A Series or a Standalone? Which Is More Likely to Lead You to Literary Stardom?

A Series or a Standalone?  Which Is More Likely to Lead You to Literary Stardom? Guest post by James Hayman

A Series or a Standalone?  Which Is More Likely to Lead You to Literary Stardom?

Guest post by James Hayman

If you want to make the major best seller lists as a mystery or thriller writer, is it better for you to make your first book the first in a series? One that features the same hero(s) and very often the same setting in book after book?  Or is a standalone a better way to go. This is a question I’m inevitably asked when I’m giving readings or participating as a panelist at a crime writers conference.

The short answer is:  A series is always better.  Except when it isn’t.

A Series or a Standalone?  Which Is More Likely to Lead You to Literary Stardom?   Guest post by James Hayman
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The Amazon and other best seller lists feature one series hero after another:  Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren, Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles and my own Michel McCabe and Maggie Savage.  And I’m sure readers of this blog can think of dozens more.

The reasons for the success of these and other series depends on a number of factors.

The first is coming up with a reason for your hero or hero(s) to keep on chasing and hopefully catching one bad guy after another.

For this reason, most if not all, successful series feature a some kind of sleuth. Maybe a cop, maybe a private eye or maybe, like Lee Childs Jack Reacher, who’s a former military policeman who roams the countryside in search of bad guys deserving of rough justice.  The one critical factor is that you, the author, have to make your hero appealing enough that readers will want to spend time with them in book after book.  Even if a reader doesn’t discover your hero until the sixth book in the series like my latest McCabe and Savage thriller, A Fatal Obsession, if they like your characters enough, they’ll keep wanting to come back for more.  Many will want to go back to the first book in the series and read them all.

The key is to make your primary characters appealing enough so that the reader really enjoys spending time with them.  That is the first and most important trick of the trade.  Your heroes don’t necessarily have to be goody-goodies. They don’t have to be likable or all that attractive or even have appealing personalities. They can even be nasty ne’re-do-wells or drunks or have other personality flaws. They just have to have the ability to f capture the readers’ imaginations and keep on doing it in book after book.  Take, for example, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.  Not many readers would make Lisbeth their first choice for a prom date. But as long as Larsson was writing (and even after the series continued in the hands of another writer) they couldn’t get enough of her. Like Lisbeth, your series character just has to be able to grab the readers’ imaginations and hold on to them in book after book.

With all this in mind, I deliberately set out to create a series when I started writing the first McCabe/Savage thriller, The Cutting and I’ve stuck with that ever since.  And while not yet achieving the level of success of either Harry Bosch or Lisbeth Salander McCabe and Savage have gotten me onto the New York Times Bestseller list.

Having said all that, there’s a but and it’s a very big but. A series isn’t always the best way to go.  You don’t always have to make your primary characters the kind who can come back in book after book.  If you did, Gillian Flynn’s Amazing Amy or Paula Hawkins’ voyeuristic, alcoholic Rachel, or more recently A.J. Finn’s Anna Fox in The Woman in the Window would never have vaulted these authors to the very top of every best seller list in the world and kept them there month after month and, not incidentally, made all three a fortune in the process.

So to get back to the original question.  If you want to become a successful mystery or thriller writer, is it better to plan for a series or go for a gangbusters original idea?  My answer, as I said at the beginning, a series always makes more sense.  

Except when it doesn’t.

A Series or a Standalone?  Which Is More Likely to Lead You to Literary Stardom?   Guest post by James Hayman
JAMES HAYMAN, formerly creative director at one of New York’s largest advertising agencies, is the author of the acclaimed McCabe and Savage Thriller series: The CuttingThe Chill of NightDarkness FirstThe Girl in the GlassThe Girl on The Bridge, and A Fatal Obsess

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