Sunday, January 25, 2015

Writing a Series: The All-Important First Novel

Je suis Albert… (with many thanks to news worlds of Paris and New York!)

I often get a good sense of a novel by reading the first and last lines. Recently I revisited Al Ashforth's superb spy novel
The Rendition.

Page 1: "It was just before 2400 hours, and it was the kind of chilly night you get in the Balkans in late March."
Page 334: "Her mascara was smudged and there might have been a tear on her right cheek."

Al capably blends the shadowy world of black ops, gutsy men and terrorism—with the deepest human emotions in this novel of suspense. A rare gift!

If you have not read this prize-winning novel—do. It packs a wallop on many levels—and makes you feel a foot taller.

Amazon ranks it # 1 in the Historical Thrillers category.

A distinguished member of MWA and ARIO (Association of Retired Intelligence Officers), Al's short stories have appeared recently in
Crime Square, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled and KWIK KRIMES.

I am proud to welcome back an old friend and colleague of Bob Knightly and myself to Crime Writer's Chronicle.

T. J. Straw

I am writing a follow-up to my novel The Rendition. One interesting challenge is finding a role in the second book for some of the people who helped out Alex, the hero, in the first book. Events in the second book kick off in Afghanistan while events in The Rendition began in the Balkans. Is anyone around in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, who was around in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo? These countries are so disconnected that it’s unlikely, but if so, I’d like to hear from you. Maybe I can fit you into the new story. In uncovering a complex international conspiracy in The Rendition, Alex had help from his partner and fellow case officer, Buck, and from an old girlfriend, Irmie, who was a homicide detective in Germany.

Is it too much to again ask Buck to come to the aid of his old sidekick? Buck now works for a defense contractor and Alex is an old friend, so maybe he can swing it. But to ask Irmie to take time off from a demanding job and travel all the way from Europe to Afghanistan seems more than a little unreasonable.

“The first book in a series is crucial,” Reed Coleman, who has created half a dozen series characters, said when I asked. “That’s because you have to create your protagonist’s universe from scratch and you have to live with the decisions you make for the remainder of the series.” Reed, who has written 22 books and is the author of series featuring Moe Prager, Dylan Klein, Jesse Stone, Gulliver Dowd, Joe Serpe and Gus Murphy, speaks from wide experience.

Another critical factor that Reed mentioned is “the manner in which time will elapse.” I became aware of this when it seemed that some of the events that tangled up Alex’s life in The Rendition, were very nearly simultaneous with events that are taking place in Afghanistan in the second book. A famous critic, Samuel Coleridge, once said readers will grant a writer a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but I think there are definite limits to what authors can ask of their readers—and having one’s character existing in two places at the same time would definitely be high on that list.

A writer who is very precise where time and her heroine are concerned is Patricia Gussin, the author of four books about Laura Nelson, who is introduced as a student at medical school during the 1967 Detroit riots. In Shadow of Death, the first book in the series, Laura’s first patient involves her in a life-changing situation that shows her to be a resilient and able to handle the tough decisions she will face not just as a doctor but in the succeeding books in the series. In the second book, Twisted Justice, Laura is seven years older, married to a TV newscaster and already has five children. Despite these changes in her life, she is very much the same person readers came to know in the first book.

“In the final two books in the series, Weapon of Choice and After the Fall,” Ms. Gussin said, “I jumped ahead seven years between each. So Laura, a twenty-seven year-old medical school graduate in Shadow of Death, is now a forty-eight year-old pharmaceutical vice president of research and development in After the Fall.”

Ms. Gussin is not contemplating a fifth book in the series. “Following the seven-year scheme,” she says, “Laura would be fifty-five in the next book. A bit on the older side, so I think she’s phased out.” Fifty five old? I recently learned that Vanna White, the glamorous and vivacious star of TV’s Wheel of Fortune, is fifty seven.

Only time will tell whether Laura Nelson is really “phased out.” As a fan of Laura’s, I hope she isn’t. In any case, I’m reminded of Conan Doyle’s feelings toward Sherlock Holmes, who Doyle hoped was phased out but wasn’t. After letting Holmes perish at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem,” the roar of disappointment from readers was so great Doyle was obliged to resurrect Holmes for more stories and another novel.

There is no question that Conan Doyle got everything right in A Study in Scarlet, the novel which introduces Holmes. Watson first encounters the detective in a laboratory where he is working with blood stains. Right away readers learn that science can be employed to fight crime, an insight that is fundamental not just to the stories but to our modern way of thinking. When Dr. Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan, discovers both he and Holmes are looking for living quarters, they take rooms together in Mrs. Hudson’s Baker Street lodgings, and the all-important relationship between the two men is established. It would not change over the course of four novels and 56 short stories, nearly all of which are narrated by Watson.

