Friday, July 25, 2008

To Series or Not to Series

I’m often asked by writers how to deal with the “series issue” in your query letter. If you know that your book is the first in a series, should you tell the agent up front or just tell her about the book in question and bring up the idea that it’s a series later. With some genres, like cozy mysteries, for example, the answer is obvious. Address up front that this is a series since that’s the way those particular books are published. With other genres, when a series is not necessarily a requirement, I would leave it up to you. I think it never hurts to tell the agent your thoughts. If the agent likes the book well enough but doesn’t agree with you that it’s a series, she can always tell you as much.

But all of this series talk got me thinking about other things. I represent a great number of series. Some are short, only a few books, like Elizabeth Amber’s Satyr series, while others, like Maggie Sefton’s Knitting Mysteries or Kate Douglas’s Wolf Tales series, are planned to seemingly go on forever (we could only hope). In genre fiction there seems to be a greater stress on series from some publishers. There’s at least a publisher or two who want a series that will go on forever, while others prefer an author who can write a two- or three-book series and then move on to something else. But what do we prefer as readers? I have to confess, other than the books I read as a child, I am not much of a series reader. Sure I’ve read a couple of Robert B. Parker’s Spencer books (more than a couple, actually) and I was a big fan of Patricia Cornwell for a while, and I will confess I did read all of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Prince series (only three books), but typically I’m not the type of reader who latches on to a series and waits impatiently for the next to come out. By then I’ve usually moved on to something else I’m enjoying. For me there are so many books, so many authors, and so little time that I tend to jump around.

As an agent I’m also on the fence about series. I think they work very well in some genres and see nothing wrong with the endless series if it’s working. My one hesitation about series writing is that it might limit your readership. Readers who don’t love knitting might not gravitate toward the endless knitting mysteries even if they would enjoy the books, which is why, except for cozy mysteries and other genres that lend themselves to the endless series, I tend to like the idea of a short three or so book series. A shorter series gives authors the ability to tap into a number of different audiences. If you don’t love werewolves you might avoid an author’s werewolf series, but if her next three books focus on vampires you might jump all over that, and even eventually give the werewolves a try.

What about you? As authors, readers, or publishing professionals, where do you fall on the series debate?

Jessica

48 comments:

Keri Ford said...

I love reading series. Most of the time, there's a great secondary cast that's been developed, and I want to know more about them after the main characters have reached their HEA.

I also enjoy writing them. I have a hard time not thinking big when I sit down to write. I'm constantly thinking, oh, this guy's interesting. I bet there would be some sparks if I set him up with this girl. Then, I have to stop where I'm at, jot down some quick notes and continue on.

Right now, I've got a story I'd like to tell the romance over 3 books. Not something I advertise in my query letter, well, because it doesn't really belong there. But when I submit something requested, I then make a note in that email how the story ends ready for #2, but I can rewrite a few scenes to stop it with book 1. (even though to me, the romance would feel a little forced, but I don't know what I can 'get away' with as unpublished author. As in, would a publisher want to invest in 3 books from a newbie vs. 1)

Bernita said...

I love them.

superwench83 said...

As an avid fantasy reader, I've read my share of series. I prefer series which have an ending in sight. I like staying with characters I love for more than one book, but eventually, I want the story to end, even if it's been a fantastic ride.

In fantasy, series are the norm, but I've noticed more than a few comments from fantasy readers lamenting the fact that there aren't more stand-alone novels in the genre. Something to think about.

Anonymous said...

I almost never read a series. I just prefer the stand alone book. I want to remember the characters as they were, not wonder who they're going to "become" in book three or four.

A non-series book seems to be a wholer, more complete reading experience to me.

The huge risk -- as an author -- IMO, is how can you chart the emotional growth of the character when you yourself have no idea when the "series" will end.

I've read a few (name redacted -- famous author) books by an author, plucked them out, unmindful of where they were in the series, and the character had the same relationship troubles, the same weary attitude, and the same outlook on life. The only difference was the "crime" was new.

Chro said...

