YA Mysteries: Choosing to Write a Stand-Alone or a Series

At first glance, this can look like a very simple decision: You write one “young adult” mystery. If it goes well, gets reasonable amounts of readers, and you think of more situations for your characters, you turn it into a series. Why not?

Actually, the discussion of endings in the last “YA Mysteries” post might give you a hint: An ending for a stand-alone book wraps up all the important strands of the mystery: who did the crime and why, and (equally important) how the protagonist/sleuth settles back to ordinary life, or life one step wider, or life in the new school, and so on. The more intense the emotional struggles of the protagonist have been, the more likely it is that the ending must demonstrate that the path has been worthwhile. That can make it challenging to re-open the emotions for a follow-up mystery.

The well-known Nancy Drew series evaded this issue by having no particular growth in the main characters: Nancy may be somewhat more appreciative of motherly housekeeper Hannah Gruen in some of these mysteries, and may find her father, lawyer Carson Drew, giving her more leeway to investigate — but she doesn’t really change. Consider this: Nancy Drew doesn’t have losses, doesn’t grieve, doesn’t go through break-ups.

But today’s YA mystery sleuths usually do have some or all of those challenges that insist on making you wrestle with life as you see it, and that catch you sometimes in tears. So again, the endings of such books need to find a satisfying solution to those issues.

The other aspect of YA mysteries that can limit the options around a series is the aging of the sleuth. It doesn’t matter whether Miss Marple is 65, 72, or a spry 80; she’s still one of the elders of her village and her insight applies to Agatha Christie’s puzzlers. But can you picture kids reading about a Nancy Drew who’s expecting her second child, or refinancing her house, or getting a divorce? Okay, sure, they might still be reading — but almost by definition, the books will be outside the YA genre. Instead, they’d be mysteries with adult sleuths. (I’m thinking now of the charming ones by Cheryl Crane, which feature a grown daughter as sleuth, and her aging mother as an issue!)

So it’s a good idea to make a plan at the start: Series, or Stand-Alone. Pick One.

Of course, you can change your mind later — but there will be things to undo and re-knit to make the connections work.

Here are some recent YA mysteries where the authors planned multiple books from the start: the Red Blazer Girls series from Michael D. Beil; the Mickey Bolitar series from Harlan Coben (Mickey is a nephew of Coben’s established protagonist Myron Bolitar); and The Edge of Nowhere, a paranormal sleuthing series from Elizabeth George.

Michelle Gagnon’s 2012 YA “technothriller” Don’t Turn Around is the first in a planned trilogy; Gagnon is also presenting a stand-alone dystopian suspense novel, The Strangelets, as part of the new Soho Crime teen imprint (spring 2013).

I’m intrigued by what Elizabeth George discovered in writing her first YA mystery, when Entertainment Weekly asked her whether YA mysteries are pretty close to the grown-up ones she’s know for: “There are no similarities between the genres aside from developing good, strong, believable characters and having a plot that holds together. YA was incredibly difficult for me because the teenage characters determine all the action in the plot.”

I’m choosing to write stand-alones because I like moving into different time periods with very different complications: so far, 1921 (for my newest, Cold Midnight), 1930, 2011, and one still in revision that’s set in 1850. But I’ve also started writing a series, where the time period is simply “now,” and it’s using different “writing muscles,” ones that aren’t braced against the walls of something that’s already “really happened.”

If you’re thinking of starting to write a YA mystery — or already polishing one — why would you choose to aim for a stand-alone or a series? I’m interested.


About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of mysteries, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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