Thursday, July 14, 2011

Aspiring Advice: Series vs. Standalones

Matt Hayes commented a question after my last post that really got me thinking. Is this 7th book of yours going to be a series, or just a standalone novel?

Short answer? Both.

Both? What do you mean both? You can't have your pastrami on rye and ride a roller coaster at the same time! Well, you can (if the passengers behind you don't mind), but that's not the point. It's fair to say each writer has their own approach when it comes to how they write and what they want to write (duh). There are currently six series in my "want to write" list--three trilogies and three series of five (or more) books each. There's a few standalones I'd like to belt out, too.

Thing is, I'm not published yet. If I write a series of five books and no one picks up the first, all that time I spent writing the other four--well, I'll never get it back. I could spend that time on another story instead, exploring my voice with other settings/characters. My first trilogy is an unreadable 500K paperweight (paperweight made of paper--how about that!). It was a good exercise, but do I want to invest time into a potentially heavy dead end?

Here's my idea. Write the first book as well as you can. Let it stand on its own. Create several interesting side developments that will pique your readers. Give them room to wonder about what could happen with so-and -so without fully (or needing) to resolve it, yet still end the first book satisfactorily. Then outline the rest--every book that follows. Leave room for notes, too. Once that's done, start the first book of another series.

The time it takes to write five books for one series will likely equal the time it takes to write five 1st books for five different series! Not a bad way to sell yourself in this competitive business. If they like it, chances are they'll contract you to write the rest, making the next few years of your life spoken for. If you get rejected? No worries. You can hand them the start of a new series right away! And if it doesn't sell? Again, you'll have conserved a huge chunk of your valuable time.

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Look back at some of your favorite series. Does the first stand well on its own? Did it really need a sequel? I'm all about good sequels and a well thought-out series. There's also writers like Shannon Hale who wrote a series that takes place in one world, but each book is about a different character. I'm a big fan of those.

Thanks for reading! By all means, if you'd like some advice, or just want to know my take on an aspect of writing, ask away in the comments. I would love to make these articles more personal.

What's your favorite 1st book in a series? Favorite standalone? Favorite combination of the two?

I'm David, and someone's craving wedding cake!


  1. The first book I ever wrote is part of a series, it's called Vampire Dreams and is part of a trilogy. I'm actually working on the fifth draft now, which, if you think about it, either makes me too motivated, or means I just can't get the book right.

    Favorite standalone: Stood (Abandoned) Yeah, I really like that one, it has a very deep, emotional ending and I love writing the events that lead up to this big main climatic explosion. Too bad it's planned for 150,000 words....#fail

    And my favorite combination is of Rayne (NaNoWriMo) and The Shard of Life. It wasn't finished and added up to around 104,000 words. I have now cut down each chapter of Rayne to 200 words and added at the beginning of each chapter of The Shard of Life, which doesn't help Rayne but really helps Shard.

    Love the post!


  2. Thanks, Jackson. If it means anything, I did nine drafts of my first book before deciding to shelf it and move on. There went my HS years.

  3. I just wanted you to know how encouraged I am, knowing you wrote an entire series before finding representation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I hear what you're saying about pitching many different projects - agents say that all the time at conferences, too! And, I thought long and hard about what to do, because I started with a series. (why, oh, why do we torture ourselves??)

    But there are a few amazing things about you having finished a series. Firstly, if you're like me, you proved to yourself you could do it! (you may not have needed to confidence:D ) Secondly, you've explored a world more intimately than you could with a stand-alone, and are so much more prepared starting a brand new story. Anyway, that's just what I think.

    Favorite first book? Ender's Game. (my favorite series is LOTR, but FOTR doesn't stand alone very well :D )

  4. Thanks for the shout-out.

    Favorite first book in a series would have to be Extreme Days by Timothy Wayne Stebens. It's pretty much Christian fiction with a lot of different elements. It's about this Game that the devil created and it's called Extreme Days. You lead a life of sin and get placed inside this Game. If you find the Truth, you have redeemed yourself. However, if you stick to your old path, you lose the game and are immediately sent to hell. You are assigned a Hunter (the main character's Hunter is Orion), and all the Hunters are demons with the names of gods in all different kinds of mythology.

    Favorite standalone novel: The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss. Although it is a trilogy, it was written as one book, and the story is intended to stand like one book. It's still one big book in the author's head.

    Favorite combination of the two: The Giver by Lois Lowry. That was a really awesome book.


  5. Oh...I should not comment in the morning. You meant in an actual good, published book series. Hmm....

    Favorite first book: The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. Yeah, love that. It's pretty amazing.

    Favorite stand-alone book: The Limit by Kristen Landon. Now you want a highly enjoyable, 60,000-70,000 word book? Go get that one. I read that thing in something like 42 hours, it was one of the best books I've ever read. Coincidence: main character's name is Matt.

    And combination: Yeah, I'll have to think about that.

    -Jackson out for the second time.

  6. I would never write a sequel because as you've said, you have no idea if the first will ever get published. My opinion on writing is write a stand-a-lone with sequel potential and move on to the next project.

  7. I totally agree. I think your first book needs to be ABLE to stand alone, even if your wish is to tell more stories about that world/character/whatever.

    Great article David!

  8. The Three Musketeers is the perfect standalone that doesn't yet have a movie doing it justice (okay it was a serial first then novel). But for the first book in a series Howl's Moving Castle. The sequel (almost not a sequel because the main cast don't appear for the first few chapters) Castle in the Air was just as delightful and crazy.

    But the true test for any series is that the second novel should have a stand alone feel, not just thumb twiddling because it's not the final climax.

  9. Great advice! I've struggled a lot with this, and I think I finally achieved it with Aillea's Cards....a story that stands alone but has plenty of series potential if my publisher (hypothetical publisher, of course) so desires. I think all writers need to consider this before setting out to create a nine-book series.

  10. I totally agree with your philosophy on writing a book that can stand alone, then outlining the rest and moving on. I also think it helps you to stay more versatile as a writer when you work with different characters and worlds more often. Great post!

  11. I think that's really smart. My first book can't stand alone. There's no way, so now what do I do if no one wants it? Well, I love it and it was worth the time for me to write it, but it wasn't smart business practice for sure.

    I love the Shannon Hale's books. Definitely a fan of different characters in the same world.

  12. I haven't read many of Shannon Hale's works, but I love it when authors set their stories in worlds they've already visited, but at a different time or place--Kristin Cashore (one of my favorite Fantasy authors) did that, and many of Isaac Asimov's novels are set at different time periods, over millennia.

  13. This post and the advice contained within could not be better timed for me! I have the first draft of a standalone sci-fi nearly completed, which I'm planning to shelve for a while once completed (it's my exploration novel). I also have planned a sci-fi trilogy, another sci-fi standalone that could be the start of a series, and like you, another series that could have several books.

    So, the question for me is how to make the first book in my trilogy/series standalone in case nobody wants to publish it versus making the whole trilogy/series appealing. It's a tough one!

    Ellie Garratt

  14. Thank you everyone for commenting and sharing some of your favorite books. I'm glad this post was insightful and helpful.