Writers, why does everything need to be a series?

This is your new book, be gentle with it...Like a seed, a book idea begins small. So very small. Maybe it is a flash of an image, or maybe it is a question that needs to be answered. Whatever the case, it grows and grows until finally a novel emerges fully grown.

Yes, I consider writing and creating a very organic experience. And when I am done with a book, I’m happy to have one “tree.”

So I can’t help wondering why do so many writers today want to grow a forest?

 

Book One: By chance or fate the heroes meet

It was last year that I began really reaching out to other writers on Twitter. The thing that surprised me the most (besides the sheer number of all of us), is how many are focused on writing a series.

Paranormal, scifi, fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror, romance (the innocent to the definitely NOT innocent at all), historical fiction, adventure, etc., some are even a combination of genres; but whatever the case they are never a solo book. Traditionally published, indie published, to self-published, everyone seems to be on the series train.

Choo Choo!

In many ways the idea of creating a series as a serious concept in literature is a new idea.

Oh, it was out there, but it was never really part of the “mainstream” of literature. It began in the world of “pulp” fiction, not something for the serious writer. Heck, Jane Austen even mocked pulp/series writers in her book Northanger Abbey; which says a lot about how writers at her time viewed their brethren who considered that avenue.

So while you would have a mystery series (Sherlock Holmes), or comedy, (P.G. Wodehouse), or children’s literature (Tom Swift), they were just never considered as serious as the other writers… or even really financially more successful. How do I know this? Well, Charles Dickens never wrote a series.

The image of Charles Dickens I have in my Dining RoomSee, I love Charles Dickens’ work and respect him a great deal, but the man liked to make money (coming from a background of a father with bad financial decisions, hard labor, and poverty).  If he saw the financial gain in writing a series I am certain we would have had such titles as Greater Expectations, David Copperfield, Jr., Bigger Dorrit, A Tale of Three Cities, and The Less Bleak House.

I know I am speaking in very broad strokes here, covering hundreds of years, but even over the last century there was a line in science fiction books between the pulp books of a series and the more serious science fiction of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clark. Kurt Vonnegut even famously mocked that kind of writing and writer with his character Kilgore Trout.

Yes, I know there are loopholes in this argument covering each of the decades (like I said broad strokes), but this perception was pretty prevalent up until recently, which makes me wonder what has changed?

I think what has changed is the idea of making more money.

It would be easy to blame J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter.  Nah, I blame business people.

One of the things you learn when you study query letters and book marketing is you need to convince the money people of the financial capability of a work. “If that book, which is kind of like mine, made this amount of money, mine can make that too.” It gives someone the chance to speculate on the possibility of success as compared to just trusting to luck and the hope an audience will find a work. And for a business person, the idea of keeping the door open, as compared to slamming it shut with the closing of each book cover… well… it makes sense, right?

But here is the thing that gets me, why do so many of us writers come along for this train ride? Jumping on this train before even the business world becomes involved in their creation, or even if they were planning to self-publish? What are they seeing that I don’t?

Book Two: Oh no! Something happened to one of us! Are we still determined to succeed? 

Writing a book is not easy. It’s a hard task to do it right. Planning, outlining, writing, creating dialogue. The first draft is the fun part; then the work arrives with the other drafts as the work is fine-tuned over time into something that can be read by an audience without them losing their “suspension of disbelief.”

Do new writers know how many hours and stress they will undertake as they begin their very first draft?

But then when you add in the idea of it being a series…. It is, in my opinion, the equivalent of a sculpturer saying “Yea, I can make a little statue for your garden, but I would rather start with the Lincoln Memorial. Bring in the marble!”

Why is a series harder to write?

That is actually an easy question to answer and we can all do it. How? Well, tell me how many successful ones have you read from beginning to end?

You see what I mean.

Each series has its own pitfalls and train wrecks while working towards the end, and sadly it is so much easier to list the problems in one as compared to the successes. From the fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin to the lousy ending of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events to the philosophical mess of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (seriously, I still am uncertain what happened at the end), we can all point to the highs and lows in a series and that is so much easier to do than in a single, complete book.

  1. Have you ever been happy with every book in a series?
  2. Does the overarching plot grow over the course of the series or does something happen to turn it away from its path?
  3. Is the ending satisfying? Truly?
  4. Is the “energy” consist throughout the series?
  5. Do the characters stay true to their growth or does something happen that throws them off?

