tony mcmanus

On writing, writers, books and publishing.

 

BRINGING THE CURTAIN DOWN

 Though it may be a well-written prize winner, a one-off book, a stand-alone novel, has little chance of commercial success in today’s reading market. The mass of readers wants recurring heroes, protagonists who return to deliver the goods of more adventures. It’s something a reader can look forward to and feel comfortable with. Series novels are the thing. And looking back, reading of the army of fans who followed Arthur Conan-Doyle and eagerly awaited his latest Sherlock Holmes treat, I feel it’s always been so. Now it’s in vogue big time.

Series novels are invariably thrillers in the crime, mystery and espionage genres. Some come about by accident. They begin with a single book, which is then followed by another, perhaps a sequel, and then a third and so it goes on. Others are intended from the beginning. My new novel, ‘The Sum of Things’ recently launched on Amazon’s Kindle, is one of these. It’s the first in what I intend and hope to be a long and successful series.

While writing my novel, I got to thinking about how long a series should run for? Given that it’s successful, how far should a writer continue producing his series before calling it quits? And what criteria should he/she use to govern the series continuance? Intrigued, I began to examine some recent thriller series novels.

Probably, the most popular thriller series today has to be the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child. Two of the novels: ‘One Shot’ and ‘Never Go Back’ have been turned into successful and money-spinning movies starring Tom Cruise.

Beginning in 1997 with ‘Killing Floor’ this writer has consistently produced a novel a year, for twenty years, many of them gaining awards. His latest, ‘Midnight Line,’ #22 in the series, will be released in November. His previous novel ‘Night School’ (#21) has garnered 5,464 reviews and counting on Amazon. I’m impressed. As only a small minority of readers bother to write a review, that gives some indication of the sales numbers Child’s books are enjoying. And sales have to be one of the major indices a writer will use in deciding to continue or not. But in reading some of the Jack Reacher reviews, I can see that cracks are appearing.

Many readers, some die-hard fans of the series complain that the plots are becoming hackneyed and see Child struggling to come up with new situations and fresh story ideas, his style becoming more formulaic and his villains are turning into ‘buffoonish cartoons.’ It seems that Child’s creative well could be running dry. Nevertheless, based on current popularity, I’m sure we’ll see more of Jack Reacher.

Among other works, that fine British writer, Stephen Leather has now published fourteen novels in his Dan ‘Spider’ Shepard thriller series and is still getting good reviews.

Another successful series has been Andy McNab’s Nick Stone Series of thrillers. Book #19 ‘Line of Fire’ is due out in October 2017. But get this: it can be preordered on Amazon Kindle for a whopping US$ 26.78! Wow. How’s that for cheek? Not a hardback mind, an e-book. It would take a long cold day in hell before I would pay 27 bucks for a gift-wrapped, signed hardback edition much less a Kindle e-book. His previous book, ‘Cold Blood’ #18 in the series, carries a price tag of US$ 14.24, still too expensive for a Kindle novel I feel. And the reviews for this series don’t cut it anymore. The 2 and 3-star revues surpass the 4 and 5 stars; not a good sign. It’s time he quit, but I feel Andy will press on. It may be he’s seen the writing on the wall and decided to make as much as he can before it crashes.

An outstanding series of recent years was the Inspector Morse Series by the British writer, Colin Dexter. Made into a television drama with that fine actor, John Thaw, in the role of Morse, it was excellent, well produced and I enjoyed it immensely. And part way through the television series I turned my attention to the books and enjoyed them even more.

Dexter wrote thirteen Morse novels, beginning with ‘The Last Bus to Woodstock,’ and ending with ‘A Remorseful Day,’ in which Morse dies. Yes, he brought his series to a close by killing off his protagonist. Dexter made no apologies or explanation. It was the writer’s decision and his alone and therefore had to be. But his fans were disappointed, myself included.

