Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, July 12, 2007

How to Mention a Series in a Query?

I've been receiving a few questions lately from people who are wondering how to pitch a series in a query letter.

Series are a tricky beast. One the one hand, particularly in certain genres, a series can be a great way to build a fan base around a popular character and/or compelling world. It gives an author a chance to really flesh out a world. Series can be extremely successful. On the other hand, it requires a bigger commitment from a publisher, it may pigeonhole an author for that all-important second book, and an agent or editor may want the author to tackle something new and/or branch off in a different direction. It all depends on the genre, the idea, the author, the house, the agent, the editor, the weather, the astrological conditions, and, of course, which side of the bed the respective parties involved woke up on.

So the important thing, in my opinion, when you have an idea for a series is to be flexible. That first book should stand alone, whether or not it's eventually expanded into a series. That way, if your agent or editor thinks it should be a stand-alone, that's cool. If they agree that it would make a killer series, that's cool too.

Think of it as being more Star Wars than Empire Strikes Back. Sure, Darth Vader was flying away at the end of Star Wars, but that was a self-contained movie that didn't leave too many cliffs dangling. In Empire Strikes Back on the other hand, Han Solo was left frozen in FREAKING CARBONITE and I don't think audiences would have been satisfied had that been the end of a stand-alone movie without a sequel in the works. If you write an Empire Strikes Back novel and your agent/editor wants it to be a stand-alone, well, they're not going to love the ending.

Thus, in queries I would suggest to the agent that the idea COULD be expanded into a series, but I wouldn't really convey that you're dead-set on it being a series. That way the door is open for both possibilities, and you're not putting yourself in a box. Or carbonite.

I can understand why people love writing series. Writers grow attached to the worlds they create, those characters become friends, it becomes familiar, and people just keep on writing in that world because they love it. It must be a amazing to flesh out a world in multiple novels. Perfectly understandable. But it's so important to be able to walk away for something new. You created one amazing world, surely you can create another!






31 comments:

A Paperback Writer said...

So, what you're saying is I can't leave my protagonist frozen in carbonite (Oh, "freaking carbonite," sorry) at the end of my manuscript?
Dang.

Jennifer McK said...

I love series books--reading them and writing them.
I think the only time one didn't work for me was when Terry Brooks pulled a fast one on me.
After three Shannara series books that stood alone but were set in the same world, he started his next series, The Heritage of Shannara. And left me hanging on the first book!!!!!!!!!! I was pretty frustrated waiting a WHOLE FREAKING YEAR for the next one....which was ALSO a cliffhanger.
Yet, it did have me buying something I'd never bought before.
Hardcover.
*Sigh* That was one time I got snowed.
The ones I write are stand alones. I will not (I hope) ever leave a reader waiting three years for resolution.
There. It's in cyberspace. I have to live up to it now.

Dave said...

Makes sense. Readers like stories that have beginnings and endings.

Nathan Bransford said...

I don't have a problem with cliffhangers as long as I know I will be helped down from the ledge at some point.

pixy said...

Great answer. Makes me feel better about my curent project. Sometimes it's nice to know that it's okay to move on to something new.

I hate cliff-hanger endings. Which is why I threw the last Harry Potter at the wall...stupid, stupid, dead wizard cliffs!!!!

*sniff* I'm okay, really.

Gerri said...

You created one amazing world, surely you can create another!

So speaks the man who probably hasn't tried to create one world, much less multiple. It takes time, energy, research, hope, fear, time, oh, and did I mention passion enough to live in that world for a long time?

Worldbuilding is hard, hard work.

I don't disagree with the rest of what you said. But the last sentence... *shakes head*

Nathan Bransford said...

Gerri-

What if C.S. Lewis said, "You know what, it was really really hard to create the world of THE PILGRIM'S REGRESS, it takes a lot of energy to create a world, I'm going to stay here?" We wouldn't have Narnia, that's what.

Of course it's hard. But writers write.

Conduit said...

This is something that's been on my mind lately. My latest effort (currently awaiting a rewrite which I'll be starting soon) has a protagonist who keeps nagging me, saying he has more to do. Although the novel is completely self contained, it does have one loose thread in that an antagonist survived the climax and is probably a bit pissed off about the whole thing (not unlike Darth Vader spinning off into the void in a damaged TIE Fighter - except it's set in post-conflict Northern Ireland where we don't get many Death Stars). I think I haven't seen the last of him or the protagonist.

It was bothering me so much I wrote a short story featuring the protag just to scratch the itch, but it wasn't enough. There's a sequel brewing, whether I like it or not.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

T.C. Boyle once said (though I'm heavily paraphrasing) that starting each new book is like writing a novel for the first time--it's a new problem to be solved and the previous answers won't always/don't necessarily apply. He just finished his 20th (though roughly half are short story collections).

Beginnings are hard.
Endings are hard.
Middles are hard.
Waiting is hard.
Wanting is hard.

This is a hard business which is one of the reasons I think it's worth pursuing.

Anonymous said...

The blog is getting better and better! This week's posts are great, and the posts you offer as an agent are presented in better ways than the ways most writers try to present their opinions (the latest POV post, for instance, was great.)

Fellow writers, even if you're looking to start a series or a franchise of the world you're creating, I would think that you want to make your first novel, your debut into publishing and literature, something special. Something big, and, yes, standalone. Why introduce yourself and your characters as one that is crutching on future novels? I'd say you can leave some things untied, but not a huge cliffhanger until you're sure that you can get the next book published. After all, the agent and publisher is looking out for your best interest - neither they nor you would want to see a cliffhanger story you *intended* to continue go unfinished and be unresolved, on the shelves, because the first book didn't sell because word had it that the ending was poor, right? Best to be safe, and make sure each novel is its own chapter in a larger story, if it's a series.

Anonymous said...

Worldbuilding is hard, hard work.

World-building is hard, but don't let that scare you out of attempting to do it twice (or more) in a lifetime.

You're a writer; world-building is part of your job description. No slacking allowed.

John said...

Excellent points, Nathan.

From what I can tell, urban fantasy is most often sold these days as a two book deal--the publisher would like a series, but they want to see if you can do a decent sequel first. My own urban fantasy was sold just that way, and the first book is as stand alone as you can get. The only thing that really makes it a series is the return of the characters and world in the sequel.

As for the difficulty of worldbuilding, writing a sequel is no breeze either. You've spent an entire book lovingly creating something in (hopefully) fascinating detail. Then what do you do? You can't repeat everything. You can't arbitrarily decide to change the rules of the place. Now you've got to depend on a great story--no more neat worldbulding inventions.

I love Kaytie's quote from T.C. Boyle--it is so, so true.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I've two questions about this I've been wanting to ask someone -

I have a series in mind and I'm doing my best to make each book it's own story, but I also have a separate overarching story thread that ties everything together and has a definite end. I've been careful to make the surface plot(s) meaty and complete, but this subtle background plot is (in my horribly biased opinion) awesome.

I can leave the macro-story out of my query blurb entirely, but it makes me wonder if I'm omitting the very element which would pique an agent's interest.

When is it appropriate to mention a multi-book story thread without frightening agents?

Secondly, would it be an advantage to have most/all of the series finished before querying? I've noticed a trend where books in a series are released quickly to better take advantage of the customer's interest.

(This thing is in my head and it will be written, no matter if it isn't published.)

Thanks!

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon @ 3:54

I would never save your best plot for a later date -- I would find a way to incorporate that into your first novel. It's so so so so hard to find an agent and so so so so hard to find an editor, I wouldn't hold anything back for a future book that may never materialize. You gotta go for broke with that first book, and it should be the best of your material.

However, if you do decide to save that awesome meta-plot or it doens't work to fit it in, I wouldn't mention the meta-plot. Just keep the focus on that one book.

If you find an agent and then a publisher, keep in mind that it will be a year before your book comes out, during which you'll have plenty of time to write Book #2.

I wouldn't recommend writing a sequel unless it's under contract. If you can't find a taker for your first novel then you're MUCH better off having a new idea and novel rather than a sequel to something you couldn't place.

astairesteps said...

Nathan,

We wouldn't have PILGRIM'S REGRESS had we not first had PILGRIM'S PROGRESS. I think that world was "easier" to create in that sense.

Narnia, imo, was a world in which Lewis had lived--or at least visted--as a child. Not that the writing wasn't work. But I doubt Lewis wrote that series with money or publishers in mind. He wrote because as you said, "writers write" and because he had a story to tell.

A story which "all began with a picture." Lewis once said:

"All my seven Narnian books, and my three science-fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The LION began with a picture of a Faun carring an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: 'Let's try to make a story about it.'

"At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams about lions about that time. Apart from that, I don't know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories after Him."

