Standalones vs. Series

When I wrote my first novel, Stolen, I thought it would be a standalone. The book was mainly from the point of view of Abby Henshaw, a woman whose daughter was abducted. There was a detective in there, but he was secondary. Until he wasn’t. By the time I got to the second draft, I realised I liked DI Gardner a lot and kept finding more things for him to do. He kept showing up at the door. So I decided to change the book and make it both Abby and Gardner’s story, and when I was done, I realised there was more to say about Gardner and so the series was born. Each of the books work as a standalone but there’s also development of the characters and threads throughout that link one book to the others.

There’s something comforting about a series. A lot of my favourite crime novels are a series. I love to go back to a favourite character. They can become friends, someone you want to catch up with, someone you fear for when things go bad.

The same is true with writing a series. When it came to the second book, Gone, it felt easier to write Gardner. I didn’t have to start from scratch, I could already hear his voice, knew his mannerisms. I knew how he’d act and react to the situations he found himself in. In some ways, his character dictated what would happen.

I also enjoy planting seeds, things that seem unimportant at the time that come back further down the line. In the fourth book, Murder in Slow Motion, we discover Dawn Lawton, one of Gardner’s colleagues, is in an abusive relationship. Gardner thinks back about things he’s seen or heard, wondering if there were signs. Those signs were there in the previous books –subtle hints of what was to come. Of course, this only works if you know in advance what you’ll write about later. I knew from the start I wanted to write about domestic abuse and, even though it took a while to work out that story, I knew enough to leave those trails.

There are other details dotted about that may or may not come to anything in the future. But sometimes this can be limiting. Write something about a character in one book and you’re stuck with it forever (some eagle eyed reader will always notice). There are also other limitations. Setting, for example. I could send Gardner off on holiday to the Bahamas, but any crime that occurs while he’s there, he’d be unable to investigate. Unless he did it unofficially, in which case it becomes a different kind of book altogether. Once you have a certain style to the series, it’s difficult to move away from that. Readers come to expect certain things and can be disappointed if you stray too far.

Writing a standalone, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to do whatever you like. Set the book completely in the past or the future. Set it in New Zealand or Mars. Tell it from the point of view of the bad guy or some unknown narrator. Anything goes. There are no constraints, but at the same time, this can be more overwhelming. The canvas is completely blank.

When I started No Place Like Home, I didn’t have a grand plan, I basically just started writing. It was both liberating and terrifying. There was nothing familiar to cling to, even my usual method of writing went out the window. But it was exciting. I’d spent such a long time living in the world of the series (Gardner’s world, if you will) that it was thrilling to step outside of it and meet new characters.

Not only was the method different, the style was too. Even the tone is very different. Though the books in my series often have ambiguous endings, not entirely happy or unhappy, there is usually some moral centre. Gardner, for his faults, is usually doing the right thing. With No Place Like Home, things are a bit more fuzzy.

So which do I prefer? It’s hard to say. Just before I published Murder in Slow Motion, I read through it one last time. It had been a while since I’d looked at it, busy with other projects. Reading it again, I’d forgotten how much I like those characters and didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until we were reunited. But creating new stories, new characters, new worlds, is always exciting; a promise of going somewhere unfamiliar.

And just like real life, there’s room for both – the familiar and the unknown.

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Guest blog – The inspiration for No Place Like Home

Today I’m on On the Shelf Reviews talking about where the idea for No Place Like Home came from. Read it here.cover 1

Cover Reveal!

Very happy to reveal the cover of my first standalone, No Place Like Home.
Out 6th August!
 
cover 1
What would you do if you came home to find someone in your house?
This is the predicament Polly Cooke faces when she returns to her new home.The first weeks in the house had been idyllic, but soon Jacob, a local man, is watching her.
What does he want and why is he so obsessed with Polly?
In a situation where nothing is what it seems, you might end up regretting letting some people in.

How Do You Know When It’s Done?

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I finished a book on Friday. Though finished is probably not the best word for it. What I did was get to the end of a first draft which, anyone who’s ever written a book will know, is most likely terrible – full of plot holes, clichés and generally bad writing. Or is that just me? Getting to the end of a first draft is not really an ending but the beginning of what is often a long and frustrating process to get it into something you wouldn’t mind other people reading.

But some of the other things I’ve been working on recently are further down that road and it got me wondering, how do you know when something is actually done?

A couple of weeks ago I was sent the proofs of my book No Place Like Home to check over, and though I didn’t make any huge changes, there was still the odd word change, or cutting a line. Each time I’ve gone over the book, something has changed, no matter how minor. These little tweaks won’t change the novel but they still seem important to do. But how long can you keep doing that? Not anymore, now that I’ve sent it back.

I remember tweaking things from my first novel, Stolen, after it had been published, using a pencil to cross things out and add things in just before I was about to get up and do a reading. But the book itself was done. I could only make changes to what I read aloud. But maybe that’s how it should be. I can look back at my work and cringe and wish I’d done it differently, but that’s just showing that I’m (hopefully) getting better as a writer, and the books as they are show how far I’ve come. In theory, I can change Murder in Slow Motion as much as I want because it’s self published. But should I? Catching typos is one thing, but altering the book itself seems wrong.

So ultimately, I had to stop messing with the manuscript and send it off, knowing it’s as good as it can be at this time. But how do you know when that is?

I was working on a play recently, using competition deadlines as motivation to get it done. I was quite proud of myself for putting the work in – coming up with the idea, developing it and writing it in just a few weeks. I sat up late redrafting and redrafting again. But it got to the point where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and had to put it aside, even though it meant missing a deadline.

But a week or so later, I read it through again and realised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, and with a few more tweaks, I was able to send it off to another competition. I’m still not sure it’s done. I’m sure I will mess with it some more. But there’s a fine line between done and not done. If I waited for perfection, I’d still be working on my first book. Sometimes you need to let it go, send it out, and let someone else tell you when it’s done.