Writing a Series versus Writing a Standalone Novel

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Paul Whybrow

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One theory about reading is that people like a series of stories, which allows them to bond with the recurring characters. From the author's point of view, creating a book in a series allows loose ends, that may or may not be tied in later books. Cliffhangers may well entice readers to seek out the next book.

As I embark on my fifth Cornish Detective novel, I've got a few plot strands to draw upon from the preceding stories, including giving my protagonist a love life. I've previously carried over incidents from one book to another. For example, in my first novel, Who Kills A Nudist? a dishonest car mechanic died in a fire, trapped beneath a car. It looked like he'd caused the inferno himself, through careless use of a blowtorch flame and by storing an excess amount of petrol in unsuitable containers, but he was actually a victim of a serial killer whose identity was revealed in the second story, The Perfect Murderer.

To someone only reading Book 1, this victim's death appeared to be an everyday mishap, the sort of thing that a policeman encounters and which the author used to fill a few pages, but to those who went on to read the sequel it would ring a bell. Hopefully, such ploys will become a part of encouraging loyalty as the reader enters further into my fictional world of criminal investigation.

The same sort of thing happens with the story arcs of my characters. One of my detectives is an ex-nurse, a lesbian who's been with her partner for many years. They marry at the end of Book 2, are getting used to the routine of married life in Book 3, and by Book 4 are planning to adopt an orphaned child. This will happen in the latest story.

Don Marquis, had many humorous and accurate things to say about writing and publishing and life in general, including:

'A sequel is an admission that you've been reduced to imitating yourself'

In this way, writing a series can become a trap, though, I'm not yet tired of my protagonist. Staying true to my series entails being highly organised about details of my characters' lives and I've compiled profiles giving all sorts of things, including their birth dates, physical characteristics, hobbies and phobias. Authors more famous than me have been caught out making mistakes by their fans. Lawrence Block, of private investigator Matt Scudder fame, admits that he's vague about what car his hero drives, and is often corrected at book signings.

I've written about twenty short stories and standalone novellas, and having The End constantly in sight certainly leads to a different writing technique. I have to make the best of my resources, nursing them in much the same way as when running low on rice or shampoo; there's not the replenishment of writing a series novel.

My standalone stories tend to be more linear, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which structure offers its own satisfaction, for it's more than day to day life gives us! :rolleyes: Most of my standalone stories are one-offs, though I always intended to revisit the adventures of an American Civil War veteran, which I did this summer by penning a sequel to a short story written in 2014. That era of history is so complicated, that I realised I'll be writing four stories instead of the planned three.

The standalone stories, I've written, tend to tackle one issue: bereavement, mistaken identity, the end of an era, being cursed, betrayal, male friendship, and how we live with ghosts of different kinds. My detective series features many modern day issues that when combined impinge on crime, including long-term unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, illegal immigrants, human trafficking and slavery.

Do you write standalones or are your novels part of a series?

What problems have you encountered with either form?

Do you like reading series—which ones? I must admit, I like to start with the first story in a series, and am put off if I can't find it!

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Every series I've written has been well-received. My readers like series. The trick is knowing when to end them. I have a few die-hard fans (and I love them!!) who wish I'd keep going forever with my series, but there comes a point when it's time to stop.

As a writer, I adore writing series because although some books are true stand-alones, it's more fun for me to create an entire world with multiple storylines going on at once. The only way to weave those into readable books is to create a series. :)

That being said, the subsequent books in all my series aren't sequels. The main characters are different, and although some threads left unresolved in the prior books are continued, the main storyline is about two people only - two different people than the other books.

I have one series that contains four (so far!) true stand-alone novels. I had a lot of fun writing those, too, but it seems to be more in my nature to create worlds that lend themselves to continuing threads in subsequent books. That's a nice way of saying I write too complicated and shove too much into my stories. LOL!! :)
 
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Avoiding writing a series doesn't make sense. A lot of my stories take place in the same world. Why would I want to create a world and then never use it again? I really like the particular world I'm thinking of and it's good for lots of stories. Mine are fantasy but as I'm sure you know, every writer, no matter the genre, creates a world. So, I suppose if you've made a place you'd like to stay, or where your readers might like to stay, you would write a series. Which doesn't necessarily mean a writer created world isn't any good unless people want to return. I think some worlds are amazing but only good for one shot. As a general rule, I wouldn't think it'd be good to force a series ore to rule one out.
 
