So many authors will tell you the story of their first book. Their agent loved it, and they found an editor at a publishing company. Hooray! The new editor’s first question: “Is there a book two?” And the new author says what any Career Author would say: “Yes, of course!” Even if that is completely, well, not true.
I never thought of my book as a series, they say to themselves. I was only trying to write a book. Trust me, though a one-off book can often be made into a series (and sometimes beautifully!) writing a standalone and writing a series are two different things.
Are you writing a series or a standalone?
There’s one critical and essential difference
In a series, the tension and conflict and suspense come from two places: the individual personal journey of the main character, and the problem the main character needs to solve—whether it be a family crisis, a murder investigation, an invasion from another planet, or a medical disaster.
In a series, the series main character is the focus. It is another Kinsey Millhone adventure, or another Nancy Drew adventure, or another Jack Reacher adventure. Your novel’s core will be whatever high-stakes situation your main character encounters.
The series challenge
The challenge for the author is that the minute the reader sees this is Book One, they know there will be a Book Two. And Three. And Four. (If all goes as planned.) And that means, and irrefutably, the main character is not going to die at the end. Jack will return, Kinsey will return, Nancy will return, and Elvis Pike, and Harry Bosch, and Sookie Stackhouse. They will not die. It’s a series!
So that means there is one big decision that is taken away from the author.
You cannot kill the main character.
Since the reader knows that, your author challenge is to keep up the suspense and conflict and tension without this life-ending possibility.
The series necessities
What you need for a good series: a main character who the reader loves and roots for. That character must have an occupation or situation where a continuing series of things can logically occur for them to deal with or investigate. That’s why there are so many detectives and journalists and police officers and doctors—not to mention those nosy crafty cozy amateur sleuths. There are reasonable opportunities for those particular people to come across an interesting (and book-worthy) dilemma without having it be contrived.
A series is exactly that
A series is exactly what it says: a series of compelling interesting things that happened in the character’s life. It has a setting-world and an often-returning cast of characters that readers enjoy, and are eager to revisit. In each book, the central problem needs to be solved, wrapped up and complete—but the personal journey of the character may be left to resolve as the series continues.
The easy part
The good news: after book one, you have shortcuts. You’ve made a lot of critical decisions, laid the groundwork of the world, and the main character’s companions. Even a loner, like Jack Reacher, who visits a new place every book, has a framework of backstory and background and behavior that comfortably stays the same throughout. That’s why the readers come back.
Be careful with your architecture and landscape and descriptions. Readers will remember that your main character has green eyes and a Dalmatian. If she’s a blue-eyed Cockapoo owner in book two, you’d better have a good explanation for that. Keep track—and avoid series chaos.
Some authors keep careful “bibles” of all their specifics.
Once the author decides the groundwork for their series, that’s to be built on and expanded and embellished as the books progress. Even if the main character leaves Chicago for Mars or d’Rondo 4, that main character and their background are set.
The standalone necessities
In a standalone, the central plot must be the absolute singular most important thing that ever happened to the character in their entire life. The slam-bang and one-time-only life-changing moment. Something that can never happen again.
A standalone must finish every element of the story; the plot and the personal journeys must be complete at the end, leaving the reader with the feeling of satisfaction that they’ve heard a terrific story, with a beginning middle and an end. And the end of the book gives them all they need to know.
The world the author creates must be vibrantly real, but, as in Mark Helprin’s Winters Tale, or Flynn’s Gone Girl, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, at the end of the book, that story and that character’s moment in time is over. For the reader at least.
The standalone freedom
In a standalone, anything can happen. And the reader knows it. The conclusion of a standalone could have the main character be dead (somehow) or guilty. Everything could twist and turn, main characters could turn out to be bad and bad guys good. Anyone could be lying. Here you can use unreliable narrators, deeply flawed main characters as in my new Trust Me, people with one astonishing quality—like Steve Hamilton’s mute crook in The Lock Artist, or the time-shifting husband in The Time Traveler’s Wife. The reader could be let down any path, à la Roger Ackroyd. (More I cannot say.)
But do you want to read another time-shifting husband adventure? Nope. One and done.
Beware of the evolution
A cautionary moment: if you are handing in your first novel, and you are asked “Is it a series?” and you give the Career Author answer of “Yes, of course it is!”—Stop. Wait. Go back to your book and make sure you have not left any time bombs or spoilers within it. You want to make sure that each series title is a potential standalone, so that you can tell readers you don’t have to read my books in order!
And choose wisely. Every element you select, from the number of siblings to personality flaws to character names, is set for the duration. Each choice is a long-term choice, even though you are writing only one book at a time.
So Career Authors, are you writing a series or a standalone? What differences have you discovered? What questions do you have? Let’s chat on the CareerAuthors Facebook page!