Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More on Writing Series

This is a sequel post! Get it? Sequel? Oh, I slay myself.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I've blogged previously about how to phrase it in the query when you want to write a book that you intend to be the first in a series (short version: you only kinda sorta mention that it could maybe possibly be turned into a sequel).

But I haven't actually blogged about whether an unpublished author should set out to write a series in the first place. My opinion? You shouldn't.

Yes, series are popular, especially in fantasy and other genre fiction, yes, people love to read and write them. But here's the thing: getting a first novel published is really, really difficult. And getting a second novel published can be even more difficult. You shouldn't be saving your best ideas for the third, fifth, or seventh book in an unpublished series: when you're starting out you should go for broke with that one novel, throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, and making that one novel as stellar as possible. Sure, leave a few threads dangling if you want, leave open the possibility of revisiting the characters and the world, but the novel should be completely self-contained and satisfying on its own.

If the novel is successful in a big way or the publisher that buys it wants it to be more? Then you talk to your agent and editor and decide amongst yourselves if you're going to keep going with it or go into new territory. Or heck, maybe then you can map out a five book epic if your publisher is excited about the idea.

But if you go for broke and can't find a taker for that first novel: Start a new one. Do not write a sequel. Unless it's just for fun. Agents are not going to spring for the sequel to an unpublished novel.

Now, I do want to make a distinction here between series with a serial plot where one book depends upon the other and series that are set in the same world with the same characters but feature a stand-alone plot. If you wanted to write a new stand-alone novel set in the same world, that I could understand, and when querying you just treat it like a first novel and don't even mention that it's the second in a series to an agent until you've already hooked them.

But I really think that most times it's very important to leave a world and characters you love behind and start fresh. Who says you can't create another world that's better than the first?

I actually secretly think (I guess it's not a secret anymore) that this is a fairly good distinction between professional writers and for-fun writers. Professional writers are RUTHLESS with their own worlds and work. They will walk away from something or delete 150 pages faster than you can say Justin Bobby, and half the time they won't even really sweat it (the other half of the time they'll start the drinking and wonder why in the world anyone thinks writing is fun). Professional writers press the delete button because know they can do better. For-fun writers linger and linger in the same world or with the same characters and can't bear to start a new world or delete anything. And unless you press that delete button or start fresh or create a new world it's impossible to get better.

So if you don't sell a novel? Move on. Write something new and something better.

I will end with a major CAVEAT ALERT that I'm sure there are all sorts of first time novelists who found great success with series and are exceptions and you can probably name some brand name authors who broke these "rules" and I can think of a few off the top of my head without even trying hard. But whenever I'm offering general advice, it's all about odds -- your best odds are with a self-contained first novel, and when you're facing long odds to begin with, I think it's smart to avoid anything that makes you even more of an underdog.


Jessica Burkhart said...

Interesting post, Nathan! I'm a debut author who sold a four-book series on one completed manuscript and three outlines, so as you noted, it can be done. ;)

ORION said...

This is a great post and can apply to novelists loath to stuff that first manuscript under the bed and start number 2- It was my third manuscript which got me represented and sold. I am now ruthlessly plundering my other manuscripts to create a brand new number 2.
No drinking for me! I have NO remorse!

Nathan Bransford said...

Congrats, Jessica! Just out of curiosity, would you mind sharing how it came about? Does the first novel have a stand-alone plot or was it always intended to be the first part in a series?

I know there are so many counter-examples to my post, and it would be interesting to hear more about the other side of it.

Redzilla said...

Wow, so my willingness to delete in cold blood is a good thing? I think I'm feeling better today. Great pair of posts.

Tom Burchfield said...

How true. My WIP is about my fourth and it's self-contained, though I will be leaving a couple small doors open, just in case. Otherwise, it'll be on to another story.

As for deleting, what I find myself doing is completely rewriting the questionable section/chapter from the ground up, without even looking at the original until the end. I find things turn out much shorter that way. Sometimes, I even realize I don't need the section at all! Then off it goes to Buddha . . .

V L Smith said...

I was writing the sequel to my first manuscript while I waited for responses from agents I had queried. I've received only rejections so far. My first one was from Nathan. (sniff.) As a result, I've sidelined the sequel in favor of a new project. Even though it was a stand-alone, there's no point in investing time in the next one. I'm moving on.

Josephine Damian said...

I think the greatest writing advice ever given was: Kill your darlings.

Sometimes the darling is a entire novel that should never see the light of day.

Stuart Kaminsky told our writers group he has 2-3 early novels that he'll burn before he dies, novels that this Edgar Grand Master recognizes were really bad, more writing exercises and learning experiences in the disguise of finished novels.

That's the way I've come to think of earlier work; they're not something I'm going to show to an agent in the "cleaning out of the closet phase" once I do get representation, or something I can re-work because I don't have any fresh, new ideas.

But I have to admit it took me a long time to reach that level of writing maturity.

Other Lisa said...

I find cutting stuff cathartic. I mean, in my manuscripts. Not, uh, stuff in general.

Jenny said...


In the Romance genre, most first contracts are for two books, not one.

And my friends who write sleuth mysteries tell me they were forced to keep writing about the same cast of characters after the first book was sold, even though that wasn't what they wanted to do.

They also lament that if they had known that they would have been more careful in defining the cast of characters in the first book in a way that left room for future plot development.

For example, writing a married sleuth really cuts down future plot possibilities. So does anchoring your sleuth in a way that defines him in time, for example, making your sleuth a Korean War veteran, as Archer Mayor did with Joe Gunther.

Heidi the Hick said...

While I'm not a professional writer (YET- mwa hahahaha!) I have learned the joy of hitting the delete button. It feels so good knowing that I can recognize total crap when I read it.

It's hard to let stuff go. But if we don't, we never move onto anything else. I'm querying my fourth book and as much as I think it's the best I've ever written, it might not be the one that sells. That terrifies me, but hey, there's always another book waiting to come out of my head. Movin right along...!

I had an idea for a series but I've had to admit that the first book wasn't stellar. It was nice and cute and gentle, and it lives on my shelf. And it'll stay there.

dramabird said...

When I'm working on the first draft of something, I make my Inner Critic go sit in the timeout chair and I let everything slop down onto the page. Then, when I'm in editing mode, each day I resave my file with a new name that includes that day's date.

That way, I can feel to chop away without regret, because the text still exists elsewhere. Perhaps a scene doesn't work in one book, but might have some snazzy dialogue I could steal for a future project -- no problem, it's preserved.

This system has other benefits, too: One day, I was reading a chapter of my manuscript and realized I was missing an important transition. I looked back at a file from earlier in the month and, lo and behold, there it was: I'd accidentally highlighted too much during a deletion.

So I kill my darlings ... but I know where I stash the bodies. :)

Karen Duvall said...

The great thing about the computer age is that you can cut stuff and save it. You'll probably never use it again, but knowing it's still there can be comforting. I've pulled from yanked stuff before, or referred to it in other work to recapture something like a description or fact of some kind or antoher. But usually the cut crap gets forgotten, never to be seen again.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

I was blessed to sit under Mark Spragg's instruction this past weekend in a very small class. He spoke on the "delete" button. He said when you finally reach the point where your ego dies, that's when good writing and good self-editing begins.

"Death of ego."

If you haven't read "Where rivers change directions" by Mark Spragg, you should.

Topher1961 said...

Is Mark Spragg pretending to be Jennifer I. Griffith?

Maya Reynolds said...

I wrote my first book, a romance, as a stand-alone. It was my editor who asked me to go back in and leave room for sequels.

So that's what I'm working on now.

Isak said...

Looks like it's time to purge the ol' hard drive...

Just kidding. But it's funny that I just recently started deleing huge portions of older manuscripts in revision and really felt much better about the piece as a whole. Those parts just weren't working. When I first started writing, as an exercise, I would spend a couple hours writing a short story, then delete it so I could never write the same thing twice. (Unless it was good.) Somewhere along the way, I lost my developing ruthlessness. Guess it's time to go back to the basics.

original bran fan said...

Nathan, do you think you could do a follow-up to your follow-up (but not necessarily a series-ha!) about the difference between a series that is basically all one long story, and a series that is new adventures of continuing characters? We seem to be treating them as one and the same, but they are different.

Nathan Bransford said...


They are different indeed, and there really should be a different name for each of them. Although I'm not sure what more I could add -- was there something in particular you had in mind?

Helen said...

Mr. Bransford,
Your two last posts convinced me to shelve my YA fantasy trilogy for now and write a stand-alone. I have an idea for YA stand-alone novel, but it's not fantasy. How bad is it to hop between genres? Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think it's ok to genre-hop to a certain degree, but generally I recommend sticking with the one you want to break out in and devoting yourself to it, because it's hard enough to break out in one genre let alone several with different audiences.

K.C. Shaw said...

For what it's worth, my brother refuses to read any book that isn't part of a series. He says he doesn't want to invest in characters if he doesn't get to revisit them in other books. I'm just the opposite; the last words I want to see on a cover are "Book One of." And since I read fantasy, that makes it hard to find new authors.

Until last year I'd only ever written standalone books. And then last year I fell in love with the world and characters I'd just finished with and, um, well, now I'm on "Book Three of" and there's no end in sight. But I am having fun, and it's all good practice even if I never sell this series.