In making Morse a heavy drinker with poor dietary habits and indifferent to his health, could it be that Dexter was setting his hero up for a finale where he could bring on the fatal heart attack that would end the series whenever he chose to? It does seem that way to me. It is worth recording that he killed Morse in a satisfying way and closed his series on a high note, his last novel receiving splendid reviews. Not for Colin Dexter the disappointing reviews of frustrated fans.

And it was death that ended another great series; the James Bond saga. Not the death of Bond, but that of his creator, Ian Fleming.

When Fleming died beside that English golf course on the 12th of August 1964 at the age of fifty-six, it brought to a close a fascinating series. Not a great writer; he didn’t have to be. But he was good. And though it’s perhaps true that he wrote fantasies for adult children, his prose was lean and spare, and every word counted. His novels were page turners, and he was eminently readable.

His last novel, ‘The Man with the Golden Gun,’ unfinished at the time of his death, was cobbled together by his publisher, Jonathan Cape and published eight months later. A poor job that lacked everything we fans expected from a Bond novel, it received poor though respectful reviews. I didn’t enjoy it much. It seems that heavy smoking and lifestyle-induced ill health had taken their toll on the writer. But, unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller in both hard and paperback form.

Fleming left behind a corpus of twelve Bond novels and some short story compilations, and so it was over. Or should have been. However, the publishing house, Jonathan Cape refused to accept it, and with the compliance of the author’s estate, they began searching for writers able to write Bond stories in the style of Fleming in what became known as the ‘continuation’ Bond novels.

First off the blocks was Kingsley Amis. Using the pseudonym, Robert Markham, Amis produced the novel, ‘Colonel Sun.’ It got mixed reviews and sold well. Bond fan that I was, I didn’t enjoy it. And I don’t read any more of the continuation series which continues to this day. Though a thing apart, the Bond film franchise seems to be unending with a fan base who’ve never heard of Ian Fleming. For me, Ian Fleming’s alter ego, James Bond, died along with his creator that August morning in 1964. R.I.P.

Should a writer ‘age’ his protagonist as a series progresses or should he make him ageless, impervious to time and therefore able to hold the ring forever and a day? I believe in the first option; it’s closer to reality and makes him more credible. And so does Lee Child. Born in 1960, Jack Reacher will turn fifty-seven on the 29th of October. Retirement at sixty? It would seem logical. The clock is ticking.

And if we were to give James Bond the age of thirty-nine when he faced down Le Chiffre at the baccarat table in that casino in Royale in 1952 he would be 104 years old today. He doesn’t look it in the movies though, and the continuation writers also seem to have ignored this reality.

My boy, James Fallon, stepping up and showing his credentials in ‘The Sum of Things,’ is a youthful thirty-five in 2017, so he has lots of things to do, lots of villains to destroy and lots of time to do it in. It’s up to me.

Several factors may determine the time to bring down the curtain on a series.

The advancing age or failing health of the author.

The author’s desire to write other things in other genres (it was Arthur Conan-Doyle’s desire to write more historical fiction that resulted in Sherlock Holmes ‘death’ at Reichenbach Falls).

Increasingly poor reviews telling the author his ability to produce good stories is faltering and on the wane and the series has run its course.

But if the series is highly successful, sells well and brings in much money, an author would be sorely tempted to press on regardless of poor reviews. To close it down would be like killing a Golden Goose.

I have to conclude there can no hard fast rule on this. At the bottom end, you have writers who publish series schlock, written fast and aimed at low-brow readers with the single intent to make money. Such crap should never see the light of day. At the top end, we have a good example in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, going strong for twenty years and twenty-two novels. I hope my James Fallon series takes the same route. And I’ll be more than happy if it’s half as successful.

 

 

 

I really appreciate good tips like this

Lit World Interviews

You get to choose two categories for your book on Amazon, and seven keywords. Your book’s title, sub-title, blurb, categories, and keywords all go towards producing its metadata – the stuff that Amazon’s search engine uses to make your book discoverable to buyers searching for something to buy. That’s the fabulous thing about getting your metadata as useful as you can. People who search Amazon are looking to purchase. They’re not wanting information like when they use Google. In fact, Amazon’s search engine is not the same as Google.

