Writing a Series that Can Be Read Out-of-Order

As a reader of mysteries (and, to a lesser extent, fantasies), one of the difficulties I run into is finding a series where I don’t have to start at the beginning — like if the library or bookstore doesn’t have a copy of the number I need. And, sometimes I just wanna grab a book, read it, enjoy it, and not feel either guilty or unsatisfied because I “have to” wait for the next one.

As a writer, I appreciate what a difficult task this is to accomplish.

Quite frankly, no mystery-series author I’ve read (including the late, great Agatha Christie) has done as well in creating recurring characters, in a single location, working together in a single police unit, than Tana French.

I know this because I didn’t read her books in anything like the “correct” order. I did start with the first book, In the Woods, but then I jumped to the fourth, Broken Harbor. Followed that up with the fifth, The Secret Place, then hit the third, Faithful Place, and finished up with the second, The Likeness. I feel like I’ve missed nothing by skipping around like that.

“And why is this?” I ask myself.

Myself has come up with some reasons:

1. French focuses each novel on a specific character.
With the exception of The Secret Place (#5 for those keeping track) and a chapter here and there, all of the Dublin Murder Squad books are told entirely in first person. Even The Secret Place is predominately in the first person. This keeps the focus very tight on a single experience and covers a single arc. This can probably be accomplished in a strictly third person narrative, but I imagine you’d have to be really disciplined in order to avoid the siren’s call of other characters taking their place on the page stage.

2. French has not repeated POV characters as POV characters.
In the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, the first person POV is always Stephanie Plum. (I’m not knocking the Plum novels — I really dig them as a matter of fact, but you can’t really read them out of order.) What this does is create a lot of self-referrential moments, so unless the reader is familiar with the previous Plum novels, they’ll have a hard time following relationship entanglements and even some bad guy plot points. French avoids this by bringing a new character to the forefront every time. So, wherever you pick up, you are getting to know a new character.

3. The recurring characters become Easter eggs. 
“But,” you may be saying in my imaginary conversation, “the reason to read a series is because we become invested in the characters.

Point taken.

With French’s series, characters do recur, sometimes to play significant parts in other novels, but the filter changes with the POV character, which makes these repeating characters more interesting and more well-rounded. (In fact, I’m so fascinated and impressed by the effect French creates that I’m going to try to explore it in a couple different ways — stay posted!)

For example, the most-recurring character is Frank Mackey. In The Likeness he’s a stubborn, Undercover Squad legend who pushes a protege too hard. In Faithful Place he’s a broken-hearted daddy with some serious family problems who deals with his high-school sweetheart’s murder. In Broken Harbor he’s an asshole who gets in the way. In The Secret Place he’s an overprotective cop-daddy who “doesn’t get it.” And every facet is just as cool and fascinating as the last.

4. A single arc per book — the story is started and completed.
Tied to the single POV character, there is only one story arc per book. It starts at the beginning of the novel and it goes through to the end. No cliffhangers.

5. French doesn’t feel pressured to give all the answers.
Here’s something interesting that French does: she doesn’t always solve every bit of the mystery. (This epically pissed off some readers of her first novel.) Strangely enough, this doesn’t make you feel like you have to read the book immediately following in the series. It feels like a fact of life. As an individual without omniscient abilities, you just can’t know everything. The Dublin Murder Squad books feel like that — and generally it’s a little bittersweet and beautiful.

***Are there other series that you don’t have to read in order? What makes them stand out? Do you prefer having a series move from A-Z, or do you like the freedom to move around?

New Year, New Mentors: Tana French

Welcome 2016!!

New years are for new starts and I’m gonna kick of 2016 with a brand new batch o’mentors.

First up, we have Tana French!

Tana French is one of my very favorite authors. Based in Dublin, Ireland, French trained as a professional actor at Trinity College. She’s worked in theatre, film, and voiceover. She’s well-traveled. But, most of all, she’s a spectacular writer.

Her books are all based around the Dublin Murder Squad. No, that’s not a squad of murderers…though that would be interesting too….It’s the squad of detectives who solve homicides in Dublin. There’s plenty of murder, darkness, and angst to be found in her books.