And on and on… These are unique discussions for a series, and in taking on a series a writer’s creation is open to those kind of questions.

The biggest problem in my opinion for taking on a series is the first book. Yowza!  There is so much responsibility on the shoulders of that first book, and with one misstep it possibly can derail the entire project before it even begins.

I’ve noticed two prevalent mistakes that occur often in the first book in a series.

  1. Since the writer is setting up so much material for the series, it can be drowned in explanations and conversations.
  2. There is little payoff in the ending since the writer is saving their “big punches” for later books.

And those are just the two obivous ones, and when I find a book that has both of those I walk away typically feeling exhausted; not excited to read a second or third book. Honestly, I can’t believe I am the only reader that can feel that way after reading a first book. Which makes me wonder…

What happens to the rest of the book series when the first book doesn’t sell?

Is it like a movie where the other films are just not made at all?

Does the writer lose the inspiration that drove them to write that first book in the first place? And what if it is self-published?

I can’t help but imagine a battlefield riddled with the remains of first books (injured detectives waiting for their next case; lost children, crying waiting to continue their quest; young women looking through the foxholes trying to find their missing love, etc.) with no second or third book around to administer the much needed aid.

Medic!

Book Three: We win, but not in the way we were expecting!

When I start a new novel, I like to see all possibilities.

As an author, I fill up notepads with characters, dialogue, plots. if you were interested I could tell you everything that happened to the characters before the book began and what would happen afterwards. It adds a necessary part of realism for me.

It’s not a sequel or prequel thing. No, not at all! See, it’s just part of my personal “buy-in” to the project and the world.

Do you want an example?

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverI wrote an experimental Victorian mystery named Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare. In the book, I claim it is the fifth book in a series. Now get this, in the introduction of the book, I walk the audience through the plots of the previous books. Books, let me remind you, that were never written. Ha! I love that. See, the point I am trying to make is I could have done the other books, I just chose not to.

But this practice is not unique to that book or even to me.

Yes, seeing outside one’s plot is not a new thing. Remember Charles Dickens? Well, in A Tale of Two Cities everyone remembers “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done before…” but do you remember all that bit before it?

Sydney Carton walks the reader through everything that happens after the book ends. He tells you about the villains, the heroes, the countries, and even how he is viewed by them. There is your sequel right there, all tied up in a few paragraphs!

Charles Dickens could have done, he just decided not to.

The Lord of the Rings was not supposed to be a trilogy. It was one book when J.R.R Tolkien completed it, but it was the publisher that split it up into three, even naming the different books without Tolkien’s involvement. If I was to write a series, I would take him as the model (but I would want to name my own books though).

I think, overall, I am not trying to argue anyone away from chasing their dreams, I just want my fellow writers to stop and consider the challenges in front of them when they take on the enterprise. Honestly, writing a series is probably the greatest and most difficult undertaking in our artform.

Seriously, it is okay to grow a single tree out of the seed.

A Jane Austen DaydreamIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!…

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81 responses

  1. Interesting article! For me, the idea of writing a series just sort of happens. I don’t really think of the business implications because I’m not selling anything yet.
    It’s also down to the books I grew up on and loved to read. A vast majority of what I read is part of a trilogy or a series so when I start thinking of stories I just think big.

    • I guess then my question would be, could they be separate volumes in the same book? I mean, for example, most classics are broken up into volumes. Heck, my novel A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM has three volumes (mirroring the style of Austen).

      Cheers!

  2. Scott; This is a question I’ve weighed several times, every day for a couple of years now. The prevailing forces in Indie Author Role Model circles have told us all that in order to succeed as an Indie, you need to write a series. Period. I can think of several of these for whom it has worked really well, but my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way. My first two books even had readers telling me they looked forward to the next book, but the monkey muse on my shoulder had other ideas, and the next two books were in different genres on different subjects. Of course I see that I should write for my existing market, and maybe someday I’ll convince the monkey that a third book would be a good idea. I hope so. Before any momentum has evaporated. I’ve got another one finished and one more in the works, but neither of them really connect with those first two.

    • Interesting and how did you get a monkey? (Seriously, my kids are obsessed with monkeys right now I couldn’t help myself).

