Katie Rose Guest Pryal, J.D., Ph.D., is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Entanglement Series, which includes Entanglement, Love And Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. She teaches creative writing through Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and leads the Village Writers Workshops of Chapel Hill. She also works as a writing coach and developmental editor when she’s not writing her next book.
I basically want all of my favorite authors to revisit all of my favorite characters and write books about them again. So I wrote this column to encourage them to do so.
Writing “Linked Novels”: A Series of Standalones Sans Spoilers
Series are common is science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and other “genre fiction” (not a term I’m a fan of, but it’s what we have). Series share some common features, including these:
(1) Often, a series is set in a “world” that the books return to—a common setting and time.
(2) Often, books in a series share a common cast of characters.
(3) Often, books in a series feature the same central hero POV character: think Miss Marple (Agatha Christie), Adam Dalgliesh (P.D. James), or Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy). Although the series may also be told using other POV characters, the hero is the central character.
(4) Often, books in a series also have an overarching storyline, and they use cliffhangers to keep readers interested. The drawback to using cliffhangers, of course, is that if a reader reads a later book before earlier books, the later book is a spoiler—it ruins the surprise the earlier books might have held for a reader.
There are many reasons to write books in series. You get to know your characters, and you can stay with them for longer than one book—which, in some ways, is easier than starting from scratch. You get to know your setting, and you can live there for a while—which is also easier than starting from scratch. Your readers’ gain familiarity with your characters and your setting, and they enjoy that familiarity. And lastly, according to many publishers, series are easier to sell to readers.
But series are not so common in fiction that isn’t considered genre fiction—in “literary” or “upmarket” fiction, or in genres that aren’t fiction. (Here we are with the infuriating and inaccurate fiction labels again. I swear I’m not being snobby. You’ll see in a minute.)
When I wrote my first novel, Entanglement, I thought it would be a standalone, and submitted it to my publisher as one. But at the time I was writing and preparing Entanglement for publication, I was also reading Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books. French’s books enchanted me because they were amazing books, but also because of how they were related: they were a series but not a series. They were books that followed each other in time and that shared a setting (feature 1) and a cast of characters (feature 2). But I noticed that each book could stand on its own and could be read in any order—indeed, I read The Likeness first, the second book in the series, before reading the first book, and my enjoyment of the first book wasn’t hurt at all. The second book in the series did not spoil the first at all.
Tana French had performed some sorcery.
I decided to figure out how she’d done what she did, because after reading all of her books in two weeks, I knew I, too, wanted to write a series. I wasn’t writing mysteries like Tana French, but then again, her mysteries hardly seemed conventional to the genre.
(And here’s where genre language gets turned on its head, and all my angst about “upmarket” and “genre fiction” starts to mean something. Genres bend, expand, change, drift. Tana French writes mystery novels—in a series. And yet, her books are also, at the same time, none of those things. Thank goodness I came across them when I did.)
Here’s what I learned from studying French’s books: (1) Each completely stands on its own, without a cliffhanger ending to draw you to the next book. (2) The later books in the series do not spoil earlier books. (3) The central hero POV character changes from book to book.
So, although the books are all part of the “Dublin Murder Squad,” and although she pulls this neat trick where a minor character in the last book often becomes a major character in the next book, after watching her break all the rules of series-writing, I realized she wasn’t writing a series at all. She was writing something else.
Short story writers often publish in one volume a group of short stories that can stand alone when read individually, but that share certain features such as setting, or cast of characters. They call these “linked stories.” There is just no reason novelists (or memoirists—give me a minute to explain) can’t do the same with book-length works.
Tana French hadn’t written a series. She’d written “linked novels.”
I set about finding more linked novels to confirm my hypothesis. Once you know what you’re looking for, they’re everywhere. Take Anne Lamott’s Rosie Ferguson books: Rosie (1983), Crooked Little Heart (1997—I adored this book), and Imperfect Birds (2010). In each of Lamott’s books, the main POV character changes, either because it shifts from Rosie’s mom to Rosie herself, or from young Rosie to older Rosie after a long passage of time. Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is another: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, which won the 1995 Booker Prize. (I’m going to put the whole “only low-class genre fiction use series” thing to bed now with the Booker Prize.)
And then there’s my promised confirmation of the theory that memoirs can be linked as well. Take Mary Karr’s memoirs: The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. From the cover copy of Lit: “The Liars’ Club brought to vivid, indelible life Mary Karr’s hardscrabble Texas childhood. Cherry, her account of her adolescence, ‘continued to set the literary standard for making the personal universal’ (Entertainment Weekly). Now Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner’s descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness—and to her astonishing resurrection.” Each memoir keeps the same hero POV character, but it focuses on a different setting, cast of characters, and—most importantly for my point here—time. (You’ll see in a minute.) There are no cliffhangers at the end of her memoirs, and there are no spoilers.
I’m now publishing volume three of my not-series, Chasing Chaos, and finishing up the writing of volume four, and here’s what I’ve learned about how to write linked novels. First, here are the features of linked novels (or linked memoirs):
(1) They stand alone as stories, without cliffhangers.
(2) They do not spoil earlier linked novels.
(3) They can shift central hero POV characters (but don’t have to).
(4) They can shift setting and/or time (but don’t have to).
Have you written a novel and are considering writing a linked novel to follow it? Here are some ideas: pick a less central character of your novel to be the main character of your next book. But be sure to give that character and her novel a full backstory, as full of a backstory as you gave your first novel.
You can also use a gap in time to help create the world of your linked novel—similar to the gaps in time between Karr’s memoirs or Lamott’s novels. The gaps in time help each book stand on its own.
That’s what writing linked novels is all about: striking the delicate balance between a standalone novel and a novel in a series, and getting the benefits of both.
Have you written (or thought about writing) a series or linked novels? What ideas can you share? What questions do you have?