Thursday, May 23, 2013

Leap of Faith: a guest blog by Zoë Sharp

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Our friend Zoë Sharp is one of those writers who hardly needs an introduction. A prolific novelist and short-story author, Zoë has been shortlisted for almost every crime-fiction award out there, including the Edgar, the Anthony, the Macavity and the Shirt Story Dagger. Today, she's going to talk about one of the biggest decisions in a series-writer's career: to break away from the series and, perhaps...the genre.

There’s no doubt about it that continuing characters in fiction are very popular. Some of my favourite authors write series books and I open each new installment with a special sense of pleasure. Not only am I confident that the author is going to take me on an exciting journey but I have the added thrill of making that journey with old friends.

I’ve been taking people on that same journey myself with the ten books so far in my series featuring ex-Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. I’m constantly being emailed and messaged by people who’ve discovered the books and the character and are bemoaning the fact that I don’t write fast enough to satisfy them.

But having written the tenth book about Charlie, her troubled relationship with fellow bodyguard Sean Meyer, and her boss in the NYC close-protection agency she works for, Parker Armstrong, I had the urge to do something different.

I must be mad.

Crime and thrillers still have the strongest pull for me but I have quite a few ideas I’d like to explore that don’t sit comfortably within the boundaries of Charlie’s world. Plus they would be difficult stories to tell in a first-person narrative, which is how I’ve always written the series books. Or maybe the voice that comes to me to me as that of the main protagonist is simply somebody new.

It took me a while after Charlie introduced herself to me before I discovered her voice. I really want to write KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one in third-person but she just wouldn’t talk to me that way and after ten books from her exclusive point-of-view I think it would be too much of a jolt for readers if I tried to change things. 

However, it’s harder to write a multi-strand novel from inside the head of only one character and when I had the idea for THE BLOOD WHISPERER—about a disgraced crime-scene investigator turned crime-scene cleaner who went to prison for a crime she can’t remember—I knew I needed a fresh start.

But it’s still a step into the unknown. The main protagonist of THE BLOOD WHISPERER—Kelly Jacks—is not Charlie Fox although there are similarities. Kelly can take care of herself but prison tends to do that to you pretty fast. She emerges from her experiences tougher, warier but with a lack of faith in herself and everyone she thought she could rely on. All she wants to do is get on with her life and forget the past. The past, it seems, does not want to forget her.

I don’t intend this to be the start of a new series except possibly in a very roundabout way. In between the Charlie Fox novels I’d like to tell the stories of other strong female protagonists, like Kelly. The only common feature apart from that would be that these are all people for whom calling in the cops at the first sign of trouble is not an option. In Kelly’s case this is because she rapidly becomes a suspect in another murder that eerily mirrors the one she was convicted of.

Still, I’m aware that it’s a step in the dark for me. A leap of faith. Will the fans of Charlie Fox jump with me, or will they wait instead for the next installment in that series? Fingers crossed!

I’ve read various series by my favourite authors but I know I tend to prefer one in particular. I loved Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but didn’t take to her travelling salesman sleuth Montague Egg at all. I read JD Robb’s IN DEATH futuristic cop series, but not her Nora Roberts romances. On the other hand I followed the late Robert B Parker across from crime fiction into Westerns and one about baseball player Jackie Robinson.

So, maybe if I want to stretch myself beyond Charlie Fox I might be better making it a long stretch and moving further away from crime? And with all the cross-genre novels currently abounding that’s more of a reality. Is this a good time to mention that I’ve also written a supernatural thriller (with slight crime overtones—there are murders and policemen in it) about a mysterious hitman who you summon with grief but pay with your soul …?

So my question is have you followed an author across different series and with what result? Or across genres? And if you’re an author are you tempted to write outside your current genre? Have you tried it already? And if not, what’s stopping you?

Any of you over in the UK for CrimeFest at the end of May, please stop by and say hello. I’m honoured to be on three panels—one on Thursday afternoon and two on Saturday morning. We’ll be covering topics of Forgotten Authors, Guns For Hire, and When Can You have Too Much Research. Be great to see you there if you’re going!

It’s always been my habit with blogs to have a Word of the Week. This week’s is concilliabule, meaning a secret meeting of people who are hatching a plot. Also concilliabules, secret plans.

You can find out more about Zoë and her work at her website. You can friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @authorzoesharp and see what she's reading on GoodreadsZoë was also one of the longest-standing contributors to the much-beloved Murderati blog.


Joan Emerson said...