      I usually just let my inspiration dictate my direction. So maybe I am a bad business model to follow? I don’t know…

  3. I, too, have been surprised at the number of people who are writing “series”, and I agree that writing a good one takes a lot more work than most people think. I think they also misunderstand, or mislabel, “series”, too. A “series” is a group of books with some connecting element (character or umbrella story arc) but each one should be a complete story in itself – with it’s own beginning, middle and end. Lord of the Rings isn’t a series, it’s a trilogy because each book does not stand as a complete story in itself, whereas the Potter books are a proper series. Most of the beta-reading I’ve done for new writers who say they are writing a series, are actually splitting a single story into multiple books – so not actually “series”.

    The real problem I’ve noticed, though, whatever they call their multiple books, is that they confuse word-count with the amount of *story* – actual content – you need to justify multiple books. Just because you’ve taken 100,000 words doesn’t mean you’ve written Part One of a long book, most of the time it means you’ve over-written the opening Act of your novel, and with some good content editing (and the patience to finish writing the whole story instead of jumping into submission, or self-publishing) there could be a well written, tightly structured, engrossing, single novel that is far superior to a story spread too thin.

    • I did avoid bringing in the idea of “padding” into the article. I debated whether to list it as an issue with the first books. I completely agree about tightening it up for one book. The word count point you make is fascinating. George R.R. Martin once spoke about a sci-fi pulp writer who would write a big book and just cut it in pieces based on number of pages, no other plan than that.

      • Wow, this went off after I had to go to bed, here, in Oz!
        I’m not sure I’d call it “padding” – I don’t think these writers are deliberately trying for those word counts, I think that’s slightly different in that they are simply not structuring and/or editing properly – but it’s a descriptive enough label 🙂
        Now to read the rest of this conversation!

  4. Hi, enjoyed the article very much but have to admit I am now terrified! I am a new author, about to self publish my first book which is part of a series. I have been worrying about the point you make, that basically the whole series is based on the success of the first novel and as this is not only my first novel but the very first thing that I have ever published, then I am now seriously worried!

    My reasons for doing a series are simple and it did not involve following any trends or looking at what other writers were doing. I had an idea and I wrote a novel, the characters took on a life of their own and before I knew where I was, I had 138,000 words and I hadn’t finished the story. I then realised that this book needed a sequel to finish off the story (which is what I am writing at the moment) and then, as I got a couple of independent people to read the first book to see if it had any legs or not, the feedback was brilliant but they all wanted to know more about two of the sub-characters who’s lives are affected by the premise of the series, but are not properly explored. This made me think that perhaps as well as the sequel (I know, not technically a series yet), I would need to write two more independent books which would stand alone, would be linked in terms of characters and content and would cover the lives of the two sub-characters who the readers had identified with. I have not written either of these books as yet but I do have plot ideas floating around for them.

    I realise that this approach is risky because if the first book bombs, then it would perhaps be foolish to plod on with the other three, however I have examined my reasons for writing and they are this:-

    It has been a lifelong goal of mine to write a fiction novel – simple. When I wrote the novel and realised it needed a sequel, well, that was just the way it needed to be. And although I would dearly love for my books to be a success, the most important thing for me is that I have succeeded with one of my dreams and to see my book in print (albeit via print on demand) is something that no amount of money, fame or kudos can give me. I am loving writing and I feel like it is something that I can at last identify with and I just hope and pray that the fact that I am heading down the series route is not a death knell for me!

    Keep up the good posts, I really enjoy them. Thank you.

    Best wishes, Jade.

    PS. I covered a similar issue on one of my blog posts, where I discussed from my point of view the rise of the trilogy and whether or not this was good or bad to conform to. Nowhere near as in depth or brilliant as your article, but I know where you are coming from when you talk about writers following trends and whether we are doing it for the right reasons.

    PPS. Sorry for the length of comment – now you know why my book is 138,000 words!

    • Hi there. Well, one thing I say a lot in my writing posts is that you need to write first and foremost for yourself. If writing makes you happy and your finished book does as well, then everything that happens afterwards (success, etc.), is a wonderful bonus.

