In praise of “standalone” novels

It’s simply delicious to hear from readers. I can’t imagine getting tired of it. I don’t ever want to be the me who does.

The question I’m getting the most is: “Are you writing a sequel to ‘The Beginning of After’?” People want to know what happens to Laurel and David. I’m flattered, of course, and also I can’t blame them. I’d love to know what happens to those two as well.

See, this is where I admit that I have no idea what happens to them because, um, I haven’t really thought past the end of this story. Well, that’s not totally true. When I first started writing “The Beginning of After,” it wasn’t a YA novel. I had at first envisioned the book in three parts: (1) the months after the accident, (2) a few months when Laurel is a freshman in college, and (3) when Laurel and David are post-college adults. If you’re rolling your eyes, then you know why I didn’t get too far with that plan. I was floundering. A beached whale on the Sands of Unfinished Novels, and all that.

Then a trip to the Big Sur Writers Workshop involved several verysmart people smacking me on the nose (figuratively, in a nice way…sort of) and telling me that the whole story could be told in a much shorter period of time. I did write about 100 crappy rough pages of Laurel in college, which I haven’t shown to anyone because I can barely look at them myself. (Although there was one scene with Laurel in art class that I may have to use in something else someday. It was based on a real experience and involved the professor shouting, “If you SEE a penis, DRAW a penis!” Like I said: can’t not put that in a book.)

But with the story so changed from my early drafts, that future no longer exists for Laurel and David. I wasn’t writing a first installment of something. My goal was to make “The Beginning of After” as finished and satisfying a story as I could, then type “The End” on the last page. But now that the question of a sequel keeps coming up, I realize there are no easy answers. I can’t just say, “No way,” because I haven’t ruled that out. I also can’t say “Sure! Why not?” because I don’t yet see what lies ahead for these characters, and whether it will be anything worth telling.

The question just creates more questions for me, actually. Interesting questions that could be Discussed. Like this one: who really “owns” a fictional character, copyright issues aside? Sure, the author created her. But in a way, it’s each reader’s imagination and interpretation and investment that truly brings that character to life, in a totally unique and personal way. (Which is why I totally heart fan fiction of all kinds. Even the dirty stuff.)

Here’s another: who decides when a character’s story is done? At what point are we cool with some version of “happily ever after” — or even unhappily ever after, as the case may be? Life isn’t one uninterrupted epic but rather, a million little overlapping adventures. Sure, some are a lot more interesting than others, but that’s totally relative.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore a great series, especially when each new book is a beautifully necessary part of the whole. I give props to J.K. Rowling for carrying Harry’s story across such a long yet graceful arc, and to Suzanne Collins for doing the same with Katniss. But sometimes I think the recent explosion of YA book series has gotten us addicted to the idea of the sequel. We’re so used to getting that continuation, to not being forced to let go of the characters we love. It feels like maybe expectations have changed.

HEARTPANG.

Or have they? I mean, the last time I read “Pride and Prejudice,” I was so desperate to get a sense of what life was like at Pemberley for Elizabeth and Darcy that I actually bought some horrible (yet pleasantly racy) “sequel.” When my all-time favorite TV show “My So-Called Life” was canceled — in my opinion, one of the greatest pop culture tragedies of the 90′s — I had desperate dreams for weeks about whether Angela continued dating Jordan or gave Brian Krakow a chance. (I still kind of obsess about it. Help me.) So maybe it’s just human nature and, ultimately, the mark of a great story with fully realized characters that people want to hang on to them somehow.

Putting all that aside, however, I believe there’s something exquisitely complete about a “standalone” novel. It puts faith in us, as readers, to keep the story going for ourselves…in the way we want it to. Sometimes a sequel actually ruins the characters for me. Sometimes I wish I’d left it unread, the story open-ended, so I could stay in my own version of that universe.

A standalone novel is a slice of life, a moment in time. It reminds us that when we want more of something, it’s not always possible to get more, and that’s okay. It mirrors how, in reality, people move in and out of our lives and sometimes we don’t know what happens to them after they’ve had an impact on us. A reflection of how nothing ever really ends in this world, and that’s part of what makes it astonishing.

As an author, someday I hope to be gifted with an idea that lays itself out in multiple novels, because I would love that challenge. In the meantime, I see stories with a single front and back cover. If Laurel and David truly are done with me and decide to live their lives somewhere outside the borders of my imagination, I’m okay with that. They’ve left me with lots of new company…