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November 13, 2012

Series vs. Stand-Alone: What Should We Work on Next?

New leaves branching from a twig with text: Should We "Branch Out" with Our Writing?

Whenever we finish a writing project, we’re told the best way to keep moving forward, especially when we’re dealing with querying/submitting nerves, is to start another project. But that brings up the question: What should that next project be?

Should we write a follow up to that previous book? Or should we go in a different direction with a stand-alone story?

I’ve seen writers take each of those approaches and be successful, so there’s no wrong answer. However, when we’re moving on from our very first book to our second, the question brings extra complications.

Too often, I’ve seen (and I myself almost fell into this trap) writers who decide to work on a follow up book for the “wrong” reasons. That is, reasons that should prompt us to dig deeper into our choices.

The Pitfalls of Second Books

First books are unique. Maybe we didn’t think we had it in us to write a whole book, but we did. Maybe our deep passion for that story was key to pushing us to “The End” when we didn’t think it was possible.

Love: When we love something, we often want to spend more time with it. In the case of our first book, if we work on the sequel, we get to spend more time with those characters and that world.

Fear: Or maybe we worry our successful finish with that first book was a fluke, and we might be scared to branch out and try something new. So we might stick with a sequel for our next project because it feels safer.

In a comment on my post last week about “getting close” to publishing success, Krysta Man mentioned:

“What if nobody liked the first story of the series?”

Wasted Time: That brings up the third concern of sticking with a sequel: putting more time into a dead end. Self-publishing has created new opportunities, so dead ends often aren’t completely dead anymore, but marketability is something to be considered no matter our publishing route.

I’m not saying that every time we choose to work on a sequel as our second book, we’re making a bad decision. Far from it. But we do need to be careful about our choices.

When Branching Out Feels like “Cheating”

As I mentioned above, I almost fell into the trap of working on a sequel for an unsold series as my second book. I say “trap” because if I’d gone down that road, I would have made that decision for reasons that would have hurt my writing and my career.

I love that story and those characters. Those characters truly feel like family members to me, and I desperately wanted to continue writing about them.

However, right as I started working on the sequel, I had an idea for a stand-alone novel. I wrote a few pages, you know, just so I didn’t forget the idea. And then I wrote a few more. And a few more.

It felt like I was “cheating” on my series. What was I doing, spending all that time on “that other book” when I should have been working on the sequel? Was I abandoning that story? That series?

The Benefits of Writing Stand-Alone Stories

Sure, this new story was fun to write, but I also discovered other things. Things that helped me become a better writer and brought me closer to writing success than I would have been if I’d stuck with the sequel.

I strengthened my writing voice: A story’s voice is usually a combination of our author voice and the voice of our point-of-view character. When we write in the same world with the same characters, we might not be sure where our character’s voice ends and our author voice begins.

I learned my writing style: Similar to voice, our story world and the plots that evolve out of that world often create a tone and mood. If we stick to the same world, we might never discover that we’re good at humor or dark or sarcasm.

I created varied characters: The familiarity of writing sequels with continuing characters means that we miss out on what it takes to create characters. Expanding into new worlds forces us to exercise that character creation muscle, and when we give every new character their own voice, we again learn more about our own.

I developed new worlds: Like the character creation process, world-building is another area where we might get lazy if we can reuse the same details all the time. Creating new worlds and new situations strengthens yet another writing muscle.

I proved I’m not a “one-hit wonder”: Agents want to form relationships that will last for an author’s career, not just for a single story. They want to see that we have multiple ideas in different worlds. They want to know that if they can’t sell one story, they can try with another one.

ETA: I should qualify this to explain that by “stand-alone story” I don’t mean our second story shouldn’t have potential for its own sequels. Any new story world that doesn’t continue from a previous story would grant these benefits, whether this new story has sequel potential or not. We just want to avoid locking ourselves into writing a continuing story that might not go anywhere if the first story dead ends.

