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?