I’m Not a Panster, I’m a Cooker

 

Miramichi 018.JPGYou all know how it goes. There is a panel of authors sitting before an audience. The presentation is done and now it’s time for Q&A. Once in a while there’s a question that is delightfully quirky or unpredictable, but most times, along with questions about where we get our ideas, someone will want to know whether the writers outline before they write.

The answers will vary. Some of the writers will be serious outliners, the kind who have a detailed, sixty-page outline before they write word one. They are likely the same folks who carefully keep notebooks about each recurring character. Who give their characters birthdays. Who remember that in book two, Uncle Henry and Aunt Rita were feeling estranged from the main character. Who will have carefully noted when their character’s sister burned down the house or shot the neighbor’s dog. They will have a note on the name of that deceased dog so they won’t use it for another dog later in the series. These people, though I long to emulate them, are just too organized.

Others will work from a shorter outline, possibly the one they submitted to a publisher to Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.18.22 PMget another contract. These writers generally know the story they mean to tell, although most will readily admit that the book they end up writing often bears little resemblance to the outline they submitted. Usually, neither the author nor the editors cares when this happens.

Occasionally there are those who admit they start at the end of the book and work backward, making sure that everything that happens leads to that already designed and inevitable ending.

Then there are the pantsers. These are the writers who sit down at the keyboard (formerly Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.19.23 PMknown as the typewriter), type Chapter One, and have at it. Many of them will admit that at the end of the writing day or a scene or a chapter, they have no idea what will happen next. For them, much of the joy of writing is in that journey of discovery. It’s in somehow having their creative minds lead them forward into the next chapter. And for pantsers—while they will admit to those moments of despair when they don’t know what to write next and no fluttery little muse is whispering in their ear—this approach generally works.

I am neither an outliner nor a pantser. When I wrote my first mystery—one of the three that reside in a drawer labeled: In the event of my death, burn these—I wrote the pieces I knew. From there, I made an outline of what I needed to write to connect these pieces, and finally, an outline of what needed to still be filled in. I wrote the next in much the same fashion, feeling my way along. Probably following that line that is attributed to many writers including Doctorow that writing is like driving a night. You can only see as far as your headlights but if you keep going, eventually you will get there.

That felt a bit shaky and disorganized, so for the next book, I wrote an outline. Following that outline lasted exactly one chapter. At the end of chapter one, in a book that I had planned to be about real estate and corrupt bankers, a student walks into my protagonist high school teacher’s classroom and says: “You’ve got to help me, Mr. M. I’m in big trouble.” The book became about that trouble.

I’ve lost count, but at book twenty-four or so, I’ve evolved into what I call a cooker. Not meth, thank goodness, but plotting. When an idea comes to me—often only a phrase, or a person in a difficult situation or whatever—I begin the process of wondering. Who is this person? Why is he or she in this situation? What’s in the past that led them here? And once that musing leads to a protagonist and a victim, I wonder about why the victim is dead, what my protagonist’s connection is, and then my mind begins to fill in the details about the crime scene, the clues, the killer, the other suspects, and how it will all be unraveled. I don’t write it down, but I remember it.

During the cooking period, I can get quite lost in my own head. Plot ideas or critiques of what I’ve planned can come flying at me at any time. While driving. In the shower. As I go to sleep and as I’m waking up. During this time, I joke that I should wear a tag like Paddington Bear that reads: Please Look After This Author. Thank You. If Found, Please Return To . . .”

That in-my-head plan can still get knocked awry by a character seizing control—an event that used to scare me but now I embrace. But mostly, I follow the story line I’ve cooked up.

So if I zone out during dinner. If I suddenly get a glazed look in my eyes. If I suddenly whip out my phone and begin typing—please smile indulgently. I’m not being rude. I’m just cooking.

The Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores

by Taffy Cannon

Part of the magic of any Golden Age is that while you’re in the middle of it, you tend not to recognize just how remarkable it is. So it was with the Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores, which flourished through the 1990s and early 2000s.