Lupina said...

I killed an entire "darling," a novel, stabbed it dead and literally burned the corpse, and this was after I had a request for the whole ms from a very well-known agent (not you, Nathan), and a subsequent invite to submit again after revisions. That was 3 years ago and I've never been able to revise it to my satisfaction. Instead I've been making the rounds with my second, which I think is much better, but harder to pitch succinctly.

This thread has me feeling inspired to go back to the mortuary urn of #1 and instead of merely sifting the ashes, dump half of them out and see if there are still a few bone chips left worth saving.

Neptoon said...


As always Nathan, mahalo for your sage advice and teachings.

I would also like to second your motion to have Jessica Burkhart discuss her magical touch.

JaxPop said...

"Kill Your Darlings" has proven the most useful advice to date (By Stephen King in his book 'On Writing'- I recommend it)
I scribbled those words with a red flair across my printed MS as my reminder when editing. I'm a huge fan of the book series, though I have noticed that after 3 or 4, they tend to be predictable. On the writing side - don't think a series is something I would consider - but if there was a 'market'....... who knows.

Kimber An said...

Woo-hoo! I'm a professional writer! I knew there had to be a definitive definition out there somewhere. Not only do I hit the delete button, but I also throw my head back laughing wickedly as I do.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Hey Topher1961,

I take that as a compliment!!

Uh Oh, I better watch my ego, or my writing might go down the drain.

Ello said...

Hi Nathan,
I'm so happy to read this post because I ruthlessly purged over 15,000 words from my WIP after helpful feedback from a very nice agent and was feeling a little uneasy. I felt good doing it and stick by it, but I actually blogged about the whole idea of editing being an art. Anyway, I'm glad to know that I'm on the right course!

ORION said...

I am SO SAD.
This whole thing just took me back.
I posted a memorial to Miss Snark on my blog just now.

joycemocha said...

But you know what, Nathan?

I've been running with professional writers for years (and consider myself to be at least semi-pro, based on work-for-hire nonfiction publication). At this point in time, my opinion (based on what I've seen from what's happened to my midlist writer friends who've done the work-for-hire Star Trek, Star Wars and Bladerunner novels) is that you keep your day job and write what you want. Yes, you're professional about your marketing, but from what I've seen happen to various friends, the best thing is to write what gets you excited and involved, rather than phoning it in.

That said, there's exceptions to the rule out there. It depends upon the genre--and can we say Barrayar/Vorkosigan? (Lois McMaster Bujold sold her third book in the series, then went back and sold the first two. But she kept writing, and the books are reasonably accessible at any point in the series).

I think this is really a genre issue. SF and fantasy are not the same thing as mainstream.

(and while I might not turn down a Star Trek novel if offered to me, I'm not burning to write to contract, either. I figured out that writing ain't getting me out of the day job unless I get struck by lightning...but the best way to court the lightning is to keep writing two to three novels a year.)

John Levitt said...

I've had this discussion, and once again, Nathan, I must disagree. Specifically in urban fantasy, writing a standalone first novel with the intention of keeping the characters and world going for a few more has become not only standard, but expected. A sequel or even a three book deal is now not the exception; it is more common than a one book deal. Publishers of urban fantasy are actively looking for a book that has this series potential -- a successful series is a gold mine with built in readership.

Nathan Bransford said...


Certainly for some genres it's more common/more important than others. But I still think it makes sense to make the first novel something that can stand-alone. It doesn't preclude expanding it into a series, but the plot should work on its own. That's all I'm saying.

Linnea said...

Thanks, I feel better now. I've been hounded and hounded for a sequel to my first novel and I just don't care about those people any more. I've moved on but not without a twinge of guilt. Next time someone bugs me I'll just tell them YOU said I don't have to care!

original bran fan said...


You asked if I had anything more in mind, but you may have said it all in your response to John. Yes, the characters might have more adventures in them, but this particular plot should stand alone. That's pretty different from the book that is actually one looooong book broken into three (or thirty).

I wish we had a better vocabularly, an easy-to-use word for the difference between the two. Anyone got any ideas?

Another thought. With Harry Potter, JKR did kind of have it both ways, successfully. Harry had a new adventure each year, but some of the things were ongoing as well. Wonder how she did that?

Tia said...

I usually just lurk here, but I had to post. You sent a very polite rejection to me last week for a novel that I have been shopping on and off for a year. It is part of a series. I know how the series ends and I've written the first three chapters of the second book, but I forced myself to stop there. In Feburary, I started writing another book, my third novel. I am almost finished. It is in a COMPLETELY different setting, with a COMPLETELY different mood. It's the best thing I've done, in my humble opinion. Most importantly, it STANDS ALONE!!!