I’ve found that, with an author and a series I really enjoy, it’s always hard, hard, hard to wait for the next installment of the series [what? you can’t write them as fast as I can read them????] and getting the next book is always like welcoming back an old friend. But I can see, from the author’s point of view, how the structure within which the series stories are told does not lend itself to storytelling outside its particular framework. As a reader, however, I am always willing to check out the non-series books written by authors I already know and love. Sometimes I don’t enjoy the new book or series or the character as much as I did the author’s original series, and I don’t continue to follow the new one, but I’m always willing to pick up that first one and see what new ideas the author has for me to explore . . . .

Kristi said...

My first thought was "Heck, yes! If I like an author, I want to read everything they've written!" And then I got to thinking about the exceptions... I enjoy all Dana Stabenow's mystery series but have never even tried her SF and I love SF! I read Mary Daheim's Alpine series but abandoned the Bed & Breakfast books early on. I read anything Ruth Rendell writes, no matter what she's calling herself, and I would have said the same about Reginald Hill but The Woodcutter totally weirded me out (although I'm so sorry not to have more chances :-( ) I loved each of Charlaine Harris' series and was sad to see each come to an end.

Zoë, I like the Charlie books but The Blood Whisperer sounds FABulous and I'll be looking for it. Your idea for various protagonists sounds wonderful, too... I love Lisa Scottoline's Rosato & Associates books that have a somewhat similar concept because they really let the reader get to know those 'other' great characters, the ones who would otherwise only be eligible for the "best supporting" awards!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

The Blood Whisperer sounds good Zoe! But I agree with Kristi--I can definitely think of instances where authors broke out of their series with less than enthralling results.

I've never had a book published that wasn't in the first person, but I'd like to try one day...

Anonymous said...

I'm usually willing to give a favorite author's new series a try. In fact, I can think of a well-established author or two who I would like to see try a new series -- the current series has gotten boring! I think the Charlie series is great, but got the impression at the end of the last book that a change was forthcoming. Will be looking forward to Zoe's next book, whoever the main character is.

Rosemary Harris said...

Welcome Zoe! As a reader, I'll always pick up a book written by someone who's work I've enjoyed. I was (at the time) flabbergasted when it was first suggested that if I stepped away from mysteries, I'd have to write under another name. Really? Readers are going to be confused??
Excited to hear about other writers I admire doing different things. I love Charlie but I'm curious to read anything you write!
For my part, I'm taking a break from mysteries with a historical novel (as I've probably on JR before.) It can be scary - but exhilarating!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, I'm so with you, dear Zoe! Would readers who like my first-person present-tense Charlotte (!) McNally be happy and comfortable with the tougher, younger and third-person past-tense Jane Ryland?

And it's so fascinating to think about "how the characters talk to us." I could NOT put Jane in first person, because I wanted the books to be very different. It was a bit of a struggle to keep her in the "past," which is how I looked at it.

So I--and here's a funny story--had to sit at my computer saying "Once upon a time..." because that's a construct that my brain understands.

Now, in the midst of book three, I hardly think about it.

And FYI-on my bulletin board is a motto that says "Leap and the net will appear."


Hallie Ephron said...

HI Zoe -- You must be doing something right -- in my bookstore travels, I see your books everywhere!

Your comments reminded me of one of my favorite writing quotes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut: We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Allison A Davis said...


I am one of your readers that will read whatever you write...Charlie is special to me because she is part of inspiration for my character but I always have room for more friends.

Kurt Russell successfully went from his Fish & Game character series to a new SFPD series and I enjoy both of them. There are many examples where it works.

Most importantly, you have to follow the story and write what's coming out in your head and in the voice it wants. Otherwise, it doesn't work. Looking forward then.

Linda Rodriguez said...

I read books that favorite authors write, even if they're not in the same series or genre. But sometimes after that first book outside the favorite series, I have to say it's not for me. And other times, I love it and have a whole new set of books by a favorite author. I'll read any genre, except all erotica (just not my thing) and most romance (lots of good writers but a set of conventions I don't really care for).

The Blood Whisperer sounds great, as does your novel with fantasy/paranormal aspects. Go for it!

Julia said...

Lucy's right about some authors "breaking out" and landing with a thud. Here's the thing, though: in the instances where I've read a less-than-stellar breakaway book, it always seems to have been a case where the author was trying to chase the market. When the author writes the story she's COMPELLED to tell, it shows, and the readers will follow.

The now-classic case; Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series. It took her agent several years to sell the first book, because it was so different from Charlaine's other series (and from much of what was on the bookshelves in the late '90s. Now look!

And Charlaine isn't done with her reinvention: she's wrapping up the Stackhouse books and, I understand, will be starting yet another series. The perfecrt example of Hank's quote - which I'm going to put on my own computer! - "Leap, and the net will appear."

