The Standalone and the Series

Which is better, a standalone novel or a series?

This is a complex question, given each writing career is unique; but here’s what I’ve learned:

Sequel plots evolve naturally.

Most often while writing a novel, an author gets ideas that can spin into sequels. Sometimes minor characters beg for their own stories. Such inspiration is useful in layering the plot of a standalone or planting leads into the first novel of a series.

Most publishers want sequels written six months apart.

This means a solid eighteen months or more of the author’s time is contracted. With so many unknowns for a writer, this brings a sense of security. Since the advance represents the entire series, the extra money is valuable upfront for marketing purposes.

Usually less research is needed for a series than subsequent standalone novels, which gives the author extra writing time. With successive deadlines, he is forced to write consistently which also hones his skills and productivity.

Series are popular with publishers unless

the first book doesn’t sell.

If the first book doesn’t sell, it makes the sequels harder to sell. By the time the author discovers what went wrong, he’s probably already into the third book of the series and finds the publisher less willing to spend marketing dollars on the sequels.

For newbies, a series leaves little time for conditioning;

you hit the ground running.

The character roster quickly snowballs, yet needs to be worked into the ongoing series. Since each book also stands alone, there is back-story to incorporate. It takes skill to tie it all together. Maintaining consistency makes record keeping imperative from character charts to research files. There’s a struggle against boredom, and if the author gets bored the reader will too.

Deadlines threaten quality and marketing time.

It’s difficult to write quality work with tighter deadlines and also find time to market the first story which is the most important story for the success of the series. Usually the first story is quite detailed in the original book proposal. But one of the sequels may need major time-consuming revisions once the editor sees that story evolving.

Why not write a standalone with a series option?

While it sounds like the perfect solution, it’s always harder to go down a path when you don’t know where it’s leading.  It’s not impossible, but it makes writing the book proposal and novel trickier.

My personal experience – writing a series is like running.

At the beginning, I was excited and fresh. The middle book was written under the most duress. I was struggling uphill because of the increasing time crunch, revisions, and unexpected personal obligations. But the final book was like getting my second wind. It was exhilarating. With writing muscles in peak condition, it was the easiest and most enjoyable to produce. And just beyond beckoned refreshment and reward.

What about you? Are you a sprinter or a marathon runner?

11 Replies to “The Standalone and the Series”

  1. Actually, I prefer long epics like GWTW, etc. But since epics are out and series are in, I guess I’m a series person. The plain fact of the matter is, when I conceive story ideas, it’s nearly always a long involved “Roots” type saga and I have to make myself whittle it down and break it into a manageable series of books. I do have a few stand-alone story concepts in the pot, but far more of my ideas lend themselves to series. Since I write historical it makes sense to go with a series outlook–might as well maximize all that time I spend researching a particular time period or area.

    1. You sound creative. I agree about the research, and research is a process that gives us so many of our plot ideas. I love research, but I have to be careful that it doesn’t take away from my writing time.

  2. I’m a series person too. Currently working on book 3 and doing better, as was your experience, Dianne. Book 2 was an incredibly difficult book for me to write. You said, “It’s difficult to write quality work with tighter deadlines and also find time to market the first story which is the most important story for the success of the series.” So so true. I’m glad I survived it. I really did the best I could with both books and Chameleon, my second book releases May 15th 2012. Although I know it’s not always possible I highly recommend writers who are going the series route complete at least 3 books in that series before looking for a publisher. Live will be easier but I know that didn’t work for me. Your really do hit the ground running.

    1. I know, you would think it would be the last book that suffers, but the middle books get the squeeze. As writers, we’re resilient (we have to be, to be in the business…ha) and so we do what it takes to meet the challenge. I encourage all to stay the course, because the finish is so worth it! Congratulations on your series.

      1. Hmm..interesting about the middle book suffering. I have a 3 book series I’m working on but I wrote the middle book first, now am working on #1, and after that #3. So we’ll see how all that mixes together! 😎

  3. I love reading series books, but have never written any. Hitting the ground running sounds exactly right. Thanks for your a glimpse behind the scenes into the commitment and factors to account for when writing a series.

  4. It’s a bit late in the evening to be posting a follow up question, but perhaps a few folks will still see it. Most of the time when I hear people talking about books in a series, they generally are referring to books that each feature a different character.

    I’m curious–is there a reason writers tend to focus on different characters in each book? Are there some particular hangups or snags that prevent an author from featuring the same main character in each one? I just never hear anybody talk about that aspect one way or another.

    1. Hi BK,
      An author can pursue whatever they want. Think about the Jack Reacher novels, Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Scarpetta, etc. I’m almost done with my Ravensmoore Chronicles although I think I could continue writing about them and may have to talk to my agent and publisher about that. Lord Ravensmoore and family are in each of my books. I’ve just discovered CS Harris and her Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries. That’s my take. 🙂

    2. Hi BK,
      The reason I focused on different characters was because I write romance and there has to be a happily ever after at the end of book one. So I think it has to do with genre. Each genre has boundaries that readers expect. However, good writers also break rules and start new genres or give old ones a twist. It is a bit of a risk because readers may or may not like change. But as long as there’s continuing story for your character and you don’t break the rules of your genre, you can use the same main character. Match it to your writing style and your genre and do it the way you love to read it.

  5. BK,
    I missed your other post. You’re writing your series out of order. Now that’s interesting. I get that. I’m assuming you’re not under deadline then? So I’d be real interested to know how that goes. Let us know if the second book is still the hardest. (which is really the first book, LOL)

  6. Excellent post, Dianne. A perfect description of life under a multi-book contract. My experience has been very similar to Jill’s, and I echo her advice for debut authors to write all three books in a series before contracting them. I know it can be hard to wait, but you’ll be glad you did!

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