Stand Alone or Grow a Forest?

If books were trees, I’d have a forest in my head. It’s 842,622 words long, filled with sweeping character arcs, murky intentions, sacrificial heroism, the syncopated percussion of snapping bones, the crackling discharge of magic, the heady musk of blood. It’s a trilogy that has marinated in my conscious for near twenty years. It dwells in the vaults of my mind, the limbs of its beautiful prose framed by spaces, commas and periods, yearning to live the life of ink, dripped and stamped into meaning. My epic magnum opus.

Of course, I pulled that word count out of the ether, but I tend to read and desire to write doorstoppers . . . as long as they’re well-written. Twice before I tried to write the first book of my planned trilogy, and twice before I wrote myself into more corners than any house has a right to claim. The trees of my series blinded me, cramped the single tree I was trying to cultivate. It wasn’t until I heard other authors I respect and read talk about postponing larger projects that consumed their younger years while they honed their craft that I realized I was biting off more than my writing chops could chew. Carrying a story through a single book is far easier than trying to drape one over the frame of a series.

This is why most authors I’ve spoken with advise not trying to write a series fresh out of the gates. Usually, the untried author won’t be up to the challenge. Does this mean you’ll never be able to write a series? No. Michael Jordan didn’t dunk the first time he jumped, Brett Favre didn’t throw a touchdown the first time he picked up a football. And besides, most publishers won’t buy a series from an unknown author, though there are the occasional exceptions: Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, R. Scott Bakker and others. Some publisher submission guidelines even go so far as to say if you’re submitting something that’s part of a larger work not to provide any info on the later books. If they’re interested, they’ll ask.

So, the advice which was given to me and which I now pass on to any other aspiring speculative fiction writers out there is to write a self-contained, stand alone novel-or six-before tackling a series. Prove to yourself you can carry a story from its beginning, through the muddy middle to its brilliant climax. The best series-in my opinion-contain books that stand on their own with beginnings, middles and endings, so focus on that when you’re just starting out. But-and this is important-don’t hold back! Don’t cling to your best ideas so you can use them in an eventual series, use them in what you’re writing now! You want anything you write to stand out and wow the reader . . . like a majestic tree standing apart from the forest.

2 responses on “Stand Alone or Grow a Forest?

  1. Dylan

    That’s interesting, as I seem to be going counter; I’m writing the first part of a trilogy, but want the first book to be able to potentially stand alone, so I’ll be able to follow the advice of keeping the two follow-ups on the sly. Thanks for this; it’s really helpful.

  2. Colette

    I think a lot depends on your natural bent and the complexity of your plot idea. My entire life I’ve almost exclusively read series, so that’s the way my mind thinks and that’ s what I’m writing although I do set them up so they can stand alone. On the other hand, I have an idea that has been percolating for nearly a year now. I won’t start it for probably another year as I continue to hone my craft because this one is larger, more epic, and significantly more complicated than anything I’ve attempted up to this point. I know I’m not ready so I’ll put it off until I am. I was talking with a published author friend of mine and she said a similar thing about a series currently in publication. She has a plot twist coming and she’s glad she won’t have to deal with it for a few more books while she continues to hone her skills even further to be able to better deal with the challenge. Being aware of your abilities so you work on taking them to the next level is key.

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