Well, after saying goodbye last week, here I am again. Turns out that Night Shade had a wee bit more free space for my compatriots and I to share our thoughts, and I couldn’t pass up a chance to talk about this week’s topic of writing stand-alone books vs. writing a series. It’s something that’s been heavily on my mind as I consider how I’d like the path of my career to evolve, and it’s a monstrously huge decision.
Let’s make up a series, here, for the benefit of this post. Maybe something with a werewolf. A female werewolf. In Regency times. A lesser noblewoman with a curse. Okay… the Hirsute Heiress. Boom. We’ve got our book. Now, as I plot out the adventures of the Hirsute Heiress, I’m envisioning an arc that lasts between five to seven books. The first book will be of how she’s sold into a form of slavery with a traveling carnival, and then how she grows to command them into an underground army of thieves and ne’er-do-wells. In the second book she tries to regain her family fortune, but the criminal Jonathan Wild has cheated them into the poorhouse. It’s time for a Newgate prison break! This will be great… I could write on this for years.
But… should I?
The benefits of writing a series of novels are easy enough to grasp. After the first novel, there is built-in world-building. There is an established group of characters (and their inherent drama)
that an author can draw from. A reader feels familiar, and eager to see what the characters they’ve already grown to love are up to. Will the Hirsute Heiress find a cure for her lycanthropy? Will she ever choose between Thomas, her rich childhood friend and Agrippa, the lion-taming carnival man with a curse of his own? And will she ever meet the elusive Professor Corvid and find out what was in that letter that prompted her now-deceased father to sell her to the carnival? These are all ongoing dramas that an author can stretch out over the series, and that’s great. What’s not so amusing for an author is that he has to stretch these out. You can’t end the first book of a series with resolutions to the major plot lines. Our heiress can’t close the first book by marrying the man she loves and vanquishing the villain who ruined her life. That destroys the tension that makes reading a series so interesting in the first place. If Harry Potter kills Voldemort in Book One, then the rest of the series is just a list of grades the main characters received at Hogwarts, which I suppose Hermione would have loved, but it wouldn’t have made for very fascinating reading.
And, if an author decides on a series, continuity becomes a major player. In a stand-alone book, it’s much easier to remember who is who and what they’ve said and when they stabbed that one person in that one kingdom. But… can you imagine poor George writing his Songs of Fire & Ice, where any words past “the” or “and” have to be checked for continuity problems? It’s a block to creativity flow, and readers will notice mistakes. Without question.
Because of this, an author doing a series has to create a character bible. A world bible. And even a bible for the rules of the world. And it’s not just big things like the Hirsute Heiress having an aversion to horses, but tiny details like the exchange rates between two countries as she travels across the land. Every time an author puts a factoid into the novel, it becomes canon. And the weight grows and grows.
Meanwhile, can the characters even sustain a series? Book Two cannot be a rehash of the plot from the first book. What of new characters? New plot twists? New villains? Character arcs? Can they be inserted without losing sight of what drew in readers in the first place?
And… one last huge decision: if you’re going to write a series, are you going to write them all at the same time, or release the first as you’re writing the second? It’s a huge amount of work to write a series, and we authors ADORE gratification (and incoming money from sales) but… what if Hirsute Heiress: Book One: The Creature Carnival is on the stands and readers already know that Count Wretchly is the villain, when I suddenly realize a GREAT plot twist that demands he’s a hero? Well… sorry. Too late to change. And from a practical side, it’s easier to convince publishers to take the chance of releasing book one if books 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are already at least waiting to be polished. It’s a fact of life that some writers don’t have more than one book in them. From a publisher’s standpoint, this means the possibility of releasing a fabulous book one, and a crappy book two. Or… no book two at all.
This has all been very much on my mind of late, because these decisions are, of course, waiting for me to make. My first novel, Prepare To Die!, is going to be a stand-alone book. Kind of. There’s another novel that I would like to do that takes place in the same world, giving me the benefit of an established milieu but letting me tell a whole new story. And I’ve finished work on “Agatha“… the first book of a similarly connected series of novels… three books that take place in a shared world but largely deal with different main characters. Then, for the last few years I’ve been toddling along on a series called The Marvelous Adventures of Kirby Steinberg… a series of books that are very much connected. I’ve finished the first three in this series. Work continues. The story bible grows.
I suppose in the end I’m most comfortable working in series form, but there are certainly times, and certainly stories, where stand-alone works best. Sometimes a story really does adhere to a rigid three acts. Trying to insert Act 2.4 can bore the reader, and diminish the story. Every new story is a decision to make, which is, at least I think, one of the creative glories of working in prose.