Monday, 28 August 2017

Series or Standalone - pros and cons

The trend towards writing series of novels has become increasingly strong in recent years, and there are many authors who do not write anything outside series. More and more lately, I've seen what amounts to a fundamental assumption by some independent writers that everything they write will be part of a series, particularly in certain genres. 

There are arguments for and against writing a series, and today we'll take a look at what they are.


Persistent World
First of all, and this one's a biggie, whatever worldbuilding you do, of your setting and/or main characters, will stay done, and you can keep on using it, over and over again. This is particularly beneficial if you're writing the kind of thing that has a massive worldbuild or research component, such as fantasy, steampunk or historical fiction. 

Build a Following
Once you've firmly established a series, readers who enjoyed earlier books are very likely to keep buying later ones. They know what to expect, and if they liked the others, they know they'll like this one. And a lot of people are quite compulsive about series, even when each book is able to stand alone (as it must, if it's been properly written.) Even readers who first encounter one of the later books are quite likely to go back and buy the earlier ones. This is great for your sales.

Knowing What To Expect
Once you're up to about the third or fourth book in a series, you will have a pretty fair idea of what's going into it before you even start outlining. This can make the book quick and easy to write compared to a standalone novel.


Lack of Variety
If all you write is one series, you will never get to try anything new. This means that many, many avenues for growth as a writer are going unused, and also that you are missing out on trying different genres that you might have really loved. You don't know how you'll go in a genre until you try it. For years I was convinced I would never write children's lit - but when I came up with the outline for No Such Thing it was clear that it needed to be a middle-grade kids' book, and I enjoyed writing it no end and have another one in progress for the same age group. I would never have found this out if I hadn't been willing to give it a go.

This is the flip side of building a following. Writers, like actors, can be 'type cast'. If you've spent many years writing, say, chicklit, and suddenly decide you want to branch out into dystopian sci-fi, your established readership probably won't like your new work, and many potential readers who would have liked it may never see it because they think of you as exclusively a chicklit writer. Imagine if Stephen King suddenly started writing romantic comedies. How many people would buy the new book and throw it away unfinished in disgust? You never want to disappoint a reader.

Of course, branding doesn't only occur in the context of a series, but if you do have a long-running series and don't write other stuff as well, you may be sure it will happen to you.

Getting bored or stale
If you keep writing the same series, sooner or later you are likely to get bored with it. If it's making money for you, you may press on, but remember, you cannot do your best work if you are less than fully engaged yourself. Your quality will suffer.

Going Out of Style
Literature, like everything else, has trends and fashions. Vampires are very popular at the moment, and it's a fashion that has been surprisingly long-lived - but it is a fashion. If all you've ever written is a vampire series and suddenly the bottom falls out of the market, there goes your passive income stream, leaving you high and dry, with nothing to fall back on until you develop a whole new thing. This is what happened to Rudolph Valentino when the talkies came along.

Of course, these 'contra' arguments are not so much arguments against writing a series as against writing only a series. You can have the best of both worlds by writing both a series and other stuff too; of course, you are splitting your effort then, and you will not get your series books out as rapidly as you might otherwise have done. 


Series fall into two categories: the finite and the infinite.

The Finite Series
A finite series is one where you know ahead of time, at least roughly, how many books the series will contain. Trilogies fall into this category, as do longer series such as Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. A longer series of this type will have an overall story arc, within which you position each book, while being sure that each book can stand alone, as a properly-written novel must do.

A modern variant of this is the 'episodic' series, such as Patti Roberts' popular Witchwood Estate series. These books are episodes in a larger story. They're very entertaining, and have enjoyed a good deal of success, but a great deal of care must be taken if you want to do this. You must ensure that every bit of marketing that is done underlines the nature of the series, lest you gravely disappoint readers who were expecting complete novels. Really, this type of series is more in the nature of a long book published by instalments, as was a lot of Dickens' work.

The Infinite Series
An infinite series, on the other hand, can last as long as the author is alive and willing to continue with it. Most detective series fall into this category, although if you've used a theme for your titles, like James Patterson with his nursery rhyme titles or Sue Grafton with her alphabet ones, it can be problematic when you come to the end of the list.

A Series Doesn't Have To Be Novels
A series need not be of novels. My own Operation Tomcat series are novellas, and you can also write short stories in a series, which can prepare the way for a themed collection down the track. This can happen if you've a character of whom you're particularly fond, like my own Sophie Green, whom I've used again and again.

The Nature of the Decision
Personally, I don't believe this is a career-level decision that needs to be made. Some books lend themselves to founding a series, and others don't. Operation Tomcat founded what I hope will be a long-running series (after a writer colleague persuaded me into it), but my historical novel, King's Ransom, could not, even if I wanted it to; it just is not suitable for the purpose, being based wholly around certain defined historical events. It's a decision that needs to be made at the story level, whether that story is a huge saga that will encompass fourteen long novels, or a single book with potential for sequelae.

My own Operation Tomcat series, which I was bullied into writing.
1. Operation Tomcat
2. Operation Camilla
3. Operation Badger

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