Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Serial characters, cliffhanger endings and other odds and ends

Once upon a time I got a two-book deal with a major New York publisher. The advances on the two books were such that if offered to a new writer today, that writer would swoon. Money, though, was just the start. My agent of the time told me the publisher wanted to make me their next best-selling writer. It was enough to make an impressionable fellow giddy. And in the fashion of a game show, that wasn't the end of the goodies. The publisher gave me separate contracts to reprint an earlier novel, the rights to which I'd regained, and more money for the audio rights to the two books they would publish.

It was the kind of bonanza that seemed appropriate for all the years I'd toiled without making a cent from writing fiction. Then, as fairy tales must, the happy story came to an abrupt end.

A very important person at the publishing house had told me that if there was any part of the first novel — the basis of the deal and all its treasure — that I wanted to keep intact I could. Silly me, I took this promise seriously, and then I did the unthinkable. I insisted on keeping the ending of the novel as I originally wrote it.

That was a terrible mistake from the standpoint of my writing career. My relationship with the publisher was all downhill from there. Any chance of future contract, big money and more books with the publisher went right out the window.

Now, here's the thing about the ending and why the publisher wanted me to change it: I killed off the book's hero. That was a creative choice that in my opinion best served the story. It also gave my writing an edge most authors in the mystery/thriller field lacked. You'd have a harder time guessing the ending of one of my stories because I was crazy enough to kill my leading man. All that was academic to the publisher. Killing that character meant there would never be a series featuring him.

Well, hell, I thought of the book as a stand-alone novel. I never would have killed that character if I'd had more stories in mind for him. But I didn't.

Jim McGill, on the other hand, was conceived from the start as a series character. His stories would not have conclusive ends. The stories would flow from one to the next and there would always be some ambiguity to them. In The President's Henchman, the novel that introduces McGill, there's a murder that's left unresolved, and the fates of several characters, e.g. Erna Godfrey, remain to be seen. I could have had Erna executed, but that would have ended her creative possibilities.

In The K Street Killer, the fates of two of the more important characters in the series are left in doubt. This has raised the ire of some readers. In a way, that's flattering to me. I created characters who have engaged the reader emotionally to such a point that a delay in knowing what happens to them next is frustrating. Damnit, where's the resolution? It's on a notepad in my office. Not even in my computer where it might be hacked.

I need to say at this point that I'm not simply being mean. Creating suspense is part and parcel of my job. If I don't keep the reader clicking along (digital-speak for turning pages) from one chapter to the next I'm out of work. Keeping the reader moving from one book in the series to the next is simply the same process on a larger scale.

As a writer, it's also part of what makes storytelling fun for me — and, believe me, if I'm not having any fun doing the writing, you're not going to have any fun doing the reading.

There have been a few uncharitable souls who have accused me of using the cliffhanging ending in TKSK strictly for monetary reasons. Hah! If money was what moved me most, I would have knuckled under to the publisher I mentioned above and likely be a rich man now.

That is, if my muse hadn't deserted me. Which she'd have every right to do if I became a hack.

Now, let me riff a bit about series characters. I grew up reading John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, absolutely loved them. I also devoured Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch novels. The dialogue Mcdonald wrote absolutely knocked me out and influenced my own work. But both authors wrote books in which McGee and Fletch came off flat as steamrolled pancakes.

It's simply what happens if you let your series character follow a formula you've developed for him. In TKSK, I decided before I wrote a word that there would be changes from certain patterns I followed in TPH and THC. McGill has to face the terrifying prospect of losing two of the people he loves most, not to any hokey villains but to terrors that might afflict any of us: illness and cruel twists of fate.

As he confronts his terrible choice, he doesn't know how things will turn out. (Poor guy, his fate is in my hands.) So I thought the best way to end the book would be to put the reader in the same boat as the hero. Only seemed fair.

Rest assured, all questions will be answered in The Last Ballot Cast. Well, all but one.

