It sounds like a dodgy virus or a defunct railway line. It’s neither. SWR’s short for Series Writers’ Rut and for an author trapped in one I reckon it can cripple creativity. Let me explain . . .
More than a decade ago, a writer I know had two crime series running. The first was fairly well-established when the second started appearing in the bookshops. For several years, the series were then published more or less alternately. I remember the author telling me that starting to write a new book in the first series felt like slipping into comfy shoes. I was unpublished at the time and staggered by the remark. I didn’t understand the concept and – now that I write two series myself – I still don’t.
For me, comfy is a tad too close to cosy; cosy not far from complacent and complacent not a million miles from prose plodding along a well-worn path.
The way I see it, keeping a series fresh is anything but easy. The fact is I find it more and more difficult every time I sit down to start a new book. Not that I’m whingeing. If original inventive writing came easy – where’s the challenge?
So how to sidestep SWR . . .
A gripping new storyline goes without saying but for me the crucial key lies in a bunch of lively characters. There’s a degree of comfort (that word again) in an author knowing her/his characters well, but it’s a two-edged sword. It’s important not to get too close. There’s an old saying about familiarity and contempt. And, of course, characters – like people – change over the years.
So my detectives not only have new crimes to solve and killers to collar, they also have dramatic, often life-changing events, to deal with in every book. They have no idea what’s coming, of course, but I’ll have planted several plot seeds earlier in the series.
Probably my best known character is DS Bev Morriss. I’ve heard readers talk about her as if she’s real and it pleases me no end. It means I’m doing my job properly. And it is a job – even though I’m the boss and get to call the shots. Unlike some authors who claim their characters have a life of their own and ‘take over’– mine definitely don’t. I decide every step Bev (and the rest of the cast) takes, every move she makes and every bon mot she utters. Given she’s been pounding the crime beat for fourteen years now and her nickname’s Motor Mouth that’s a lot of mots – bon, mal or otherwise.
Even though I write two series, I try to make each book work as a standalone. Seamlessly weaving in on-going strands from previous instalments is one of the biggest challenges. Too much would confuse, let alone infuriate, new readers, but there has to be enough continuity to keep fans of the series happy. Many readers are as interested in detectives’ personal lives and emotional baggage as they are with police procedure and intricacies of the plot. It’s little wonder crime series are almost always character-driven. Not that they’d get far without a cracking story.
And there are thousands vying for readers’ attention. According to the International Publishers’ Association, twenty new titles were released every hour in the UK last year. Yes. Every hour. Clearly not all the titles are crime fiction, but given the genre’s popularity, go figure . . .
I reckon that unless I have a deadline looming, I read six sometimes seven books a month – mostly crime novels. I love the genre but I also think that as a practitioner, I need to keep tabs on what’s out there and what the competition’s up to. I’ve never understood authors who say they don’t read when they have a work in progress in case it influences their style or content. If a writer’s voice is strong enough and their characters are people that readers want to spend time with – it’s not going to happen.
Anyway . . . back to SWR. Years ago for a magazine article I was writing, I asked several well-known authors how they dodged it. John Connolly spoke of introducing unpredictability into the blend. Mark Billingham lets characters age. Ian Rankin said new story lines maintain freshness. Liz Evans had a novel solution: asked how she kept Brighton PI Grace Smith fresh Liz said, ‘an effective deodorant’. But then went on to talk about giving Grace new challenges in every book.
Sometimes, it’s not enough . . .
Around the same time, an author who’d just finished the sixth book in his series told me he’d write a standalone next. The reason? He admitted he was getting bored with his characters. I think he made the right decision. If he was bored – what hope for the poor reader?
I know I’m biased, but I still find Bev Morriss as complex, caring, cavalier, exciting and exasperating as the day she first stepped on to the page. Am I being harsh on the author who said going back to write her first series was like slipping into comfy shoes? Maybe she didn’t intend to sound smug or complacent.
Either way, I know that if the time comes when writing the Bev series – or the DI Sarah Quinn books – feels like donning cosy footwear, I’ll pull the plug on the DS, the DI and my PC.
When I start a new book, I reach for the Louboutins.
Killer heels – they keep you on your toes.