Amazon’s search engine actually has its own moniker – A9. Not a very romantic name, but it is individual nevertheless. Amazon wants to get a specific sale rather than direct searchers to information as Google does. So A9 works a little differently. You may have noticed a sharp zooming up the rankings when you have a couple of sales of your…

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Shakespeare was a master of it. Ernest Hemingway almost perfected it. George Orwell advocated it. And every writer should obey and apply it, particularly in editing and revision. Observe it when writing a memo, email, a Facebook post, a blog or a prize-winning masterwork. It applies to every kind of writing. It’s rule number one, the most important and never to be broken. Make every word count. It speaks for itself when you think about it, yet, it’s a rule regularly violated. Why?

It’s apparent to me that most writers today don’t apply it. Maybe they’ve never heard of the rule and its importance in good writing. I got it drilled into me at school from strict teachers. “Make every word count.”

Writers disregard for it is especially evident in fiction writing, and more especially in self-published works on Amazon Kindle. It seems the opposite is now in vogue (see my blog: Padding it Out: Word Inflation in Fiction). We find writers deliberately inflating their work using a variety of methods such as redundant sentences, unnecessary sub-plots, overblown or meaningless dialogue, wordy descriptions of characters and places and, of course, vivid and gratuitous sex scenes.

I believe that writers often come up with a story idea that is essentially a good short story plot but doesn’t have the legs to be the heart of a novel or even a novella. Consequently they pad it out, often under editorial encouragement. It’s common; it’s sad but true.

The corollary of the rule is: that every single word should build sentences and paragraphs that drive the plot forward, establish the setting and develop characters. If it doesn’t, take it out.

I know a talented lady writer of short stories and novellas in the romantic erotica genre; not a genre I follow, mainly because it’s usually poorly written. But she writes it well, impressively so.

On her site she announced she was writing a novel; part one of a trilogy. A mystery thriller, set in an exotic Caribbean location, it opened well. But unfortunately, the story idea just couldn’t punch its weight. Consequently, the novel got the “padding” treatment; all of it, complete with an utterly gratuitous, and brutal, sex scene. I was most disappointed, but it’s par for the course.

The rule requires discipline and is not easy to apply. But if a writer keeps it in mind he goes a long way to achieving it. Reading good writing is also important as it shows how it should be done. In my view, a healthy literary diet is essential for writers and editors. It can, of course, be spiced it up with some literary junk with no harm done, but we become what we read. If a writer reads too much crap, he’ll write crap. If an editor reads too much crap, she’ll allow crap to pass her by uncorrected. The evidence for this abounds.

Shakespeare, as I mentioned, was a master of it. Go read him. Read a piece from one of his plays. Read a Sonnet. Then try to find a word you can take out. Here he is on Love:

                                           Let me not to the marriage of true minds

                                           Admit impediments. Love is not love

                                           Which alters when it alteration finds,

                                           Or bends with the remover to remove:

                                           O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

                                           That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;

                                           It is the star to every wandering bark,

                                           Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

On Valour:

                                               Cowards die many times before their deaths.

                                                The valiant never taste of death but once.

                                                Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

                                                It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

                                                Seeing that death, a necessary end,

                                                Will come when it will come.

No redundancy there.

The rule also applies to the spoken word. Far too much meaningless verbiage comes out of peoples’ mouths and, no surprise here, politicians are especially guilty. Here’s a recent statement from British ex-prime minister Tony Blair pontificating on Muslim extremism.

The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a

discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to

peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential

part of fighting extremism.” (Flabby and overblown)

“In parts of the Muslim community, a discourse exists

hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an

essential part of fighting extremism.” (Better)

“Among Muslims, discourse hostile to religious tolerance

abounds. In combating extremism, it is essential to counter

such discourse.” (Much better)

I think the last word must go to that wonderful text, The Elements of Style.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no

unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,

for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary

lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that

the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail

and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So, let us cut the flab and do it. Here’s to better writing and better reading. Cheers.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai