Stand Alone or Series

This is a comparative post about two different story lines and how they would best be served, the feedback I received on writing my last novel and the feedback I have received on writing my current novel (s). Therein lays the dilemma.

I will try not to ramble. These are thoughts floating around in my head, so they may come out a bit disorganized. My head is like that.

If you have read “Red Clay and Roses” this will make much more sense to you, but you should be able to follow the idea even if you have not. “Red Clay and Roses” really turned out to be a family saga. It was; however forced into one book which covered a long time period. Being a fictionalized true story presented challenges. I did not want to deviate tremendously from what actually occurred.

Not setting out to write a novel, I wrote the book the way the events actually happened:

The Introduction: In 2012, Hannah recalling finding the ledger in 1992.

Part One: The interviews of interesting people involved in what occurred in the 1950s and 60s that took place in 1992-93 when Hannah found the ledger.

Part Two: Followed that with the story learned from Sybil, a cousin of Hannah’s who was deeply enmeshed with ledger and those people involved in the 1950s and 60s. This story that was gleaned from her diaries was put together in novel form rather than as diary entries.

Then, the conclusion, again in 2012, was derived from Hannah’s personal experience in bringing her lost family members together after so many years.

The problem here is that Hannah is a main character, but is not even born until 1960. She should have never been a main character. In fact, she might not have been involved at all until 2012 when she pulls the strands of the family together in a most hopeful outcome.

I struggled with determining main characters from the get go. Whose perspective did I want this book written in? I wrote it in Hannah’s because that was the perspective that I could most personally relate to. Part One ended up being written in first person and Part Two was written in third person. We go back to first person in the conclusion.

While the family saga played out nicely as a story line, the writing styles were fucked up. They muttled the story line making things somewhat confusing to follow. There was an enormous amount of ground to cover as cohesively as possible from 1953 to 2012. The back story derived from the interviews, which I read two opposing viewpoints on just today, could have easily been used for character development. The story could have started in 1953, culminated in 1971, with the finale in 2012. Instead, I have these two characters, Moses Grier and Ms. Bea, the good doctor’s wife, ancillary characters actually, relating events that occurred in their lives in the 1930s and 1940s. How fucked up is that?

So, the severe critique that I received recently has me thinking about the main character’s importance. I used the good doctor as an ancillary character, when he could have very well been the main character. I don’t know if I would have done a trilogy as the critique suggested, but approaching the story from that angle could have certainly simplified much of the story. There would have been a lot less unnecessary information, and the other characters would have been strengthened in their roles as they related to him.

Okay, this is all hindsight. I won’t be re-writing this story. I have no plans to turn it into a trilogy. But the critique has me thing about my current work.

“Red Clay and Roses” is a very good book, if you have the intelligence to process the purpose of Ms. Bea’s psychosis into how it relates to the storyline, and Moses’ grief and how it relates to the story line. Covering such a long time span from 1953-1971 in the bulk of the story was an enormous amount of information in a 445 page book. The pace was good and there was a lot of action (certainly not the kind that has flying unicorns with stars shooting out of their rainbow colored wing tips). It is a deeply reflective story, powerful and thought provoking.

I can’t expect all readers to have that sort of mind. Especially with all of the simplistic formulaic “book mill” material people are producing and reading these days, both traditional and independent.  True literature is fast becoming a dead horse. People don’t want to think deeply, they want TV action.

I am; however, looking at my current work in progress and trying to assure I don’t make similar mistakes with the character development. I am also trying to decide if I need to do this as one book or; perhaps, a trilogy.

I feel a need to say something here: I don’t write, nor do I plan to write mainstream genre fiction!

SEROIUSLY, IF YOU BELIEVE THAT EVERY WRITER ASPIRES TO BE TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED YOU ARE WRONG!

While there are many traditionally published books that I love, there are also many independently published books that I love. There are traditionally published books that I have laid down and could not finish and there are independently published books that I have set aside.  I don’t feel that traditional is synonymous with quality. I also don’t feel that traditional publishing is synonymous with success. I have known many amazing and talented musicians who never cut a recording deal. Does that make them any less talented or amazing?

