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Thoughts on Serialization

Last week I finished book one of the Rainie Day Mysteries, Whacked in the Stacks. This week I revised it based on feedback from a beta reader, a.k.a. Sweetie. Next week, I start on book two.

I've never written a sequel before, but I've read hundreds. I can count on one hand the number of standalone mysteries I've read—all of the others were installations in series. As I prepare to dive in to book two, tentatively titled Crushed by the Classics, I've been thinking about what works for me as a series reader, and what rubs me the wrong way.

What Rubs Me the Wrong Way: Recycling

Recycled Introductions

I don't need to re-read the heroine's life story in chapter one of every novel. I don't need to re-read the life stories of all her friends and relatives, either.

Imagine if every episode of Castle began with Richard Castle rambling for ten minutes about who he is, what he does, where he grew up and where he lives now. Every time his mother Martha sashays into the kitchen, a voice-over explains that she's a glamorous Broadway actress who lives with Castle because her ex-husband absconded with her life savings. Every time his daughter Alexis pops in to say, "Hi, Dad," another voice-over informs us that she's eighteen and a student at Columbia University, and her mother Meredith is off her rocker but Alexis is a sweet kid who's wise beyond her years.

Though novels aren't TV shows, info-dumps like these are just as boring on the page as they are on the screen. There are certain mystery series that I adore...from about chapter three on. First I have to get past the recaps in chapters one and two. The authors might be afraid that new readers won't know what's going on without brief bios to introduce every character, but readers aren't stupid. They can figure out who characters are and how they relate to one another from their dialogue and behavior.

Recycled Jokes

I'm reading Laura Levine's Jaine Austen mysteries right now. Levine wrote scripts for classic Hollywood sitcoms like Laverne and Shirley and Three's Company, so all of her books are amusing...but her wit is a lot less impressive after reading four books than it was after reading one.

Levine recycles the same comedic material in every novel. Jaine lives in the slums of Beverly Hills. Jaine is a struggling writer whose most noteworthy project to date is a motto for Toiletmasters Plumbing. While all of the size-two fashionistas in SoCal eat a lettuce leaf and call it lunch, Jaine wears elastic-waist pants and her best friends are named Ben and Jerry. Jaine's love life is a disaster, and her most persistent admirer is a lecherous octogenarian from the Shalom Center. Jaine's cat Prozac is a terror who pees on Jaine's pillow when she doesn't get her daily serving of Fancy Fish Guts.

I have now read each of these jokes at least a half dozen times across four books. The count for variations on "fish guts" and "In a rush to flush?" has probably topped a full dozen. Levine is whip-smart, but I wish she'd do something new with that intelligence.

Recycled Conflicts

Mystery authors often leave one or two loose threads untied at the ends of their novels, in order to entice fans to read the next one. The most common class of loose thread is the romantic subplot.

I don't mind "open endings" in early installments of a series, but I get tired and annoyed when the same loose thread drags on book after book. The heroine and her love interest recycle the same conflicts in every novel: he says he loves her but he won't commit, she knows he's bad husband material but she can't resist his charms, she saw him with another woman and she's not sure where they stand anymore. Over and over. There's only so much "will they or won't they?" a reader can take.

I also get tired when a heroine knocks heads with the same archenemies over the same petty issues. I put a series down immediately at the first whiff of a Never-Ending Love Triangle. (Just pick one already!) And it's exasperating to see a heroine make the same dumb mistakes and land in the same tubs of hot water in every novel. (Why does Jaine never learn to close the door when she's dressing for a big event, so Prozac won't sneak in and destroy her new clothes?)

What Works for Me: Fresh Ideas

Maybe writers who recycle the same material for every book think they're giving their fans what they want. They think readers liked the characters in the first book and want them to return exactly as they were, with no growth whatsoever. They think readers liked the "will they or won't they?" tension, and the series will go the way of Moonlighting if the heroine and her love interest actually work out their problems.