      I’m not completely sold on the idea of self-publishing to be honest. Well, not as a first option in anyway. I usually recommend people take about a eight months to at least try to find an agent or a bigger publisher (or even an indie publisher; a lot of people get this wrong but self publishing is not indie publishing). The thing is your book will have a lot easier time in the market with a traditional publisher doing it, so it is worth it to at least try for one.

      Good luck!

  5. Amusing and interesting as always; it does seem to be the ‘rage’ to have a series in your mind if not already started. I read that literary agents are more inclined to accept you if you had a series from the initial book. You have to love the almighty dollar. I agree that when you see …now stay with the so-and-so character as they continue to fight for the good of all, etc.
    However, how much I would have missed if Louisa May Alcott had stopped at Little Women or Cheaper By the Dozen didn’t continue to show the struggles of a family of 12, etc. but I believe they are in the vast minority…

  6. Pardon the intrusion here, but I see that I am not referred correctly as the author of the above response. I am Triciaspages.com. Thanks!

  7. The idea of “padding” was definitely on my mind as I read this. I know I don’t have a series in me, nor do I tend to read serial works. However, it’s easy to see how readers like something familiar they can come back to time and time again. I’d rather move on to the next self-contained book that completes it’s own journey in one volume. Too many books are full of filler, whether series or single books. Give me a concisely written story over lots of repetitive description any day 😉

  8. I don’t know that I agree with you on this. I think the mystery genre is the PERFECT one for writing a series. Each book is complete within itself with a mystery to solve but there is ongoing character development of the main characters that makes you want to read the next one. I’ve read all 20 books of Lindsey Davis’ Falco books. Once upon a time I read all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. And I’ve read a good deal of the books in Anne Perry’s two Victorian mystery series.

    Other genres work well in a series too–I think that each book just needs to have its own particular “quest” so that there is a sense of resolution at the end of each volume.

    • I don’t think I was saying a series is a bad thing per se (I do love Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and anything by PG Wodehouse), I just am questioning why so many new writers today choose that avenue first. My twitter account is full of writers trying it.

      It’s been fun to read the response to this post.

      • No, you’re definitely right on that–new authors do seem to think that they have to start with a series. But I wonder if that’s because big publishers are looking for that? There is one romance writer I know of who, when pitching her book to a traditional publishing house, had to come up with what books could follow it. And I’ve also noticed, with romance, that authors tend to purposely write in subplots with secondary characters so that they can take that plot and make it into a sort of sequel.

      • Fascinating… Okay, so what should I do for A Jane Austen Daydream 2? Her adventures in New York? Or should they solve a mystery? LOL. I have seen a few “sequels” out there to P&P that have Darcy solving mysteries with Lizzy (Wasn’t that one of the sequels everyone made a big deal of last year? Murder at Pemberley or something?).

      • Sorry to butt in, but I wanted to ask Roseanne about her friend’s experience. Was it definitely a series that what was being asked for, or just books will come next? I know (and understand why) all agents and publishers have always wanted to know that you have more than one book in you – and why they usually want it to be the same genre – but are they really wanting it to be the same characters, now?
        It would be an interesting point to this article if the publishers were actually behind this (maybe they’re finding it’s what readers want, now?)

  9. Interesting post & comments. One would think that just writing a first novel would be daunting enough without actually planning a series. My first novel “Man on the Balcony” did not start out as a series (it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.) The sequel “Maggie Retreat” was born only because my readers liked the characters so much they suggested a sequel, and since I like to please my readers, I continued the story of Brad and Maggie, the main characters. The “saga” could continue endlessly, but I chose not to go that route. As a writer, I wanted to experience new people and new stories. Each book stands alone – as any book in a series should. Every author should write what they are compelled to write – no exceptions. Happy writing.

  10. I was asked when I pitched my first book if it was a series. It wasn’t, but I said I could make it into one. Does that count? I’m not sure. The business people want one thing, a sure bet. That’s why there’s so many sequels in the movies. They want to see a return on their investment, so if the first book is successful, you go for a series.

  11. God, I love this post, as well as the comments. It’s rare to find a series that doesn’t disappoint me somewhere along the way. I agree with you that some authors/publishers envision dollar signs, hoping for the next “continuing saga,” via Hollywood. However, I do think there are a gifted few who posses the ability to see their first book and its characters begging to take on lives of their own. I can see Rowling as that kind of writer … maybe.
    I prefer mysteries featuring the same hero or heroine — they don’t feel so contrived.
    Sometimes, when I find myself stuck reading book three or four of a popular series … and just cannot finish to save my life … I imagine Hannibal Lechter refusing to taste even one bite of the author’s brain. The thought comforts me.