However, if her novels were just mysteries, I don’t know if I would be as interested in these stories. Instead, the murders/mysteries tend to serve as triggers for the internal struggles of whichever detective French is focused on in a particular novel. She creates real people dealing with some troubling circumstances…which the main characters themselves are often responsible for.

Plus, in a feat that’s verrrrrrrrrrrrrrry difficult to pull off, French manages to make each book in the series stand alone. There’s no need to read any of the series in order. Every story is complete within itself. The fact that you recognize characters and get different perspectives on those characters is just a delightful bonus.

I’ve read every one of her books:

  
 

There’s lots to admire here and there’ll be a lot more of Tana French talk coming at you.

If you haven’t read her yet. Please, do yourself a favor and grab any one of these.

As for the rest of 2016, the mentor line-up is as follows:
(Every Tuesday and Friday)

Tana French: January — March
Robert Louis Stevenson: April — June
Sarah Ruhl: July — September
Cormac McCarthy: October — December

So, it’s a packed year. Hoping for lots of good conversation!!

The Hedgehog and Feast for Crows – Incomplete Series Troubles?

I am of the general belief that revisions can wait until the book is done. Finish the rough draft, take a break, come back and rework the story accordingly. My reasoning for this is pretty straightforward: you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve finished it. Though, yes, you can certainly revise as you go and make a more polished work – you’re still (probably) gonna have to revise big chunks based on where you went with the story. Holes and lost threads are kind of par for the course in this writing gig.

As my friend Deb puts it (and I’m paraphrasing here): That hedgehog you had on page five? Who knew how important that hedgehog would be? The hedgehog saves the story! The hedgehog is the linchpin! He holds everything together.

But when you wrote the hedgehog on page five, you didn’t know that. And! It could go the opposite way: you thought the hedgehog was going to be SuperImportant…but it turns out the hedgehog was just a hedgehog after all.

Which brings me to the book that most George R.R. Martin fans flung across the room. (My husband included.) This is book four in the series: A Feast for Crows.

The reason a lot of fans took issue – and in some cases still take issue – with this middle novel was because the main characters faded into the background. Martin made a very concious decision to focus on a set of characters in a certain geographical section of his world. Information had to be disseminated and, as the author, he felt this the best way to get it out there.

Now, I trust that Martin has a clear vision of his world. I trust that he has more of an idea where he wants to go with the story than his readers/editors/publishers because it’s his story. That being said, however, I can’t help but wonder – or worry? – that since the series isn’t actually finished it’s more like a rough draft than a completed work.

When you’re writing one book it’s difficult enough to know where the hell you’re going until you’re there. Now stretch that difficulty along the length of seven books. Sure, Martin has finished five of the seven books, and he seems back on track with book five: A Dance with Dragons. But there are two loose books out there.

How does he know what the hedgehog will do? Is A Feast for Crows going to turn out to be really unecessary? Or will it be the linchpin, the cornerstone, and the readers just can’t see it yet?

For example, looking back on another awesomely famous series: Harry Potter. Let’s examine Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I love Rowling. I love Harry. However. The only part of that entire book we, as readers, needed was the fact that Voldemort came back to a body. That’s it. The adventure was interesting – though convaluted. (I mean, what a pain-in-the-ass plan to get Harry to touch a portkey, right? Made me question the deviousness of the bad guys…can’t they keep it simple?) If there’s any unecessary hedgehog in that series, it’s in Goblet of Fire.

Some of this comes – I’m sure – from the writer not knowing what’s really necessary until the end. Threads get lost in the smallest books. A huge series with thousands of pages has millions of threads and, therefore, way more opportunity for meandering/getting lost.

However, Rowling pulled it off with a minimum of hedgehogs and I’m certain that Martin will too. How so? Well, I’m not in their heads, but I’m pretty sure that there are some techniques that control the potential chaos.

1. Knowing the end.
Rowling knew down to the last word the ending of Harry Potter. Sure, that word changed. But she had her vision and stuck to it. Thus, less hedgehogs. And Martin, I’m pretty darn sure, knows where he’s going. For all the Starks that die and shift and adjust – they’re still gonna be the big dogs at the end. (Ha! Dogs.)