I am, perhaps, an oddity. My novel was too large in its original form for its intended market and so I took the advice of a literary agent and broke it into parts. So my manuscript is a serial not a series. And my question is, can such serials sell in today's market?
 
I am, perhaps, an oddity. My novel was too large in its original form for its intended market and so I took the advice of a literary agent and broke it into parts. So my manuscript is a serial not a series. And my question is, can such serials sell in today's market?

The Hunger Games is a serial. So is Divergent, Song of Ice and Fire, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
 
I'm fascinated by this thread. @Carol Rose, when do you know it is time to end your series? Do the characters begin to feel tired to you, or does the world itself feel flat?

I do think I'd consider a series if I came up with a Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. Or if I created a spectacular world in which all kinds of characters and plots could exist side by side.
 
I've never really planned it, by all of mine are series, and just started the third series. I think it makes it more interesting, gives much more scope and allows more developing of the characters.
 
I'm fascinated by this thread. @Carol Rose, when do you know it is time to end your series? Do the characters begin to feel tired to you, or does the world itself feel flat?

I do think I'd consider a series if I came up with a Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. Or if I created a spectacular world in which all kinds of characters and plots could exist side by side.

That's a great question! :) I've learned a lot about writing series, and when it's time to stop, over the years.

When I wrote as Tara Rose for Siren-BookStrand, I created a series that lasted fifteen books, and honestly by the fourth one, I was sick of it. LOL! Poor planning on my part. Very poor. I wrote each book by the seat of my pants, adding in details about the town as I went along. What I should have done was plan out the families and their history beforehand, and also plotted out reasons to introduce new characters. I ended up with two basic plot devices for the entire series, and it grew tiresome quickly! I also took a break from it after eight books to write a spin-off series (that sadly, never quite took off for my readers), and then returned to the first series and forced out seven more books. And I mean FORCED them out. I was sick of it long before then, and by that time was only writing it because the owner of Siren insisted "that was what sold." UGH.

I've never been the kind of writer who could bang out the same book, over and over, or follow a template. I end up hating the story and the characters, and it shows in the writing.

My second-longest series is written under my current pen name - Ravenna Tate - for Evernight, and it's 12 books. It's called The Weathermen. That one was planned out from the start. I knew I'd have 12 heroes and each would have their own story. I built the world ahead of time, having learned my lessons from prior series, both long and short. I plotted out how each heroine would be introduced, and what part she and the hero would play in the over-arching story line. That one ended for the simple reason that the heroes did what they set out to do. Save the world and allow everyone to move back to the earth's surface. This series was a sci-fi/dystopian story set roughly 100 years from now.

I've had readers beg me to write more books in it, but I'm done. The story arc was completed and I simply have no interest in returning to the world or the characters. Sometimes the characters tell me when it's time to end it, but usually I have an over-arching story line, and when it's concluded, it's done. I don't see the point in going back.

My first series with Evernight as Carolyn Rosewood was only three books. Then I wrote a six-book series as Carolyn for Siren. As Tara Rose I wrote a 15-book series, a 6-book series, a 3-book shifter series that I never should have bothered with, a 5-book series with 4 other authors - and that was an interesting experience. Trying to coordinate details and timelines - good lord. Never again. LOL!! I also write two 3-book series as Tara that were never meant to end so soon, but I cut them off at the knees when I stopped writing for Siren. Long story.

As Ravenna, I have The Weathermen. I also have a 3-book series with the same three characters in different scenarios. With that one, I simply felt I'd played out their budding relationship and they haven't given me something else to craft a story around, so I'm likely done with that one. :)

I also have a 4-book series that again, I should have taken the time to plan out better. It's a sci-fi and I didn't do the greatest job with the world-building. That seems to be the key, at least for me, in terms of longevity and believability for a series. Otherwise, the books read as if I'm just putting characters into a world and hoping a story writes itself around them, rather than the other way around.