  12. As a reader, I’m more apt to pick up a trilogy rather than one book in a twenty book series- talk about intimidating. I hate to admit this but sometimes reading one or two books out of twenty gives you the idea because you see the same things repeated again and again. Like when Stephanie Plumb destroys a car in every book…but I love Janet Evanovich’s humor and it’s always done in a unique way.

    As a writer who will probably self-pub at some point, series can be good for earning. If readers like one of the books, they’ll buy another. Also, from a writing standpoint, the world building is done after the first book, which makes the others easier (I think) but I do believe that each book should stand alone.

    Thanks for the interesting post. I, too, was starting to wonder about all of the series out there. I, personally, like the ones with similar settings but different main characters. Keep up the good work!

  13. While there are certainly financial considerations from the publisher’s standpoint, at the core I think the explanation is far more basic than that – we just want more of what we like. It’s not hard for writers and readers grow attached to particular characters and settings, so the impetus to further explore them is not hard to find.

    Stories in installments are a natural thing; it’s how life works, after all – rarely will you find a person of whom the only interesting part of his existence can be summed up in one succinct chunk of narrative. Getting invested in a new story is like meeting new people – it can take a lot of effort, and it’s usually easier just to hang out with the friends you already have. It’s why television works, or comic books, or why the Greeks kept telling stories about Zeus. (>^-‘)>

    We can lump series into three gradations, depending on their connecting factor, and each have a different (but related) appeal:

    Story. Probably the most common in literature – an overarching plot ties the volumes together.
    Characters. Each volume is self-contained, involving the same people but with little to no plot carry-over. Most television is in this area.
    Setting. Plot and characters change, but volumes are connected by the world, themes, and/or background mechanics. A lot of video games fall here.

    Even when you have a story series, though, I personally think that the first volume should be self-contained – an arbitrary cut-off to make a series for the sake of making a series is an amateur move. Convince your readers you can tell a complete story before offering a series and they’ll be more likely to come along for the rest of the ride. I’m more forgiving of cliffhangers in subsequent books, as by then I’m likely already bought-in.

    You mention Sherlock Holmes, and that’s one of my favorite character series. A new story with the promise of more Watson and Holmes was plenty enough to keep me coming back.

    Final Fantasy is pushing the limits of even a setting series, having only recurring motifs and mechanics, but it’s enough to pull me back to check out a new installment.

    Anyway, all that said, there’s definitely something attractive about one-offs. It’s just a different focus, I think. Similar to a short story’s relationship to a full novel, there’s more freedom for thematic exploration, and the possibilities for the extreme are wider when you don’t have to continue things afterward. I’ve always seen it as a scale – the shorter a work is, the more it lends itself to the high-level, conceptual focus, and the longer it is, the better suited it becomes for the low-level, intimate look at the nuance of character.

    (Oh, and I’m completely with you on His Dark Materials – what a terrible, ridiculous, contrived “screw you, reader” way to end such an otherwise great series).

    • It’s been fascinating to read the responses to this post. (And I’m glad we agree on Pullman, great concept in first book, then gets dark and falls apart.)

      So is the blame on TV? Also, comics came from the world of pulp. They weren’t respected either until the last few decades(maybe around the 80s with Alan Moore). This is all new territory for literature.

      Cheers!

      • I don’t know; I’m rather inclined to say that the ‘series mentality’ is the psychosocial norm – the earliest examples being ancient tales (true or not) of actual people and then those of folklore figures. They may not have been by the same ‘author’, but the appeal of the recurring characters was the same. It’s the natural way of things – the notion of purely fictional stories archetypically evolve from interesting (eventually exaggerated) non-fiction, those involved in which of course had other things happen to them in their lives. Perspectively, it’s the idea of a character’s (or entire world’s) existence standing alone as an isolate event that is the novel concept!

  14. I as a reader I tend to pick up series over single books. Quite often this is due to time. I don’t want to run out of books to read in an airplane and a series keeps me occupied and involved; I don’t have to invest in new characters or worlds.

