Standalone vs. Series

One of the recurring questions I heard this past year at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference was “is your novel a standalone or a series?” Now, personally, my novel is part of a series, but this had me wondering – is one better than the other? Will my work be shunned if it’s not a trilogy? If you start writing series, do you have to continue writing series or vice versa?

Now, I’ve searched the Internet to no finite answer. There never seems to be a definitive answer to my writing questions, does there?

Serious Series’

When I look at my bookshelf, it’s safe to say that the bulk of the series’ that are on there, have been commercially successful. Whether the Harry Potter books, Nora Roberts’ Inn Boonsboro Trilogy or the Shopaholic series, they’ve all done tremendously well in sales. To me, it all comes down to the characters. How compelling are they from Book One to Book Twenty (if you’re Stephanie Plum)?

A Completed Story

Since I primarily read contemporary romance, my preference is to have the love story complete in one novel. However, that’s not to say that I don’t like coming back again and again to focus on different characters. Nora Roberts does this extremely well. She sees a couple’s story to completion, but entwines them in the remainder of the series so that you feel you’re getting a snapshot into the ‘ever after’ that you never get to see in a standalone.

Breaking out of the Comfort Zone

With each standalone, an author must craft a unique, distinct character and plot. Easy for some, harder for others. The beauty of writing standalones is that you constantly get to explore a new voice. There’s no way that this doesn’t strengthen your writing chops. I recently attended a workshop by Zsuzsi Gartner whose collection of short stories was a nominee for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She had everyone in the class look at the same picture and pick a point of view from which to write. Afterwards we raised hands for who wrote in first person, third, etc. How many people wrote in the p.o.v. that they always lean towards? 100% of us. That floored me.  It goes to show that the majority of us stick with what is comfortable, what we know.

If we don’t explore new characters, new voices, are we improving? This is more for the newbie authors such as myself. In no way am I implying that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or J.K. Rowling were the worse for wear writing primarily series. No, no, no – blog hate, please don’t start now! But, when, for instance, J.K. Rowling wrote the Casual Vacancy, I’m curious how that felt for her as a writer. I can’t imagine that it didn’t stretch her to the uncomfortable zone, which, as we’ve seen recently in HBO’s  Girls, is ‘where the magic happens.’

I’m still figuring stuff out, but I’m curious on your thoughts. Which do you prefer to read, standalone or series? Anyone know if sales are better in one than the other? My research on this is patchy.

So, what do you prefer? A standalone novel or a killer series? Please comment below.

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5 Responses to Standalone vs. Series

  1. Caffe Maggieato February 8, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

    I haven’t done any research but seems to me series is easier to market? Once you get a hit on the first one then the rest is pretty much a cash cow. Personally, I prefer series only when it’s adventure/fantasy type, like LOTR or HP. For the rest much prefer stand alone, esp romance. Don’t really have the patience to go through all those books waiting for them to end up together. That’s what TV shows like Bones and Castle are for lol.

  2. dianacranstoun February 10, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    I hate to say It depends, but… it depends! There are some series where I like to follow a group of characters in a particular location, and others where I like stand-alones.
    But how does one differentiate ‘series’ from ‘serial’. HP – from book 1-7 – is one complete long story. It’s not finished until it’s finished, so is that a ‘series’ or ‘serial’? What about Nora Roberts’ connected books where each individual story line is completed? Hmmm. Not sure. Heading to check my dictionary now! :o)

  3. dianacranstoun February 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    Sorry. Just realised I came off topic and didn’t really answer your question. For me it always depends on the writing and the characters. If a book is good and the characters compelling, I’ll want to read more, whether it’s another stand-alone book by that author or the second/third book in the series.

    As for sales, I don’t know the answer to that, but Diana Gabaldon, JK Rowling, Anne Perry, Robert Ludlum, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin seem to have done pretty well from series/serials. :o)

  4. Kate and Britt March 14, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    I’m still making my way through your blog (and loving it, btw), but this post really hit on something I’ve noticed lately…that publishing the first book clearly labeled as the first in a series is starting to backfire on authors. Yes, the temptation to lure readers in with an amazing first book and then keep them buying with the promise of a second and a third is there. Too often, though, rookie/self-published authors (or authors receiving bad advice) write a short book and end it on an inexcusable cliffhanger. Now many readers are flat-out refusing to buy follow-up books, or even try the first one since they know they’ll be forced to spend money find out how the story REALLY ends. There’s been a shift from “I can’t wait for the next book to find out what happens!” to “I can’t believe I have to pay for another book to find out what happens!”

    Enough of my babbling! To answer your question “A standalone novel or a killer series?”…I adore both, especially if a series genuinely IS good in quality and makes me want to know more about the other characters. There have been standalones I loved where a sequel would have just been odd and quite frankly, unwarranted.


    • vscot848 March 14, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, Kate. Totally agree, I hate a series where one novel doesn’t have an ending. I can see an evolution of the story, but I need an ending for the particular thread.

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