But fans of a series don't keep coming back because they want the exact same story retold in future books. They want new books with new stories that make them feel the same way the first one did. Recycled jokes and conflicts will not make them feel the same way a second time around.

A sequel needs fresh ideas to be as interesting as its predecessor. The tricky part is incorporating these new ideas into the story world you've already created, so fans will feel like they're returning to a favorite place and meeting old friends, while at the same time getting a fun new reading experience.

Introduce New Settings

Cozy mystery writers often blog that their readers want to return to the same settings in every book, because these places feel like home. This is partially true, but these "same settings" are much bigger arenas than you might think.

For example, in Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries, the setting fans like me look forward to visiting is "Glamorous Interwar Europe." That can include the heroine's childhood fortress in Scotland, the family townhouse in London, a spooky castle in Transylvania, or sunny mansions along the French Rivieria. I would have bored of the series long ago if every novel took place in the same handful of buildings in London.

On a smaller scale, Miranda James sets each of her Cat in the Stacks murders in different locales within Athena, Mississippi. One book might center around the local college, where the hero works, another at the public library, and another at the home of an eccentric book collector. He spends a lot of time at cozy old haunts, sure, but we also get to go to costume galas at Antebellum mansions.

Make Characters Grow

In the Jaine Austen mysteries, Jaine's friends and relatives never change. For example, in every book her neighbor Lance and her best friend Kandi find new loves of their lives. By every epilogue, they find out these loves are cheating finks. All relationships between the characters conveniently reset, and Lance and Kandi are ready to chase new loves of their lives in the next book. Neither of them ever mature, settle down, move up the corporate ladder, have kids, or change subtly over time like real people.

In the Cat in the Stacks books, many of the characters do change over time. The hero's son comes back to town an angry, disillusioned young lawyer, but then he picks himself up and studies for the Mississippi bar, gets married, and becomes a father himself. The hero's recurring nemesis/ally, the deputy sheriff, starts out hostile and ambitious, but then she assumes more responsibility at her job and mellows out. Boarders move in and out of the hero's house, find partners and get on with their lives.

The great thing about change is that it introduces new conflicts. Characters don't just spin their wheels, rehashing the same old issues. When the hero's son meets his future wife, he has to deal with personal traumas that make him push away attractive women. When they get serious, he has to deal with his meddling future father-in-law, who also happens to be his boss. Then his meddling future FIL wants him to take over the law practice, but he's not ready yet. And so on.

Use New Story Structures

This one is the most obvious, and the hardest to pull off. Readers of sequels want new stories, not the same old story with cosmetic differences.

The basic story structure of a cozy mystery is this:

  • Sleuth finds dead body.
  • Sleuth snoops for clues.
  • Sleuth solves murder.

Within that simple structure are infinite possibilities for variation. Yet as writers, we tend to fall back on a few comfortable tropes, instead of exploring those possibilities.

I'm not sure I'll continue with the Jaine Austen series, because Levine seems to have gotten stuck in a Murder She Wrote rut. The heroine simply goes around interviewing a string of suspects until she figures out the culprit. Then she exposes said culprit in a thrilling confrontation. Roll credits.

When mystery lovers pick up a novel, they look forward to twists, turns, and surprise curveballs. Real curveballs, not ones they've seen a dozen times before. The victim's husband was having an affair with the hot housewife next door? I'm shocked. The victim was blackmailing a coworker for embezzling from the company? Gosh, never seen that one before. The culprit is actually her sweet, long-suffering assistant who seemed like she couldn't hurt a fly? Well, blow me over with a feather.

Shocking subject material doesn't necessarily make for a shocking twist. A twist is shocking when the author manipulates readers into seeing the story world a certain way, and then the revelation of the truth turns that world on its head. The last author to successfully shock me was Dorothy L. Sayers, in Murder Must Advertise. She tricked me into believing a certain event was just a humorous anecdote, when it was actually the key to figuring out the entire nefarious plot. The nefarious plot itself wasn't all that shocking, but the fact that I had been completely bamboozled was a delicious surprise.


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