DEBORAH RANEY's first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after 20 happy years as a stay-at-home mom. Her books have won numerous awards including the RITA, National Readers Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, the Carol Award, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Deb's 23rd novel will release from Howard/Simon & Schuster Spring 2013. She and her husband, Ken Raney, enjoy the wildflowers and native grasses in the Kansas prairie garden in their large backyard. They also love traveling together to teach at conferences, and to visit four children and four small grandchildren who all live much too far away. Visit Deb on the Web at www.deborahraney.com.
I just finished writing a new stand-alone novel after writing two different series (six books in all) over the past seven years. I’d forgotten how different it is to have the whole of the story contained in four hundred short pages. Having written mostly stand-alones before this, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the pros and cons for both.
• The first novel of any series requires a lot of work researching, creating a setting, introducing main characters, deciding on a theme and mood for the series, coming up with book titles that tie to each other, as well as a series title. But once the storyworld is built, it’s mostly finished for the subsequent books in the series as well.
• Hopefully a series will not only keep your established readers engaged for the space of three or more book releases, but will also build up a new following for your backlist as well.
• A series means a multi-book contract is a given.
• Once all the books of a series are released, some publishers will combine them into an omnibus (all the books bound into one volume) or create a boxed set package––a new income stream toward earning out the advance.
• Because readers are investing more actual hours reading a series, the chance of characters becoming memorable “friends” is increased, which hopefully translates to great word-of-mouth marketing.
• Too often, bookstores who carry Book 3 of a series may not have Books 1 and 2. This can frustrate readers, and thwart sales. In this case, be sure to let your readers know where they can order all the books in the series.
• Some writers become bored working with the same setting and characters for what can be years on end, especially when each book must begin with a brief recap of the previous book(s).
• It can be difficult to carry the excitement and novelty of the first book’s premise through two or more stories. (How many murders can realistically happen in a tiny town?)
• If you don’t plan carefully, you might lock yourself into certain plot or character details with the first novel that don’t work well for subsequent books.
• If the first book of a series doesn’t sell well, the series may be doomed to poor sales––or worse, to cancellation of the contract, which could leave faithful readers frustrated with no conclusion to the story and character arcs.
• Some readers will not purchase series titles until all the books in the series have been released. This can create deceptively low sales numbers for a new series.
• Usually a stand-alone requires fewer characters; and plotting, research, etc. is for only 400 pages, not 1200 or more.
• For the restless writer, a stand-alone means moving on to a fresh new topic more often.
• If a stand-alone novel isn’t a huge success, the writer can quickly switch gears with the next project.
• Readers (and editors) may be more likely to take a risk on a stand-alone novel by a new-to-them author, since it doesn’t require as large an investment of time and money as a series.
• Without having to recap the plot of previous books or set up the plot of future books, the writer is freed to concentrate all his efforts on the plot, setting, and characters of one story.
• If your stand-alone is a great success, you essentially start from scratch trying to identify and duplicate in your next novels the elusive element that made the previous book so successful.
• You risk losing readers if your next stand-alone is significantly different than the book readers enjoyed. Plus, there are some readers who prefer to only read series.
• If you are pitching stand-alone novels, the chance for a multi-book contract may be diminished.
• If you’ve been accustomed to writing series, it can seem a waste of research to use a setting and characters for only one novel.
My most recent series, the Hanover Falls Novels, were originally written to stand alone, but the three stories ended up being much more interwoven than I foresaw––a pitfall of being a seat-of-the-pants writer. Consequently, reading those novels out of order gives away too many secrets that might spoil the surprises in previous books for readers.
With my Clayburn Novels series, the three books shared a small-town setting. The buildings on Main Street of Clayburn served as businesses and homes for a cast of characters who appeared in each book. But each novel focused on the stand-alone story of one couple. You could read the books in any order (or only read one book in the series) and not feel you’d missed anything crucial to the series as a whole. Yet readers were delighted when characters from the other books in the series showed up as secondary characters or in cameos.
In this type of “stand-alone series” where the books can be read in any order without spoilers for the previous books, publishers are probably wise when they don’t number the books (as frustrating as that can be for readers!), yet the books should have covers, titles, and a series title, which clearly indicate that they are part of a group meant to be read together.
Having written these two series back to back, I believe the perfect compromise between writing stand-alone novels and writing a series, is to write books tied loosely by setting, theme, or some other element that allows each book to truly stand on its own, while still being part of a whole. As a reader, and as a writer, I think that’s the best of all worlds!