As a fantasy reader most of what I read is series. I like series because it means I don't have to listen so much to the author's worldbuilding in later books, and can just drive right into the story. It's also easier to trust that you'll like the characters in a novel if you've already read previous books with those characters.

Finally, I just like long, epic sagas, and series allow me to read those. I'm the kind of person who hears that a movie is almost three hours long and says, "Great! More minutes for my buck!"

The only thing I can't stand is series that FORCE you to read the next book in order to get resolution. This is especially prevalent in trilogies, where the second book almost always leaves dozens of threads hanging and ends on a cliffhanger. Every book in a series should draw from previous book, but be a resolved story in and of itself.

As a writer, I also tend to write series, because I fall in love with the characters and want to present them with new challenges. That said, when I send out queries for the first novel in a series, I always say that it is a "standalone novel with series potential".

Mark Terry said...

If you had asked me five years ago, or maybe even 2 years ago, I would have said I loved series, they were my favorites.

But now, I'm not so sure. I'm a big fan of Robert B. Parker, but I have to confess, I don't think much of his last 6 or 7 (or 8 or 9) novels.

I was thinking about how Rick Riordan, when asked if his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series would go on forever said that it would not, that he felt that these series worked better with a limited number of books, say 5 or 7. I think one possibility of a limited series is you can have an overarching story arc and yet make each book a standalone.

I also think the biggest problem with a series from a writer's point of view is that the writer tends to outgrow the series over time. My sense is Parker probably should have quit after "Small Vices" and gone on to do other things, and Sue Grafton, although I adore her books, just haven't had the same kind of feel and energy they had up to about "O".

Or maybe in these cases, it's the reader who's outgrowing the series.

Anonymous said...

I like reading a series when all the books are published. I like reading spin-offs from series.

I *hate* starting a series and then either having to wait five years for the next episode or finding that sales aren't good enough so the series has been dropped.

I also dislike it when the quality drops. I love love love Spenser but, for me, the latest ones have just too much dialogue, I can't cope with so much dialogue in a book!

Just_Me said...

As a reader I like series, but not unending ones. I like to see a clear wrap up eventually, but I'm also willing to see that wrap up come in book 3,4,5 or 6 as long as the writing stays fresh and the author isn't recycling plot lines.

As a writer I have triologies in the works. I have a series of books that are all stand-alones but all happen in the same fictional universe and sometimes actions of one character affect another book. It isn't necassary to read them in any particular order and they don't all have the same tone, so it's up to the reader to like or not. I also have stand-alone fantasy and sci-fi books in the works. I'd love to see them all published, and some of them I don't think I could create a sequeal to, no matter how much I love the characters.

Really, most series are hard to avoid writing. Once you have well built characters you find that a minor character starts haunting you in your sleep and demanding attention. At least, that's my experience :o)

Kimber An said...

Oh, I love series! I love reading them and I love writing them. I get emotionally attached to characters and don't want to let go.

Anne-Marie said...

I love them for British mysteries: PD James' Dalgliesh, reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe, Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley, all of these have been great favourites. I like the parallel continuation of the detectives' lives and solving the msyeries. The only series that started to disappoint me and which I stopped reading was Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta novels- the series began so strongly and then it seemed that she was just churning them out without regard for the actual characters, and so I stopped and never went back.

Harry Potter is the only series out of that genre which I read from start to finish.

Susan said...

I love series, maybe a result of never finding enough fantasy paperbacks as a teenager.

The best part of finding a good series I think is being able to plunk down $10 or $20 *knowing* you'll enjoy the book, instead of taking a gamble.

As others have been pointing out, the best series do seem to be closed: at least then there's a sense of building toward something, where the climax for the final novel is also the climax for the entire series.

On the other hand, every open series I've read seems to peak at some point, then turn downhill...and you never quite know when that peak will happen.

I'm writing a novel as a stand-alone, but hoping for the chance to continue it. So, thanks for this post!

Rob said...