There is a lot wrong with traditional publishing in my opinion. It has become far too formulaic and genre specific for marketing purposes. It has become a commercial industry losing its value in the area of creativity. Industry standards govern production to a point where authors are telling authors what is right or wrong about their product based on genre specific sales data, rather than literary merit. I don’t mean helpful writing advice or suggestions, but how to make it fit into a marketable box.  The tired, but tried and true, heroes and heroines with their happy endings in romance, and the criminals/villains with no color captured by the enterprisingly clever crime fighters bore me to tears. But they sell tons.

Are you trying to write an overnight marketable product or are you trying to develop great literature? Truly great literature, like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Anne Rice and John Grisham, Tolkien and Rowling started as something much smaller than a best seller. There are many pieces of great literature that are only one book. Here are ten popular books by authors who never wrote more than one book:

1 Dead Medium 
by Peter John
2 Shadow Hills
by Anastasia Hopcus

3 To Kill a Mockingbird 
by Harper Lee

4 Wuthering Heights 
by Emily Brontë
5 The Picture of Dorian Gray 
by Oscar Wilde

6 Gone with the Wind 
by Margaret Mitchell
7 The Catcher in the Rye 
by J.D. Salinger

8 The Bell Jar 
by Sylvia Plath

9 Black Beauty 
by Anna Sewell
10 Doctor Zhivago 
by Boris Pasternak

Maybe I am in this thing for the wrong reasons. I don’t have a writing career objective.

I write with passion for the pure pleasure of writing.

I read volumes of historical fiction. I like learning about different time periods while I read. The stories are varied and colorful and often have unpredictable outcomes. My husband reads volumes of crime novels. He can always predict the outcome, but he has gotten bored with the traditionally published novels. He reads two or three a week and it is the same story told ten thousand ways. Good guys catch bad guys. If it weren’t for some regional authors, he would have given up on them long ago. He is starting to branch out into some interesting independent work that has him fascinated. Misha Burnett’s series is an example. I am proud of them both. Misha for writing such a captivating set of books, and my husband for giving them a try.

Now that I have rambled off topic for a few paragraphs, let me get back to my point. The trilogy idea.

This new work in progress is also a family saga of sorts. It also takes place in the 1950s and goes into the 1990s, so I am seriously thinking of breaking it into a three book series, not necessarily for marketing purposes, but because of the time span involved. I don’t want to rush or gloss over important relationships.

Not being altogether a true story, there is no inherent need to lay it out as it happened. Book One will cover Claudette and Carol coming of age struggling through a sordid past and dealing with the humiliations of mental illness.

Book Two will cover Carol’s suicide, Claudette’s dealing with the suicide and her healing process that involves helping others heal through music.

Book Three will cover Claudette’s own daughter’s suicide and how she processes through that while guiding her niece through the loss of her cousin who seemed like a sister to her as they grew up together and both became professional nurses; the latter book giving me opportunity to write my own autobiography contribution of sorts that I have been working on as a side project, and including my story in theirs.

This might actually lead to a Book Four.

I don’t intend to do this for marketing purposes, but to write three or four compelling novels that stand as a series. I would not release one, until I had all three or four ready for release. We are talking years down the road, but what do I have but time? I am not paying any bills here.

If you have managed to follow this long ramble on my disordered thought process, what do you think, stand alone or series?

Another question, and one I struggle with in all of my writing, what person to write in?

In a series, do I need to stay with third person if I start with third person?

38 thoughts on “Stand Alone or Series

  1. You could be experimental if you think it will work for the story. Books tend to pick a perspective and stick with it. Third runs through a book or first person, but there are certainly ways to mix them. A first person intro or diary part for every chapter while the rest is in third person is a possibility. The key thing is making it a smooth transition.

  2. I’m not the best one to chime in here, but I’ll speak up. Remember, it’s free, and probably has that much value.

    I would try and trim it down into one book. I always manage to write too much, and there are always places to trim. Losing 2/3 is a huge task and might not be possible. ( make sure you save a copy of the entire thing.)

    I would stick with one POV style throughout, probably 3rd. Everything can be done, but it’s pretty hard to do some things well.

    • I could see rewriting “Red Clay and Roses” as one book. Even though the EXPERTS tell me it should have been three.