***Oh! And because I like making predictions, and because I’ve only read the first two books so I feel cocky enough to predict the end based on the beginning…Jenny’s predictions for the end of the series!:
1.) Bran will ride one of the dragons = war hero. And, if both Jon and Danerys bite it…he’s gonna be the big leader.
2.) Jon and Danerys are gonna be the big leaders – one or the other might die and one or the other might rule…or (this is my real bet) they fall in love and rule jointly. Either way they’re not only going to be the big leaders, but they’re going to care deeply for each other.
3.) Tyrion’s probably gonna die. Sorry. But it will be one of the more affecting deaths because it’ll be near the end in a glorious victory that he created. Bittersweet.
4.) Sansa…well, I don’t know about her. She seems like someone who will grow into the manipulative Cersei, but for good instead of evil. Wouldn’t surprise me if she’s some kind of bard-like character who tells the story. She is fascinated by fairy tales and legends, after all.
5.) Arya – she could go one of a million different ways. Struggling with her a bit. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if she was the one who took out Tyrion somehow….***

2. Tracking
Ali keeps her Book Bible. I’m 99.99999% certain that Martin does too. Perhaps it’s a shoebox full of ideas and scraps – like Rowling – or perhaps it’s a three ring binder that contains maps and character sketches and scene orders. But I’m willing to bet money I don’t have that he’s got something, somewhere that works as an outline/guideline. Because if he’s keeping all this world information in his head – I want his brain.

What other techniques can writers use to track their work? How do you control the chaos that results from rough drafts/lengthy series details?  

Scene Breaks: Martin Doesn’t Do ’em

Recently, in the critiques I’ve been giving for my writers group, I’ve taken to pointing out that we, as a group, don’t generally use scene breaks. (Have you ever noticed you start pointing out bits and pieces in other people’s writing that you think you might need in your own? I do that. A lot.) This strikes me as problematic because a story without scene breaks gets bogged down in the minutiae. You start to show the characters going through every single door, you show the characters as they dress, as they change television channels, as they do all the boring things that have nothing to do with the story.

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the idea that shorter chapters = faster reads? I believe the same kinda deal goes on with scene breaks. You leave the reader hanging; you leave the reader wanting more. That way they turn the page and Voila! they get to your satisfying end. Seems to be a way to go.

And yet, here is George R.R. Martin. Bestseller.

He doesn’t use scene breaks. At all.

Turn to any chapter in the Song of Fire and Ice series. At this exact moment I have A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings sitting right beside me. I’ve read both. Just this past minute I flipped through several chapters, just looking for the little gap of white space that indicates a scene break. I was to be thwarted in my search. Except for the chapter breaks, it’s one long narrative. No scene breaks.

The question is: Is this a problem?

Well, I’d say yes and no. Yes, because the books do go for a long, long, long time. Both of the books are over 700 pages. Part of this might be that Martin – to this reader at least – gets bogged down in minutiae. I love that his world is so developed…but do I really need to know the details of every single outfit? For example, from a “Bran” chapter in A Clash of Kings:

The sight of Bran in his basket drew stares from those who had not see it before, but he had learned to ignore stares. At least he had a good view; on Hodor’s back, he towered over everyone. The Walders were mounting up, he saw. They’d brough fine armor up from the Twins, shining silver plate with enameled blue chasings. Big Walder’s crest was shaped like a castle, while Little Walder favored streamers of blue and grey silk. Their shields and surcoats also set them apart from each other. Little Walder quartered the twin towers of Frey with the brindled boar of his grandmother’s House and plowman of his mother’s: Crakehall and Darry, respectively. Big Walder’s quarterings were the tree-and-ravens of House Blackwood and the twining snakes of the Paeges.”

And there are quite a few passages like this in both books. Again, great world-building detail, but I think it mostly unecessary.

That being said, I think Martin -in general – gets away with a lack of scene breaks because his chapters are very focused on single characters, and watching the interplay between the characters – understanding their maneuverings – creates tension in his story.