Still Querying? It Might Be Better to Start a New Story

Should everyone make the same choice I did? No. Some writers will have very good reasons for continuing a series as their second book, even as newbie writers. Maybe they already have an agent for that first book. Maybe publishers are interested in the series. Or maybe they’ll do this one sequel while they have the right voice and then start a new project.

But if we’re still querying, a sequel won’t give us something new to query, enter in contests, or put out there to create interest in our work. Only a fresh new story can accomplish that that for us. So if we’re pursuing traditional publishing, we should carefully consider which approach will better help us reach our goals.

As for myself, I realized that when I return to my series, all of those above benefits will help me write a better version of those stories. I haven’t abandoned them or those characters. But in the meantime, my craft and storytelling abilities have grown beyond what I could have learned by limiting myself to that world. Those stories are important to me, so I’m glad that when I’m ready, my craft will be too.

Do you disagree and have a case to make for sticking with the same world? Have you finished your first story? What are you planning (or what did you write) for your second story? If you’ve written multiple stories in different worlds, what did you experience? Do you recognize any of these benefits?

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57 Comments on "Series vs. Stand-Alone: What Should We Work on Next?"

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Roni Loren

Great look at an important decision. I know for me, I benefitted from not getting caught up in writing sequels. I wrote a YA with series potential. While I queried that, I wrote a contemporary romance with series potential. While I queried that, I wrote my erotic romance, which was the one that landed me the agent and book deal and has turned into a continuing series. Had I kept working on the other projects, it would have been spinning wheels on something that would never have an engine.

I didn’t write a standalone as each next project but instead wrote another start to another series (though admittedly the stories I write are complete stories and CAN stand alone but were set up for series potential.) So that’s an option too. And don’t be afraid to stretch into another genre or subgenre. It took me a while to find my voice best fit sexy romance. : )

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I agree with Roni one hundred percent. I do the same thing. I write books that can be effective stand alone novels, but have the potential for a series.
I also stretch into other genres. I’ve written paranormal, contemporary, historical, etc. I like them all and have fun writing them all.
Great post, Jami!
Have a wonderful week,
Tamara

Vanessa
Vanessa

Hi Jami,

This reminds me of trends, because most of the trends are series. As I mentioned on my blog, about trends and one book series in particular House of Night, the publisher put it for a 12 book series, back when vampires were popular, now that readers have grown tired of that trend it’s a curious thing to see if the rest of the books will be sold. I read all 10 books that were released and the same thing happens in the end of every book, just to keep the series going.

I am currently writing a dystopia trilogy, which I am excited about because no one has ever written a dystopia that way I have been planning. If you read Elana Johnson blog post, Dystopia, and Overused Genre, the comments from the readers keep me going with writing of this particular genre. They like dystopia, its not like the other trends where it was vampires in finishing school, teenage girls finding out they are fairies or the long lost daughter of the king of fairies, or angels who fell from the sky and fell in love with the human, it’s easy to see why the Big6 gave up on these trends.
http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/2012/04/dystopian-oversaturated-genre.html

Krysta

@ Vanessa,
Don’t let the comments from readers bar you from writing the story, especially if this story is completely different from vampires in school, finding out that they aren’t humans and long lost daughter of some dude- this dystopia is the story you want to read the most, right? (I personally dislike the idea of a trilogy – it reminds me of Shakespeare except the not-printed words of Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3, not that I dislike the guy’s works or anything. It just feels generic.)

Vanessa
Vanessa

Thank you Krista, actually my dystopia is something no one has done before

Susan Sipal

What’s funny to me is that while I tend agree with the advice to not write a second book in a series until you’re sure the first will sell, I recently started taking notes on what would be a stand-alone, and as I got more into it, discovered that it actually was the second book of a prior book I thought was also a stand alone. Is that confusing?

Now I like them both much better as part of a series.

Carradee

I know the feeling. A Fistful of Fire was supposed to be one book, but then I realized there was more to the story. “Okay,” I thought. “I can write the prequel.”

