Probably not going to happen. Makes me wish I knew about algorithms so I could invent one for “Little Known but Pretty Darned Good Mysteries.” That would be nice.

Making Your Editor Cry

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Coming from LL-Publications
Spring of 2014

I’m sure there’s more than one way to make an editor cry, and most of them aren’t good. Experienced writers know that first “THE END” we type isn’t likely to really be the end.

I finished the third story in my Loser series toward the end of 2013 and sent it off to be edited. A few weeks later, the MS came back with corrections and comments. Now I have to say here that I’ve been really lucky with editors over my career. Long ago I had one who was more interested in satisfying his ego than creating a better book, these days I’m never offended by what my editors suggest. They’re good at what they do, and they don’t live inside my head, so they help me clarify those thoughts that come out a little muddled.

The main task I was given this time was to rewrite the last chapter, which sums up the 3-book series. It was dry and–well, I’ll admit it: I can be a little Sheldon Cooper-ish: “Let’s not let emotion run rampant. Maintain control!”

But we’re ending a series that’s been pretty intense. My readers will want to see that Loser is okay, and I hadn’t made it clear enough. I rewrote the end, making her future more definite and letting Loser actually FEEL some things. Actually, it felt good for me, too, and my editor said she teared up in a couple of spots when she read the latest version.

So in this case, making your editor cry is a good thing, right?

ARIA cover art nominated for an award!

300_Aria_2Artist Andy Bigwood has had his cover art for ARIA: Returning Left Luggage nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Awards.

Read more about it here at Geoff’s blog:

http://geoffnelder.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/aria-art-nominee

Congratulations Andy and Geoff!

A Time for Reminders

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Recently I read two articles about the dismal state of the writing business. People aren’t buying books. Self-publishing has glutted the market. The large number of freebies means readers don’t ever have to actually pay for a book. After being stung a few times by unknown authors or badly-prepared books, people turn to the work of authors they know and keep buying, even if the author has written the same book twenty times.
It’s pretty depressing.
I have, however, a single sheet of reminders that I look at from time to time. Written a long time ago, they remind me not to worry too much about the state of the business. They remind me to write, and let the rest of it go.
1. I write the kinds of books I like. There’s no sense chasing trends. I probably wouldn’t do it well, and the trend might change before I get something done anyway.
2. I’m not in this for the money. (Sorry for those of you who are; I know it’s tough.) I write because I love, love, love it, so I consider anything I make as a plus.
3. Honestly, I’m not in it for fame, either. I sometimes forget this and wish someone on the NYT would notice me, but then I remember that recognition brings a lot of things I wouldn’t like. I think I’m happier hearing from the small group of readers who like my work and encourage me to keep writing.
4. This one might sound like sour grapes, but I think it’s simply honest: The judgment of the world is often pretty bad when it comes to writing. Just think back to the bestsellers of the ’70s or ’80s if you don’t believe me. I look at many “great novels” of our time and wonder if anyone actually reads them or is it simply cool to say you did. Like the emperor’s new clothes, no one wants to be the unenlightened one who says, “This seems like gibberish to me.”
So those are the things I remind myself of from time to time. They help me remain grounded, help me recall that all that outside stuff doesn’t matter if I produce a book I’m proud to call mine.

New Promo Idea: Warning–Lying is involved

How many of you remember that popular game show from the sixties, To Tell the Truth? Yes, I know I just admitted I’m no spring chicken, but that’s okay; some of those early game shows were a

hoot. On To Tell the Truth, three contestants tried to stump a panel of four by claiming to be the same person. To read my post, click on the link below.

http://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/2013/11/new-promo-idea-warninglying-is-involved.html

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