      I am unsure about this new WIP. It seems a lot of territory to cover from 1957 until present times in one book. I could stop it at Claudette’s recovery…healing through helping other’s heal…but will that give me generational/genetic/medical aspects of mental illness that I am trying to convey?

      I am thinking third person for two books and first person for two books, but changing styles in the middle of a series might be detrimental.

      • You haven’t been visited by my raven of doubt have you? 🙂

        Pillars of the Earth was one huge book. With e-books, I think you can get away with a larger tome. Follett’s next project was a huge one that covered the first half of the 20th Century. He went for multiple volumes here.

        If I were in your position, I would also think about what makes me happy. We all want readers, but we want to present the story as we desire.

        In the end, you have to make the big decisions.

  3. As someone who’s only written stand-alones and doesn’t tend to read trilogies, I don’t have a good answer for you. I suppose it comes down to whether or not you have enough material to do each book in the series justice without disappointing readers. It seems I’ve stumbled upon a lot of reviews lately where readers have loved the first in a trilogy but didn’t like the second, feeling like it was mostly ‘fluff’ to get them to number three in the set. But I imagine if you have enough ‘meat’ for all three and if combining them into one book would force elimination of crucial story lines in order to keep the book from being too long, than a series would be your best bet.

    • My husband and I are of the same opinion about series. Neither of us cares for them all that much. I like to sit down with one long and involved book and take it through the from beginning to end. I want immediate closure. Series are trendy, primarily for sales purposes. Since i have two that I want to write in third person, and two that I want to write in first person, I could easily write this as a book and a sequel. Not a trilogy or series, but two books that could be read as stand alones.

  4. I don’t tend to read trilogies either (not even Harry Potter). Sounds like you have lots of material but someone mentioned editing means trimming the less value information. I suppose you’ll need to lay everything out and decide if you have an overabundance of story. 😀

  5. On Red Clay and Roses – Either we are both stupid and only read the book as you you wrote it, both failing to see the error’s in writing – 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person – or even ancillary characters, or we both are intelligent enough to understand the concept of the book as it was read or written in your case. I vote for intelligence! 😉 I know it must be hard to have others pick apart your work then give you problems to think about that you never thought of before. On your new endeavor – Do what feels right to you. You have to be happy. Right now I am writing the sequel to ‘Crossing The Line’ and am having a hard time keeping myself motivated. I’m ready to move on- get it done. I had thought in the beginning there would be a third because I do get involved in series, but probably not. The story is there. I just have lots of other stuff I want to move on to. So as a writer I would say shorten it and as a reader I would say the longer the better. haha That doesn’t even make sence does it?Keep up the good work!

    • One or two good books is what you are saying…not a lengthy series, but one or two someone could really sink their teeth into. And yes, twenty-five people who read the book and got it are quite intelligent!!! AND, They were not trying to sell me any services.

  6. I think you should do what you want. I have a trilogy in the works, but I also have a stand alone. I don’t believe you need to respond to the critics. If you want to rewrite in one book do it.

    • I like people who tell me to do what I want 🙂 I am rebellious enough to do what I want! I don’t plan to rewrite my existing novel, but I do think my WIP will be better executed as two books. A novel and a sequel. Thanks for the thoughts shared

  7. Regarding Red Clay & Roses — while I think you have identified some of the problems with the way in which you told the story, I don’t see how turning the book into a trilogy would have made sense. It was a story that could be told in one book and, at the end of the day, that’s what determines whether it should be one book or more. I’m not sure I know of any books that are like yours that are written in series form. In my experience, series books are almost always science fiction or fantasy. Writing a family epic just doesn’t seem to make sense as a series of books. There are so many examples of such books being done in one volume. Everything James Michener wrote spanned decades and he managed to write each story in one volume — yes, they were big books, but still…
    The other thing I responded to … while Charles has a point about you can write your books however you want, as far as I’m concerned, if you start in third person, the entire series should be told in third person. If you start in first person, you should stay in first person. Now, maybe each book would be told in first person from a different character’s perspective, but I think you have to stick with first or third — whatever you started with. I blogged about the Divergent series — the first two books were told in first person from one character’s perspective. The third book was written in first person, but from the perspective of two different characters. After establishing the story in one person’s voice, it was extremely difficult to work through the alternating voices in the third book. As a writing friend told me — one of the things you owe your reader is to not make it difficult for him or her. Switching voices can do that.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful consideration. I don’t know of any series that covered generations either, but I have seen sequels, even with different authors like Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with The Wind” and Alexandra Ripley’s “Scarlett”. It is very possible to achieve what I hope to achieve with one book. I am not a big fan of series. I thought about a sequel, one book for one generation, and a second for the next. But I don’t think changing persons for that would be a good idea. I don’t mind a POV change, chapter by chapter, or even within the same chapter if it is clearly marked that is what is going on. I can see where getting familiar with a POV would seem strange in a series that suddenly jumped between two other characters POVs. This WIP has been started in third person, but the POV changes between the two sisters. I am thinking a sequel where the POV changes between the two cousins might work better than one book in third person with four POVs. There are things in the lives of Claudette and Carol that their daughters are not privy to and vice versa. The sequel would have the same theme, one daughter commits suicide and the cousin copes with the loss of her mother and her cousin through helping others heal.

