Monday 25 September 2017

Series & Standalone: How Do You Know Which Is Which? - The Creative Process


I know what you're thinking, it's easy enough to tell the difference between writing a standalone and writing a series, and I'll agree with you to a point. It was only when I was thinking up ideas for some writing advice posts and talking to a close friend of mine, that the question came up about times in the past when I've started a book thinking it's a standalone and found that I have a series. It's happened the other way too, and I know I can't be the only one it's happened to so I thought I would do a short set of pieces on this topic.

Now one thing I will say before I delve further into this topic is that I am a hybrid writer. I work best by doing minimal outlining and planning and winging it a lot of the time. That works for me, but it doesn't working for everyone and that's more than okay. I've done a vlog on it here and a piece of two here. Taking into account that the majority of writers are planners, I thought I would focus this first piece on telling the difference between a series of books and a standalone. It sounds like a simple subject, but when you get into the nitty gritty of it, you realise that there is more to it than that.

For example, using one of my works in progress, when I started planning out Lights Out, I thought that it was a one shot. I didn't foresee it going any further and didn't plan a series out because of that. It was only as I started writing it, got into the story completely that I realised a couple of things. One, the main character Lock, would not go the direction I'd first planned because the character I had written and the character she became wouldn't be able to let things go. She certainly wouldn't sweep them under the carpet and continue on with the abuse of power. So that took me off-plan a little. The second thing I realised was that, this book, to cover everything I wanted to, would either have to be exceedingly long, or it was at the minimum a duology. At that point I stopped writing and did a brief sketch of a plan for book two, and then book three, which I'm working on at the moment.

It may be part of my hybrid style of working that led me to the initial confusion, but I figure if it happened to me, it could happen to anyone just starting out, or even authors like me, who've been doing this for years. Everyone has their own style and their own way of doing things and one of the great things about being a writer is that you use what works for you and that there is really no "wrong" way to do it. Your story, your rules, your world and your words. It can be done a number of different ways and what works for me, may not work for you and that's okay.

So, how do you know when you're writing a series and when you're writing a standalone? I employ a few tricks that usually are more a subconscious thing because I've been doing this for a number of years now. Generally when I'm in the ideas phase, I'll think ahead to whether or not there is an overarching plot in this story and if there is, can it be successfully wrapped up in 140K words. If not, then I might need to think beyond one book and into two. If it can be, then it's generally the case that I'm working on a standalone.

The Dying Thoughts series was always going to be a series, but it came about because having spent the past ten days writing Blackout - a story I'd been wanting to tell for so long - I was faced with a problem of what to write next. At the time I thought about a sequel to the book, but as B, and others, kindly pointed out, that didn't work. And so with the basic premise of what I wanted to write about, I let my mind brew over whether or not I had an idea that could work for numerous books. One of the good things about the Dying Thoughts series is that, there is an overarching plot, but each book is it's own story with three acts and all. You could pick up the third book having never read any of the others and you'd still be able to pretty much follow the story without issues. I liked writing like that because I personally have dipped into series out of order and usually they've then gone on to be ones that I enjoyed immensely.

That said, when writing a series, you have to remember that it doesn't always have to have an overarching plot. Especially in certain genres and age groups. The Dying Thoughts series continues on until Tara is nineteen, but the initial arc was to see her out of education. Every book, as I said, had its own plot. There are so many books in both young adult and adult fiction that don't have anything connecting them together except for a simple cast of characters. So if you've got a book that feels like it could be a series, don't hold back because you don't think there's anything left unresolved that needs a sequel. Some series, like the Harry Potter books for example all have their own story, with an overarching plot, but others, like Sue Grafton's Alphabet series, are simply just books about the same group of characters and while there are some pieces that fit and some questions that don't get answered until later on, the books do fit together and do so very well.

Yet there are some writers who stick to standalones, and still leave unanswered questions and that's a valid way to do things. Not everything in life gets resolved and that means that there will be some books where you don't know what happens and how it all ended. So just because you have left things unresolved does not mean that you therefore have to write a second book.

In the planning stages, you should have some idea whether your book is going to have multiple volumes or if it's just going to be a story on its own. If you are wondering if it's possible to take more than one book, plan and plot it out to see if it works. I've done that for the Dying Thoughts books, done it for the Lights Out trilogy and it has helped me. Just because I don't do heavy outlining does not mean that I don't recommend you do. I am a hybrid because it works for me, but that's coming from a place of over sixteen years as a writer and twelve as an author. I have finished eighteen books and am working on my nineteenth and twentieth ones at the moment. I may be further along in my writing journey than you and because of that I'm able to see what works for me. My advice to those starting out or those unsure, is to plan and plan heavily. Maybe you'll find it doesn't help, but as I said above, the majority of writers ARE planners and there's no shame in that.

So that's how I've worked out which is a standalone and which is a series. You may find that you always know when you start planning your ideas, and that's great. You may also find that one day you're writing and you realise that this series is a standalone and this standalone is a series, and that's great too. I'll discuss ending a series and what to do when your standalone becomes a series in the coming weeks! And remember your mileage may, of course, vary and that's okay!

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