Martin’s chapters, as focused as they are, aren’t long either. (They’re not short, but they’re not long.) He keeps the scenes tight – so there’s really not a great need for scene breaks. There’s action in his scenes. The characters don’t just sit there, so whenever a new character pops up, the reader is interested in what this guy is gonna do this time…and how will it effect the efforts of the other characters you just read about?

He creates movement. This is a skill that writers must develop, regardless of whether they use scene breaks or not. For as many words, as many pages, and as many characters as Martin has created, there’s actually a surprising lack of superfluous information. (Like clothes.) Flipping through the pages, it was kinda hard to find the passage above as a useless piece. Every time I thought I’d found a piece that could be cut I found a reason it should be left in: this passage is all character development, that passage paints the scene – the fighting will be confused if the reader doesn’t understand where that tree is. A led to Z almost every time.

Do you guys embrace scene breaks? How do you decide to structure your scenes?

Two Different Ends to Two Different Series

I just finished reading Curtain, Poirot’s last case. (I promise I won’t give away the end.) And recently I’d also read Sleeping Murder, which is Marple’s last case. In both cases the books were written years (decades) before they were published.

Also in both cases the sleuths are still sharp, still the same old human-observers, and still fun to read.

But, oh, how the sleuths are treated differently by their creator.

Miss Marple is the same as always. The story hinges on the case itself being unique. A “murder in retrospect.” The idea of a murder in retrospect is that the case has laid dormant, but still has the power to affect people. I think that this was a very poetic way to end the Marple series.

Inspector Poirot, however, is not the same as always. He is much older, wheelchair bound, and his comically dyed hair seems that much more pitiable, according to his buddy Hastings who returns for the final act. The end of this series is cyclical in a more direct way than the end of the Marple series. Hastings returns. The whole thing takes place at Styles — which has been transformed into a hotel. The characters take their old bedrooms. The difference is in the characters and not necessarily the plot.

I’m not certain how I feel about this. I’ve read in various places that, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie got tired of writing about Poirot. She apparently preferred writing the Miss Marple series, even though there are almost twice the Poirot stories/novels out there in the world. Somehow I sensed that preference much more in the final books than anywhere else where it’s easy to compare the two (like in the first books–but those are always much more hopeful anyway, aren’t they?)

Marple gets to be whole and the hero. Poirot, still heroic, gets a ton more difficulties added to his plate.

Do authors have to be fair to their series’ characters? As an author, of course I say no.  After all, we’re only human and we will inherently like one character over another. It can feel monotonous to write one character over and over again, and if we don’t feel particularly close to a character, or we don’t identify with a character, they’re harder to write.

Seems to me, as Christie got older, she would naturally identify more with her spinster, sharp-lady creation than her foreign, male counterpart. It only makes sense.

But authors also have to answer to their fans, and as a fan, I’ll admit to being a little bothered by–what I am perceiving as–the unbalanced aspect of the two endings. It almost seemed mean. The end was written way before it was published…so she knew what was going to happen to Poirot for years before the readers got to see it…so how could she avoid the images of Poirot incapacitated in her head?

I know, life isn’t fair. But this is fiction, cozy mysteries as a matter of fact, and it can be more fair than real life.

The reading for me was a bit jarring, I’ll admit, and my impressions are probably just that: impressions. After reading Sleeping Murder, my expectations for the Poirot story were different than what I was presented, so it took some adjusting. In the end, as Christie shows with Poirot, it is all about mind over matter. (Something Jeffrey Deaver explores with his Lincoln Rhyme character, right?)

Plus, he goes out with a bang:
Poirot deserves his place in crime fiction history and this was certainly achieved on his death in 1975; Poirot became the only fictional character in history to be honoured with an obituary on the front of The New York Times!“~from the Agatha Christie website

What do you guys think? If you have parallel-style characters, is it fair to expect fairness in their treatment? Or does the difference imply implicitly that you should present differences?

Consistency of Physical Description

I have trouble keeping track of the various eye colors of my characters through one book. In my last completed draft of a book, I caught at least three variations of eye color of my main character’s eyes. Apparently I just couldn’t decide. So, as I read through Christie’s body of work, my main thought is: Damn, this girl’s consistent.

