Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In the Beginning--Series vs. Stand Alone

Jonnie Jacobs is the author of Paradise Falls (forthcoming March 2012) as well as twelve previously published mysteries. Today she discusses the thrill of starting a new book, and the differences when starting a stand-alone and a series.

Now that the various winter holidays are behind us and we look forward to the clean slate of a new year, I’m reminded of the way I feel when I’ve finished a book and am ready to start another. I love beginnings—a new year, a new day, even the oft-dreaded Monday. And I especially love beginning a new book. Getting characters into trouble is a lot easier than getting them out it! But more than that, I like the freshness of a new book. I have a pretty good idea of my characters, but they always surprise me. I think I know where the story is going, but it rarely does. At the start of a book, anything is possible.

Where to start when the possibilities are seemingly endless?

I’ve written ten books in two different mystery series. The nice thing about a series is that after the first book, many of the decisions are already in place. I know my main characters, their friends and family, the setting, and much more. Of course, series characters need to grow and change. Each book is complete in itself, but it’s also a chapter in an ongoing story, and one of the things readers like about series is being able to follow characters over time. I try in each series book to move the character in some new direction in her personal life, and in each book I learn more about her.

A series also means that decisions you made in prior books stick with you. If you’ve written about an amateur sleuth in book one, readers might be upset to find she’s turned into a veteran detective by book two. Similarly, readers expect the author’s voice and writing style to remain fairly consistent. And decisions about your lead character, even if they were minor and offhand, can come back to haunt you.

In the first book in my legal suspense series, attorney Kali O’Brien mentions that she has a brother. One throwaway line. But he was part of her family and had to be accounted for in some way in the books that followed. Finally, in The Next Victim, I solved the problem once and for all by killing him! It proved to be a great setup for the novel, and in the process I learned a lot about Kali’s family and her relationship with her sister (who was also a brief mention in the first book).

With a single-title book, the possibilities are wide open. Exciting, yes, but also a bit daunting. Tone, viewpoint, style, present or past tense – a stand-alone book reinvents it all.

For me, character is key to the story, and I love having the opportunity to create a new character “from scratch.” I ask myself, who is this person and how is she involved in the events of the story? What conflicts in her own life complicate the story? What’s her background? What’s her family like? Does she have a pet? Is she tall or short? What’s her hair color?

With a series character, I need to find a reason for my character to be involved in the events of the story. Sometimes this emanates from her personal life, as with Kali and her murdered brother. With a non-series book, I can create lead characters that fit the events of the story.

In Paradise Falls, my second stand-alone novel, there are three point-of-view characters – the mother of a missing girl, the mother’s stepson who she accuses of wrongdoing, and the detective working the case. The mother appeared in my mind as a fairly well-defined character. I knew she had a happy marriage and a good life that was about to be turned on its head with the disappearance of her daughter and her suspicions about her stepson.

The detective was initially more of a challenge because I wanted her to have a real stake in the outcome of the story, and I knew nothing at all about what sort of person she was – or even if she was a she. I crafted her backstory and present-life conflicts to fit that purpose. I decided that she was indeed a she (her emotional connection with the mother would be stronger than if she were a man) and that she had a missing daughter herself. I threw an uneasy romance with an FBI agent into the mix because the relationship complicated her ability to do her job.

The teenage boy was also a challenge. I’m an adult woman, for starters. But I often find the more different I am from a character, the easier it is to give free reign to my imagination and let the character take over. And again, because this book isn’t part of a series, I could craft this young man to fit the needs of the plot.

Whether in a series or a stand-alone book, I love beginnings. As in real life, I love the chance to start afresh. Of course it's easier to do in a book than the real world, which is why I enjoy starting a new one, and especially a novel where everything is new to me.

Visit Jonnie on the web at http://www.jonniejacobs.com, and look for her new book, Paradise Falls, this March.

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Maddy said...

Thank you. It's always fascinating to read about someone's creative process.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jonnie,

Your novel and mine DEATH LEGACY will be coming out together. This one is a stand alone as opposed to another series novel which I am working on now. I don't know which is more difficult, continuing a series and keeping it fresh or strating from scratch on an entirely new novel with new characters and setting. Good luck with the new release!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this blog about stand-alones and series. I've got two main series and a couple that I may not write more than 2 or 3, depending on sales and the Fickle Finger of Fate - LOL And YES, a new beginning is always exciting, my feelings exactly.

Write on,
& Happy New Year,

Jonnie Jacobs said...

I agree that having some series books and some stand-alones is a nice mix. I like that as a reader as well as an author. Happy New Year, and happy new beginnings.

M. S. Spencer said...

Very interesting topic Jonnie--all five of my romantic suspense novels have been stand-alone & when my publisher asked if the last (Artful Dodging: The Torpedo Factory Murders, to be released next year) was a series, I said NO! once the hero & heroine are united, what else is there to say? From your discussion I can see there are advantages & disadvantages to both types for the writer. Thanks for the post! Meredith

Cait London said...

I've written 10 bks in the Tallchief series. But between those, I wrote others and that kept me fresh. I don't think I'd want to do more than a trilogy, without breaking it up. One of the best things about some software now is that you can note places, characters, etc. and keep everything straight while moving on.

jonnie jacobs said...

I need to follow Cait's lead and keep better track of character descriptions and places in my series. I end up having to go back and re-read old books way too often!

Karen C said...

I enjoyed this post - it is always interesting to learn about an author's approach.