Series or Standalone: How do you decide?

Photo Credit: Adam Hagerman

I have to assume that most authors make this decision before beginning work on a new book. I would hope so. And there may even be times in which the publisher ultimately makes the decision for the author based on the success of previous works. But we’re just talking about the author’s perspective.

So you’ve decided to write a book? Great. Now you’ve come up with some story you want to write. Great. Then you begin writing. Yes, I know there are more steps to beginning work on a book, but the point of this post isn’t the book writing process. It’s about deciding whether or not your book should be the start of a new series or if it should be a standalone novel.

What needs to happen for you to make this decision? This decision was made LONG before I started writing. I’m talking December 2011! My first draft was finished in August 2013. I didn’t even begin writing until May 2013. But I always knew that I wanted to write a detective series. Let me tell you why. Because I LOVE series. The number of books in the series makes no difference at all. The Hunger Games is my favorite series ever. It’s a simple trilogy. Harry Bosch will appear in the 19th book of his series later this year. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective appeared in 40 books before Parker’s death in 2010. He’s since appeared in three more novels. Alex Cross has appeared in 21 books to date. See, the quality of a series doesn’t depend on the number of books written in said series. Would I love more THG books? Yes. Would I love for Parker to have written more Spenser novels before his death? Yes.

BUT there’s another side of the same coin. Some of my favorite authors have made their livings off of writing standalone novels. T. Jefferson Parker, who has written two of my nine favorite books, has written 11 standalone novels. Some fans of his would even argue that his writing is worse when he’s writing a series. His most recent Charlie Hood novels have not been well received by his readers, but some of his older work has helped him win two Edgar awards for Best Novel. Both books are as great as it gets in crime fiction.

Another of my favorite authors Marcus Sakey has gotten his writing career off the ground with standalone novels. Six of his eight books have been standalones. I hated his first series related book. I won’t even consider continuing the series.

So what helps you make the decision to write or not write a series of books around a single character? Do you think it’s inherently easier to write a long series? Or do you think you’ll be able to produce better stories if you have a new protagonist every time you write? Tell me your thoughts.

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48 thoughts on “Series or Standalone: How do you decide?

  1. This is an interesting post because I have not considered which I prefer. When I am truly crazy about the characters though, I naturally prefer a series. I am crushed when they end. I probably do not get as invested in stand-alone novel characters, merely for the lack of time spent with them.

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  2. I’ve created a very complex world. I’ll be writing a series of blog posts about my world-building, focusing on what I did. But because of this world, I find that I have a lot of stories I want to tell. It’ll be a series, most definitely. I have 7 books planned for it at the moment. Pretty ambitious, but I hope to be successful with it. Will I write a standalone book in the future? Possibly.

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  3. I planned mine as a standalone, but as I got further in, the story exploded and there was no way it was going to fit in one book. That’s how mine turned into a series. I love reading series because I get so attached the to characters; but in my writing, I have so many different stories and characters bouncing around in my head that I think most of my novels will be standalone.

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  4. When I began to get serious about getting published, one of the markers that came up over and over and over was something very similar to what happens all the time in Hollywood (stuff that I’m unfortunately very familiar with)…and that marker is this:

    “We don’t care what you have done….what do you have NEXT?” In the publishing world, one hit wonders are feared AND frowned upon. Publishers want “franchise” whether that be name or books due to the large investment in time, effort and money on the marketing side of the equation.

    As I was originally going the traditional publishing route and had several “stories” in mind for that “first” stab, after research, I decided upon “series” to nail that “what’s next?” question from the outset.

    Nearly 3/4’s of the way through After the Burning: Princess, after more ongoing research, I decided to go the self publishing route, but at this point, the series was/is STILL the way to go. Just look at success stories like Hugh Howey and Michael Bunker. Even if the book IS standalone, they serialize…and it seems to be working.

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    • Great point. Let’s face it, publishing is about making money. For the publisher. I can easily see an editor at a major house reading a great standalone novel from an unpublished author with some commercial appeal, and STILL hesitating to publish it. It’s unfortunate, BUT those backing the publishers would likely argue that they’re only able to take chances on unknown authors because of the money they make from their superstars. It’s a slippery slope.

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  5. I think if you are creating an original world, it helps to have a series so your readers can live in the playground you invented. I think every book in a series has to have a point though (support a main theme). Sometimes people drag out what could be a stand alone. I chose to make my book a series because I realized what my characters wanted to accomplish would not be achievable in one book. My sister called me out. She said she didn’t buy the happy ending I made. I’m starting the sequel this week.