    Successful series that come to mind: The dragon books by Anne McCaffrey, the quintologies and trilogies by David Eddings, the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, the Landover books by Terry Brooks, the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, the Lover books by J.R Ward. I hope I didn’t misname anything.

    Of those (apart from maybe David Eddings) every book in the series is a story on its own and can easily be read out of order.

    To name series I gave up on: Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. In both cases it’s because I don’t like soap operas. In neither series is the story I’m wishing to read being told. In Wheel of Time, what I wanted to read about happened “off screen” between the books. In Game of Thrones it’s the Others I’m interested in, not the soap opera of who owns what kingdom; I could not care less.

    As a writer I have some ideas for follow up novels of short stories in the works. I have no actual plans to write a series right from the start. But in order for me to consider buying my own books, perhaps I should C:

  15. I have found a way to have the best of both worlds. My books are a “set” but not a “series.” They all take place in the same world (near-future Detroit) and some characters overlap, but each book stands alone. I think this is a way to please both series fans and stand-alone fans.

    Of course, it’s also the worst of both worlds. The reader has no built-in incentive to read more books in the “set,” even if one of the books pleased him.

    But overall, I am thrilled with my choices–and my readers seem to be, too!

  16. I have to rebuild the world every time, because I can’t count on readers being familiar with the previous books. At the same time, I can’t repeat information too much, because I don’t want to bore my regular readers. It’s hard work–but work that I like!

    • I can imagine it being a challenge. JK Rowling attempted to do the very same thing at the beginning of four of the Harry Potter books. As an established fan of the series it did feel a little frustrating from time to time.

  17. Enjoyed your article Scott. Thanks for posting. I remember enjoying Jean Auel’s pre-historic series many years ago, but losing interest after the fourth one. I think that’s where she should have stopped. I felt the characters had all come to a full stop; there was nowhere else for them to go without it turning into some kind of ‘soap’.
    I love multi-layered stories, so a series works well for me. I don’t mind waiting for book two or three before all the ends are tied up. I enjoy a complex narrative arc, too. I like to have to wonder about things, as long as you can trust the author to provide enough satisfaction at the end of book one to want to continue with the next.
    Best wishes,
    Celia

  18. One comment in the original post, Scott, really resonated. It was mention of an organic way of growing a series from within a single book, which is how Tolkien’s LOTR was published when the publisher grew wary of the cost of the print run! Then there is GRR Martin; responsible for 9 1/2″ of shelf space in my own library, and another five or six inches of space still waiting! Why am I such a sucker for these things? Anyway, thanks again for such a provocative discussion.

    • I have a love/hate relationship with George’s books as well. I have written a few posts on my feelings around them on this site; you should check them out.

      I think how he pulls off the ending will have a major impact on how people view these books in the future. My current favorite issue with the series is if the threat is all on Westeros, why are wasting time in so many different countries that won’t be affected by everything there (wars, walking dead people, etc.); these other lands couldn’t care less.

  19. Great article I enjoyed it. Quite thought provoking.
    I did not write my novel “ARRANGED” with the thoughts of a second on the same characters, but it just happened. The characters had more to say. It just doesn’t make sense to write an 800 page novel. You have to break it up and give the reader a chance to breath and absorb.
    I don’t write serious or life changing stories. Just something fun to read and places to escape to, with a hint of history and geography thrown in for realism.

    I must admit that when the publisher learned there was another book they were excited, maybe not for the same reasons that I was.

  20. Thanks for an interesting post. I’ve been wondering about this a lot myself, especially since quite a few of my writer friends seem to be planning trilogies, and many of them decide for a trilogy even before knowing the potential of the story, before knowing they have the material to fill three books. They are just in love with the idea of a trilogy. A lot of them are pantsers, they don’t even think about what is going to happen in the current book, which is why it seems absurd to be thinking of a series/trilogy. As for myself I prefer stand alones, I don’t even like reading series, but I do think you’ve got a valid point when you say they want to repeat the success of previous successful series writers. But I wonder: is there even a point in writing book two and three before you’ve sold the first one?

    • You are right it is somewhat a risk to write a book two and three if there is an issue with the first. Like I said, this is not easy road. In the least, I would recommend a writer be established (or in the least have already a few books under their belt) before starting down that journey.