I think a good example of successful series writers are those that alternate between series and standalones. Michael Connelly is a great example of this. His Harry Bosch series is one of the best around. But then he comes out with an occasional standalone which freshens up the series a bit. Jeffery Deaver does this as well. Lawrence Block switches between three different series, though the latest installments in the Matt Scudder series have grown weaker. Might be time to end that one, much as I love it.

For me, I like a series that works like a huge novel. The main character grows and changes with each book while still struggling with a core issue that ties the series together. This does, however, suggest an inevitable end. If the author can recognize when the time to end the series comes, he or she has an opportunity to complete an epic story of great complexity.

The problem is, a number of authors fail to recognize that appropriate end (or are forced by readers, publishers and/or financial circumstances to ignore it) and continue writing something that should have ended long ago. (Kinda like the last 100 pages of Stephen King's THE STAND, only on an even larger scale.) :)

JES said...

Love reading series. I've got about a half-dozen (in various genres) which I follow, with the gaps between series books filled with one-off, more challenging stuff.

Which is the key, at least for me: series are like comfortable shoes, y'know? I don't do needlework myself, but I've seen others do it, and I think of series as the background canvas for my reading life, on which the "real" content gets overlaid. (Although when the complete piece gets filled in enough, it's hard to tell which is more important -- the so-called background or the so-called foreground.)

As a writer, I've had the same experience that Just_Me describes (or should that be "Just_I"? :), with the secondary character who keeps tugging at my sleeve saying, "Me next! ME! Pretty please?" even after what I'd thought of as THE story is complete.

dadoftwo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Writer Dad said...

I don't enjoy reading series now as much as I did when I was a kid; back then I loved them all. If I didn't have any of my own lying around unread, I'd sneak into my sister's room and pilfer her Babysitter's Club or Sweet Valley Twins. Now, I'd usually rather pick up a fresh story with fresh characters, though I still don't mind an echo, as long as it's entertaining.

Chessie said...

I love series in Romance where each book in the series is a new couple branched out from secondary characters in the earlier books. However, I agree with whoever said that all series have an end, it is whether or not the author recognizes when they've reached it.

The series I stop reading are the ones where the books are the same conflict over and over and over again. I want each couple to have a different problem than the one before. You run into trouble with some vampire series for example because the problem is always going to be that one of them is a vampire, no matter how you spin it.

With mysteries, I love them, but it always makes me laugh. If I were one of these sleuths, I'd be seriously concerned that the Grim Reaper had a thing for me as all the people I know in my small town drop off one by one. I think I'd start to get a little paranoid.

Moth said...

I'm with the person who likes series that are already all published. I've read several really long, involved series (Dragonriders (pre-son McCaffrey), Cadfael, Witch World) but all those books were all pretty much published by the time I got to them. I really like these series- getting to see the worlds and characters grow. But I know I probably wouldn't have read all the books they way I did if I hadn't been able to go right onto the next one right away.

I was caught up in the Harry Potter buzz and then the 7th book was a let down. I'm not sure after that I'll let myself get drawn into anything above 3 or 4 books again. At least, (she says, contemplating the Vorkosigan saga which she's already dipped her toes in...) not unless the vast majority of the books are already published. :D

spyscribbler said...

Series characters are definitely My Friends. I look forward to their release, and miss them when they're gone.

Writing series is a strange thing. People never want them to end, which is a little disconcerting, because suddenly you feel locked in. But then they're fun because you start to love your world in a deeper way.

In both writing and reading, there's an element of I want to go live in that world forever.

Yeah, I cried when Harry Potter ended, and not because of the ending. I cried because it ended.

150 said...

I only really enjoy series with definite endings. I don't think I've ever really gotten into an open-ended series.

Elissa M said...

I have no problem with series when each individual book has a reasonable conclusion. I absolutely HATE it when a book has no resolution at all. This is far too common in Fantasy, my favorite genre. It's getting so I find it hard to buy a novel when it says "Book # of the Series Name" on the cover. I'm starting to avoid authors who leave me hanging.

KL Grady said...

I love a series as long as the characters are still growing and the stakes are still rising. In the open-ended series, I usually get tired of the characters when the setup makes a convenient shift to accommodate more character growth or to bring in a new threat that substitutes for the rising stakes.