But then I realized that there were two books’ worth of story after that, too. Each one its own story, but they’re connected, ultimately telling one larger story. >_>

And then, in working on some side stories involving a character who shows up in the first sequel to A Fistful of Fire, I realized there was an entire story worth telling in how two characters had met. I’d thought it a novelette, maybe a novella…but discovered in starting it that it was a full novel, considering I hit 7k words and was still in the first planned section after the introduction.

And then there’s another story I’ve thought of that’s in the same era as that “how two characters met” story.

Those are all one of my examples. I have more—including a short short story I’d looked at to finalize and release for Halloween…and realized I’d come up with the perfect setup for a novelette. Trilogy. Based around Halloween, Christmas, and Valentines’ Day. And a NaNoWriMo project that definitely sets the scene for books to continue after it…while also possibly being an outline for more than one book, in itself. And then there’s the…

You get the idea, I’m sure. 🙂

Amanda

I started my second book before I’d finished writing my first (I was getting bored and frustrated). Book number two was always meant to be the start of a trilogy, and I wrote all three books, one after the other, before moving on to something else. And I don’t think the story would have turned out half as well as it did if I’d written one book, moved to something completely different, then came back and did book 2 in the trilogy. It’s a continuity issue for me.

That said, at the beginning of the year I wrote a contemporary romance that was meant to be a stand alone. It still could be. My beta readers, on the other hand, say otherwise 😛

Krysta
Hey Jami, You hit almost all of points about why I’m very indecisive about working on a sequel when querying the first novel, and the ones you missed pertains directly to the series I’m writing. (In the following blurb, where I explain why I’m particularly indecisive about this series, I will either sound insane or like a mastermind – both of which fits a writer…) After the first novel ends, the second novel begins with another character’s story with minor relations with the first novel’s plot. The main character of the first novel might get a cameo or a scene in the sequel, but the readers wouldn’t know what happened in the first novel (unless they’ve already read it). For example, a scientist has to escape from a laboratory and survive a bear-filled forest to get rid of a case of pills that could turn the person who eats it into a unicorn does so by disolving the pills into a bottle of expired milk and throwing the bottle out, hoping that the bottle would be buried in a landfill/thrown into a volcano. In the sequel, a beggar picks up a bottle of expired milk and found himself as a unicorn in the big city – then getting chased the people who wants a unicorn. (Not that this is the actual story, I just want to type the word unicorn.) While the beggar does hear the gunshot that wounded the scientist from the first novel, that’s the most spoiler-y part… Read more »
Serena
Serena
Must say I’m luckier than you in a way because I want to self-publish and I’m only targeting my friends (and maybe family) as audience members, so I don’t need to think about marketability either. So I have the freedom to choose either stand-alones or sequels. Still, I really liked your points about what you gain in writing a completely new story. You are right that we develop a clearer idea about our writing voice and writing style(s). StyleS as in you are definitely allowed to possess more than one! For example, I’ve tried the 3rd person limited, 1st person, 3rd person omniscient (this was so fun), and 1st person but where the character may address the reader (the 4th wall is partially broken down.) I’ve also written something where there was no 4th wall at all! Lol. (One day, I swear I’ll do the 2nd person too. :D) Apart from perspective, there was writing style: I tried the very descriptive (metaphors, imagery, fancy adjectives) heavier language style, the super simple devoid of any “decoratives” style, and also the in-between style where there is some description and elaborateness but is still relatively light and easy to read. As for tone, I had the sympathetic tone, the default straightforward storytelling tone, detached/ neutral tone, disparaging or condemning tone, admiring or appreciative tone, the satirical / poking fun at everyone tone, and the very silly random tone—and some others. Finally, for genres, I tried adventure, action (:D), fantasy, sci-fi, romance, literary, ordinary… Read more »
Nancy S. Thompson

I never really considered a sequel until my publisher asked about one right as I signed on. I was afraid, if I didn’t the sell first, why write a second. But when they asked, the story poured forth just as the first one did. And I do have a stand-alone for my third novel ready to flesh out. But I take things one step at a time. I only hope I get the second one out as well as the first, if for no other reason than to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

