Val McDermid: Series or Standalone?

By | October 30, 2012

Yesterday we posted an extract from our Arvon guide to crime writing in which Ian Rankin talks about becoming a crime writer. Here is another treat from the book for all aspiring crime and thriller writers – Val McDermid discussing the merits of publishing a standalone book or establishing a thriller series:

'Series fiction is
attractive and satisfying for writers and readers alike. When it’s done well,
it’s like a friendship – as the years go by, our understanding of the central
characters and their world grows and we watch their lives affected and altered
by the events they experience. We all want to know what comes next – and that
generally applies to writers as much as to readers.

Standalone novels offer
a different sort of satisfaction – the contained pleasure of a single play or a
film, as opposed to an ongoing developing drama. That singularity gives a
writer complete freedom to do what they will without having to imagine the

For the last dozen
years, I’ve been alternating series novels and standalones. That’s partly
because I have a low boredom threshold and can’t actually bring myself to write
two novels back-to-back with the same characters. But it’s mostly because that
cycle allows me the freedom to write whatever story is clamouring most loudly
to be heard.

Writing a single series
has major limitations for a writer. Whatever the professional role of your
central investigator, there are only certain kinds of story in which they can
hold centre stage. In my standalones, I’ve had the burden of the story carried
by a journalist, a greetings card manufacturer and an academic studying Wordsworth,
among others. These are not sleuths who have
a second novel in them, by and large.

I hate limitations of any kind. So I embrace the standalones as a way of
telling the stories that  burn in my heart
and my head but can’t be homed with any of my series characters. I’m often
asked if there’s any difference in the writing of these two types of novel.
There is, but it only really has any significance in the early stages of the

novel starts with an idea. Sometimes it’s a quirky nugget of information that
suggests possibilities. Sometimes it’s an anecdote told over a dinner table.
Sometimes it’s a throwaway line on the radio. But always, it’s something that
sets me thinking, ‘What if …?’ It can take years to learn all the possible
answers to that question, but quite early on in the process, it will be clear
to me whether the shape and the subject of the story that’s emerging fits
existing series characters.

the story will have reached a stage where I know enough about what it is and
where it’s going and how it gets there. What happens next depends on whether
it’s a series novel or a standalone.

it’s a series novel, my starting point is the nexus of characters who move from
book to book. Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are the key characters in their
series, but there are family members and colleagues who have accompanied them
through several stages of their journey. First I need to remind myself where I
left them at the end of the previous book. So I have to do a bit of background
reading, to be sure I’ve got all the details at my fingertips.

I have to consider the effect of the events of the previous books on the
characters. How will they respond to what they’ve seen/heard/ experienced? What
damage has been done to them? What lessons have they learned?

I’ve got that straight in my head, I have to figure out how the story shapes
itself around them. Series characters have individual clusters
of limitations and abilities and the writer
is stuck with those. The story has to accommodate
that and it’s not always easy to make that happen. But you have to labour through it because consistency is crucial,
not just out of respect for yourself as a writer but also out of respect
for the readers who have made a commitment to following your books.

I wrote the first Hill and Jordan novel, The
Mermaids Singing
, I intended it to be a standalone. Looking back at it now,
and the consequences of some of the decisions I made for plot reasons, I do
wish I’d taken into consideration the fact that I might still be writing those
characters fifteen years later. It left me with some interesting hoops to jump
through over the years. I might not have made Tony Hill permanently impotent,
for example, which would make his relationship with Carol all the more complex
and tantalising. And I might have chosen to set the books in a real city rather
than bind them to a fictitious one, to root them more firmly in terms of

a standalone, however, the story is the starting point. I have the luxury of
working out how to make the different plot elements cohere so that the whole
thing hangs together without the reader having to go, ‘But wait a minute, that
doesn’t make sense …’ Only then do I turn to the characters and, rather like
a psychological profiler, start asking myself ‘What sort of person would behave
like this? What personal history would provoke this attitude, these responses,
those dreams? Why would someone react in one particular way rather than

once I’m past this initial stage, both forms converge into the same sort of
biofeedback system, where the more I learn about the characters, the more the
story possibilities cohere. And the further the story gets, the better I
understand my characters, and so on in an endless progression. Sometimes the
moments of illumination come suddenly. I can still remember struggling for a
long time in The Last Temptation with why a Dutch cop and a German cop would be
sharing confidential information about their cases. I was literally in the
shower one morning when I slapped myself on the forehead and shouted, ‘Because
they’re trying to impress each other into bed! Because they’re lesbians, you
numskull.’ You’d think if anyone was going to work that one out it would be me

do I prefer, series or standalone? Well, the truth is, neither. I love them
both. Because whatever I’m writing, my method means I’m passionate about that
particular book. What’s not to love about that?'

Val McDermid, born in Fife and educated at St
Hilda’s, Oxford, was a journalist before beginning her crime-writing career in
1987. She has won awards around the world and is a fixture on best-seller

ArvonThe extract above is taken from The Arvon Book of Crime and Thriller Writing by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King, now available to buy. This is the perfect book for any aspiring crime and thriller writers – helping you to put pen to paper on every kind of crime story, from classic whodunits to fast-paced thrillers.

Jenny Tighe

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