I run a blog for debut fantasy novels and one of the novels I announced recently, THE SWORD-EDGED BLONDE is the author's SIXTH novel. On his website (his name is Alex Bledsoe), he has links to all his unpublished novels. It's great inspiration for the unpublished novelist.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for sharing, Tia! I'm so glad you started fresh and have your best work. That's awesome.

And wow -- six novels! That's persistence!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Professional writers are RUTHLESS with their own worlds and work. They will walk away from something or delete 150 pages faster than you can say Justin Bobby, and half the time they won't even really sweat it (the other half of the time they'll start the drinking and wonder why in the world anyone thinks writing is fun). Professional writers press the delete button because know they can do better.

Truer words were never spoken.

Ok, maybe, but not by Nathan!

Bobby Nash said...

My first novel is a stand alone, but I have more ideas for the characters in future stand alone stories. Guess I went for the best of both worlds. :)


sylvanwords said...

Nathan, I want to thank you for turning down a query letter for my manuscript! You heard me. Because you did that, I took the time to think about my story. Today's particular message is important because I wrote a book, decided it was too big and broke it into a trilogy of books that will easily be three hundred plus pages apiece. The story is complete, all three, but I'm unpublished. Your advice is well taken. I recently set it aside in favor of a single novel I'd been daydreaming about. I decided it was too darn big, and I want to 'gtow up' as a writer before I tackle it, that way I can give it the attention and strength it deserves. Your advice is much appreciated! Oh, by the way...I never ever delete. I archive. If something doesn't work, I yank it (yes ruthlessly) and store it. More than once I've found a home for work that I'd taken out, and more than once, I deleted something to my regret! Cheers!


Schuyler Thorpe said...

Now we can't write sequels?

What's up next with you industry hacks anyway?

Are you going to tell us next that--for future reference--we can't use the letters "I" and "W" in our novels?

So sad.

You sit here and bitch about not having that Great American novel under your belt, yet you complain about your shrinking bottom lines and a tight market each and every waking moment.

Instead of addressing the problems which are AFFECTING your precious career-minded jobs--you sit there around the table think of new ways to restrict our ability to tell and write a story--because you're too damned afraid to take RISKS yourselves!

Because you've poisoned yourselves with the notion that new things and new ideas aren't worth your time and effort to explore.

You're simply too caught up in your own little comfort zones to notice that the world you're seeking to subvert is changing far more rapidly than you realize.

And that is going to put you in a most difficult position in the future--when faced with either base survival or outright extinction.

Because no matter what YOU do to us, it's not going to stop us from accomplishing our goals.

Traditional publishing or not, we will continue to write however we see fit.

As Admiral Kirk once said in Star Trek III: "Young minds, fresh ideas: Be tolerant."

You can't stop PROGRESS.

Tia said...

I cover major new debut novels with new ideas all the time over at Fantasy Debut. There are at least ten major new fantasy debuts that come out each month, and that's generally not covering YA and only covering paranormal romances and small press sporadically.

Right now I'm featuring a modern-day retelling of the book of Job, from the Bible. That's not risky? It's fabulous. My last review was about an afterlife romance, and the one before was an pseudo-African based fantasy, where most of the white guys were villains.

I have two debuts to announce this weekend. Both books released on Tuesday by major publishers. One takes place in the bowels of Hell and the other is a story about a vampire child.

Take a closer look at the industry and you might be surprised at the number of debut novels each month. I was.

Dave said...

"Professional writers press the delete button because know they can do better. For-fun writers linger and linger in the same world or with the same characters and can't bear to start a new world or delete anything. And unless you press that delete button or start fresh or create a new world it's impossible to get better."

You restrict this point to authors, but it is really true of everything. We all put our faith into things that don't deserve it. Some people escape too early, and some people keep the faith too long. Aim for the middle - discard the useless things in your life, but give them enough time to prove themselves first.

Good job!

Lisa McMann said...

I actually secretly think (I guess it's not a secret anymore) that this is a fairly good distinction between professional writers and for-fun writers. Professional writers are RUTHLESS with their own worlds and work. They will walk away from something or delete 150 pages faster than you can say Justin Bobby, and half the time they won't even really sweat it (the other half of the time they'll start the drinking and wonder why in the world anyone thinks writing is fun). Professional writers press the delete button because know they can do better. For-fun writers linger and linger in the same world or with the same characters and can't bear to start a new world or delete anything. And unless you press that delete button or start fresh or create a new world it's impossible to get better.

I wouldn't believe you, except I know it's true.

Great post!

Jessica Burkhart said...

Oops, I'm quite late jumping back in! :) But I always intended the first book to be part of a series. My agent pitched it as such and it was well received that way.

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