      Personally, after some of the talks I have had since the post, I think a lot of trilogies out there can just be one book (Novels can be long with many plots, that is okay). For example, my novel A Jane Austen Daydream has three volumes. Now, should they be three separate books? No, it is one overarching story; but others might see that differently in today’s light.

  21. Interesting post. I think writing a series for the sake of it is not necessarily the best way of starting out but so many publishers and blogs on self publishing list a series as being the way to go. Some even go so far as to saying it is a necessity.

    I am currently working on a sequel to my book The Alien Files. I wrote the first as a standalone but then news events gave me new inspiration and I realised it would fit the characters of my first book. I think as long as you are inspired by something you want to say it is fine.

    In addition I think in the crime genre many people write serials, as if your detective (or similar) character captures people they want to read more. I think this is at least one of the genres it works really well in.

    I think it’s also a symptom of the age we live in, any successful film or TV series immediately sparks off a call for more, or more of the same. I don’t think it’s something that will go away anytime soon.

  22. Confession: I’m a rookie writer working on the first novel in a series and I chose to do so for two reasons. 1) I love book series as a reader. I want to know when I pick up a book that there is a possibility for a long-term relationship with the characters I’m about to meet and that I’m not going to be saddened by losing them after a day or two of reading, but will be able to count on many adventures to come. 2) I have way too much I want to accomplish to do it in one book.

    That said, I have seen series where it started feeling obvious after awhile that new installments felt like they were phoned in and clearly the publisher was hoping to continue milking a cash cow. There have been plenty, though, that have wrapped up beautifully and others I’m still enjoying as new books come out.

    I do appreciate the words of caution and will keep them in mind as I develop my series. I’ve already run into the dreaded, “How do I fit in all this info?” issue and am working diligently to clean it up and leave just the parts that are necessary to move the single book forward.

  23. Hi Scott,

    I always enjoy your posts, and this one is no different. When I began writing, it was a stand alone book, but then I came up with a shiny new idea. Immediately, I knew it would have a sequel or even be a trilogy. After writing the first one, I left it alone to work on a stand alone book. After coming back to it, I know it needs a sequel and I am currently writing it.

    I do notice that some authors only write series, but I don’t want to be known only as a series writer.

    I think that indie authors use the series as a way of building up momentum from their readers, and increasing their sales too. I know that if I read a story in a series, I will most times want more – Hunger Games, A Song of Fire and Ice, Millennium Series – are some of my favourites.

    Just my 2 cents. Heidi.

    • Thank you so much!

      I think it is healthier when a decision is made by the author for artistic and creative reasons (like your example). When someone references it as some kind of a business decision, then I feel uncomfortable. It’s always a fine line between art and business, each writer has to decide for him and herself where that line is.

      Cheers!

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  25. It has to be a series because books become smaller. Everything is shorter, from descriptions to dialogues to plots. We live in a world of tweets and facebook updates. If one wants to have any chance at all with the buyers of the next decade, books must be shortish and in a series. Or short story collections. We don’t have to like it, but it is how the iphone youngsters’ brains are geared.

      • I think it has to do with information process methods and how we’re been trained to receive it in small chunks. They won’t interfere with busy schedules but we expect them to update frequently.

      • But wasn’t the work of Dumas and writers from his period written as series, published in the newspapers? (I admit I have only a vague notion of how his work was published)

      • Thanks for reading. Dumas would have been considered pretty pop in his period as compared to serious literature (in saying that I do enjoy his stuff even though the end of Iron Mask bothered me). As I said in the piece I am speaking in broad strokes and there are exceptions in every period.

  26. I love how last week’s topic of series writing has sparked so much energy! Congrats!
    You make many excellent points that I, being brand new, can appreciate; although towards the end I was looking for a bottle of scotch to calm my nerves (just kidding) and shield my naïveté from the mishap of the poor disgruntled, never achieved author in the trenches. I’m looking forward to see what is next-this time I’ll keep the scotch handy!

  27. Hey Scott, glad I happened across your blog. I write what I love to read and that’s series. I’ve read very little else but fantasy series since a teenager- the longer the better. I love getting into the characters and the worlds and reading a huge overarching story with intriguing character development- best example Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series- had to be finished by Sanderson- but still loved it.
    My publisher doesn’t ask for series, in fact I would have to talk them into a series, but that’s the way I think and write- in a looping flow where one story leads to the next.
    I’m the opposite of yourself- I ask: why wouldn’t a writer write a series. Don’t care how hard it is-it’s what I have to do.

