By Elena Hartwell
Whether to write a series or a standalone is an important decision for a writer. It’s a lot like whether to commit to a monogamous relationship or stay active on the dating scene. There are pros and cons to both, for the author and their readers.
Mystery readers love series. We love hanging out with our favorite private eyes, our tough-talking police detectives, and our intrepid amateur sleuths. Like all love affairs, we form a shorthand with our authors. We know the characters, the locations, the language the stories are told in. We are surprised by the twists and turns of the story, but we pick up each new book with certain expectations. We have a loyalty to the writer, but they have a responsibility to live up to their side of the relationship. The stories should surprise us, but through the plot, not through the actions of the characters. The characters remain true to the people introduced to us in the first book. They can develop and mature, but we don’t want them to become someone new.
Staying true to character is complicated. First of all, it means the author must conform, to some extent, to reader expectations. The writer could potentially come up against resistance to change. We may not want our favorite characters to move or break up or die. Sometimes we don’t even want them to age. We certainly don’t want them to ever quit investigating. On the one hand, this allows the writer to stay in a known universe. Each book builds on the stories that have gone before, no need to recreate the wheel.
But, it’s not without challenges. Each book in a series has to stand by itself. It’s virtually impossible to get reviews on older books, so new readers are introduced to the current release, not the first in the series. To add new readers, the author has to write each story so a reader doesn’t require background from the previous ones. Simultaneously, authors have to include just enough information from past books so those who have read them experience the arc of the series. It’s a balancing act to show a character has a history without giving away too much for readers who start in the middle.
A writer risks readers “breaking up” with them if expectations aren’t met.
Reviewers are often less excited about covering books in a series. So while everyone who reads a series knows that author, with a year or more between books, readers aren’t always actively looking for the next title, making marketing difficult.
Readers also love to read standalones. Stories that are fully wrapped up by the time they read “The End.” A favorite author will still be followed, even if the books aren’t related. We love a great first date, and standalones are first dates, over and over again.
But standalone novels have challenges as well. Each time an author writes a book, they must convince readers to come along on a new journey. The writer may also struggle if they want to shift in tone or genre. Readers who loved an author’s thriller, may not want to read the same writer’s romantic mystery. A paranormal mystery won’t have the exact same audience as a straight up private eye. So while on the surface, an author writing standalones has more flexibility, in terms of marketing, it’s just as tricky. Readers will go on multiple first dates, but not if the dates fall outside their “type.”
Some publishers are actively searching for series authors. When I signed with Camel for One Dead, Two to Go, they only wanted the first book if I planned to write a series. Luckily for me, that was my intention. I was already thinking about future books when I pitched the first. For other publishers, an author may be able to sign a book deal for multiple standalones, but they may have to describe in advance, what they are going to write for future books. For a lot of us, we’re so wrapped up in what we’re writing now, the thought of having to write a synopsis for the next book is overwhelming. So having to come up with two additional synopsis while rewriting and going through edits on the first can lock a writer into writing books from concepts they threw together fast, just to sign the contract.
Another way for a standalone writer to go is to contract for one book at a time.
Writing without a contract can be terrifying. Not knowing if a one- or a two- or a ten-year project will actually get published is like going on a blind date. You have no idea what to expect. The writer might be faced with finding a different publisher for each manuscript. Agents aren’t always interested in pitching everything an author writes, leaving a previously agented and published author back at square one.
Timing also plays a crucial role. With a series, there is often an expectation of publishing a book a year. That’s very hard to do well. There are some authors who have the ability to turn out quality novels every year, sometimes even more than one, but most of us struggle to keep up that kind of schedule.
But momentum is important to an author. Readers don’t want to wait between books in a series, or to find out what new exciting world their favorite author has created for their latest venture.
Some authors manage to balance the best of all worlds. One of my favorite authors, Dennis Lehane, writes a contemporary series, a historical series, and multiple standalones. From Mystic River and Shutter Island, to the Kenzie and Gennaro series and Joe Coughlin’s world of the 30s and 40s, he manages to juggle a little bit of everything.
But we can’t all be like Dennis Lehane, with the perfect marriage to his writing and followed by readers through all his various combinations. Right now I’m just thrilled to be launching book three, and hoping all my readers enjoy the third date.
Learn more about Elena Hartwell on at arcofawriter.com