To Series Or Not To Series? (That was the question.)

June 18, 2013

When I started sending around my first mystery-thriller at the end of 2011 to a few friends and relatives in preparation for public release, I had no intention of continuing any of the characters in a second or third book.  To be completely honest, I was modeling my work very much after early John Grisham and, as far as I know, he creates new characters for each book.  At least that was the case for his earlier ones (The Firm, Pelican Brief, etc.).

So, I was immediately thrown into a conundrum when the first readers (other than my wife who had read chapters as I wrote), assumed that subsequent books would be based on the same main character.  Once that book, Project Moses, hit Amazon and started to get readers, this became a familiar pattern.  Readers assumed, in fact, that I had written in certain aspects of the plot so that the protagonist, a San Francisco newspaper reporter named Enzo Lee, would be free to live, love and solve mysteries again.  Also, people fell in love with a secondary character, Bobbie Connors, a tough, warm-hearted detective, and made it clear they hoped to see more of her. 

I was pleased in some ways.  Obviously, many readers felt attached enough to Enzo and Bobbie Connors to want to read more about them and future adventures.  Chief among my worries when I started writing was that I wouldn’t be able to draw convincing characters.  I tend to be very analytical so I thought my main strength would be architecting plots that held together, seemed credible and didn’t leave loose ends.  Most of my rewriting focused on refining the characters, making them believable to me so they were acting and interacting in ways that didn’t seem false or contrived.  I would write elaborate back stories and then delete them, convinced they had too much detail.  But, often I would return a third time and drop in a detail or suggestion of the more elaborate back story. For instance, a key part of Enzo’s past – what happened to him earlier in his journalism career that almost cost him his job and drove him back to reinvent himself in San Francisco – went unexplained until the middle of the second book, Divine Fury.

And, of course, there were the marketing aspects.  One of the first concepts I learned in the crash course on self publishing that I began when Project Moses went live in January 2012 was the supposed power of multiple books, particularly in a series.  The conventional wisdom is that if you can get people hooked on one of your books, particularly if it’s part of series implying even more consistency, readers will likely buy the rest, giving you a powerful multiplier effect.  I guess the same wisdom would say that this effect is most powerful when it comes to true sequels (say, Hunger Games or Harry Potter), with the next level being an ongoing main character (like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books).    

So I decided not to buck what seemed to be both the popular choice (per Amazon reviews) and the business choice.  I stuck with Enzo.  I’m working on my third book now, and it is another Enzo Lee mystery thriller.  However, I’m thinking very much about taking a break from Enzo after this one, as much as I feel like he’s part of the family now.

As I plan my books, I find myself operating at two somewhat contradictory levels because of the series approach.  At one level, I’m thinking about Enzo’s life, career and relationship. Permanent relationship?  Kids? Discoveries about his family’s past that are troubling?  At the other level, I’m thinking somewhat abstractly about possible conspiracies or suspenseful themes. A political thriller? A science-driven plot?  Massive corruption on Wall Street?  I think of Michael Crichton’s work in this vein – very much concept driven.  (Jurassic Park.  Andromeda Strain.  Disclosure. The Rising Sun.)  The first path (character development) gives me a more Enzo-centric story.  The second may require almost stuffing Enzo into the plot, but gives me a bigger overall story in a sense.  Personally, I enjoy a good local crime story but the ones that stand out for me have bigger actors and forces involved. 

If nothing else, I certainly understand now why some writers who do focus on a particular main character sometimes make a switch.  Connelly comes to mind as he sometimes takes a break from Harry Bosch and has attorney Mickey Haller as his main character. 

We all need vacations.

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