Why I’m a Standalone Writer — Guest Lori Rader-Day

I am happy to welcome back Lori Rader-Day. We met at Left Coast Crime in 2014 when we were both debut authors. Our first books weren’t even out yet. Lori’s third book, The Day I Diedreleased on April 11th!


[Movie trailer voice] IN A WORLD where the mystery genre is built upon series characters, Lori Rader-Day is a serial author of—standalones.

Hi, I’m Lori, and I write… standalones.

[Everyone chines in.] Hi, Lori.

[A voice from the back of the room] You’re safe here, Lori.

Am I? Am I really? I’m looking around and everyone else—wow, this is hard. Everyone else has a series. Some of them have two or three series. It’s easy to feel as though I’m not doing something right, you know? Like I am not a real mystery author, because I haven’t written a series yet.

Face it. Mystery readers love series. They are always going on about Miss Fisher and Vera and Dexter and Sookie and Longmire. I get it. There’s something great about knowing that the thing you like and have read or, since series books are sometimes turned into television, watched—there’s more! There’s more of this thing I really enjoyed! It’s all good news!

Publishers also love series titles. You know why? Because the marketing does its dang self when it comes to series books. Launch once, write into infinity, and your happy readers from the first book are likely to keep picking up later titles, as long as you let them know they are available. If new readers discover you later into the series, that’s also good news for your backlist sales. Again: all good news.

Wow, you guys are really turning me around on this—

[Voice from the back of the room] Stay strong, Lori.

[Deep breath] OK, right. There’s a reason I write standalones, even so. And the reason is—me. I like standalones. I like to read them. I like knowing that the book I’m picking up is the whole story, that I’m not missing three books prior to this one and hence a lot of backstory. I’m a little OCD on this. If I find a series book that I want to read, I can’t just pick up that new book. I have to go back into the backlist and find the first book. Why? Because I want the origin story. How did this character become an amateur sleuth? Why did they become a bounty hunter instead of a lingerie salesperson (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum) or a private investigator instead of a lady of leisure (Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver)? I’m not going to skip THAT story of all stories they have to tell. That’s the best one!

So there’s my own reading practices to blame. I will take a good standalone over anything, any day of the week. A fully realized story and character, where everything is left on the page and nothing “saved” for a future book is my kind of book.

Though I do like series books. When I find a character who has the potential to carry an ongoing story of growth and change, of course I’ll read that—

[Voice from the second row] She’s wavering. Do something.

But the real reason that I write standalones has nothing to do with my reading habits and everything to do with my own attention span.

When I was writing my first two published novels, I was working a day job. A demanding one. To get my writing done, I had to use my lunch hour almost every day of the week. I was turning down lunch invitations with real friends to go spend time with these fake friends I was making up. I had to make myself want to be at the blank page, or I wouldn’t show up there. There were just so many other things to do. Life easily gets in the way.

So I had to keep things interesting in what I was writing—giving myself fun assignments like two first-person narrators or a really fun character with bad behavior—but I also had to keep myself engaged with the next thing. As in, when I finish THIS manuscript, I get to write something completely different. I get to write The Brand New Shiny Idea!

The Brand New Shiny Idea cannot be a second book with the same character, you see. That’s not Brand New or Shiny enough.

I guess you can say I use the next book, the next standalone by definition, as the carrot at the end of the stick of writing my current project.

[Mumble from somewhere in row four] Heavy-handed metaphor alert.

There are just so many story ideas out there to be written, and the ones that occur to me have me hopping from one character to another, from one setting to another. For now. Someday I hope one of the characters I write gives me another idea—and then another one—for what she wants to do. I will welcome that turn of events. But until then…

[Murmurs from among the group.]

[Voice from the back] You can do it!

I am a standalone writer. Thank you for your support.

Readers: Do you read standalones? Have you thought about writing one?

Lori Rader-Day, author of The Day I Died, The Black Hour, and Little Pretty Things, is the recipient of the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Lori’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches mystery writing at StoryStudio Chicago and is the president of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter.