  8. You know what I think of the so called experts who told you to make your novel into three so I won’t repeat any of that here. I don’t see what was wrong with how you told the story from the perspective of main or ancillary characters either…I didn’t think of them in those terms…they were people who all had a part to play in a very grand story…life has no overall central characters, no matter what some egotists might think, LOL, so why should fine literature? Yes you need to think and engage your brain to fully appreciate your novel but that is a GOOD thing…don’t simplify a great work or feel bad because some people aren’t thinking enough to understand it.

    As to a series,they sound great and I think it gives readers something to look forward to, the next stage of a story. To me that is like the very best television series these days where the arc of characters and themes develop per season and that builds the story and understanding considerably as each is produced.

    I think you can mix up first, third person etc in novels, as Charles says by use of things like diary entries, or change your choice and approach between books. I had no problem with these switches in Red clay, they made sense for the part of the story you were telling. I think use the style that fits the theme or mood of the story or section. Convention be damned! Fine literature breaks conventions and makes us think outside ourselves.

    Anyway, no matter what you do, I shall buy and read anything you publish and I have absolutely no doubt I shall thoroughly enjoy it all and be emotionally and intellectually enriched by the experience. 🙂

    • You are such a kind soul. I have always been rather unconventional in life and writing. My family owns a naturist resort. HA!

      Anyway. That was a professional editorial review and there are 25 people who GOT IT. Unfortunately, there was another 2 star last night from someone local who bought the book. Apparently she did not like the layout of the book either she says (and this is a quote exactly as she wrote it) “there book COULD be important: abortion, prejudice, sexism. lies lies lies. all the things that make us say, ‘the good ole days-they were AWFUL!’ bu t is is so helter skelter written and disorganized i found it painful to read. a professional editor would help.” Now I do believe her quote needs editing, but she made her case. Some people are just not going to GET IT!

      • No writing style is going to be to everyone’s taste and I think your reviewer is mixing up taste with real editing issues and actual structural flaws. There are many great books that change in similar ways to yours to illustrate other times or characters, so don’t take those comments to heart. As you know my first novel went through professional manuscript assessment and full professional editing before I published but I still had someone who didn’t like the style say it needed editing so again, taste is taste. I don’t think there is anyway to get a book to have reach without disappointing the taste of some readers, but as you say, most do get your book so far and love it so don’t worry about the occasional one who doesn’t get it or your style. :). Oh, and I don’t say things to be kind, I say the because I really believe in your work. 🙂

        • I am fortunate to have you as a fan. Here is another 2 star review posted last night. I am actually beginning to laugh a little and certainly not take it personal.

          2.0 out of 5 stars i wish i could say i liked it, February 11, 2014
          By Robyn Weinbaum (orlando, fl, USA) – See all my reviews
          (REAL NAME)
          This review is from: Red Clay and Roses (Kindle Edition)
          there book COULD be important: abortion, prejudice, sexism. lies lies lies. all the things that make us say, ‘the good ole days-they were AWFUL!’ bu t is is so helter skelter written and disorganized i found it painful to read. a professional editor would help.

          Note the lack of capital letters and punctuation. This sentence is not even organized. Ha!