I'd much rather have a short series with a tight story and then move on to another series. Or a standalone, since I love those, too.

Anonymous said...

As a young reader, I always loved series: The Three Investigators, The Dark is Rising series, The Time Quartet by L'Engle, The Prydain cycle,and the list goes on.

As an adult reader, I still find myself pulled into series. Lately it's been a romance series by Moning. The neat thing about her new series is that she states it will be five books. Period. She has the story arc all planned out and that's reassuring to the reader. IMO.

As a writer, I've written a mystery with my young sleuth struggling along with high school and murder. When I finished, I started dreaming of what he might encounter while in police academy. So I guess I might be writing a series. Yeah, it shocked me, too.

WandaV

Anonymous said...

Depends. If I like the first book, the characters, etc. then I may seek out the next in the group until I lose interest or not. I can think of several I wish had never ended: Lord of the Rings, Burroughs' Martian books (lost interest in the Tarzan books as they became derivative, there was one lost city after another and that got boringly repetitive), come to mind. I enjoyed the original James Bond books by Fleming but haven't touched the one's written by others. Same for the Conan books coming after Howard.

Pepper Smith said...

I enjoy reading series books. I also enjoy writing them. The idea of writing the occasional non-series book has a great deal of appeal as well, because it gives the author a break mentally and allows him or her to come back to the series with a fresher perspective.

Christine Carey said...

As a reader, I'm just not that into series books. I'm drawn into one every now and then, but usually I'm only interested in book six or seven and don't really have the interest to go back to the first one.
As a writer, I'm even more hesitant. I understand they help build an audience, because readers are likely to go back to the first one if they're interested in a later book, and then they read all of those books rather than just one, but since I don't read them enough, I'm not really comfortable writing them. I'd rather tell one story with one set of characters, then move on to a new one.

Chris Redding said...

To me either a short series is nice or a series that is about brothers or sister so the same people aren't the main character in all the books.
cmr

Karen Duvall said...

I love series books and that's pretty much all I read with the exception of some upscale women's fiction thrown in for variety. 8^)

Series books need to stand alone. There are so many that claim to, then you pick up book two and are totally lost because you didn't read book one. I swear off those authors. Someone isn't doing their job. There's a distinction between a series and a trilogy, and reader expectations are different for each.

I think series are gaining in popularity because most television dramas are series shows and the build-up of anticipation is addictive for viewers. Some shows are cliff hangars (Heroes) while others simply perpetuate the relationships between characters and often have an over-arcing plot goal that lasts over a few episodes (Bones). I love those. And you never know from episode to episode if that over-arcing element is going to crop up, and it's okay because you're too caught up in the characters with their new stories. When books do this, they attract more series readers.

To keep a series fresh, writers need to continuously introduce new characters and subplots, and resolve over-arcing plot goals over the course of a few books at a time, then introduce new ones. Characters should change partners, get pets, move to different towns, maybe even change jobs just like real life. It's the stagnant story elements that make a series go stale.

Yes, I write series. 8^) How could you tell?

Kate Douglas said...

I write what looks like a never-ending series, but Wolf Tales began as an online serial with the same characters--and new ones added--in each subsequent chapter. Now, as I write the fifteenth story in the print edition of the series, I tend to look at it more as a soap opera with the main issue in each story finding its conclusion by the end of the book, but the ongoing issues stretching between books. I've grown very attached to my characters--I spend more time with them than I do with real people--but so have my readers. I know the series will come to an end at some point, but for now I'm having too much fun writing the stories to willfully give them up. When I look at my own bookshelves, I realize they're loaded with series: Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders, JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, Angela Knight's Mageverse, Christine Feehan's Carpathians, Lori Foster's numerous shorter series...I love the continuation, the way returning characters begin to feel like old friends. I love to go back and reread the older books when new ones come out, and I'll admit to a real nostalgic sense of loss when a favorite series ends. I'll probably need a good therapist when I have to writ the last Wolf Tales!

Fawn Neun said...