Speaking of series writing, Lewis wrote 5 of the Chronicles of Narnia between the summer of 1948 and March 1950--before the first was even published. So I guess it's okay sometimes to write a series before having a single one published. For sure, if you're CS Lewis! :o)

joycemocha said...

Well, in my case I do have the sequels written in rough draft...but they're all standalones, no cliffhangers, and there's a thirty-five year difference between 2 and 3.

The idea is also as well to market all three as standalones and see which one catches the fancy.

But this is a romantic thriller-chiller space opera, and each book really is a standalone.

I also have two more on deck, as soon as I get a bit more worldbuilding done. Makes more sense to me right now to finish what I've started, then wait to see what happens.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I have one definite series, and the first book is the one I've fussed over, the one I've coaxed along into saleable shape. (The others are much more decent.)

The first book can work as a stand-alone, but my beta readers, even at rough draft stage, were screaming for the second installment. Which brings me to a question:

The second book of my series does effectively leave "Han Solo in carbonite". Is that ok? The third book is in definite saleable shape, so I'd think with an editorial touch it could be released as soon as a publisher determines it fit. I guess I've pictured the second selling with a tease chapter of the third tacked on the end.

Bernita said...

Both as a reader and as a writer I love series.
Don't think 'series' always - or even usually - implies a cliff-hanger ending.
Previous to an expansive story arc or a fascinating world, a series must have an interesting character who does interesting things and likely to be involved in more interesting things.
I just say my novel is a stand-alone with series potential.

fiona said...

Very interesting reading, and a relief to see that multi-book stories haven't entirely been kicked into touch.

Something I have always wondered about - if you have completed, say, 2 1/2 books of a 4 book set, and assuming they're saleable, how quickly would the marketeers feel it was appropriate to bring each one out? How much of the lag time between novels is the writing of them, and how much 'catching the wave' of publicity?

I'm amazed by people that can publish one novel in a series and then write the next without needing to change things in the first. It is precisely this fear that drives me to have the whole thing complete before I sub it. I'm more than happy to do rewrites, but there are enough headaches in writing at this sort of length without setting the first book in stone before the others are complete.

Sherri said...

Nathan, you said, "I wouldn't recommend writing a sequel unless it's under contract. If you can't find a taker for your first novel then you're MUCH better off having a new idea and novel rather than a sequel to something you couldn't place."

I've been wondering about that. I love how you answer my questions before I can ask them. Thanks!

Love the blog :)

Anonymous said...

>> I would never save your best plot for a later date -- I would find a way to incorporate that into your first novel. It's so so so so hard to find an agent and so so so so hard to find an editor, I wouldn't hold anything back for a future book that may never materialize.

Any geek worth his/her salt knows that the Star Wars movies are about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. However, in episodes 4, 5 and 6 Darth Vader is a supporting character and the focus of the story is on Luke, Leia and Han. I don't think the Star Wars saga would be the same if George Lucas decided he could only make one movie and mashed together Darth Vader's story from 4, 5 and 6 and made that the focus. He needed those films to build up and allow the character to grow from bad guy boogeyman to tragic father figure. He needed Luke's process of maturity to help tell Vader's story.

Writing a series isn't very bright, considering the odds of publishing one book. It's downright stupid. But if you had something like the Star Wars movies percolating in your brain, it would be a mistake to pull out and compress the one thread (Vader) out of desperation, and miss out on telling the other sides of the story (Luke, Leia, Han).

Of course I want the first book of a series to stand on its own - like SW episode 4 did. But I also want to be able to say, if you liked that, wait until I twist this and this and drop the bomb of awesome, because it only gets better.

I guess I will hide the bomb of awesome until I am asked if I have anything more up my sleeve ...

JDuncan said...

In general, I'd say standalone is good. SF/F seems to be the one genre where this rule gets broken all the time. Epic fantasies do this all of the time, likely due to that whole 'epic' thing, but I think readers have come to expect it from such stories. The epics move in stages, each book moving through one stage of a greater story. Honestly, I like this about the genre. In other kinds of stories maybe this doesn't work so well. Perhaps I'm biased though since I have book one of an epic fantasy written, but it's basically part one of a three part story. Some stories are just 'big' I think, and can't be told in one book, unless of course someone is willing to publish a 500k novel, and readers are willing to drive a forklift to their local B/N to bring it home. Of course, I could be wrong, and maybe this whole notion of the epic fantasy, i.e. Martin's Fire and Ice Saga is a dated idea and on its way out. I sincerely hope not, they're one of my favorite kinds of stories to read.