My other 3-book series with Evernight was never meant to be anything more than that. I set it up so there *can* be more books if I get the itch to write them, as they are technically stand-alones and there's a loose over-arching story line, but right now I'm not in the mood to return to it.

I also tried writing shifters again as Ravenna, and stopped after 3 books. Not my cuppa. :) I won't try it again.

I have one true stand-alone series as Ravenna, and right now there are 4 books. I'll write more in that one eventually.

And of course, my first MC romance series is 6 books. That one was planned ahead of time, in great detail. And it paid off. :)

I'm working on a spin-off series from that one, also an MC romance series, and I'm working on another stand-alone series as well.

So... the short answer is planning them out ahead of time tells me when to end it, as does resolving the story arc. Sometimes the characters tell me when to end it, but planning it out ahead of time seems to be more of a deciding factor. The books read better, and the series is more cohesive and believable.

Hope this rambling answer helps! :)
 
That's a good point about taking the long view, @Carol Rose. I can see that if you want a series to have inner coherence and durability, you need to plan ahead for different 'heroes' or families to appear and find a natural end point.

I do think many writers of series get thoroughly sick of their most popular creations, especially when the public won't let go of them and keep demanding the next book!
 
That's a good point about taking the long view, @Carol Rose. I can see that if you want a series to have inner coherence and durability, you need to plan ahead for different 'heroes' or families to appear and find a natural end point.

I do think many writers of series get thoroughly sick of their most popular creations, especially when the public won't let go of them and keep demanding the next book!

I envy writers who can keep them going for so long. I suppose if I wrote them differently, almost like a soap opera, I could simply keep things moving, introducing new situations and bringing in new characters. One very popular (and best selling!) author friend of mine has done that. She's on something like book #50 in the same series!! The cast of characters rivals the one in Game of Thrones. LOL!!

I get bored too easily to do that. I want to keep creating new worlds and new people. :)
 
Avoiding writing a series doesn't make sense. A lot of my stories take place in the same world. Why would I want to create a world and then never use it again? I really like the particular world I'm thinking of and it's good for lots of stories. Mine are fantasy but as I'm sure you know, every writer, no matter the genre, creates a world. So, I suppose if you've made a place you'd like to stay, or where your readers might like to stay, you would write a series. Which doesn't necessarily mean a writer created world isn't any good unless people want to return. I think some worlds are amazing but only good for one shot. As a general rule, I wouldn't think it'd be good to force a series ore to rule one out.
I agree - creating a world for my novel has taken years of trial and error. I think it would be criminal to make it one off. But like someone else sId it will be knowing when enough is enough.
 
Surely it boils down to how you feel about your creations? There's no point in writing for the sake of anyone else other than yourself. If you can't find the fun and excitement in your creation, no-one else will.
 
I think standalone novels and series do different things, as has been touched on by others above. A standalone book is a story, first and foremost. It can still have lovely, well realised characters and an immersive world, but there is a core point that the author is trying to get across. Series tend to be the other way around. They want you to wallow in the world and the characters, and watch how both evolve.
I suppose they may come about for different reasons, however. These days, a lot of authors turn to series as they are a better way to make money. Get your first book out there for buttons on Amazon and then reel in your audience every six months with a follow up.
The first thing I ever wrote, on the other hand, was supposed to be a stand alone book, but once I got through the planning stage, I realised it was at least two, more likely three, as there was such a wealth of plot and there were obvious break points in the story.
The YA project I am still poking with a stick is also a series, but that is for reasons that match my first point. I want the reader to see the growth and change of my protagonist as she alters the world in which she lives, and with her being a student, the books can obviously and logically be broken up into sections, giving her a year per installment.
 
Series are not necessarily a better way to make money. There's a law of diminishing returns with each successive book. All I need to do is watch my royalty statements to see the pattern. The first book in a series always sells more than the others, even if the series is only three or four books long. Yet readers want a series. They demand more stories in it. It's a puzzle. :)
 
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