I’m often asked whether or not a young author’s first book can or should be part of a longer series. The question still surprises me; I’m amazed at the number of teens who aren’t afraid of long-term writing projects.
Certainly there are some good reasons for wanting to write a series.
The continuing popularity of well-told series stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings makes large story arcs appealing.
And the world is a richer place because of the great series novels about Narnia and the world of Sherlock Holmes and (if I may be so bold) Discworld. It is also a richer place because of some mediocre series like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books or the 19th-century adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard. I think it may even be a richer place because of the abysmal-but-charming historical works of G.A. Henty, which are essentially a series unto themselves.
We write what we love, and first novels are often loving imitations of one’s favorite books, or at least the best parts of those books. So it’s no surprise that as writers we feel compelled to write a series as epic as the ones that have enthralled us.
It also takes work to envision a story world and believable characters. Why start from scratch on a new fictional world when you already have a fully formed one waiting to be explored further? The idea of getting three books out of one story world can be tempting.
It is often said that new writers should leave series to the experienced novelists who know what they are doing. But it simply isn’t true that the best or most enjoyable series have been written by established novelists who paid their dues writing stand-alone novels. J.K. Rowling essentially began with Harry Potter. Burroughs began with John Carter. It is possible to write a first novel as the beginning of a series and watch it grow into a literary and commercial success. Christopher Paolini’s Eregon succeeded, at least commercially, beyond expectations.
The question, then, is whether a new writer is smart to consider making their first novel the beginning of a longer series. Here are three good reasons to do so:
- It allows you to indulge an enthusiastic public. Your first fan base may be small, but having any fans is an encouragement to keep writing and improving your craft. If your readers like your world and your characters and they want to read more about them, why not give them what they want? As long as you have a story to tell, everyone wins.
- It allows you to explore your world and your characters in more depth. Often the most interesting aspects of a fictional character are those that come under the most intense pressure. However, in my experience as a writing teacher, few first novels succeed at applying enough pressure on the characters to wring from them any truly human responses. It may take two or three novels to discover who your characters are, to learn how to discover who your characters are. Because this process of discovery is vital, writing a series may be helpful in your development as an observer of human nature.
- Some story arcs take a long time to develop. Which means you need page space in which to develop it. If your story idea simply demands a lot of words, a series is about the only credible way of fulfilling it.
Yet, in spite of the above, I still advise my students to avoid writing a series as their first novel.
With a few exceptions, most new writers are better off writing a book that will stand completely on its own. No planned sequel. No seven-book story arc. No characters whose lives will span a dozen tomes.
- Readers must be sold on a first book before they will read a second one. And the main thing to selling a reader is fulfilling their expectations. Which means you must resolve the story arc of the first novel in a compelling, unexpected and yet satisfying way. This is very difficult to do if the ending of your first book is meant to thrust the reader into a second book. To put this another way, it is usually important to make sure book one stands completely on its own. Like A Prisoner of Zenda, or A Princess of Mars. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone stands on its own—yes, it hints at things to come, at a larger conflict and looming adventures, but the payoff for the main action of the story exists between the covers of book one.
- Passion is fleeting. The best series exist because the writer has a lot to say about the characters and their world. At first, you may feel as if your world will fuel your imagination forever, that you will never run out of passion for your story people or their problems. But eventually the well always runs dry, and it usually happens sooner than expected. And if the improbable happens and your series is successful, it can be hard to give up the temptation of committing to one or two more books for the sake of an advance. Have you ever read a series novel that didn’t live up to the promise of the earlier stories in the series? It happens all the time. Probably because, regardless of intentions or previous passion, the writer stopped loving the story. The writer used up every ounce of passion in previous books and began writing based on technique alone.
- Most first books don’t sell. For that matter, most fourth books don’t sell. Most likely, your early novels will be practice. I hate saying that, but it’s true. It takes practice to develop a readable, convincing narrative voice. It takes pages. It takes chapters. It takes books. How wise is it to start a seven-book series when you don’t know how many books you will have to write in order to develop a salable skill?
- Holding anything back will ruin a book. One of the invisible problems of series writing is the tendency for the writer to not recognize what they are saving or avoiding. This expresses itself in several ways:
The writer gives too much background. Sometimes way too much. (“But…….. the reader needs to know this earlier stuff for when the cool stuff will happen later on!”)
The writer saves the best lines in order to use them later. (“But…….. those are the high points!”) Yes, stories have high points. But building a novel around five or six great lines is a huge waste of the reader’s time. Give your best on every page. Saving it for later will only ensure that it doesn’t actually work anywhere. I don’t mean that you can’t have a great line planned for a specific point in your story. I do mean that every page should either be your best or it should be removed.
The writer resorts to “filler” to expand a weak section of a long story arc rather than changing the story arc to focus on its high points. It’s possible to fall in love with the concept of an epic so much that you lose sight of the simple story. Epics can grow organically out of stories, expanding as the writer gains insight into the story world and its predicaments. But when a writer misconceives a story as a series and begins with an inflated vision—when he or she turns what should be a relatively short, simple novel into a complex, multi-layered epic series—it can be extremely difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Shrinking a bloated epic into a novel-sized container is much harder than doing the reverse.
All of this is not to say that you couldn’t write a sequel to a successful novel, or even plant the seeds of a sequel in a first book. (Anthony Hope did it with A Prisoner of Zenda. The sequel is called Rupert of Hentzau. But he didn’t write the first book with the second one in mind.)
If you’re a new author asking me if you should write a series, my answer is No. When you aren’t sure, when you have to ask, your story idea probably isn’t large enough to sustain multiple novels.
But if you aren’t asking—if you already know you want to write a series because a series is the only way in which you can possibly tell your story—then I’d say to dive in and see what happens.
A story that must be written as a series should be. A story that might be written as a series shouldn’t.
What do you think? If you have tried planning a series with your first novel, what has your experience been?
Daniel Schwabauer, MA, is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing creative writing courses. His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Children’s Literature and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. His third book, The Curse of the Seer, is coming out in spring 2015.