The first mystery bookstore in the country was Murder Ink in New York, which Dilys Winn opened in 1972 with a stunning concept: all mysteries, all the time. Over the next couple of decades, the ranks grew as bookstores opened and thrived from San Diego to New England and Seattle to Miami. By the time my own first mystery was published in 1993, a wide and wonderful network supported both mystery writers and fans from coast to coast.

Almost every major city had at least one, and major metropolitan areas often featured several. The Los Angeles area had so many that at any given moment you might need both hands and a spare foot to keep track. Each served a particular community or geographical area. Book ‘Em was in Pasadena, The Mystery Bookstore in West LA, The Mystery Annex in Venice, Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks, Book Carnival in Orange, Grounds for Murder and Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. Lots of others came and went in other neighborhoods, sometimes so quickly that a place might open and close between my own publication dates.

These stores’ mystery-related names were more clever than wince-worthy. Accessories to Murder. Aunt Agatha’s. Black Orchid. Booked for Murder. Big Sleep Books. Capital Crimes. Clues Unlimited. Deadly Passions. Foul Play. Grave Matters. Murder by the Book. Mystery Loves Company. Once Upon a Crime. Partners & Crime. The Raven. Remember the Alibi. Scotland Yard. Whodunit?

Most stores developed special programs to accommodate the interests and desires of their customers: discussion groups, seminars, books of the month, teas, newsletters. Those newsletters also served as major pre-Internet sales tools, and I loved to find the ones from Rue Morgue and Poisoned Pen in my mailbox. They’d let me know which new books were out, who was new and exciting, and what was going to be published soon.

Sometimes they even included nice reviews of my own books.

 

Book signing schedules were grueling in those olden times, and not just because being charming in public requires an entirely different skill set from writing.

It was not uncommon for an author in SoCal to visit three mystery bookstores in a single, exhausting day, and those three were likely to be scattered all over the place. New York publicists unfamiliar with Southern California geography had a tendency to schedule back-to-back crosstown signings that would barely have been possible if they’d also provided a helicopter.

Most of us weren’t working with publicists, however, at least not as much as we might have liked. Most of us couldn’t even get our alleged publicists to return phone calls. So authors bore the primary responsibility for scheduling their own signings, and a newby quickly got to know local booksellers, their stores, and their foibles. It was expected that you would sign at all the reasonably convenient bookstores, promote those signings, and do it all on your own nickel.

Before the Internet, publicizing a new book included hundreds of postcards sent with each and every publication to mystery booksellers, indies with strong mystery sections, and everyone you had ever known in your life. These cards were also handy to announce signing schedules.

Sisters in Crime offered mailing lists, published the member-written Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies, and provided a connection to a Virginia printer who could set you up with the requisite piles of paper: bookmarks, flyers, postcards, posters, and more. He’d also handle addressing and bulk mailing, though most of us did the clerical work ourselves. By the time I got off this particular train, my mailing list was in Access and my tongue always tasted like stamps.

 

The stereotypical mystery bookseller was a lady of a certain age who loved to read, fully intended to learn more about business one of these days, and had a cat named Agatha sunning in the window. The reality, of course, was far more complicated and eclectic, and might be a burly male with a shop heavy on private eye books or the preternaturally savvy Barbara Peters, whose Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale fairly reeked successful business methods. The common denominator, of course, was always a passion for crime fiction.

These stores succeeded for a long time because of the symbiotic relationships between booksellers, authors, and readers. If you loved mysteries, you were finding a home, a place you might not have even imagined possible. Here you could find all your favorite authors and every book they’d ever written, along with new authors you might not have discovered if an informed bookseller hadn’t told you about them. These people knew their stock, and recognized that if you liked Ellis Peters, you’d want to read Sharan Newman.

Any weekend in America, dozens of mystery bookstores featured signings of new books attended by fans eager to buy those books and meet their authors in person. The format was generally the same: a brief author chat, questions from the audience, signing and schmoozing. The bookseller was almost invariably gracious—hovering, asking questions when the audience was shy, making conversation when things were slow.

