Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

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Meghan
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Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Meghan » August 5th, 2010, 2:30 pm

I understand that in the book publishing industry, most people don't want to take a risk on a book series unless they know the first one will sell, but why does the first novel have to stand alone. A novel that stands alone has the same chance of success that a novel with "to be continued" ending has. If a reader likes the novel then they will want to continue reading the rest, even if it doesn't exactly end. People didn't put down The Lord of the Rings after reading The Fellowship of the Ring and say "I have no desire to read on."

So many people have told me that if your are planning to write a series, the first one should stand alone. But is this necessary? What if the story isn't over in the first one? Should you just combine all of the novels and produce the world's largest book known to man? Personally, I'd rather read the unfinished series novel.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by AMSchilling » August 5th, 2010, 3:37 pm

I look at it this way - if the book I write is the only one I get published, do I want to leave my readers hanging (and angry at me) by saying "To Be Continued?"

The Lord of the Rings trilogy works with the unresolved main quest over multiple books simply because all of the books exist. Imagine you read The Fellowship of the Ring, only to discover that no more in the series were ever published. The quest would be incomplete. Would evil or good win? Would the ringwraiths get Frodo? Was Gollum redemable or beyond hope? What about Gandalf? Legolas? You'd be frustrated, and feel let down, that all these characters were left hanging in the middle of things, stuck.

Now imagine you read The Hobbit. It's a prequel to LOTR, but it stands on its own. Without the other three books, it's still a great book that ties up the main plot points and leaves the reader satisfied.
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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by johndavid » August 5th, 2010, 5:10 pm

AM...

What you are talking about reminds me of 'The Dark Tower' by Stephen king. It took SO long to release the latest book that I didn't even buy it when it finally came out.

It was a book that was good on its own, but it left you wanting more.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by cheekychook » August 5th, 2010, 6:13 pm

The first novel needs to "stand alone" for a lot of reasons.

You have to create characters that the readers care about and those characters have to complete some sort of journey---it doesn't have to be the ONLY journey the characters are on, it can be PART of a journey---but if the reader doesn't feel like they've gotten SOMEWHERE while accompanying the character through the book, they are more likely to yell "WTF" and throw the book across the room than they are to wait with baited breathe for the next edition to come out so they can finally find out what happened.

Look at books that are successful series---Twilight, for example. That's a stand alone book. Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Girl finds out boy is vampire. Girl decides to date boy anyway. There's a resolution to their story---the primary characters decide to give a relationship a go in spite of the obstacles. The reader feels like they got to know the characters and the characters have evolved from the beginning of the book to the end---there's a degree of satisfaction that the journey wasn't all for naught. Does that mean ALL the questions were answered? Of course not---agreeing to date a vampire is just the tip of the iceberg. Readers want to find out what happens next, so they buy the sequel. And so on.

In the case of Twilight, the book ended with the major conflict resolved, but left the story open for (and ripe with) future conflicts. Had it ended mid-conflict resolution I doubt it would have had the same impact. Writers need to leave the readers wanting more---more of their characters, more of their struggles---that won't happen if you don't tie up some loose ends and give them SOME satisfaction along the way.

There are plenty of stand alone books that leave readers wanting more---characters that leave you so attached to them you'd follow them anywhere---stories that, even when they're resolved, you wish they'd go on---that's a great way to end any book---readers satisfied but still wanting more---and that's essential for a potential series.
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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Heather B » August 5th, 2010, 8:58 pm

To add to what cheekychook has said, it's also a case of trying to sell the damn thing. It's hard enough to get one book out there. The editors have to take a plunge with that, let alone trying to force three, four, five books on their already stretched budgets.

The publishing world is a business. They need to make money. There's not much else to it than that.
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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Mira » August 6th, 2010, 1:24 pm

Well, I have a minority opinion here, and I know it goes in direct opposition to the folks here and what Nathan and other agents have said (one of the rare cases where I disagree with Nathan.)

But I really, truly, whole-heartedly and firmly believe that you should write the book the way it is meant to be written.

Does Fellowship of the Rings stand alone? No. What a tremendous loss that would have been if it had been written as a stand alone book. The vast tapestry that spans three books is part of the majesty of it.

If your book is not stand alone because the story truly demands it, then write it the way it should be written. That's my belief. It may be a harder sell, but there are a couple of ways around that. First, if it's good enough, you will probably eventually sell it. Second, if you really can't sell it, you can publish to Kindle and when you get an audience, then solict for a publisher, if you want. Another solution is to write the series, and then write something else and get that published. If you have a following, a series would have a better chance of being sold at that point.

I just truly believe that you have to write the book that's meant to be written, and then worry about the selling part of things later. It's hard to predict the market and selling at any point, so I really don't think anyone should write to that. Be true to the story and your muse. But that's me. Whatever you decide - good luck!