I normally don't want to read more than three books of a series. I find that by the fourth book, the writer's just phoning it in, anymore, and it loses a lot of it's charm for me.
The only exception to this in my opinion has been Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, because although they are all set in the same place, he has several sets of characters to work with, in various locales, and each book is a complete story. He's written over 30, and I'm still not bored.

Kate Douglas said...

Fawn, from a writers' viewpoint, I haven't "phoned in" a book yet. Sometimes, like now when I've missed my deadline and I'm having a problem with a plot twist I hadn't expected, I think it would be wonderful if I could, but each story is as important to me as the one before. And, for what it's worth, I don't worry about disappointing my readers nearly as much as I worry about disappointing myself--I like to think I've set my standards pretty high.

PS: to correct an error in my earlier post, that's "write," not "writ!"

Kalika said...

I don't like stand-alone books. It is incredible hard to make me like a single book. Most of the time I don't have the time to like any of the characters because the story is so short. I've never in my life recommended a stand-alone book to anyone.

But give me a series and I'll be able to start caring. Then I'll sit in line for the next books and tell all my friends about the shiny books.

Diana said...

Question: What if you're pitching the first book in what you're planning to have as a pair of companion novels? Should you mention the second one? It's not really a series, because it's only two books.


I tend to fall in love with characters, so it makes me happy to see them again in a new book. However, I tend to gravitate towards series where there is a reward for reading them from book one to book ten, but each book solidly stands on its own. Many romance novels do that well (Julie Garwood, Jude Deveraux, Suzanne Brockmann). As do mystery writers like Robert B. Parker (I've been reading his Jesse Stone books out of order, and they each stand alone extremely well.)

I do like several series mystery writers, too. Victoria Laurie and Casey Daniels are a couple of the more recent ones I've fallen for. Lucky for me, though, they already had several books out by the time I discovered them, so I was able to get my fix.

Anonymous said...

I cannot help thinking of Star Wars, which should have ended with the third movie, and James Bond, which should have ended when Sean Connery left.

numdlmom said...

I've read lots of series, but lately I only buy books in a series if they are all already published. I hate waiting 2-3 years for the next installment. There are so many great books out there that I never have a lack of reading material.

I'm in the querying process and I do mention that my novel is book 1 of a trilogy. I want the potential agent and publisher to know that I'm not a 1-hit wonder.

Jeff Savage said...

In fantasy the new trend seems to be five book series. You see fewer trilogies. I hate a series with no end in sight in the fantasy genre because it gives me the feeling that the author is just making it up as he goes.

AstonWest said...

I like writing a series which has endless options for spin-offs through other characters. The same holds true whether it's a short story or novel.

Gail Dayton said...

I hate a series with no end in sight in the fantasy genre because it gives me the feeling that the author is just making it up as he goes.

Jeff, that's probably because he/she IS making it up as he goes. I know of several who do that. My first trilogy, I mostly did. The one I'm doing now--which will have at least 3 books, maybe 4 or 5--I have a little better handle on how things will turn out. But I don't think I'll take it beyond 6 books at the outside. I don't think.

Oh, and I enjoy reading series. Some more than others. In romance. In fantasy. In mystery. Generally, if I like one book in the series, I'll like the others--tho some more than others...

Kate Douglas said...

Gail, that is so true. I never once pictured myself writing a series that went on for eighteen novel and novellas, yet I've not run out of ideas yet. I'm a real panster when I write, which means I DON'T plot ahead. I tune into my characters and find out what they're up to, and believe me, I'm often as surprised as my readers to see what comes next. That, of course, is what I think makes an ongoing series so much fun.

Edie said...

I like series, but not forever. There are exceptions, but in most series books there comes a time when the characters don't have growth or an arc. JK Rowling is a genius, and ended the Harry Potter book on a perfect note.

Julie Weathers said...

*Ponders admitting the truth in public.*

I like a well-crafted series. I don't like being hung out and having to wait three years for the answers to my questions.

