Thursday, May 10, 2007

To be continued...or not

Here's a giggler from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen on her move to writing fiction:

People are fascinated that somebody who is a journalist can suddenly start making things up.

The cynic in me is just dying to comment, but never mind that. What I meant to blog about was this interesting answer to a question put to Ms. Quindlen in last week's Kansas City Star:

Do you like that as a novelist you can stay with your characters longer than you can as a journalist?

You’re with them longer, but the truth is in some ways you have a different obligation to them. When you stop writing about people you cover as a reporter, they’re left with their lives. When you stop writing about your characters, their lives cease. So you feel an obligation toward them as you’re writing because you’re keenly aware you’re going to put a period at the end of the sentence. People will ask, “What happened to Robert after Black and Blue,” and I say, “I left when you did.” But in the fast and dirty of journalism you walk away, and that has caused me more than a few pangs of guilt.”

People often ask me what happened to certain characters in my books after the stories ended. This baffles me. I'd like to follow Ms. Quindlen's lead and say, "I left when you did," but I'm afraid readers would find that a bit abrupt. So I usually make something up on the spot. Seriously.

Like most writers, I have trouble letting go of my characters when it's time to finish the book. If readers have a similar letting-go problem, I'm thrilled because that means I did my job and wrote some memorable characters.

When readers and my editor clamored for me to bring back a secondary character from my popular first book, Finding Hope, I held out for a while and then caved and wrote Tom Hartman's story. But as things turned out, my editor didn't want to buy it. I have explained that to a couple of hundred readers (no exaggeration), adding that I might one day rework that finished manuscript and try again to sell it. But at present I'm much more interested in other projects.

Maybe this will change as I continue to grow as a writer. But for now, my aim is to write stand-alone books that are over when they're over-- except for any daydreaming readers may care to indulge in regarding what might happen next. Yes, I realize that writers who hook readers on a series of books are ensuring great sales. But I don't like sequels and I especially don't like romance-novel series. If you want to see me yawn, offer me eight books containing the love stories of eight hunky brothers called something like The Westons of Renegade Ranch.

As a reader and a writer, I want a completely new experience from every novel. I want each book to lure me into a new world populated by characters I haven't met before. But that's my preference. What's yours?


Marianne Arkins said...

I love reading series as long as they stay fresh... revisting a friend is always enjoyable. I'm always a little sad when I close a book and realize that I won't get to see what happens next.

RoseMary said...

I love series, too. When I read a really enjoyable book, I like to 'meet' those people again in another book--as long as the story moves along. I detest having to read someone 'think' for pages on end!

Brittanie said...

My favorite books ever are the Omalley series by Dee Henderson. I was sorry to see them end but except for one or two exceptions I do not want any more of them. I do not want the experience to be ruined if the next books dont live up to the previous ones. So otherwise I like short series if any. Some books are like made for sequels and others are not. They make great stand alone books. :)

Brenda Coulter said...

That brings up an interesting question. I realize that the majority of romance-readers do like series books. But what's a good length for a series? Five books? Ten? At what point, I wonder, do readers begin to lose interest in a series they've been enjoying?

TrudyJ said...

It's an interesting question ... what happens to the characters after we close the book? Being normally more of a fantasy reader than a romance reader myself, my favourite example comes from that genre....

Many years ago I read and loved Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar trilogy. I was troubled by nagging worries about the fate of two characters from our world who returned to their old lives (while others had either died or been left behind in the parallel fantasy world they'd been drawn into). A friend of mine attended a university class where Kay spoke and someone asked him about the fate of those two characters and he said pretty much what Quindlen said in your quote: "I don't know. I didn't think about it after I finished writing the book."

That seemed so WRONG to me! I thought authors should have their characters' futures planned out even after the book ends. Now that I've written a few books myself, I'm not so sure about that (though as I often write fictionalized versions of the lives of real people, the facts are usually laid out for me).

I enjoy both stand-alone novels and series, but I will admit I was ridiculously delighted this year when I picked up Guy Gavriel Kay's latest novel, 25 years after Fionavar, and those same two characters I had been worried about all these years appeared in it, so I got to find out how their lives had gone for the last 25 years. I guess I do like closure!!

Kristin said...

I must say, Brenda, I find it funny that the very first book you wrote was published...and then the next wasn't (if the book you mentioned was number 2 anyway). I would have to say you must certainly have the writing skills to pull off any number of books and I find this very interesting.

It speaks to that one aspiring writer's comment about writing for 20 years and feeling very frustrated. Even the published ones don't have it so easy, do they? Just because you've had a book published, doesn't mean the next one will be.

Brenda Coulter said...

Because I sold my first manuscript but not the second, third, or fourth, I learned early on what many other writers don't realize: that good writing isn't enough. You must also have a good story--and you must find a publisher who believes their readers would welcome a book like yours.

As you say, publication does not ensure that an author's next submission will sell. Most working writers are constantly submitting proposals that their editors don't go for. But they don't often talk about that, which leads many unpublished writers to the assumption that once you sell, you've got it made.

Believe me, I'm not the only writer who sold a book and then saw her next three submissions rejected. I'm simply one of the very few who will admit it publicly.

Brenda Coulter said...

I was ridiculously delighted this year when I picked up Guy Gavriel Kay's latest novel, 25 years after Fionavar, and those same two characters I had been worried about all these years appeared in it, so I got to find out how their lives had gone for the last 25 years. I guess I do like closure!!

Sorry, Trudy, but I had to laugh at that!

Anonymous said...

Brittanie, I totally agree with you! I absolutely love the O'Malley series as well! Dee Henderson is my absolute favorite suspense novelist!