Melinda S. Collins
Hi Jami! I’d say this is wonderfully sound advice for all non-published authors – especially newbie authors. I actually sort of fell in that trap myself, but my main reason for it was becuase I couldn’t move forward – or I mean, my muse couldn’t move forward – without getting the next book in that series out. So while I was letting the first book in that series simmer (after the first two rounds of edits), I ended up writing the second book in the series (that was actually last year’s NaNo project). Becuase I wasn’t already in the query stage, I felt safe in doing that, especially since writing those two novels taught me a lot about my style in general (everything before those was just writing without even caring if it’s ever read or published, so style wasn’t anything I ever worried about). However, having said that, there’s definitely something to be said about moving onto another story altogether, especially once your muse is primed and ready. I moved on after several more edits of the first story becuase I recently realized that the characters in that first series are definitely not ready yet. They’re no where near as fleshed out as I thought they were, and now they’ve gone in hiding. LOL! I take that as a I sign to move on? Guess so, because now I’m writing something with much, much more action, and way more romance than anything I’ve written in the past (serious or… Read more »
Carradee
(RSS feed was delayed, agian. :-/) Honestly, I think the best choice (series vs. standalone) depends on your goal. If you’re aiming for a publisher, standalones are probably best, to give you more opportunities to find an editor whose taste meshes with what you’re writing. However, in the self-publishing world, series help sales. A fair number of readers don’t even take a risk on a series until it’s all published, since they’ve been burned by mid-series cancellations. And if a reader loves your book, they’ll be likely to snap up whatever of that series they can. (I know that’s the pattern I’ve followed as a reader, more than once.) Looking back, I wish I’d focused on my classic fantasy quartet of novels, getting that at least finished (though, to be fair, I’d hoped to be well into book 4 by now, but life intervened—and I’d also expected my YA UF to do better than it has. I’ll be looking at its categories and possibly rebranding it as dark fantasy when I finish the sequel.) I have some other story series ideas for which I’ll seek a publisher—but that’ll be on the grounds of the first story. (I say “story” rather than “novel” because at least one of them is a sweet paranormal romance novella series.) For now, I’m looking forward to getting this novel quartet done. I like this world, but I’m really really wanting to finish some other stories, too. Like, say, the one set a few centuries before… Read more »
Vanessa
Vanessa

Very true! With self publishing, anything is possible. I have a dystopian trilogy I’m writing, I have no high hopes of Big 5 publishing the books because they said they are tired of dystopian. New York publishing is like New York fashion, what’s in one year is out the next. Even though readers like dystopia they have been reading self published dystopia, some of the self published works just need a better editor. The publishing industry is changing very fast.

I.J.Vern

Hi Jami.

If before the end of the first book, one hasn’t already thought about a sequel, then it’s better not to do it. In most cases, it will not become a sequel, it will turn into a copy of the first, loosing in originality. Series (and I don’t mean series in episodes, where a book is left unfinished to be continued in the next one, which I don’t like at all) must be already planned from the beginning or at least by the time one reaches the middle of the first or previous book.

There must be some hints in the book to prepare for a potential sequel. Either in the form of secondary characters who show the potential to become protagonists (or antagonists) in a next book, either in the form of auxiliary events which give hints that they necessitate further development due to their importance, etc. Usually, series are thought or planned from the beginning. But there is the case that one does not know from the beginning that the book will become the first (or precedent) of a series. However by the time one reaches the middle, it should have shown the potential for series and give hints to the readers too.

Interesting article 😀

Annie Neugebauer

This is a great topic, and one I’ve struggled with quite a bit myself over the years. My second novel was planned as part of series. My third novel had sequel potential. And my current novel is the first in a trilogy. But each time, as I finished those books, I decided to write the next unrelated book instead of the sequels—and I’m glad I did. If I were still working on sequels to book two, I imagine they would be much harder to query. How do you query the middle book in a complex series? And if there’s not enough interest in said series, I would have “wasted” (for lack of better word) three books instead of one. So I agree with you wholeheartedly. I always start something new when I finish one book, and it’s always an unrelated project.