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  6. My current manuscript started as a stand alone, but it’s going to be the beginning of a series. It’s going to be fairly episodic, something I can come back to between other works and have fun with.
    I also have a trilogy planned for sometime in the future. It’s the series of my heart, characters from the first story I ever wrote. I knew then that I didn’t have the skill to write the entire story, or to even build the world properly. But, I’m getting close. Thanks for your post, and for starting a thought provoking conversation.

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    • Well you’re very welcome. πŸ™‚

      I love hearing about other authors with however many stories already in their head. I have the one I’m working on and one more from before that I’m ready to write. That’s it!

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      • I have so many would be projects. A binder full, actually. I suspect most of them will never be started, as new ideas tend to take the spotlight. But, there are a few gems in that binder that have never fully left my mind. The trilogy is one, as well as a series idea scribbled on receipt paper from an Olive Garden. That’s one I’ll come back to once I’ve got a bit more practice under my belt.
        I’ve built a habit of creating story ideas, scribbling a short synopsis, and then throwing it in the binder. a sort of repertoire of fiction, something I can look through if I ever find myself stuck without an idea. It’s fun.

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      • Ooooooh. That’s wonderful. I binder full of story ideas. Is that thing nearby? Tell me one! Just a random one. πŸ™‚

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      • Haha, ok. Teenage boy gets sent to his grandmother’s house in coastal North Carolina one summer, while his parents negotiate their divorce. While gone, he meets and falls for a mermaid.

        How’s that?

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      • Was that really written somewhere? Or did you just make it up? Either way, that’s so cool! I want more story ideas. Let me steal some of yours, please.

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      • Haha, no that’s one I’ve been planning on writing for a while now. Just waiting for the right time and skill level. Might try it this summer, since it’s a beach story.

        I find story ideas in weird details. That one came from a woman I met on Wrightsville beach in NC. She collects seashells for her grandson, but only the shiny or shimmery ones. She calls them mermaid treasures, and when he comes over they go through them and pick favorites.

        I think writers have a tendency to be alone too much. Get out there. Talk to people, and not just about your writing, but about their lives. The ideas will follow, I promise.

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      • Wellllll you’re insightful. And creative.

        I actually never talk about my writing in person. No one asks. 😦 Maybe I’ll go to the park and people watch for ideas? Better than banging my head on my desk. Haha

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      • I work with the public, and have to create small talk frequently, so there’s no shortage of meaningless conversation in my life, haha. I’ve found that people won’t ask if they don’t know, bring it up once or twice, and they’ll start asking how it’s going.

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      • I would if I could. But I’m forbidden at my job. I can talk to the other workers about it but like forty of them have my first book and never read it. So yeah. EVERYONE who knows me knows I write. I have a tattoo that says as much. People are just eh.

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      • Ah. That’s true. The park is a good place. Especially busier ones with benches. Also, in your spare time go to places that people frequent, coffee shops, bars, book stores. You’ll find all kinds of people that will pique your interest. And the best part is that, for the most part, they’re totally normal, until you steal their identity, twist it to feed your story needs and make their lives something incredible. And they’ll never know.

        I think it’s cool.

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      • Haha that’s funny. Stealing their identity and twisting it to my story’s needs. Sounds a lot worse than it is.

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  7. I was expecting my first book to be standalone. I’d always enjoyed series, but I just knew this one was going to be on its own. But when I go to the end, despite having planned a general outline and plot, it became glaringly obvious this story wasn’t finished. I needed more from my characters and from this new world. I think sometimes you can’t choose which books will be a series. It just happens, the same way parts of plot and character sometimes reveal themselves out of left field, and the author is simply a spectator.

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    • I have to keep referring back to detective stories because they’re what I write. I think it’s easier for me to know. A PI novel is a single case. With some sub plots mixed in, but those don’t have to be resolved by the last page. The case typically does. Unless you’re James Patterson.

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      • Yeah, though I don’t write them, I can imagine certain detective stories would require the case to be shored up by the end. I think some genres though (like sci-fi), can be tweaked from standalone to series if need be. Though I agree, it’s definitely preferable to know from the beginning which it will be πŸ™‚

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      • Hmm. I don’t know a thing about writing sci-fi. So I’ll take your word for it. πŸ™‚

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  8. I have to say, my series evolved. It was meant to be a single book (I won’t say “stand-alone” because each book in the series stands alone, each with it’s own story and climax, although a reader will get more out of them by reading them in order).