TFJ said...

I've followed Dana Stabenow from Kate Shugak series to Liam Campbell, but not to her Star S. series. Can't seem to make the leap to science fiction.

And I've yet to make the leap to the YA series of Grisham and others, even though I read many YA books.

What I can't begin to fathom is how I missed your series, Ms. Sharp! The TBR pile has just fallen --- looking forward to meeting (and I'm sure bemoaning her departure) Charlie. However, seems you already solved that issue with The Blood Whisperer.


Marianne in Maine said...

I will normally read whatever a favorite author writes. I haven't always like the stand-alones or different series but I'll at least read one.

I can imagine how frightening it is for an author to break away from a tried-and-true series or genre to try something new. I applaud your bravery.

lil Gluckstern said...

I think it varies. Some authors stumble, but others dowel for me, and I will read anything they write. You may well become one of those, Zoe :) I really think it has to do with the characters and story coming from the heart, and not to the market as Julia said. It does depend on what the author wants to do. I guess of me it varies.

Karen in Ohio said...

Hi, Zoe! Nice to see you here on JRW.

If I like the genre, it doesn't matter what favorite authors do. Charlaine Harris has two other series that I really like, but I have not even tried the Sookie Stackhouse series, since I'm not a fan of the vampire genre.

Laurie R. King's different series, Nancy Martin's, Hank's, are all favorites, among others. Good writing is good writing, and more power to good writers if they get more than one idea. Why would anyone complain about that?

Anonymous said...

with you zoë
r and k


Darlene Ryan said...

I've followed author Lynn Viehl through pretty much everything she's written and never been disappointed. The same for Yasmine Galenorn.

Zoe The Blood Whisperer sounds enticing. I'll be looking for it.

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Joan

Thank you, and I’m sorry we can’t write as fast as you obviously read. Wow, that would be cool, wouldn’t it? I have some many stories bubbling away that sometimes I can’t hear myself think and it would be wonderful to be able to get them out onto the page faster. But the story comes at the speed it comes. Never fast enough.

Glad you’re willing to give something different a try. No pressure there, then … :))

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Kristi

I have my favourite different series too. I mentioned some of them but there are plenty of others. I know I’m taking a chance doing something different, but I wanted to give it a try and now feels like the ideal time to do it. Thank you for the kind words about Charlie Fox. I often find the supporting characters very interesting as well and your mention of the ‘best supporting awards’ for them really struck a chord. Sometimes I’d like to be able to explore their stories in more detail than my first-person narrative allows.

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Roberta (and Lucy)

Thank you! I had to laugh (albeit nervously) when you said, “I can definitely think of instances where authors broke out of their series with less than enthralling results.” Like I said to Joan — no pressure then :))

I enjoy the immediacy of first-person and that was how Charlie’s voice arrived in my head but it can create restrictions in the story arc for the author. I’ve also been experimenting with present tense which really intrigues me but is a tough one to carry off …

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Anon

I confess when you said, “I can think of a well-established author or two who I would like to see try a new series — the current series has gotten boring!” my heart sank a bit until I read on. LOL. Yes, I do like to keep things on the move with Charlie I’m not leaving her for long. I’m currently working on a Charlie Fox novella for the summer, and book #11 (as yet untitled) will be on the way after that. I’m just hoping to take more side journeys along the way.

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Rosemary

Thank you for the warm welcome. It’s always an honour and a pleasure to be invited here to the home of the Reds!

I too was dismayed at initial suggestions that I’d have to write another series or a standalone under another name. At one point I would have agreed to do this but as time goes on I’m becoming more and more reluctant. For one thing to do so would mean doubling the work you have to do in order to get your name out there. I’d rather be spending that time writing the next book.

Congratulations to you on your historical novel. I hope it does wonderfully well for you and provides you with enough of a break from your series to bring you back to it with renewed vigor. Exhilarating is the right word!

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Hank

Changing tenses and narrative POV may well have been just enough of a difference to click your readers from one series to another. It certainly seems to be working for you! I love present-tense but it can be so tricky to use and I very much admire authors who get it right.

Love the quote from your bulletin board. My motto on Murderati was ‘Changing Feet’ because most of the time I feel the only reason I open my mouth is to do so … :))

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Hallie

Bless you for that — always very good for us writers fragile egos to find out the bookstores have our work in stock, isn’t it?

Love the Kurt Vonnegut quote. I’ve heard that one attributed to Ray Bradbury as well, but I think you’re right and it was Vonnegut. In a similar vein is this one from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” I don’t know about every day, but I try to do it in every book.

