New York Times Bestselling Author

Writing Wednesday: Stand Alone vs. Series

It’s one of those apples or oranges sort of things: stand alone or series? After nine years (eleven years if we count back to when I first started writing Pink I– how scary is that?) of working on the same series, I’m in the odd position of working on both at once. Right now, I’m in a series/stand alone/series sandwich: revisions for Pink X, writing the new stand alone, and a proposal for Pink XI. It’s going to be a busy November.

The plus side of this cognitive dissonance is that it provides an interesting opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of stand alone versus series writing.

Series: There’s the comfort of coming home to a familiar world. It’s like a great big Thanksgiving dinner, greeting old characters, finding out what they’ve been up to, learning things you didn’t know about characters you’ve known forever.

It’s not just a familiar world vis a vis characters and setting; there’s a familiarity of tone as well. When you write that first book, you’re committing yourself to a particular style and form as well as to those characters.

The down side to this? It can feel limiting at times. And there’s always the worry that you might start to repeat yourself.

Stand Alone: There’s something terribly freeing about writing about characters you’re never going to meet again. You can set the book anywhere you like, explore new places, new time periods, take risks. You’re not tied down by something you might have thoughtlessly mentioned in a prior book. There’s the joy of discovery.

Of course, there’s also a lot of uncertainty. As I work on my second stand alone, both the joy and the curse is that it’s a whole new learning curve. Writing one stand alone doesn’t necessarily prepare you for writing another: unlike a series, the tone, the characters, the place are all different and must be explored from scratch. The Ashford Affair and this new stand alone have some superficial similarities– both have thirty-something modern protagonists, both narratives go back and forth in time, exploring two sets of characters– but otherwise, they’re entirely different. Ashford dashes from London to Kenya to New York over a multi-generational time span; this new one clings very closely to the London suburb in which it’s set, both in 1849 and 2009.

Writers, do you think you’re a series writer or a stand alone writer? Readers, which do you prefer to read?

10 Comments

  1. Farin on October 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I’m a reader, and I think you hit it on the head. I love reading a series, because I’ve gotten to know the characters over time and I’m invested in their lives and adventures, and when a new installment comes out, there’s definitely that Thanksgiving comfort you spoke about, but there’s also the excitement of finding out what happens to your friends after a wait of a year or more.

    Stand alones are especially thrilling when they come from a series author, because you get the strong writing and plotting that you get from the series with the added bonus of a new voice and a story that has a definite end. And even when a stand alone author only writes stand alones, it’s kind of like a series anyway, because I’ll read every stand alone the author puts out.

    Cannot wait for Ashford and Pink X!

  2. Liz on October 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Tough question…as a reader there’s something so great about being able to follow your favorite characters over time and see familiar faces pop up in other books. However, it can seem overwhelming to stumble across a series you’re interested in and find out there were several other books preceding it you need to read first. So for me it’s a toss-up!

  3. Shannon M. Howell on October 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Great questions!

    As a reader, I like a good STORY. I don’t really care how long/short it is, how many chapters, pages, books, etc. I just want a good story.

    I have been doing lots of series reading lately. A series has the benefit that once you find something good, you can come back. However, a good stand-alone is just fine if that’s all the story there is. I dislike it when a series is “forced” just to take advantage of what was in the first book.

  4. jeffrey on October 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    I suppose I’m a series reader. When I stumbled onto The Mischief of the Mistletoe I was off to the races and have read ALL of your Pink series. Other series I’ve enjoyed: The Lord of the Rings, Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis, Anne of Green Gables (ALL of them) James Bond 007 by Ian Fleming, Matt Helm by Donald Hamilton, and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I suppose in a series I have expectations involving a much-loved writing style that resonates with my heart and soul.

  5. Bev Anstice on October 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Definitely series! I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I get to meet my old friends again when I crack open a new book!

  6. leslie on October 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    My favorite books are stand alones, but I do love a good series, especially when there’s an end in sight.
    I would think with your talent you might be able to do both. Or what about a trilogy?

    Great post!

  7. Sheila on October 17, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    I love em both, but a series is like meeting with old friends, and if it is good series, it is nice to know you will meet them again.

  8. Tracy Grant on October 17, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    I’ve always thought in terms of series, even when I don’t plan to. I finish one book and just naturally think about what would happen to the characters next. And when I’m writing in the same era, it just seems obvious to me that my characters inhabit the same world. The Regency romances I wrote with my mom were all connected, as were the historical romances we started together and then i continued on my own. And my Charles & Mélanie series became the Malcolm & Suzanne series. I even have a couple of crossover references to characters in my Regencies and historical romances. I also love to read series and follow characters from book to book. That said, I also enjoy stand-alones and agree with the poster who said it’s particularly fun to see what a favorite series author–like you!–does with a different “world”.

  9. Am7 on October 18, 2012 at 1:00 am

    I like both stand alone and series for reasons other people have said. I read both and it’s interesting to compare. I have enjoyed series like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the pink books, etc,etc. I have also loved stand alones like Maid to Match, Agnes and the Hitman, etc.

    That being said I would make further distinctions between short series and the never ending series. My preference would a short series like a trilogy or even the Harry Potter seven. I am always overwhelmed with a series in which the twenty to thirty something books. I mean I am trying to read long series but I know I miss a book here or there and it’s frustrating as reader to know that could be a crucial information about characters I love in it.

    Anyway my final thought is I wish writers had more autonomy and could make it organic. If there is a character who grabs write about them. If you find yourself trying to figure out how to include characters only to have sequels then it might work better as a stand alone piece. Sorry, this is so long; just my thoughts.

  10. Tess on January 2, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Hi Lauren!

    I have just happened upon your Writing Wednesdays this evening [which also happens to be a Wednesday(!)], and I was hoping you might have a chance for a new posting since your last was in October (sacre bleu). I was wondering if you could write a post about your typical writing day schedule. When striving to accomplish huge tasks (such as writing a novel), it is often inspirational to see how other people do it. I know Time Management has been a topic covered in other posts, but I’d be curious about the specifics of how you manage to write so many best-selling works in due time!
    A few other questions too, if you’ll take ’em ;):
    How long does it approximately take you to write a novel? How do you decide how long a work will be? Do you or your publisher have a page number goal in mind or do you just let the story flow to its completion no matter the page number?

    Thanks,

    Tess

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