44 Thoughts

  1. Lori, that’s a great explanation. Thank you. And kudos, because I think writing standalones must be so much harder. You have to (in your view, GET to) make up a whole new world with each book. The easy way out is to write a series, where I have to do that for the first book but then I need only to add new characters, a new situation, for subsequent books. I know Hallie Ephron also likes writing standalones. She says when she’s done with a book, she’s done with those characters.

    Can’t wait to read the new book!

    1. It’s probably harder in some ways but also easier in others—it’s freeing not to have to worry about six books of continuity, for instance. Also, the marketing is easy—always new.

  2. Thank you so much for joining us today! I am going to try writing a non-mystery stand alone this year! I love your funny take on writing them.

  3. LOL at this interview. Really enjoyed reading it. I like both standalone and series books. I read and appreciate both. If I stumble across a series that sounds interesting, and it’s already at book 4 or 5, I typically read the first book in the series to get a sense of who the characters are, and then I read the latest book. Then I might go back to the preceding books in the series. I know it sounds cumbersome, but it’s worth it if the series is good.
    I have a story in my head I’ve been dying to write, but it’s a jumbled mess of notes, scribbles, Pinterest board items, etc., and I’m having trouble trying to organize it into something resembling a manuscript. Maybe one day.
    Congratulations on your third book. By the sound of your interview, which I found quite amusing, I’m sure it’s a good one. ( :

  4. It’s all good. A well-written book with a solid, juicy plot and fully drawn characters are all I require. And you deliver, Lori.

    If I ever get a book finished it will have to be a standalone. For one thing, I can’t imagine pulling that many plots out of my brain. I stand in awe of all of you, but especially those who can throw a given set of characters into multiple situations involving dead bodies!

  5. (I want the book. I want the book. Malice?) When I started writing, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d been reading mysteries forever, and collecting multiple series, so I suppose the idea of doing a series was always in the back of my mind. Still, I sat down to write a standalone (now lurking on the shelf). But when I finished that, I wanted to know what the characters were going to do next, so I just kept going. I ended up with a series of five–none of which have sold. I have written standalones, because some ideas or characters simply aren’t meant to sustain a series. It sounds like you’ve found the mix that you need–and it’s working well for you!

  6. You keep writing the standalones, Lori! Although there are quite a number of series I have enjoyed, a start-to-finish, all-inclusive, finish-the-story-already books are great! It leaves you with a real feeling of completion. It is very satisfying. Not to mention that far too many series keep going long after they have run out of fuel. (Stephanie Plum is a prime example. We all would marry Joe is a heartbeat; why is she teasing Ranger? He deserves better.)
    There is nothing worse than trying to figure out a backstory from a few lines dropped in a sequel, and good luck finding the rest if a series….and the spoilers if you come into the middle of a series!
    Good series are good.They are often like goodies you treat yourself to…but a really good standalone is like a filling, sumptuous meal.
    Good luck to you.

    1. I do like to read series books, but I get a little overwhelmed by my reading list if I’m trying to keep up with too many series. Thanks for commenting!

  7. Lori, I loved your “interview.” Stay strong, continue your stand alone mysteries. I just want to read a good story. I grew up reading Phyllis Whitney and Barbara Michaels and I’m not sure I had read a mystery series until I read Dorothy Carnell’s Thin Woman. I had read some Agatha Christie, but even though she has the same sleuths in her books, I’m not sure I consider them a series in the sense of books like Longmire. I look forward to reading your latest novel!

    1. I agree with you that Agatha Christie’s series are not quite the same thing as series today. Especially Miss Marple’s books—sometimes she doesn’t show up until the end of the book!

  8. Congratulations on the new release! I suspect there may be a stand alone in my future, but I do love writing a series and arcing stories over several novels. As my friend Marg-e used to say, that’s why they make different colored refrigerators.