Most stores had a group of regulars, and many authors had dedicated followers who’d arrive with bags full of multiple copies. I always liked to set up signings with one or two other writers. This would bring out more people, cross-pollinate fan bases, and give me somebody to talk to if nobody showed up. Often there were cookies, and frequently parting gifts as well: mugs, pens, paperweights, keychains, magnifying glasses.

Sometimes real life intersected with fiction. I once did a signing at The Mystery Bookstore in LA with Anne Perry, right after the story of her unfortunate teenage brush with firsthand crime became public knowledge. Her line snaked out of the store, and she was fantastically gracious to supportive fans, even when she had to repeatedly correct them about the name of the movie which had outed her own indiscretion. Meanwhile James Ellroy, the son of a murder victim, waited in the back room wafting testosterone. His signing would immediately follow ours. I remember him having a bull terrier at his side, though I’m pretty sure he didn’t.

You quickly learned that when people started drifting into a store during your signing and positioned themselves around the back walls, it wasn’t because the parking lot was really full or they were late. It was because you were the two o’clock, with Michael Connelly up at three.

 

Any time you traveled anywhere, you’d try to work in signings at whatever mystery bookstores were local or within striking distance. This had some tax implications but mostly was just smart business.

You’d get to spend time with the local bookseller, meet the local mystery community, get your name in the Books column of the local newspaper, and feel like a star as you met loyal readers who urged you to write faster. Sometimes if you hadn’t signed previously at a store or in a town, folks would turn up with piles of backlist books that had been purchased when you and your pen weren’t handy. Books ordered by customers who couldn’t make it needed to be signed, along with whatever stock remained unsold when things wound down.

It should be noted that in this signing-crazy era, many chain bookstores were also good about scheduling signings for local authors. These events featured more inquiries about restroom locations than actual book sales, though they did get your name in the paper. But they lacked the personal touch of the mystery bookstores, plunking a writer at a small table near the mall entrance, alone for two hours with a Dixie cup of water.

Sometimes they even got the basic facts wrong. I once arrived at a chain store signing for Tangled Roots to find a 24×36 poster announcing that Taffy Cannon would be signing Tangled Books.

 

The mystery fan convention scene was fairly limited during the Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores. Mostly Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and the upstart Left Coast Crime, with an occasional one-off for private eye authors and fans.

Each con featured an enormous book room packed with bookseller booths. All the local and regional mystery bookstores would be represented of course, along with faraway folks like Rue Morgue’s Tom and Enid Schantz, who routinely loaded stock into their van in Boulder and traveled great distances to cons around the country. Used, antiquarian, and out-of-print books were also available from specialty ooksellers who segued from paper catalogs to websites as the Internet grew.

Conventions were a great opportunity to meet booksellers from areas where you didn’t have travel plans or relatives, though this required a level of social energy that was often difficult to muster. Luckily I persevered. A lot of booksellers I met in the early 1990s remain my friends today, though we mostly see each other on Facebook.

Those convention book rooms bustled with activity and customers, and I was stunned to see how tiny and empty the 2014 Bouchercon book room seemed by comparison. Even more shocking was the realization that Maryelizabeth Hart and Mysterious Galaxy dominated the center of the room, the only participating brick-and-mortar retail operation.

 

The Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores, with its nonstop signing schedules and perpetual promotion, was stressful, exhausting, time-consuming, demoralizing, and exhilarating.

It was also doomed.

First the big chain bookstores muscled onto the scene, targeting independent booksellers who had proven that a market for readers with coins in their jeans existed in a particular area. Sometimes these big boys would also crowd each other out of an area, though by the time that happened, most of the indies had already been driven out of business. This included a lot of independent bookstores which featured strong mystery sections and sponsored regular mystery author signings.

The mystery bookstores mostly survived this shakeout because they were too small to be seen as threatening and their customer bases remained solid and loyal. Also, these stores could still bring in internationally acclaimed mystery writers to meet their customers, on a fairly regular basis.

Then the Internet arrived and moved in everywhere, whether or not it was invited.

