Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Series Vs. Stand Alone

What would you rather read? A book in a series, or a stand-alone novel?
What would you rather write? A book in a series, or a stand-alone novel?

When I started writing in earnest about seven years ago (this is the time when I finally started, wrote, and finished my first novel), I didn't really ask myself this question. The book I wrote was a simple stand alone novel that held the potential for other books in a series. The next work I attempted did the same.

But then came along a story that required six novels to tell the whole thing. No problem! I thought. I've never attempted a series before, but seriously, how hard can it be?

I'm now approximately 1/3 of the way into the third novel in that series, and I've got fans breathing down my neck demanding to know when it will be completed.

But wait! It gets better. Not satisfied to write one sequential series, I chose to start another. This one, begun as a NaNoWriMo project, just sort of naturally lent itself to a trilogy. I left the readers hanging with my lead character in prison and his partner wanting to break him out. And if that wasn't enough, I started a third sequential series... a fantasy series that will be told over four books. Left a nice, juicy hook at the end of that one, too.

And then came a new idea - a dystopian teen series that will be told over NINE separate novels, with titles ripped from William Butler Yeats' poem The Second Coming. But let's not just let this one stay on my laptop. Oh no. Let's post the whole thing ONLINE as I write it - that way my readers can nag me for the next chapter until it's done. Oh yeah. That was good thinking there.

Did I mention that I'm actively writing the sequel to the first stand alone novel I wrote seven years ago, and that I've come up with upwards of four additional novels after that? Did I also mention that my editors picked up the sequel I wrote to the second novel I finished, and now I'm planning out the third of what could be a five or six book series?

Somewhere around the 40,000 word mark of this dystopian teen thing I'm writing, it occurred to me that I ought to step back and have a look at the commitments I've made - especially with people clamoring for a third installment in a series that I began two years ago. That's when I discovered - to my eternal chagrin - that I have successfully put myself on the hook for no less than thirty-nine novels, just to complete the series that I've started since 2005. I've finished seven of them.

If I managed to write four novels a year (probably a bit more realistic than my hoped-for six novels a year), it will take me EIGHT MORE YEARS to finish just the books I have committed myself to writing. And if I dare work on anything else instead (such as some of the twenty or so other novel ideas cooking around in my noggin), then I could be looking at twice that time. I have to wonder whether or not my readers will have the patience to wait that long - or whether I'll have the endurance to finish.

Novelist Catherine Aird once said, “If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning.” 

Or, as Jesus once said, “Which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30 NASB)

Toward the end of his sixth Dark Tower novel, Stephen King shares a letter he received from one of his readers: she was a cancer patient with perhaps less than a year to live, and she wanted to know  how the series would end, because she didn't think she'd live long enough to find out. His response after citing this letter? "I feel like such a sh-t!" (sorry if that offends. His words, not mine). Given that it took him twenty two years to wrap up the original series (and yes, he's written a sequel to it since then), I sorta doubt she made it.

If I had the chance to do it over again, I can honestly say I would steer away from sequential series. Especially as many as I've begun. It's fun and tempting to work with the same characters again, to write a novel that keeps readers hooked and waiting for the next one, but it's also a commitment to finish.
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