JDuncan
www.jimnduncan.com

Fire_eyes007 said...

So...would it be completely ridiculous for an unpublished author to try to sell an agent a trilogy?

I'm currently writing my first novel and it will DEFINITELY need to be split into three books. Unless, of course, an agent doesn't faint at the prospect of a 500,000+ word novel. Ha! SO not joking! My story is fabulous, I swear; it just can't be any shorter.
Is this terrible? Am I doomed? My confidence level has plunged drastically low after reading the previous comments. I'm contemplating a late-night ice cream binge.
Advice? Suggestions? Fairy godmother with a magic wand, making the coveted contract appear before my eyes?! (It is very late and I my mind wanders...)
I am awaiting encouraging comments--preferably ones that say anything is possibly if the story is truly as awesome as I think it is....and it is!

Kirsten Wallace said...

Okay, I understand agree with you that the first book needs to be a standalone.

Here's my question: If I have a four book series with the first three books written and didn't start looking for an agent until I had them written, should I still not mention that the first book is part of a series?

I should add that each book has a different main character but the same general theme, so they're all possible standalones.

Sorry for the somewhat convoluted question, but thanks in advance for spending the time to answer.

Terri Nixon said...

I've pitched my current completed, ending with "this is a standalone novel but will be continued in the planned trilogy (named trilogy)." But having started the sequel and still getting no bites for the first book I've changed direction completely. The second and third books are all planned out (mostly) but I've put them on the back burner and started out in a new direction, and I'm finding it invigorating and refreshing. Lovin' it! Thanks for another great blog :)

chillyspoon said...

A very interesting post, thank you!

It really makes me think of Hyperion by Dan Simmons - what a wonderful standalone book by virtue of containing what is effectively a set of novellas (not a new concept by any means.. The Canterbury Tales!).

Then the wonder of a great series sets in with The Fall of Hyperion and by the end of the fourth book, even though the loose ends are wrapped up the reader is just itching for more!

I suspect most agents would have been falling all over themselves had Hyperion crossed their desks - but then finding that such a great book was just the first component in a great engine.. what a great kicker!

:) @chillyspoon

Jaleta Clegg said...

Once again I have defied the odds. I have no agent, I'm unpublished (the short stories came AFTER the novel contract). The first publisher I sent my query to accepted my book (it's coming out in about a month). AND they accepted it as part of an 11-book series, to be published about one a year. All the stories stand alone, and I did have to send a synopsis and sample chapter from each (yes, they are all written, were before I even started the submission process). All 11 books are contracted. Small on-demand publisher equals more flexibility and willingness to take big risk with unknown author. Less money for me up front, but the possibility of much bigger things long-term.

From what I've read here and other places, readers are definitely split on the idea of series. The biggest objection is the cliffhanger ending is not resolved for years and sometimes never. That is exactly the reason others like series. Many people commented that they wait until the whole series has been published before they buy. That's hard to do when you have no idea if the series will ever be finished or published.

So to be safe, all of my books, except the last one, are complete stories. There are larger story arcs that tie everything together over the series, but each book can be enjoyed on its own. At least I'm hoping that's how it will all work out.

chillyspoon said...

@Jaleta - that's fantastic; congrats!

Lis Garrett said...

I'm grateful I found this post in the FAQ's, because the topic is something I've been wondering about and struggling with as I write my book, a tentative first-in-series.

Great comments on this post, too!

Let the hemming and hawing and wringing of hands commence . . .

davidrory said...

Thank you for many great tips and good ideas. I'm very new to blogs, just started my own. This all helps clear my path ahead. I have done a series of eight and I know what you mean about the comfort of well-known protagonists.
That series is not what's doing the slush pile rounds now. I wrenched myself away and started a new one but found I had linked to one of my main characters at the end of that.
I created a huge family saga. Oh well on to the next.
Thanks again for many aids to clarity.
David.

kkrafts said...

Wow I can't believe how long ago this post was started. Hi Nathan are you still here? I read on another blog that you shouldn't query the series, just work on getting the first one out there. I, too, am writing a series. Wasn't planning on it. I wrote the final book first, with no intention of writing the first 3 books until I did NaNoWriMo and couldn't think of anything else to write, so I wrote the first book in the series. Both books are written, so that they can be stand alone novels even though the main character is the same in all 4 books. Wow now that I've talked your ear off, I really should be writing my query.
Love your blog!
K.Einsel

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