Among the provcative and always well-worth-your-time discussions going on at Mystery Circus’s Peanut Gallery, the ever-evil Jim Winter asked a question about writing series:

…I look at Doolittle and Gischler and notice they’re writing standalones. And every agent, writer, and editor tells me I need a series.

The book I’m currently shopping is pitched as “a standalone with series potential.” And yet I’m so bored with the idea of doing another series or even my current one that I’m seriously considering scrapping Kepler #3 and starting its replacement off with Kepler already dead.

So why is it they keep saying you have to have a series when so many authors clearly are not writing them?

Part of this was a misconception about what series authors do. I assumed (wrongly) that most mystery authors come up with a first book in a series and simply think, “Oh, I’ve got the hang of this, I’ve got my character figured out—I’ll just keep writing.” That was unfair, and pretty stupid. I also came into contact with more and more series that were not unlike my own, in that they were conceptual. They were constructed like elaborate multi-volume novels, which to me is still the way to write a series.In answer to Jim, I tried to explain my shift of perspective in more personal terms:

I used to rail against the idea of a series—I thought it was too much rehashing of a single idea—but I’ve grown more comfortable with the idea recently. Maybe because my own series is reaching its finale and I’m getting nervous. Now I find myself mapping out a new trilogy that my agent finds exciting partly because the same person reappears in each. The only way I can make myself happy with the idea is to see it as a 3-part novel (like Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson 9-book series) that happens to be divided into multiple covers. More advances for me & my agent, more time to build an audience for it.

Thus the other side of the series, and why I think many agents push the concept: it’s practical. In a day when midlist authors are being dropped like last year’s Gucci bags, a series lets everyone involved have a bit of a rest. A publisher is willing to wait a couple years before making that tough decision, and in the meantime, with yearly advances coming in, the author has more chance of working full-time on just writing as well as s/he can.

Lots of things change with time. When my agent first took me on, we had a nice sit-down to discuss what I wanted with my career. I told him in no uncertain terms that I wanted to write these five crime/espionage novels, and then stop writing thrillers altogether. He nodded. “I’m serious,” I told him, and he shrugged, saying, “Well, we’ll see. Once the money starts coming in you might change your mind.”

He was right and he was wrong. I did change my mind, but not (entirely) because of the money (which pays my rent, but doesn’t do a hell of a lot more). I changed my mind because I changed in the five years since our conversation. I learned that thrillers can be as perfect a form for art as the suburban melodrama, and I learned that a series doesn’t mean someone is lacking in ideas.

I mentioned Len Deighton, but there are so many more. Le Carre’s trilogy collected in “The Quest for Karla”, Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” books, Bruen’s Jack Taylors, and how many in the general literary sphere? The Rabbits, the Prousts, that Dance to the Music of Time, and of course Robin’s friend, Mr Musil. The list goes on & on.

But I do stick to my contention that the most valuable series are those written as a single entity. Call it a multi-volume novel, because that’s really what I’m talking about. It has a beginning and an end, though the writer may not be conscious of it when penning the first volume.

While my outlines have never stretched longer than a single page, I’m the kind of writer who needs to have some idea where I’m going. I knew when writing Bridge that there would be one book for each decade of Cold War, each book would focus on a different main character, and the last book would occur during the 1989 revolution and end with Emil Brod, the hero of Bridge, as an old man. That’s really all I knew, but it was enough to form a concept in my head and keep me going.

Now, as I mentioned above, I’m mapping out a trilogy. This time I’m going about it the way one might when writing a single book. I’m outlining in detail (something new for me) a contemporary spy series that follows a single protagonist over a few years. The core “mystery” remains the same, though in each book the focus shifts to more urgent matters that play themselves out by the end of each volume.

So I’m back in series-land, despite my earlier misguided apprehensions. And I’m liking it. I’m beginning to see the potential in series to do things that it’s harder to pull off in a single book, and I’m finding pleasure in the inevitable security it gives me. Three books, three advances; one book, one advance. You do the math.

But honestly, it’s not just about the money.