And creative. She paints a definite portrait of Poirot, but uses different methods to get there. The only thing that is perfect every time is the picture of the character.

Take for example the following descriptions of Hercule Poirot’s moustache throughout a few books:

from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): “Over the wall, to my left, there appeared a face. An egg-shaped head, partially covered with suspiciously black hair, two immense mustaches, and a pair of watchful eyes.”

from Murder on the Orient Express (1934): “Hercule Poirot addressed himself to the task of keeping his moustaches out of the soup. That difficult task accomplished, he glanced round him whilst waiting for the next course.”

from Cards on the Table (1936): “While the Lovely Young Thing made a suitable reply, Poirot allowed himself a good study of the hirsute adornment on Mr. Shaitana’s upper lip. A fine moustache – a very fine moustache – the only moustache in London, perhaps, that could compete with that of M. Hercule Poirot.”

Throughout all of these descriptions, we have moustaches (Poirot’s signature trait), as well as Poirot’s fussiness about his appearance. (There are other creative references to his too-dark hair and egg-shaped head too.)

My good writer buddies, Ali and Deb, both have mentioned to me that they keep bibles for their books. This is something that I’m trying to do with my current WIP. But that’s just to keep me straight on what I’ve done already…it has nothing to do with giving a consistent description in varied, lively ways.

Sure, the descriptions in a series really just have to bring new readers up to speed. It doesn’t have to be new. (Sweet Valley High – I’m looking at you with Jessica and Elizabeth and their perfect size-six super-model good looks!) Generally, readers are gonna skim during those physical descriptions anyway, right?

Well, I say that’s no way to treat your reader!

Homework for this weekend: Take the physical description of your character and spin ’em around a little bit. Feel free to share your experiments in the comments section (if you’re feeling brave) and if you have any tips for keeping character traits straight (say that three times really fast!) please give tidbits! My book’s bible is getting so ridiculously full that I’m not sure how helpful it’ll be to me….

Characters Who Don’t Make It Through The Series

In both of Christie’s series – Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple – the opening books are narrated by characters who fall away fairly quickly in the series, never to be heard from in the same way again: John Hastings as Poirot’s bumbling sidekick in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage.

Of course, these would be my two favorite characters out of what I’ve read of Christie’s books so far. Both characters are hilarious, charming…basically someone I’d like to date. They care about their fellow man. They are open to new possibilities (i.e. will listen when someone unexpected like Poirot or Marple has something to say).
But, in spite of all of their likeability as characters, there’re reasons that they can’t go on in the series. As much as you like a character, sometimes they have to go. It is the ultimate case of eliminating your darlings.

Why do these gentlemen have to hit the highway, though? Hastings wants to be a detective/sleuth (so he says). The vicar is a leader in Marple’s nosy little town. Seems like they’d be able to fit into the lives of Poirot and Marple pretty easily.

Yeah, but that gives the reader too many characters to negotiate. Instead of using Poirot and Marple as the keys to the mystery – which they are – the narrators of Hastings and the vicar are given too much power in their respective stories. Mostly because they’re the narrators. Narration is THE position of power and trust. As narrators, Hastings and Clement potentially negate the influence of Poirot and Marple in the novels.

Another reason is stage-of-life logistics. After all, Poirot is a retired inspector who is constantly being interrupted on vacation or when he’s moved to a quiet place to escape the hustle and bustle of detecting. Hastings is a young, flirtatious, prime-of-life specimen. How do you explain his trailing alongside a retired inspector?

Miss Marple is a nosy old lady, with her own established place in the village. The vicar is a busy man, with a young busy wife, with a flock of the sinning-est group of folk in the country. How do you explain him hanging out with Miss Marple all hours of the day and night, and conversely, how would you like Miss Marple if she had to constantly hang around him?

Eventually, everything that made these two characters likeable would wear away. While it makes me sad to see them disappear as the books go on, I do indeed understand the reasoning, or instinct, that veered Christie away from them.

What recurring characters can you think of who overstayed their welcome, either in a book series or a television series? Why do you think the Love faded away?