We will skip most of the relevant history that features Amazon.com, save to note that discounts available online were simply never possible for mystery bookstores. Mystery bookstores began to close. Some lasted longer than others, and many became online only. A few are still in existence.

Twenty eight mystery bookstores remain today, according to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. http://www.mysterybooksellers.com/member-directory/ I remember nineteen of them, and signed at six.

And I guess this is an appropriate spot for full disclosure. I actually closed several of those Golden Age mystery bookstores myself, along with a small indy or two. I was the first and only author to sign at a coffee and books shop that didn’t make it six months. Mostly, though, I attended going-out-of-business events with other authors. These tended to resemble subdued Irish wakes.

It never felt like an event to me when a mystery bookstore closed, however. It always felt like a knife in the heart.

Rides the Black-and-white Horse

Some years back at a mystery convention in Boulder, Colorado, I performed this tone poem with John Harvey on tambourine, Bill Moody on drums, and a variety of semi-volunteers snapping their fingers to the beat. I wrote this as an homage to the mystery novel. Recently someone quoted snippets of it on twitter with illustrations, and I liked it so much I’ve added a few of my own.

I’m always amused at reactions of people who don’t read mysteries and thrillers, who don’t know the excitement of entering a frightening world of evil or an everyday town where strangers wait their turn to make mayhem. Got the shivers yet?

Here’s how the book sees you the reader.

 

I am a book.

Sheaves pressed from the pulp of oaks and pines
a natural sawdust made dingy from purses, dusty
from shelves.
Steamy and anxious, abused and misused,
kissed and cried over,
smeared, yellowed, and torn,
loved, hated, scorned.

I am a book.

I am a book that remembers,
days when I stood proud in good company
When the children came, I leapt into their arms,
when the women came, they cradled me against their soft breasts,
when the men came, they held me like a lover,
and I smelled the sweet smell of cigars and brandy as we sat together in leather chairs,
next to pool tables, on porch swings, in rocking chairs,
my words hanging in the air like bright gems, dangling,
then forgotten, I crumbled,
dust to dust.

 

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
a book brand-new, sprung from the loins of ancient fathers clothed in tweed,
born of mothers in lands of heather and coal soot.
A family too close to see the blood on its hands,
too dear to suffering, to poison, to cold steel and revenge,
deaf to the screams of mortal wounding,
amused at decay and torment,
a family bred in the dankest swamp of human desires.

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
I am a mystery.

I am intrigue, anxiety, fear,
I tangle in the night with madmen, spend my days cloaked in black,
hiding from myself, from dark angels,
from the evil that lurks within
and the evil we cannot lurk without.

 

I am words of adventure,
of faraway places where no one knows my tongue,
of curious cultures in small, back alleys, mean streets,
the crumbling house in each of us.

I am primordial fear, the great unknown,
I am life everlasting.
I touch you and you shiver, I blow in your ear and you follow me,
down foggy lanes, into places you’ve never seen,
to see things no one should see,
to be someone you could only hope to be.

 

 

I ride the winds of imagination on a black-and-white horse,
to find the truth inside of me,
to cure the ills inside of you,
to take one passenger at a time over that tall mountain,
across that lonely plain to a place you’ve never been
where the world stops for just one minute
and everything is right.

I am a mystery.

-Rides a Black and White Horse”
Lise McClendon

What I Read On My Summer Vacation

So I’m back from my  long-awaited and sorely needed vacation, in which  the missus and I spent a week on lovely Oak Island, NC. There’s just something about the ocean that makes it impossible to hold onto stress for long. A few days next to that immensity and that steady, eternal rhythm constantly in your ears is better than a truckload of Valium, IMHO.

I confess, I’m pretty boring at the beach. Some people seem to regard the beach as a place for vigorous physical activity. They bring volleyball nets, footballs, Frisbees, etc. Me, I tend to sit by the water and read, pausing only to take a dip when it gets too hot or a walk (and by “a walk” I usually mean a trip back up to the beach house for more beer). It’s great to have that leisure time to really be able to focus. It also helps that I’m usually away from the Internet. This time, my only connection was a weak (and let’s be honest, not totally legal) connection to the unsecured Wi-fi next door. So my web surfing, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. was nearly non-existent, which gave me more time to read and fewer available distractions from it. And when I have that kind of time, I really plow through them.

