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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16 comments:

  1. I think it depends on how dependent on each other the stories are. Some series--like the LOTR trilogy--are very dependent on each other. But, others, like the series' by J.D. Robb, Diane Mott Davidson, or Lisa Lutz, while it may be helpful to have read the previous works, it's not crucial. It probably depends more on what genre you're in. For me, it's mysteries, which are much easier to stand-alone, even within the framework of a series, than other genres.

    However, I have to admit--committing oneself to 39 novels over the next 8 years sounds like a surefire way to get burnout. But, good luck! :)

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  2. I like to write series where each book can stand alone. So far my series have been connected through secondary characters from one novel becoming the main characters in another.

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  3. As a reader these days I actively avoid ongoing (as opposed to recurring characters, as Lynnette mentions above) series where there are still books to be published. I have so many books - and series! - to read already, that I refuse to get part way through and have to stop for sometimes years (I remember well the gap for 'Wizard and Glass'!!). Worst offender on my shelves is Melanie Rawn, who's left the third book in a trilogy as "forthcoming" for over 10 years!!

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    1. Have to add, I'm majorly impressed with your drive and enthusiasm! From a I-want-to-be-writing viewpoint, I'd just encourage you to keep going with whatever creativity is pouring out of you and not do anything that possible stifles any of it!!

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    2. Thanks Calypte! The advantage I have is this: whenever I get burned out on one story, I can always switch to another.

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  4. Good thoughts on an important subject. As both a reader and a writer I generally prefer the closed story arc of a standalone book. But there are certainly exceptions.

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  5. Yes, I definitely over-committed myself!

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  6. Michael, you might want to ban yourself from pitching ideas for a while. LOL

    Like you, I think in loooong stories (as in series). This is good and bad. The good part is that readers tend to prefer revisiting characters in series. But as Lynnette mentioned, it's best to write series that are linked individual novels.

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  7. I forgot to say the bad part. That comes when a publisher signs part of a series and then doesn't want the rest, thus leaving your readers hanging. It's best to get the commitment up front, if possible.

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    1. Ah, but that's the advantage of independent publishing. Which is what most of my books are being released as. :)

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    2. Yes, that's one advantage indie authors have over trads. Another is that you name your own deadlines.

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  8. Deeply impressed with your creativity and productivity but your post did make me laugh. I'm stuck half way through my first novel! Oh to do four a year!

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  9. I've had so many folks wanting a sequel to my first, that I decided it was time for me to try a trilogy. I'll find out soon enough whether I enjoy it, but the romance market seems to encourage series. Each book will be able to stand alone, though. Until my writing time becomes less erratic, I wouldn't dare try to write a series where the action continues from one book to another.

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    1. See, this is where I think I'm serving as the Dire Warning... I only wish I'd found some wisdom from another BEFORE letting my enthusiasm and creativity get away from me!

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  10. I enjoy series to read, but sometimes I'll just wait until they're all out, or close to it if it's something that's going to hurt to wait for--like Jill Williamson's first trilogy.

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