Have you ever read a series that would have worked better as a single book? Or a standalone novel with untapped potential? When a story’s natural ending is ignored or overlooked, it can create an unsettling experience for readers. As indie authors, we don’t have agents to guide us on this matter, nor do we have publishing contracts that commit us to a particular direction. The decision is ours and ours alone. But how are we supposed to know if we’re making the right one?
Having written both a standalone novel and a series, this is something I’ve considered at length. From a business perspective, there are many advantages to writing a series. It can be easier to grow your fan base because loyal readers are more likely to buy additional titles, especially if you keep delivering the goods. Plus, many of the production and promotional activities that went into the first book can be leveraged for others that follow, so you’re not starting from square one.
While these benefits may sound appealing, not every story is destined to become a series. Forcing yours into the wrong container can have disastrous results. So, how do you know which path is the right one? Before you decide, consider these three questions:
1. What does your story want?
A non-writer might point out that a story is an inanimate object that has no wants or needs. But we writers know better. We know our stories and the characters that inhabit them have the power to communicate with us. We rely on it. So, find out what your story wants to be.
This topic started an interesting discussion over at the Writer Unboxed Facebook group, when fellow writer Bjørn Larssen shared that he’s “accidentally” writing a series. He explained that he set out to write one book but the plot kept revealing itself, forcing him to adapt his plans. In other words, his story told him, “Bjørn, buddy, we’re not done here.” And Bjørn respectfully obliged. Now he’s revising his timelines and reworking his manuscript to accommodate his story’s desire to become a series.
Conversely, Laura Seeber, another community member, told us that she decided not to turn her graphic novel into a series. Laura explained that she uses a “wait and see” approach to allow her work to reveal its needs, and this particular project made it clear that her story was complete after one book and that serializing it wouldn’t add any value.
Bjørn and Laura are great examples of writers who are listening to their stories’ needs. If your story isn’t quite as forthcoming, you can help clear the communication channel by setting aside judgment, bias, and any preconceived notions you may have. With an open mind, ask your story what it wants to be. And when it finally speaks to you, listen.
What is your story telling you? Are your characters yanking your arm, pulling you past “The End”? Or are they standing in the window waving goodbye?
2. What do your readers want?
Just as stories can tell you what they want, so can readers—and usually in less uncertain terms. When readers want a story to continue, they’ll often ask for it, whether in a book review, in person at an event, by fan mail. By smoke signal. One young reader sent me a video message to tell me how much he’s looking forward to the next book in my children’s series. In other words, if they’re truly invested in your story, they’ll find a way to let you know.
While we can’t base our decisions entirely upon readers’ needs, a temperature check can be a useful way to ensure you’re not wasting your time or missing an opportunity. Tackling a twenty-book series might be a futile effort if readers had trouble connecting with book one. On the flip side, if readers are clamoring to know what happens next, it might be worthwhile to consider expanding.
If you’re not sure what your readers want, ask them. There’s no shortage of ways to give readers a say in the matter—you can set up a Facebook poll, send an email survey, ask them in person—and most are happy to share their opinion. With that said, be sure to consider the source of your feedback to make sure you’re getting unbiased results. While encouragement from friends and family may fuel our persistence and buoy us through the dark times, it can also be misleading. Be sure the input you’re collecting is from an impartial audience who’s not afraid to give it to you straight.
Also, be aware that external factors, like genre, can influence readers’ expectations. For example, fantasy, sci-fi, and romance readers may be more accustomed to reading series. If your readers are expressing interest in a series, dig deeper to find out why. Are they truly invested in your characters or is a series simply their default preference?
What are your readers telling you? Did your novel whet their appetite for more? Or are they satisfied with what you delivered and ready to move on?
3. What do you want?
The final piece of this puzzle lies with you. Set aside what your story wants and what your readers want, and consider, for a moment, what you want. Writing a series will require you to invest valuable time and energy. Since our creative resources are finite, this investment will come at the cost of working on a different project. Which option makes you feel energized? Which makes you feel drained?
If you’re having trouble getting a clear read on your feelings, check your intentions to make sure they’re authentic. When you want something for the wrong reason, it can steer you off course. I have some experience in this department. When I was working on my second novel, I felt adrift. No matter how many story ideas I considered, I couldn’t find the energy and enthusiasm that had propelled me through Empty Arms. There were no goosebumps. No fire in my belly. No desire to wake up early and write before work. The magic was gone. That’s when I started considering writing a sequel. After all, a few readers had asked me about it, the characters were still fresh in my mind, and I had a compelling storyline as well as the perfect title.
There was just one problem: the story felt done.
When I examined my intentions and was honest about why I was considering a sequel, I realized it wasn’t what I truly wanted or what my story actually needed; it was a way out, a life raft that might save me from drowning in my fear, uncertainty, and inertia.
News flash: That’s not a place you want to write from.
If you’re considering turning your novel into a series because it feels like the path of least resistance or a place to recycle unused material, do yourself (and your story) a favor and reconsider.
What is your heart telling you? What roles might fear and pain be playing in your decision-making process?
Deciding whether to turn your story into a series can be a complex decision, and the answer isn’t always clear. But by taking the time to consider what your story wants, what your readers want, and, most importantly, what you want, I hope you’ll uncover new insights that can help you filter through the noise and steer your project in the right direction.
Are you writing a standalone novel or a series? What factors helped you decide which path to take?