So, this is what I read while at the beach:

 HOSTILE WITNESS, William Lashner: Dave White was raving about this underappreciated author a while back,  and Dave’s a damn fine writer himself. So I downloaded this one, and let me tell you, it’s great.

Victor Carl is the perfect noir protagonist: grasping, resentful, bitter that his legal career never put him amongst the elite of Philadelphia society. When he’s offered a chance to take over as counsel for what seems to be a minor player in a Federal racketeering and extortion trial, he jumps at the chance to play in the big leagues. Victor initially balks at the fact that the trial is in two weeks, but the blue-blood society lawyer defending the main player, a flamboyant city councilman, assures him that all he has to do is follow the lead of the big boys, show a united front, and keep his mouth shut. Pretty much everyone but Victor can see he and his client are being set up to take the fall. Fall he does, in spectacular fashion, including falling for the councilman’s mistress, a classic femme fatale if ever there was one. But he keeps getting back up….

This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

 NEVER GO BACK, Lee Child: Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet the woman who he’s been trying to get to for the last two books, an Army Major (and commander of his old unit) who he only knows as an interesting voice on the phone. When he gets there, she’s in jail, Jack’s charged with the murder of someone he barely remembers, AND he gets hit with a paternity claim from a woman he doesn’t remember at all. Clearly somebody’s trying to make Reacher run away and abandon the damsel in distress, and we all know that’s not going to happen. Asses are kicked, names are taken, Jack does what Jack does. It’s the same old thing, but it’s the same old great thing. Recommended.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, Don Winslow:  Disgraced former cop Jack Wade, currently an arson investigator for the titular insurance company, is convinced that the fire that  destroyed the house of real estate mogul Nicky Vale and incinerated Vale’s beautiful estranged wife Pamela was not, as his former colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department ruled, an accident. No, he thinks it was arson and very possibly murder. As he digs into the evidence, both literally and figuratively, he discovers a web of deceit, betrayal, and counter-betrayal that may just lead to his own immolation.

All I can say about this book is: Wow. Only a writer as skilled as Don Winslow could make a plaintiff’s lawyer like me love a book with a claims adjuster as its protagonist. A surfing claims adjuster, of course, because this is, after all, Don Winslow. But he keeps you guessing, twist upon twist, until the final surprise and an absolutely perfect twist at the end. Highly recommended.

THREE GRAVES FULL, Jamie Mason: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard,” this book begins, and there’s even less for hapless nebbish Jason Getty when the landscaping crew he’s hired turns up two other bodies, neither of which are the man he killed a year ago and buried to cover up the crime. When a pair of engaging small town detectives (and a dog who always follows her nose) pursue the investigation into the two bodies in the front yard, they turn up evidence of another crime they can’t identify…and then things get a little crazy.

One of the cover blurbs compared this to a Coen brothers movie, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the Fargo-esque setup of good hearted small town cops vs. a Casper Milquetoast scrambling to cover up the crime he committed when pushed too far. But Jamie Mason’s worldview isn’t quite as bleak as the Coen’s. The book’s a lot of fun, and I have to admire the skill of a writer who can use a dog as a viewpoint character and not make me roll my eyes. Recommended.

THE SECRET SOLDIER, Alex Berenson: Pretty standard stuff for an international thriller. Troubled ex-CIA agent John Wells is your usual two-fisted thriller hero in the Bolt Studly mold, who gets called in to set things right in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by no less than King Abdullah himself. There’s some interesting stuff about the House of Saud and how they came to power, and the villain is suitably scary and believable. There’s a long stretch in the beginning where Wells and his sidekick are chasing a renegade CIA agent turned drug dealer which I kept waiting to connect with the rest of the book, but which never really does.  Still, it was entertaining, and good for a beach read.

