Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Seven Book Itch

As I noted in a previous post, when I finished a draft of my second novel, I began to think long thoughts about writing a series, and about my career as a whole. 

I was sent down this road by a review of Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere. In it, Patrick Anderson notes that Lippman’s first seven books had been a (prize-winning) series, but, “Like Dennis Lehane after he’d published five Kenzie-Gennaro private-eye novels, she must have decided she could do better, and like Lehane (who proceeded to write Mystic River), she was right.”

I thought about this, and another great writer spring to mind. Iain Pears wrote seven books in a series about Jonathan Argyll and the Italian Art Squad, who – I assume – went about solving art-related crimes. Then he wrote the far more ambitious (and staggeringly good) An Instance of the Fingerpost, and he appears to have abandoned his series altogether. Had Pears, like Lippman and Lehane, suffered from something that looks like the Seven Year Itch?

At the other extreme you have Sue Grafton, who went the opposite direction. After two novels, not about Kinsey Millhone, she has cranked out twenty-two in that series. (I suppose it is possible that Grafton wanted to move on after seven books, but when you start something called the Alphabet Series, you’re pretty much committed to twenty-six!)

I can see how either course is frightening. Lippman, Lehane, and Pears had a franchise working for them and (I assume) were making a pretty good living. Then they took a chance. I cannot imagine how long Pears spent on researching and writing Instance, but it must have been years. What if it had bombed? Or if the publisher had laughed? Then what?

On the other hand, how can an author spend twenty-plus years with the same character? You’d have to work very hard to include a long narrative arc for your people. Matthew Scudder battled the bottle, Spenser broke up/got together with Susan Silverman, but not all authors are so considerate. God bless Miss Marple, but she is the same character in every novel.

I know there’s not a right answer, especially since I’ve only finished a single novel, but I can’t help wondering what drove Lippman, Lehane, and Pears to jump into untested waters, and what allowed Grafton to stay with Millhone. Do I have the guts to jump off the Midwife gravy train (assuming it turns into one!). Or do I have the imagination and skill to keep her interesting - to me and the reader - for twenty-plus years?

I don’t know, but it will be fun to find out.

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