That's one reason the fantasy I'm working on now has a satisfactory conclusion. No, all the threads haven't been tied up, but the mc reaches a reasonably happy point. I think a reader could pick it up and be happy if I never wrote another in the series. I also hope the readers will love the characters enough to want to see them again. Project X (I'm working on a new title) definitely has an end, though. I've seen the final scene and I know the title to the last book.

Others, we'll wait and see. I have some historicals simmering about a group of relatively famous old west women who are connected. The books would be stand alone stories, but a series of them.

Another one about a group of cowgirls is a stand alone.

The suspense novel was a stand alone, but I had so much fun with my two of my wild cowboys. I could easily see them veering off on their own adventure.

No, I'm really not that fragmented. I just like interesting stories and when I run across them I can't help following them to the source.

Julie Weathers said...

Lawsy, and I totally forgot to mention.

I probably will note Project X is intended to be the first in a series when I start querying. The characters would drive me insane if I tried to shelve them, so I at least need to be able to tell them I tried. Trying to be serious, an agent who detests series would probably not be a good fit for me. We might as well get it out in the open from the git go.

Santa said...

I am a big fan of series that involve a family or group of friends. I just like to see secondary characters who caught my attention in a book tell their stories as well.

It seems my love of reading series has spilled over to my own writing. Even as I started to write my first book, I had two other books in the back of my head for four secondary characters.

Joe Moore said...

Writing a series has a number of advantages, no matter what the genre. I think the biggest is that I know my main characters well as I begin writing the next installment. It’s much easier than trying to invent a brand new protag from scratch. So to keep my series character fresh, I always ask, “What does she need to learn that she doesn’t already know?” The answer to that question is my challenge for new character development in the next book.

One of the downsides to a series is backstory. How much do I have to retell with each new book? Where do I draw the line between bringing the new reader up to speed that may have started reading in mid-series and boring the established fan who has already read the previous books and just wants me to get on with the new story?

I think it’s healthy for a series writer to produce a standalone now and then just to test the waters and cleanse the creative palate. But it can be dangerous and costly. It’s always good to stick with the notion that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Jeannie Ruesch said...

I LOVE series of books and characters I love. That is the sticking point for me - I have to love the characters in the first book I read (now that can be anywhere IN the series) and love them enough, love their world enough that I want to read more.

An interconnected type of series that drew me in was Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series. I started somewhere in the middle (and that book is still my favorite of all of them) and then went back to number one and read the rest. They were single title, and each book had it's own hero/heroine but all the characters were interrelated. She pulled it all off wonderfully.

Another series that I love, which is about the same people, is JD Robb's IN Death series. Her main characters, Eve and Roark are some of my favorite characters ever. And in each book, they move a little forward, they change a little but still butt heads because of their inherent differences. It's very true to life. Compromises, difficulties - you go through life with them and it works wonderfully.

It all comes down to the characters. They have to mean enough to me to want more of them.

Gerb said...

As we can see by the answers, like or dislike of series is a purely subjective thing.

I read and write YA and have found quite a few series that I really enjoy. I was a little disappointed when Meg Cabot was done with her Mediator series, for instance, and I am one of probably a million others who have pre-ordered the next Twilight book. I'm also jazzed to go grab the next Artemis Fowl.

In adult fiction, I like Lee Child's Reacher books, which I suppose are not really a series, but they do follow the same character. Likewise with Lisa Unger's Beautiful Lies and Sliver of Truth.

If I really enjoy a character as I do with those books, I like spending more time with them. Same goes for writing series. My current series stands at three books, but I could easily go for more because I enjoy working with my characters. That said, I don't think I could go beyond five or so because there is so much else I want to explore in my writing.

FWIW for those who are looking at querying for a series, I sent a one-page synopsis at the end of my first book on submission to show series potential - and it worked!

Cab Sav said...

I love series, but I do get sick of them when they don't end. Four-six books is around my limit.

I also dislike intensly series books where individiual books do not stand alone.

Dawn Chartier said...

As a reader I get bored with a series after 4 or 5 books. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but normally I've had enough and want something different.

Now as a writer, if a agent asked me to keep the series going to 10, sure I'm game...(grin)...

Dawn
www.dawnchartier.com

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