So, one of the ways I'm keeping McGill fresh is to throw a few change-up pitches at him, but another way to do it is by not writing his stories exclusively.

My next novel will be called Tall Man in Ray-Bans. It will feature John Tall Wolf, a special agent for the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). The novel is a murder mystery set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, California, Vancouver, British Columbia, Boston, Massachusetts, and Banff, Alberta.

John Tall Wolf will be a meta-character for me. He will have his own novels, he will be a major character in the sequel to Nailed, which I hope to publish in the second half 0f 2012 and will also figure prominently in a trilogy featuring yet another new character.

If you like my writing, despite the occasional moments of frustration, of which there are likely to be more, you're likely to have a lot more good stuff to read — God willing.


  1. I love Jim McGill. When I first read The President's Henchman, I was thrilled to meet the first original character I'd found in many years. Imagine, I tell my friends when recommending your books, a female president whose husband was a former cop, who continues to work as a PI after her election. Imagine it!

    I eagerly followed along through all the McGill novels, into and through K-Street. After a bit of an awkward beginning, I got back into it and was enjoying it very much as I flew across the country for Christmas with my family. However, the entire book was ruined by the cliffhanger ending. As I clicked over the final page on my e-reader in the departures area of DFW, I actually said aloud "that's it?!?" The people around me all looked up, and I was a little embarrassed.

    Leaving questions unanswered is okay. It brings people back and lets readers wonder. But there's a huge difference between not clearing up what happened to an antagonist and leaving major plot points unfinished. I was majorly disappointed.

    I'm glad you didn't do it for economic reasons: because I won't be buying the next book. I'll read it, because you write well and I enjoy the characters, and I really want to finish the first book... which is what the next one will let me do. But instead of buying it, I'll be borrowing it from my local library, or the Kindle lending library. Because I really don't want to reward - or encourage a repeat - of what you did in K Street. It may not be about economics, but economics tells the tale.

    On another note, I was a little frustrated right off the top because you didn't 'reintroduce' the characters. I'd read the rest of the books all in a row long after they were originally published, but it had been awhile since then, and I'd forgotten who many of the players were. It was hard to follow until I returned to the 'cast of characters' list.

    When I was learning to write the news, I was told that if you go a few paragraphs without mentioning someone, then bring them up again, it's best to 'reintroduce' them by title to remind the reader who I was talking about. It would have been really helpful to do that here. The 'cast of characters' was useful, but could have been avoided. Just a thought.

    Like I said, I love the very idea of Jim McGill, and enjoy your writing on this series and in other books I've read. Keep writing, but please don't do again what you did this time. Would be very grateful.

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    2. Sorry about being so tardy with this reply. I'm much better at writing than social media, even something as basic as blogging.

      Only hacks go into writing for money. I do it for the love of telling a story. If that wasn't the case, no one would like what I do and wouldn't care how my stories end. If you want to borrow a copy of McG#4, fair enough. I've already given away more than 30,000 ebooks, and plan to start a new free book program.

  2. Well, I sympathize with the standalone conundrum. In my Petoskey Stone, I wanted to write that novel then. But to go back and deal with that character again (even though he didn't die) -- it would feel like aping myself, I think. I've changed, and my tastes have changed. I know, it's not a "professional" outlook, and not a remunerative one, either, but I do really not care for series, even as a reader.

    Thanks for your blog.

    Jon Olson
    The Petoskey Stone

    1. Jon: I have no objection to series. I just don't see every book as the start of one. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. Love the McGill plot lines, but can see the author's political leanings as much as his imagination for political intrigue and suspense. On the one hand are all the "good guys" with their noble ideals; and on the other are right-wing-nuts, portrayed exclusively as misguided puppets, southern idiots, talk show lunatics or greedy villains. As the series progressed, it began to come across akin to the well-oiled propaganda machine of the left, employing cliched stereotypes. As someone who takes the political middle-road, the author's one-sided portrayals got me thinking more about the author's motivations than about those of his characters.