 THE LIVES OF TAO, Wesley Chu: Human history has been influenced since the dawn of mankind by a group of non-corporeal aliens who crashed here millennia ago and have been possessing human hosts ever since, using them to try and nudge human progress to the point where humanity has the ability to get the aliens home. A while back, they split into two factions, one more ruthless and violent than the other. When one of the more peaceful aliens suffers the unexpected and violent loss of his host, he winds up in the body of overweight and aimless computer geek Roen Tan and is forced to make the best use of his raw material. The “Zero to Hero, with hot ass-kicking chicks in leather along the way” trope is pretty obviously aimed at what the publishers assume is SF’s core demographic. The book takes a while to get going, but eventually ends up being a fun action romp. Still, I don’t think I’ll be getting the sequel.

FIDDLEHEAD, Cherie Priest: The final chapter in Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series (or so she says) ends up being the best one I’ve read so far. It’s got all the wild inventiveness of BONESHAKER (how can you resist an alternate Civil War history steampunk zombie story, with airships?) and the breakneck action of DREADNOUGHT (same thing with steam powered mecha and armored trains), without the clumsy characterization and stilted dialogue of those two. I liked it a lot.

So, what are you folks reading?

 

 

New, Hot, Scary

McBleak-ExtractorsMeet Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston, most often called McBleak. He appears to be a one percenter, hobnobbing with other millennials of his ilk; excursions on yachts while extolling the virtues of banksters, and enjoying the fruits of his non-labors while the rest of us hustle to put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door.

In the novella The Extractors by Gary Phillips, he lays plans to take a greedy man’s gain while wondering if his girlfriend, who comes from inherited wealth but is dedicated to using her resources to make a difference, is beginning to see through his façade – and if so, can he bring her to his side or will she turn on him?  But nothing ever goes as planned, and McBleak has to think fast on his feet or his life might be extracted from him.

Available for $2.99 on its own app bookxy across all platforms as well on Kindle, Kobo, etc.

• • • • • • •

Also in Southern California, Taffy Cannon has been lurking at the library.

I was just on a Noir panel for the Oceanside Library’s Big Read program with Lisa Brackmann, Alan Russell, Ken Kuhlken, and Debra Ginsberg. On April 5, I’m moderating a mystery panel at the Carlsbad Library with Denise Hamilton, Vince Aiello, Isla Morley, C.E. Poverman, and Matt Coyle.

• • • • • • •

Blackbird_FLY=ebook-NOOK

It’s back to France this summer for the five Bennett Sisters, last seen in Lise McClendon‘s Blackbird Fly. The new book will be out in May (called The Girl in the Empty Dress) but in the meantime you can read installments of Blackbird Fly for free on Wattpad. Suspense, wine, & intrigue. There’s a snazzy new cover too, redesigned by the amazing Lisa Desimini.

Ready to read it straight through? That can be done!

Kindle Nook KOBO Paperback Audio

• • • • • • •

JD Rhoades reports in with exciting news. Look for his new thriller, Devils and Dust, coming soon.

I’m pleased to announce that Polis Books the digital imprint started by bestselling author and former St. Martin’s Press editor Jason Pinter, will be publishing six of my books this spring: all three books in the Shamus award-nominated Jack Keller series (with spiffy new covers, naturally) , then the thrillers BREAKING COVER and BROKEN SHIELD, all leading up to the release of a brand new Jack Keller novel, DEVILS AND DUST. I’m totally psyched to be working with Jason and Polis.

• • • • • • •

Kate Flora, 2013 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction winner, has been busy. She reports in on three upcoming book releases.
My crime story, Girl’s Night Out, will be published as an e-book by Shebooks, an exciting new internet publishing venture featuring fiction, memoir and essay, by women and for women, in April, 2014.
My Canadian true crime, Death Dealer, which was five years in the making, will be published by New Horizon Press Books in September. Death Dealer fascinated me because while the killing took place in northeastern New Brunswick, it would involve search and rescue teams and game wardens with trained cadaver dogs from the neighboring state of Maine to locate the victim’s hidden body. Two full first degree murder trials, and many appeals later, the killer was sentenced to life is prison.
The fourth book in my Joe Burgess police procedural quartet, And Grant You Peace, will be published by Five Star in October.