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » August 6th, 2010, 2:11 pm

Well, you know, Tolkien already had a deal for the entire Lord of the Rings series. Actually, he had a deal for the story of LotR, and it was simply broken up for publishing reasons. But he had that opportunity because of The Hobbit's success. Which was a standalone. Just sayin'. :)
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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Mira » August 6th, 2010, 3:12 pm

Good point, Bryan.

So, the answer is to write just one really long book. That would work too. :)

But - what if Tolkein didn't have that deal? Should he not have written LOTR? Is that what you're saying, Mr. Ink? I say, write LOTR, then publish the Hobbit. That would work.

On the other hand, I will grant you the George R.R. Martin is just taking advantage.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by J. T. SHEA » August 6th, 2010, 3:20 pm

The first book in my three book steampunk series stands alone in the sense that it describes and completes a distinct phase of an expedition in search of a lost city, and ends with a bang, literally. The expedition reaches important milestones and battles enemies, human, alien, and natural. Likewise the second book. But the expedition does not reach and fight for the lost city itself until the end of the third and final book. Therefore I describe the whole as a series rather than a trilogy, though others may define those terms differently.

The structure is something like that of LOTR, or Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN series, the first book of which ends inconclusively, without any warning of the fact on the cover or elsewhere, except Westerfeld does append an interesting note answering some questions and looking forward to the next book.

I guess whoever wishes to publish my series will do so one book at a time. But I have written the entire series. If I wrote only the first book, I would feel I was borrowing from the future, as it were, to borrow from Nathan's recent comment about LOST and suspense. As it is, I am proving, at least to myself, that I can complete the overall story. But I do not criticize writers who do it differently.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by artzicarol » August 6th, 2010, 6:05 pm

I think the key is--if things have been tied up nicely that relate to book one. Not ALL the questions answered, but the ones that matter. Some progress, as cheekychook mentioned.

I have a series of five books (two written) that is more compartmentalized, since each is from the viewpoint of one of the 5 main characters. There are, however, threads of plot and characterization that continue on. So in some sense, some things ARE still hanging, but hopefully the things THAT COUNT have all been tidied up and resolved to the readers' satisfaction.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by maybegenius » August 8th, 2010, 1:28 pm

I wonder sometimes if the term "stand alone" is confused with "has to be a complete story without any ambiguous loose ends," which I don't think is necessarily true. If a series is planned, I think of it more in terms of episodes. Each "episode" leaves the reader feeling satisfied and like they got some resolution, but wanting the next installment in order to follow the characters on through the bigger story arc. Like each Harry Potter book - all follow Harry through one year of his schooling, and all have some smaller conflict that plays into the larger conflict, but are resolved by the end of each book. Harry defeats the bad guy, the bad guy defeats Harry, Harry learns to walk on his own two feet, etc.

I think of each book in a series the same way I think of chapters in a book - you have to end a chapter where it's right to end it. You can't just chop off mid-chapter. Cliff-hangers are okay, but if they're used every single chapter, they get old. That and, as was mentioned upthread, readers will be left frustrated if resolution is dependent on another installment, but the next installment was never published. That doesn't mean everything needs to be wrapped in a neat bow, just that there must be SOME resolution for the reader.
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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by wetair » August 8th, 2010, 3:43 pm

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is fairly recent and it is not stand alone. Well, I don't think it is. Though most books published these days are stand alone, I think.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Meghan » August 12th, 2010, 12:14 am

Mira,

I am definitely with you in the minority. Granted, I wrote this question and I may be a bit biased because my series doesn't have a stand alone, but I agree with your theory that a book must be written the way it is meant to be. I may sound nuts, but the book writes itself and sometimes we can't control the outcome. I'm glad to see that someone shares my opinion.

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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Heather B » August 13th, 2010, 9:08 am

All these points are a lot to think about but I agree with Mira on writing something how it is meant to be written. I'm planning a few series at the moment and that's how I've written the books.
Tolkien wrote LotR as one book. His publisher suggested splitting it to make it more accessible. Originally it was published as seven books then re-released as three. The fellowship, two towers and return of the king. But as Ink said, Tolkien already had the Hobbit out and selling well.
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Re: Series Novels: Why should the first one have to stand alone?

Post by Margo » August 13th, 2010, 10:49 am

Meghan wrote:but I agree with your theory that a book must be written the way it is meant to be.
Yeah, I see this quite a bit. Oddly enough, I write my own books (and thus decide what is meant to be), I control my characters (rather than taking dictation), and I don't expect the industry/readers to conform to my personal needs. Then again, I strive not to be metaphysical about my writing. I want to eventually make a full time career out of it, so I approach it on industry terms.
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