When I spoke with Bob Knightly, the author of two well-received books about NYC cop Harry Corbin, he voiced sentiments similar to those of Conan Doyle toward Holmes. “Pretty much all I had to say about Harry got put into the first book, Bodies in Winter. The second, The Cold Room, revolved around the NYPD’s reaction to him and Detective Hansen Linde, Harry’s new partner.” According to Bob, “The plot alone dictated what was new. I didn’t want to write another book just for the sake of developing the character, so I have begun a series of legal thrillers about Frank Borowski, a lawyer working in the NYPD’s Advocates Bureau.”

Another problem an author of a series might face, subsequent to the first book, is repetition. Parnell Hall tells a story of what happened during the writing of his fourth book in the Stanley Hastings series. While working as a detective for a negligence lawyer, Stanley calls on a prospective client in Harlem and finds the man strangled.
“I’m writing this,” Parnell said, “and I suddenly realize I’ve written the exact same scene in my second novel, Murder. I’m devastated. I’m repeating myself. So what can I do? Do I throw it all out and start again? Instead, Stanley being Stanley, I had him say, ‘Wow! Déjà vu…. A case two years ago exactly like this one. I think we’re dealing with a serial killer.’”

Although Stanley knows his theory is laughable, when Sergeant Clark calls him into his office in Chapter 8, he says he believes a serial killer is on the loose. How Stanley wiggles out of the jam he creates for himself becomes a major plot line of Strangler. Mr. Hall’s twentieth book in the Stanley Hastings series, A Fool for a Client, comes out later this year.

I once remarked to mystery writer Shelly Reuben how much I’d enjoyed her novel Julian Solo, and when I asked why she hadn’t made Dr. Solo into a series character, she said, “Dr. Solo was destined to be his own victim. If you kill off your main character, your series is over before it begins.”

Although that is mostly the case, it is not always the case. Ask David Morell, author of First Blood, the book that introduced Rambo. Rambo dies at the end of First Blood, but when the book was made into a film, the original screenplay was rewritten so that Rambo could survive and fight on. Because Sylvester Stallone gave a memorable performance as the traumatized Green Beret vet confronting his personal demons, audiences wanted more. As a result, three more Rambo films followed the first.

Not only does Rambo live on in films, he lives on in books as well. After the success of First Blood, Morrell resurrected Rambo and wrote two subsequent books about him. The only guy harder to kill than Rambo is Dracula.

When writers consider how involving for readers some series become, they realize why they should try to get all the details of their stories right—and, of course, to make the all-important first book as good as they can get it. As Reed Coleman says, “It’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to a second or third book, if they didn’t pay attention to the first.”

© 2015 Albert Ashforth


  1. Your comments are very helpful to writers of a series, Al. Thanks for coming by today - we look forward to your next novel. Thelma

    1. Dear Thelma, Thank you for your very kind words. Your insights are perfect.
      I'm always aware of characters' personal lives -- and of course their problems.
      Best wishes, Al

    2. Great comment, Al. Your Chinese fortune for the day reads... " Sir, you will go far!" Thelma

  2. Well, you know, I often put off reading novels because of time constraints, something always pushing to the front of the list of things to do, but I think it's about time I move Albert's book to the top of the lost of books to read. Thanks Albert, and for sure thank you, Thelma!!

    1. Dear Margaret, I can't wait to read your Alaska book. The female character sounds completely fascinating. I agree completely that women are not pictured accurately enough in most novels. Rather than being the prime movers of events, they are too often seen as responding to situations.
      Best wishes, Al

  3. Good idea! Thanks for visiting CWC today, Margaret! Thelma

  4. Thelma, As always I learn something new. First and last line of a novel--inspired. Also I'm going to pick up one of Al Ashford's books. And his ideas on serials or writing any book were right on. Well done.

  5. Barbara Bent, as you are one of the most clever authors of fiction, I think you and Al have a lot in common. Maybe we can all get together and discuss some of these ideas. Thelma

    1. Dear Barbara and Thelma, I would love to get together. Thelma, do you know a good coffee shop in Carnegie Hill?
      Best wishes, Al

  6. Al, great idea! Barbara always goes to that marvelous conference of Fla. MWA - Sleuthfest - maybe we three can meet after that and hear from her all the great ideas they give out! Yes, there is a great coffee shop near me and we can all share crime , mystery and caffeine! Thelma