    See you at Malice?

  9. Hey, Hallie Ephron has built a pretty good (understatement) career on standalones. Aren’t most (all?) of Catriona McPherson’s thrillers standalong? So good for you!

    I’ve written one standalone – but it could be spun into a series if a publisher wanted to. I’d just have to start coming up with ideas. =)

    I have no problem reading standalones. Just make sure I know it before I start!

  10. Great article! I’ve written both stand alones and series mysteries, and each has its own appeal. With a series, a new book is like a night out with dear friends, a chance to catch up on their lives and find out what’s happening, a chance to visit a place I know well. It’s comfortable, interesting, and entertaining. With a stand alone, it’s a whole new adventure and world, a whole new group of people to meet and get to know. It’s scary and exciting and, sometimes, over too quickly. It’s a glimpse into the life of someone you just met and likely won’t see again (though you may want to!), someone whose life path briefly crosses with yours.

    I like writing both, but most of my series books also work as stand alones, so maybe I lean a little more toward the new adventure side. Or not.

  11. Welcome, Lori! I’d love to write a standalone some day. I’ve had one rattling around in my head forever. I’ll happily read either.

  12. I love standalones, and I like those that address some weighty topic or social issue in addition to the plot. Honorary Wicked Kim Gray and I do a book exchange and discussion, and coming up is The Black Hour. Much to chew on there, Lori, so thanks in advance.

  13. Great post. I’ll read any mystery that intrigues me, stand-alone or otherwise. As a writer, I think I’ve gravitated toward series because of my career as a television writer. That’s what I basically do for a living. Write series. A story-of-the-week tied to an overall season or series character arc. I have an idea for a stand-alone based on a family drama that happened 85 years ago, but I can’t plot the dang thing! So Lori, I greatly admire your ability to create entirely new worlds that captivate readers. Teach me, oh talented one!

  14. Yep, I read stand-alones. But there is no way you will get me to write one. I barely can keep up with the reading stack!

  15. I have nothing against stand alones, but I don’t tend to read them. The reason? I have so many series I am currently reading or behind in reading (must read in order like you do) or want to start reading that it’s hard to find the time. Plus, very very few stand alones are cozies, and since that’s what I stick with, my choices for stand alones are limited.

  16. Standalones are okay, but I definitely prefer a good long series. I like to watch the characters grow and really get to know them… I have plenty of real people around me that I know and love. There is just something special about having a mini vacation(what I call reading) with people I know. They become a sort of family. I’m a book nerd, what can I say.

  17. Great interview Lori. I read both series and stand alones without a particular preference! The interview and the notes written by all are very interesting. The points of view of all are good points of discussion for readers, book clubs, and for writers. Thank you all!

  18. I write both and read both. And I hope that doesn’t make you feel how I feel when people refuse to pick between dog and cat. Like they’re so healthy and I’m so uptight.

    But on the subject of digging in to the middle of a series, someone recently remarked on how strange it is that we want to start reading at book one, given how we meet people in real life as they are today and only gradually – if ever – learn their histories. I thought that was interesting.

    Thanks for the shout-out, by the way!

    And CAT!

  19. Thanks for visiting Lori! I love stand-alones and series both. Sometimes I am in the mood for a new set of friends and fresh experiences adn sometimes I long for people and settings that are comfortingly familiar. I hope to write a stand-alone myself one day. I have a few ideas floating around in the back of my mind that don’t seem to be series so maybe I will! I’m looking forward to reading your latest!

  20. And, you don’t have to keep a lengthy timeline of characters and what they did when and where and so on. I admit that I love series reading, but I also love stand-alones. I’m OCD like you about needing to go back to the beginning of a series if I find one that has been going for a while. Three or four aren’t too bad to go back and read, but if you find a series that is already in its teens or twenties, you are so screwed.

    You are definitely a favorite stand-alone writer, Lori. I can’t wait each time to see what you’ve come up with this time. The Day I Died just blew me away!

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