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  32. When I began writing, I hated series. I had absolutely no plans to write one. I never read them as I wanted only to jump from one story to another different, completely unrelated, new author-ed one. But, my own WIP grew unexpectedly. I’d agonize over my growing word count and try to cut it down to keep it one novel, but that shallowed out the story, so I had to split it. Additionally, the theme became one of mothers and daughters….more books. Just for fun, I tried to write a short series on my blog about a hidden male character. But, yea, that jumped way more spectacularly than I’d thought so I stopped in order to save it for its own book- as a much later addition to this (gasp!) series. It IS a huge worry, as it’s not what I intended. Money and securing agents/publishers didn’t play into it at all. But, I’ve since started reading series and trilogies and have loved them (All Souls Trilogy, True Blood Series, and Daughter of Smoke and Bone- AMAZING!!- trilogy in progress), so, not all is doomed.

    • One of the best arguments I have heard in my comments under this is that this is all because of the influence of TV; and I think I agree with that assumption in many ways. If you go back to classics books (Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Hugo, etc.), books can be complicated with big plots. Now we seem to view books like one would view a TV episode, expecting only one arc and one tale at time. Consider Great Expectations, Pip has many adventures over one novel. In today’s world, would that be a trilogy?

      Thanks for writing. Cheers!

      • Hmm, I can’t see that it relates to TV. You refer to classics quite often, but when was the last time you saw someone reading a 1488 page novel? Great Expectations was less than 500, which is normal by today’s standards, while a few of Elliot’s novels seem quite large: 800-1000 pages, and Les Mis was 1488. I haven’t seen something as large on any bookstore shelf. I don’t see it as caused by TV, but moreso the time people have these days to devote to reading. A large book appears too much for anyone to commit to now, regardless of e-readers making them easier to carry. I could be completely wrong. Victor Hugo’s been a huge influence in my own writing, yet I myself don’t have the time to devot to re-reading him. And he’s my favorite author! Maybe just for me, but I feared putting out a giant read (Les Mis size) more than I feared putting out yet another trilogy/series. And splitting my book, as much as it kept me up at night, made sense in the end. After splitting, I researched word counts and agent preferences and writing guides, and I found warnings against large word counts (100,000+) as to them, it signifies poor story telling! Gone With The Wind? The previously mentioned classics? Aw, people. Regardless, I am more comfortable putting out two 600 page books (that could stand alone) rather than one 1200 page book that would feel just overwhelming.

        Great article, which I reblogged! It did make me think, and I read through several replies (didn’t make it to the TV one). Thanks!

      • Besides the technological ADHD afflicting our entire culture (more or less), there’s one more part of the equation. Big books mean a very large initial investment for a publisher to produce, with a corresponding big retail ticket. If they break up a big property into smaller pieces, the initial investment isn’t as great and they get to see if the story has enough traction to warrant printing the next part. Series also mean a bigger opportunity for pre-sold readers. It wasn’t really that much different in Tolkiens’ day. LOTR was originally supposed to be one volume which became a trilogy to constrain production costs.

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    • It’s definitely something new in literature to have so many. Personally, my writing doesn’t naturally fall into that structure, but there is a small trilogy I’ve been wanting to do for some time. However, if I do I will write it all at once.

  34. I don’t think I’m ever going to write an actual series. Perhaps have novels in a “family” but not a real series where the entire tale takes volumes and more volumes to tell. My trilogy evolved from elaborate backstory for the third novel (which was actually a movie idea), but each book stands on its own as well. It could be one book, but that would be a very long book, and very few people will buy a very long book from an unknown writer.

  35. Great post, Scott. Have felt the same way for a long time. I see every book as an experiment on an idea instead of a sales driver. This means I like to try out as many different experiments as possible, which makes a series the wrong way to go…

    Cheers / Jonas

    • You and I are on the same page. I always want my books to be different from each other. The idea of returning to a genre or a character or a style would not excite me that much.

      One response I get a lot from readers of the post (from authors to readers) seems to remind me with TV. I said this in a few comments, but I think people view characters in books like characters on TV. They want to see what happens next because that is what we are used to as a culture. Again, this is all new territory for the written word.

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