          • Yes, you have to wonder about the reviewer when their review is so lacking in grammar and sensible articulation. One feels like saying ‘This could have been an important review if the reviewer could actually read, write and spell. Instead their wording only serves to illustrate they are guilty of far greater writing sins than they are trying to describe and must lead any discerning reader to question the validity of the review itself.’

  9. Read all Edgar Rice Burroughs “John Carter of Mars” series and most of Jack Whyte’s “Camulod Chronicles”(post Roman Britain). But one important knack these authors had was if you read #10 or #2 enjoying the story was not totally contingent on reading the prior ones or reading all of them or reading them in order. They retained the chronological series path and yet had a degree on non dependence upon each other.

    I’ve read a few James Michener but don’t pick up anymore because his stories cover 900 years of a family and have 300 main characters and jumps around, the reading becomes work keeping it all connected and who wants to make notes and family trees and such? Not me.

    • LOL…excellent points. This writing that I am doing now won’t involve that degree of depth (Thank Goodness). The females in this family (for three to four generations have a running history of bipolar disorder. Some learn to cope, others end up tragically devastated by it. I am hoping that I can pull this off with a note of positivism, admitting that the disorder can ruin lives, while at the same time demonstrating that it can be conquered.

  10. This is something I’ve been struggling with. I read all types of books (short stories, stand alone novels, trilogies, multiple book series, etc.,) across many genres, but I realize not everyone is like that. How do people feel about stand alone vs. series? Do I write a stand alone or a series? After some thought, It seemed to me that I’d be trying to cram way too much into one book and wouldn’t do the story justice. Plus, I don’t want to create a monster of a novel. Breaking it into a series seems like the logical route. So my response is: You know the story better than anyone (obviously), and no matter how good the story is, you’re not going to please everyone, so write it the way you envision it. Just make sure if you write a series each novel can stand by itself.

    • That’s a good sense approach. I know that I don’t like the feeling I get when a series book simply cuts off in a dangling cliff hanger without some sort of closure to the story in progress…as if the writer simply got tired of writing and said, “Wait, I ‘ll publish this now and get back to it later in another book.” I saw some really tough reviews on Amazon for the Thorn Birds, because it wasn’t made clear that there was a volume one and volume two. I could not imagine Gone With the Wind being a series, but there was certainly a lot of info and it could have been done. The genre makes a difference as well. I think someone mentioned sci-fi and fantasy doing very well as series but I don’t think it does well for historical fiction or literary fiction.

      You have to plan it as you envision it, because that’s what it truly is, your vision.

  11. Hi, there – in relation to the stand-alone/ series query – why not have both? An author friend of mine is currently writing a series of books which can be read as stand-alones or as a trilogy – basically the reader chooses. Each story is self-contained and told from the POV of a different person, you don’t necessarily have to have read one in order to enjoy the other.They don’t use ‘cliffhanger’ endings and do not follow on in terms of time and place, but each shares some characters and references events in the previous book(s). The idea is that over the series a reader will get a family saga stretching over three generations.

    Personally, I see no reason why you can’t switch from 1st to 3rd narration or vice versa over a more loosely structured series of stand-alones. However, if you decide to go for a more traditional linear structure for the books in the series, with each one picking up where the previous book left off, then I would consider keeping the POV narration the same for the entire series.

    In terms of whether you should be going for one book or two or three – I think you need to follow your passion in the first instance and write the story first as far and as much as you can. When you get to what you consider the end for the time being of your first draft, then look at how it is panning out. At that stage ask yourself does the story feel hugely constricted by the need to cut it down to x many words? Is there enough ‘meat’ for more than one book? What is your gut feeling on it? Hope this is of use.

    • Thank you so very much for the insights book nanny. I am leaning toward the book with a sequel or one stand alone. I don’t know if I can fully flesh and do the story justice in one book. Two across two generations might work best, both would be stand alones but with the same theme. “Healing through helping others heal.” The second would have the matured children of the first.

  12. I’m not going to presume to tell you whether to do a single book or a series. I think you should process the question until you’re absolutely sure what you want to do. I tend to walk a lot when I’m mulling over questions like that. Somehow physical movement helps. And I talk it over endlessly with my husband and journal a lot. And sometimes, I just have to write my way into a solution. Best of luck finding your answer!

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