Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Keeping a Series Fresh

For everyone on the planet, 2018 marks a new year, a new beginning. For writers, it marks another year to produce a book for publication. I haven’t published a new novel since September of 2015. I reached 35,000 words on one, decided I didn’t believe the premise, and gave up, though I think it has future possibilities with a little more thought. I did write The Last Heist, a novella for the anthology, Lowcountry Crime, but that was it.

Today, January 9th, I'm publishing The Scent of Murder, the fourth book in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, my ninth suspense novel, and my twelfth book overall, including erotic romance books written under a pseudonym. 

When I published Backlash, the third book in the series, I thought it was the most difficult book I’d written, not because it was a hard book to write, but because I didn’t want the series to diminish in quality.

We’ve all read reviews of books deep into a series that suggest the author should move on, that s/he had written the best of the books and now the characters, story, and suspense have become tired and repetitive. A few writers have been able to pull off  a long series and keep readers engaged, but it's not easy to keep the plots and characters fresh? I thought about how to make the fourth book as good or better than the third book. Here are the answers that work for me.

Characters.
Characters.
Characters.

How many times have you read that the characters in a book were unlikeable? It takes an amazing plot to overcome that. I’ve stopped reading books because I didn’t care what happened to the main character. DIDN’T CARE! I want my characters to be likeable. Damaged, maybe, but I want the reader to care about them enough to follow them into subsequent books.

Developing relationships in a series is essential. My lead series characters meet in the first book, Mind Games. I personally don’t like cat and mouse games for too long in a romantic relationship. A little tension in the beginning is fine, but their constant back and forth irritability is annoying, and if a writer keeps that going in subsequent books, especially stand-alones, readers know what to expect, and the books become formulaic. Characters grow to like each other; get on with the story and quit messing around with their hot and cold emotions, especially in a suspense/thriller.

I had posed a question to writer friends if a series character always needs to be in danger at the end of every suspense/thriller. The answer was a resounding YES! How many times can a writer make that fresh? Different dangers, different rescues, different, different, different. It’s a terrific challenge to keep the reader alert and engaged. Of course, he or she is rescued unless you want to end the series, but how it’s pulled off is crucial.

Secondary characters in a series—the ones in every book—should be as developed as you can make them short of having them take over the story. As the series develops, so should they. Readers get to know them, like them, see their different personalities. In some cases, a secondary character can be the story, and that’s okay. Think John Sandford’s character Virgil Flowers in the Prey series becoming his own series. Why? Because he was interesting and well developed.

In The Scent of Murder, I introduce a ten-year-old boy and thought long and hard about whether to keep him as an ongoing character in the series. I didn't decide until the end of the book.

Then, of course, there's the plot, or in the case of this book, two plots that have nothing to do with each other. Could I switch from one plot to the other without jarring the reader? That was the question I asked beta readers. One plot also takes Diana, a retired psychic entertainer, into another realm of her otherworldly gift. It was tricky and risky. I’m sure my readers will let me know if I succeeded or if I opted for sensationalism and failed.

Because I have two plots, I have multiple villains. Remember characters, characters, characters? Even though villains appear in only one book (unless s/he is a recurring villain - think Professor Moriarty), they should be as well developed as the main characters. Writers can make them nasty, irredeemable, or sympathetic. I’ve written them all, but they must be memorable.

To celebrate the publication of The Scent of Murder, I’m giving away the ebook of Mind Games, the first book in the series, January 11~14 on Amazon, and I’ll be interviewed on the Writers Who Kill blog on January 13th. www.writerswhokill.blogspot.com

Happy writing. Oh, and happy reading too.


Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

21 comments :

  1. Good luck with the book, Polly! Diana is a compelling character--I wouldn't get hung up on the "fresh" aspect. If you keep the backstory moving forward new wrinkles in her life make fresh moot. Wish I could have interviewed you--Sorry I messed up on your release date.

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    1. Thanks, Elaine. I'm still available for you and always will be. You've been a big supporter.

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  2. Congratulations, Polly! I'm adding The Scent of Murder to my TBR list.

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  3. Look forward to reading the new one. And I had to chuckle at the Virgil Flowers reference. I listen to Sanford's books on audio, and can hear the narrator say, "That f***ing Flowers."

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    1. In some ways, I like Virgil better. Wish Lucas never got married. I kind of liked him single.

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  4. Great post, Polly! You nailed the fact that characters--even bad guys--must be three-dimensional and believable. I agree that characters need to be "fresh"; however, they also need to be true to themselves. The character who was introduced in the first book of the series has to be easily recognizable in the last one, now matter how many books they journey through in between. Of course they can mature, grow in knowledge and understanding, even age; but the core of the character must remain the same. Am I the same person I was when I was 20? Basically, yes. Over the years I've learned a lot, mellowed a lot (most of the time), and changed a lot. But the core of that 20-year-old remains alive and well six decades later. On a side note, I love the idea of posing pertinent questions to writer friends and waiting for input from readers. In a large part, these tell the tale.

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    1. You make some great points. Diana stays true to herself. I had a couple of times in the series when she did some very stupid things. She's grown from that and considers her actions more. I hope I've done her justice.

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  5. Is there an Amazon link for the book giveaway? Just curious how we can sign up. Thanks!

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    1. Do you mean Mind Games? It will be free on Amazon from the 11th-14th.

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  6. Congrats on the new book baby. I too love the cover.

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  7. Thanks, Diana. Glad to see this baby leave the womb.

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  8. Totally agree about the characters needing to be fresh. I get so tired of the same 'ol same 'ol. I also tire of the ongoing tension between central characters who obviously have an attraction. That works for a while, but soon gets tedious. I do wonder, however, about leaving the central character in danger at the end of a book. I know that is a technique to have the reader eager for the next book, but I wonder how many readers are disappointed at being left hanging so long as to whether the character gets out of the danger or not.

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    1. I agree with this, Maryann. I can see leaving a few loose threads at the end of a story to tickle the curiosity of readers and make them want to buy the next book, but not leave them wondering if the protagonist will survive to continue the series. This reminds me of "Who shot J.R.?" I wasn't a fan of "Dallas," but I certainly remember what a stir that season-end episode created. As I recall, a lot of viewers were not happy.

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    2. Glad you ladies agree. I don't like leaving the main character/s in jeopardy at the end of the book either. That's like saying to the reader that they have to start at the beginning. Yes, it's always better to do that, but each book should hold on its own and could be read out of order. At least that's the way I write my series.

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  9. Polly,
    I'm so glad that you've another Diana Racine book out! It's a wonderful series. I couldn't agree with you more—the characters in our books are of utmost importance. Readers relate to our characters. They remember them, long after they've forgotten aspects of the plot. I love writing about my characters—their personalities and their relationships. Especially their old secrets that can't but impact their present behavior.

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    1. I'm reminded about the book/movie Misery, by Stephen King. Don't mess with the characters or there'll be angry readers. Thanks for posting, Marilyn.

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  10. Like you, Polly, I haven't published a novel since Sept 2015, which made me feel inadequate as a writer (in my defense, my day job consumes a lot of time and I did manage to get my first short story published). I so much appreciate your reminders of tedious tension and keeping things fresh as I dive into Book 3 (#2 comes out in April). Thanks and happy sales, Polly!

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  11. Good luck with book 2, Lida. There is pressure. Two years between books and readers forget about you. Not only is writing a new book stressful, keeping your name in the public eye is harder, especially if you don't go to conferences and events. Cheers to you.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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