Angela Quarles

I think you bring up great points and it aligns with what I’ve heard from published authors, and that is–what if that first book doesn’t sell? I disregarded that advice and wrote a loose sequel to the one that landed my agent while I was waiting for Beta feedback. But my agent doesn’t think it’s the right direction for me to go in BUT she does want to know what an alternative 2nd and 3rd book would be so she can pitch that. And when I pitched to an editor after signing with my agent, she said sounds great, what’s the 2nd book. So my takeaway is maybe to just plan out potential sequels in case you do get an agent, but while you’re waiting, write something different

Angela Quarles

To clarify– my agent wanted to know what my sequel ideas were, not that she was expecting them to already be written

Taurean Watkins
Jami, if I sound particularly intense here, it’s only because this is a subject I continue to have mixed feelings about, and any angst is about my experience, no one’s fault but mine. For me, as much as I REALLY hate to admit it, writing new stories outside the scope of what I wrote before (Series or stand-alone) is HARD, and unlike many of my writer friends who can’t wait to “Move on”, I struggle here. Here’s the thing, I LOVE series. Many of my favorite books are in series, and some of my early stories I personally believe would work as series, but I know lots of readers loathe books in series (Most notably trilogies) that end too much on a cliffhanger, just because it’s part of a series. That’s probably why a lot of series the past few years seem to be open-ended, in that there’s no overarching plot and each can stand on their own and rarely refer back to earlier books, if at all, and while I get why some readers can feel gypped by series, as a writer I’d be hard pressed to write a more open-ended series myself. I personally didn’t like more open-ended series as a kid because a pet peeve of mine are characters who don’t retain what they learn from previous books. I like seeing things evolve over time, because real life evolves over time, and while there are times when “Staying frozen in time” works for a story, especially for… Read more »
Veronica
I always joke about how I have to try EVERYTHING because I can’t say no when it comes to a writing challenge, and so I’ve actually gone both routes, in a way… I wrote my first novel (YA contemporary) and loved it… but unfortunately, no one else loved it as much as I did. I put it aside and told myself it was a good practice novel, and I wrote novel #2 (MG contemporary with a touch of paranormal), which was completely different in setting, characters and age range. Then, I wrote a couple of picture books, because I had cute ideas that had to be told…. But then, I went back to my first novel, which I still loved, threw it out and wrote the “sequel” as my new “first novel” (same characters, same pov, but the story essentially starts where the first one ended and continues on from there). Maybe it was what I learned in the writing of the other books, but my second “first novel” was vastly improved, and I started getting personalized rejections and even a few requests instead of form rejections. While querying, I wrote another middle grade novel, another picture book and a YA short story, which then became the outline for a novel I plan to write next year. Now, I’m back to my first world, writing (as my NaNoWriMo project) a companion book to the second version of my “first novel.” Of course, I have to be contrary, even when I… Read more »
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ChemistKen

If the new novel was something that caught a hold of you and just wouldn’t let go, I’d say go with the new novel. You’ll always have plenty of time to go back to a sequel if all goes well. Maybe a little time away from your characters will give you fresh ideas when you come back to them later.

BTW, I noticed you’re almost at 28K words on NaNo. Good work and don’t stop till you finish.

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[…] Series vs. Stand-Alone: What Should We Work On Next? by Jami Gold. […]

Katrina Lantz

Loved this! I agree writing a new book after the first one helps establish your personal voice, plus gives great practice with the essential element of world-building. I wouldn’t mind being a one-hit wonder, though. 😉 My first book was actually a trilogy, but that was because I had no idea how to restrain myself. The words just came out. And series were my favorite to read, anyway.

I do like the trend toward companion novels instead of just sequels, though – that is, writing from the POV of a side character, turning their subplot in the first book into a full plot in the second. It’s sort of like if JK Rowling decided to write, THE ADVENTURES OF FRED AND GEORGE WEASLEY. *dreams* That would be awesome.

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[…] we want to join the series bandwagon, we can do it while still writing connected-yet-standalone stories. In other words, we can market books as a series without featuring the same characters or […]

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