    One minor character went off in a new direction and I went along to find out where he was leading me. He introduced the seers first, then the galactic war and before I knew it, I had elevated the villain to royalty. I gave him a brain and then exiled him, giving him reason for being where he was.

    The series sprung out of that.

    The books don’t revolve around a single character but a set of them, new books having new lead players, older familiar characters playing their part, too.

    I like writing a series. Once you have the background information sorted, you don’t have to come up with something new. The galactic war goes on, the civilizations are the same, but I can play on new planets or settlements (I write sci-fi, but you probably figured that out).

    The downside is there is much more to keep in balance. I also find I must watch what I write on the backs of the books so as not to give away something that happened in an earlier book. Although each is a stand-alone book, the background story continues on, so it doesn’t help (for instance) if you’re wondering if one character will survive if he features on the back of a book further along.

    I’m learning this as I go. I have two books written and published and I’m working on the third.

    I’m loving it. πŸ™‚

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    • Hmm. Interesting. I don’t think I’ll ever have a minor character turn into something greater. All of my books will be told in first person from the same guy. For now.

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      • It happens occasionally that a character will take off. What I cited above was the first time it happened and since the results were so spectacular, I now follow whenever it comes to be. All up, it’s only happened maybe half a dozen times, but I have never yet been disappointed. My stories have all been made much richer for it.

        Basically, it’s my subconscious throwing in ideas that work well, but unfortunately, I can’t make it happen.

        If your books are told in the first person, then yes, I can see how it must revolve around one character. That makes sense.

        Cheers! πŸ™‚

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      • Half a dozen times? I don’t think I’ve even thought up that many minor characters. Okay, that’s a lie. But it’s not a whole lot. I only have a book and a half written. They combine for a pretty short book.

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      • They’re not all minor characters – the first one was and one other “lesser” character, but the rest are main characters that wanted to tug me in a new direction.

        Oh, and perhaps I should point out that I’ve been writing for over 40 years now. That might explain the frequency. πŸ˜€

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      • 40 years? Oh geez. Then I’ll probably understand 39 years from now.

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  9. I don’t know how people write four or more books about the same characters. I have to say that after three books, I’m ready to move on to new characters and a new storyline, but to each his own I guess.

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  10. Mostly, I write short pieces with one or two main characters.
    Last year I began work on a story that took place in a world that was decimated by a catastrophic natural disaster. It was originally intended as a standalone novel but as I began to research certain elements for the book’s backstory a wonderfully complex world unfolded and I knew that one book would never be enough to tell the story
    I wrote an alternate history and carefully researched the effects this disaster would have on the Earth. my cast of main characters has grown from three to five and because the story takes place in the late 1960s I am able to include real historical figures (although they are much different than their real-world counterparts).
    What began as a standalone novel is now planned as a six volume series with the first five highlighting each of my main characters and the sixth bring the entire story together for a rip-roaring conclusion.
    At least that’s the plan…once I get into the actual writing (beginning this week) who knows what unexpected directions the story will take me.

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    • I can see that happening. Not to me, but to authors who play with the setting and backstory a bit more.

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      • Yes. This is a new experience for me. It’s my first series but to tell the truth, I’ve never felt so confident about a project as I do with this one.
        I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone but it all feels right so it’s “full steam ahead!”!!!

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  11. As I said in http://amosmcarpenter.com/2014/04/02/book-one-a-to-z-b/ (sorry, shameless plug there), I’m a sucker for series. I like to read them, and couldn’t really imagine tackling a standalone book in my writing. You invest a piece of yourself in a good story, and I’d prefer that to be a “longer term investment”. Plus, I love feeling like I’m really getting to know a character, seeing how they develop over time without feeling like I’m watching a movie in fast-forward mode.

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    • Great point. One of the earlier comments basically said the same thing from the reader’s perspective. That series are preferable because you get to spent more time with the characters.

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  12. Hmmmm … I mean, the upside of a famous novelist writing a standalone is that they have a fanbase who will buy their book. With self-publishing, I think it makes more sense to write a series, or a trilogy — because you’re eternally trying to reach new readers, and the best way to keep new readers (in my understanding) is to give them more of what they love — i.e., a series.

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