Series, Stand-alone, Genre: pick your poison

book genres/ tumblr

Categories: there are tons of them in fiction. In the crime genre there is hard-boiled, soft-boiled, amateur sleuth, noir, cozy, police procedural, serial killer, private eye, and on. Same with romance novels: historical, regency, steamy, cowboy, time travel. More genres: sci fi, fantasy, horror. We all like to read different things, and write them, so categories help us find something in our favored niche. Categories serve their purpose.

But for writers like me, the category, the slot, the genre feels like vise grips sometimes, constricting and inflexible. Is it necessary? Is it a marketing gimmick? Can’t I just write the damn book and let the readers decide? Well, no, actually. You have to put a label on most everything. It’s called marketing — even though we may call it @#!@#$.

The same goes with writing a mystery series v. the stand-alone novel. The mystery series has been popular since Sherlock Holmes started his serial adventures, and will probably never die. Readers love following a sleuth from book to book. I know I do.  Sue Grafton is almost finished with the alphabet after publishing ‘A is for Alibi’ over 30 years ago. (I had to look that up — 1982! Now that’s a run.) How difficult would it be for me to write 20+ books in the same world, with the same character!? Answer: really hard. Her heroine Kinsey Millhone is stuck in the ’80s too, making her cell phone and internet use nonexistent. Great books by a great writer, in my opinion. Lovely person, Sue Grafton. But I couldn’t do it. All my hair would be gone. Sue’s looks gorgeous.

So after two mystery series I started writing stand-alones. They are harder to sell ( and #*@&! market) without those built-in audiences clamoring for the next installment in a series. And somewhat harder to write because you have to build the world — and the characters — all over again each time. Author Laurie R. King says this about the standalone:

While a series permits a writer to develop a set of characters over a period of time, a standalone novel represents the only opportunity these people have to live and breathe and tell their stories. Even if some of them reappear (and my standalones do have the occasional link and overlap), their book must have a sense of completeness, must contain an entire universe within its pages.

 Other writers consider the “standalone” term more loosely. Here’s Tamera Alexander’s take on it:
Tamera’s series books are considered “stand-alone” novels, meaning they can be read out of order. However, if you’re planning to read all of the books in a series, you should read them in order for the most fulfilling story experience.
So you can have a series of standalones? Hmm. I once pitched a series of linked standalones to my editor, the first ofDSCN1459 which became ‘Blackbird Fly.’ The series was to be linked by five sisters, each to have separate adventures. That idea didn’t really fly (although ‘Blackbird’ did. 🙂 )
Now I find myself in the position of starting a new book about the same characters in ‘Blackbird.’ I’m back to the series idea, with my protagonist Merle Bennett once again in hot water in France. I love writing about France, almost as much as going there. This time I’m going to use some of the experiences I had last year doing a walking tour through the vineyards.
Despite my dislike of being put in a box, pegged a certain way, I am back to writing a series. (And I am loving it! Go figure.) My last novel, written as Rory Tate, was a thriller with lots of action and cops and spies. You would think that’s a pretty tight box to fit into, wouldn’t you? Espionage thriller. Police Procedural. Maybe not.  Michael on Amazon said:
Cross genre writing can be a slog, yet Rory Tate succeeds at crossing multiple genre boundaries. Plan X accomplishes all its goals: From boy meets girl to girl comes into her own and unravels both police-work and personal dilemmas inside a complex and satisfying plot structure.

No matter how hard it is to write the book inside your heart and head and still hit the marketing categories, sometimes readers just see through all that and are glad for the ride. There is little more gratifying to a writer than a reader who ‘gets it.’
Are you more comfortable inside or outside the box? Series, standalones, genre, cross-genre? Love story or category romance? Deep characterization or pacy thriller? What’s your poison?
I leave you with a (classic?) mystery cover. Have a fabulous reading and writing week — and don’t eat all the pizza rolls!