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Allison

Thank you so much, and lovely to see you here! Charlie will always be special to me too, ever since the moment she walked out of my subconscious, grabbed me by the throat and said, “I’ve a story to tell and you’re going to listen …”

I hope we will soon have some more friends in common :))

Zoë Sharp said...

Hey, Blogger has just had me type 'infested apyron' in order to prove I'm not a robot.

Surely only a robot would type such a thing in the first place ...?

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Linda

Interesting point you make that sometimes a new series may not have the staying power of the old one. Maybe this is a case of an author going for a full-blown divorce when separate holidays might have worked better?

Thank you for the kind words. I shall indeed attempt to Go For It and hope that when I get there It has not Gone :))

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Julia

Thank you so much for inviting me back to visit with the Reds!

I’ll try not to ‘break out’ only to find it’s in a cold sweat or hives. The supernatural thriller in particular has been a story that’s been nagging at me for years and I was actively discouraged from changing genres. It was only since my foray into the world of indie publishing that I decided to throw caution to the winds and write the stories that were calling to me as well as my existing series. And I always intended this to be an ‘as well as’ rather than an ‘instead of’.

Good point about the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse books. And I think that we spend so long working on a book, living with these people inside our heads that we have to be bubbling with enthusiasm for the whole idea at the outset precisely because it IS such a long process. Writing something because you feel you ought is never going to work. As you say, you have to feel compelled to do it.

On my computer I have Get On With It in big letters …

Zoë Sharp said...


Interesting that you’re the second person to mention Dana’s SF series. I love her Kate Shugak books. In some ways reading sci-fi is such a break from crime and thrillers that I really enjoy it. I’ve recently been re-reading Peter F Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising trilogy about a futuristic PI. One is even a twist on the classic country house/locked room mystery.

Thank you so much for thinking of giving the Charlie Fox books and short stories a try (not Shirt Stories as it says in the intro, although that sounds much more intriguing!) and I hope you enjoy her world if you decide to enter it. And book ten is definitely not the end of the line by any means :))

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Marianne

Thank you for the kind words. Usually I do these daft things before anybody tells me it’s being brave. If I can misquote Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs … then clearly you have NO CONCEPT of the danger you’re in …”

In one of the books I had Charlie shot twice on the opening page. It wasn’t until I announced this on stage at a convention, and the whole room gave a collective intake of breath that I thought, “Uh-oh …”

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi lil

Thank you and I hope the new books do appeal to you! I confess I am biting my fingernails a bit at the prospect of maybe disappointing people who’ve enjoyed the Charlie Fox books. But eventually you have to simply jump and work out the details on the way down :)

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Karen

Lovely to see you here — and lovely to be here :))

Funny, I think if anything I’m more likely to hop genre with an author than series. Hmm, maybe I should have thought about this sooner …

And rest assured that my supernatural book has no vampires, no werewolves and no zombies in it!

Zoë Sharp said...

And with you Reine

Bests to Kendall!

Zoë Sharp said...

Hi Darlene

Glad you’re enticed, and thank you! I will try my hardest not to disappoint :))

Zoë Sharp said...

Thank you so much to everyone who's commented so far on this. It's waaay late now in the UK but I'll be back tomorrow just to check.

Meanwhile, thank you once again to all the wonderful Jungle Red Writers for inviting me to come play in their sandbox. As always, it's been a lot of fun :))

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Keep us posted, Zoe! Can't wait to hear what happens...come back and tell all! xoo

Zoë Sharp said...

You bet, Hank. I'd be delighted!

AliasMo said...

Hi Zoe! Relieved to hear (having just finished "Die Easy")that Charlie will be back, but I agree you have to write what you are compelled to write by inner forces rather than external pressure--even that of adoring fans. I'd rather wait for the next book in a series and enjoy a side-trip or two with a favorite author rather than see the series grow stale because the author's attention is being drawn elsewhere. Just one question: will there be motorcycles (aka "bikes")?

Susan said...

I know I'm late to the party but couldn't resist posting. Several of my favorite authors have either multiple series or a series plus one-offs, and I love them all. I think of Margaret Maron, Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell.

I can think of one author, who I won't name since I'm not going to speak positively, who had one series I loved and another I sort of tolerated. Then he made the big mistake of introducing the two protagonists in one book, and lost all that was wonderful about the first one. I realized, in retrospect, that he's just not that great a writer -- he had just stumbled upon a character so engaging the character carried his writing.

Bottom line: I think as long as the writing is consistently good, I'm usually happy to follow wherever the author takes me.

Seeley James said...

I'd follow you anywhere (in the literary, not creepy, sense:). I can't wait to read it!

Peace, Seeley