Wednesday, March 19, 2008

GRACEFUL EXITS


I'm so excited to bring you a special guest blogger for Wacky Wednesday! Kathryn R. Wall lives in the South Carolina Lowcountry where her series of mystery novels is set. Her eighth book, The Mercy Oak, which features widowed financial consultant and part-time detective Bay Tanner, will be released April 29.

I've gotten to know Kathy through her work as treasurer of Sisters in Crime. I'm truly in awe that one person can be so gifted with both words and numbers. Read on to hear her take on when it's time to stop writing a series. Welcome Kathy!

Thanks, ladies, for inviting me to share your forum. I enjoy your postings, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute—hopefully—to the dialogue.

I haven’t written a word on my new manuscript for more than two weeks, which is an extended drought for me. True, I’ve been occupied elsewhere. My husband was hospitalized for four days with a scary infection. His recuperation is occupying most of my time and energy, and writing has been the last thing on my mind. Still, I have a deadline, and I need to get back in the game before too much longer.

The eighth Bay Tanner mystery, The Mercy Oak, will be released at the end of April. I’m working on the 2009 book now, and I have to say that, for the most part, I’m still loving the process as well as the characters I’ve created over the past eleven years. It’s tremendously gratifying when people approach me at a signing or speaking event and talk about Bay and the Judge and Red and Lavinia as if they were real people. The nicest compliment I’ve ever received was from a reader who said Bay was like an old friend who owed her a letter—she needed to catch up on what had been happening in Bay’s life. I’ve worked hard at allowing my principal characters to grow and evolve through the triumphs and tragedies I’ve made them face, and I feel as if they still have stories and secrets to reveal to me.

What I’m wondering about this morning is if I’ll know when it’s time to stop.

Of course, that decision may be taken out of my hands. It’s happened to a lot of my writer friends whose series have been dropped by their publishers for one reason or another. But I’m thinking about authors like Sue Grafton, Marcia Mueller, and others whose series entries exceed twenty books. (I’ll probably be in the “home” before I get that far.) These talented writers continue to captivate faithful readers and garner new ones despite their works’ spanning a couple of decades.

We can all remember television series that went on one season too long—Fonzie “jumping the shark” springs immediately to mind. Yet I think the final episode of M*A*S*H still holds the record for the largest viewing audience ever. We see it, too, with professional athletes who play past their prime. And getting back on track, there are certainly authors who keep grinding them out—no names, please—with what seems to be a decreasing level of the excellence and energy they began with, simply mailing it in, or so it seems. That’s a sorority I certainly don’t want to pledge. But the question persists: how do you know when it’s time to fold your tent gracefully and steal away into the night? Will there be a sign—flashing lights in the sky, an inner voice shouting in your ear?—that says it’s time to move on to something else?

If I had the answer, I wouldn’t be posing the question. I’m hoping some of the regulars here may have some wisdom to pass along. I’ll admit it’s a dilemma aspiring writers dream about having, so please don’t throw tomatoes at your monitors. They make a real mess.

Kathy

6 comments:

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yeah, Kathy--tomatoes are definitely dripping from my monitor! You're so right about that being a good problem to have.

If I may be so bold as to enter unknown book territory--I think you'd know. If suddenly--aliens show up in your manuscript. Or your main character decides she has psychic powers.

Those may be good stories, but it's not YOUR series.

(I wondered if I would know when to stop wanting to wear the newest fashion trend. It happened when I realized that I was on about the third go-round of the same trend. Eyeliner and baby-doll dresses, this means you.)

But that said--my brain told me to stop. And you've gotta figure as long as you're wondering about it, but plotting your next book at the same time,it's probably not time.

Can't wait to read your latest!

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm looking at your problem from the other end of the tunnel--my characters have barely started on their fictional lives. Yet it is all too easy to start talking about them to other people as real, and thinking of them as friends. Which I think is the key. Don't we all have friends that go back years, if not decades? They change, we change, but the connection is still there. So as long as you feel that sense of connection with your characters, carry on.

But if and when that fades, do you write a farewell book, tying up all the loose ends?

Nan Higginson said...

Hank Phillippi Ryan's note over on the Guppy list caught my eye. She mentioned Kathryn R. Wall's guest posting on a topic I ponder in my dreams. I came over to see what Kathryn had to say.

If we got to do it the right way, we'd stop only when our characters had lost their sparkle. I wait impatiently for the next in the series to hit the bookshelves. It's like the Christmas letter you love to get - catching up on the lives of characters who keep us reading even when parts of the book seem a bit, well, lame.

It seems to me that creating a couple different series helps to keep characters fresh. I think Kinsey Milhone needs an alter-ego in another series to keep Kinsey on her toes. Nothing like a little sibling rivalry across series lines to keep the characters fighting for your attention. Of course, the readers would never know of the behind the scenes battle of the characters, but it could keep both series snappy.

Write On!
Nan

Nan Higginson said...

P.S. - It's great to hear that Kathy's characters are still hiding secrets that we'll have to ferret out as the series spins on. As long as
Bay and the others are lively parts of Kathy's life, they will continue to be a lively part of ours!

And I hope her hubby's strength returns and his recovery is complete. I've learned how to hang and deliver IV's of antibiotics in recent years - sounds like Kathy might have, too. It's tough to get the writing done, but if anyone can, my money's on Kathy to lead the way.

Write On, Kathy!

Roberta Isleib said...

To answer Sheila's question, sometimes the vagaries of publishing mean you don't know your last book in a series is your last. That happened to me with Cassie Burdette. I had just enough time to scramble around and lighten the ending a tiny bit, hoping readers wouldn't feel socked in the gut. And Cassie did appear as a cameo in the first advice column mystery, DEADLY ADVICE. In fact, that was a lot of fun!

AliasMo said...

Interesting you should mention the last episode of M*A*S*H, because I think of that as a lesson in how not to end a series. Another is Michael Moriarty's last episode on Law & Order. Both violated the integrity of the main character for the sake of plot. Hawkeye turned into a fearful bully who badgered a Korean woman to keep her baby quiet, so she ended up smothering it. Moriarty (can't remember the character's name) was always a very compassionate D.A. who looked after the innocents who got caught up in a case. In his last case, he threatened to prosecute a terrified woman for not testifying against the Russian mob and, surprise-surprise, the mob killed her.

When a series ends, I want it to be a sad, but affectionate parting. I'd like to think of the characters going on without me. Even if the main character dies, as in the Inspector Morse TV series, I want to feel as if it's part of the natural evolution of the characters, not an artificially created event.

One time-to-go sign is if your series is becoming a platform for some kind of agenda. I'm purposely staying away from mentioning books. The "Quincy, M.E." TV show was an extreme example of a mystery series that eventually suffered from "issue of the week" disease.

May all your series live long and prosper!

Mo