Writing a Series of Stand Alone Novels

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Beware of the person of one book – Thomas Aquinas

I was recently honoured (third time, folks!) to be invited to guest post over on P.C. Zick’s blog as part of her Author Wednesday feature.

I doubt Aquinas had authors of book series in mind when he penned the above words but I seem to have derived my raison d’entre from this thought – at least when it comes to writing.

Many thanks to Patricia for inviting me to appear on her wonderful blog. My guest post will delve into a sticky issue. How stand-alone must each book in an ongoing series be?

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First off, let us clear up one point. There is a distinct difference between books in a series and serialized books. Each book in a series must be (somewhat) stand-alone. The storylines introduced should be resolved by the last page – at least resolved enough so that even if the author never again laid fingers to the keyboard to continue, all would be well. Fans might be sad but such is life.

Not so with a serial. These books can leave a reader dangling over the verge of a veritable cliff and the authors congratulate themselves on a job well done. The message is clear – buy the next book if you want to know what is going to happen as the train barrels down on beautiful Mary tied to the tracks.

I suppose the most important part of this distinction is that readers know what they’re getting into before they start reading.

A series of novels can be loosely knit together or tightly woven. I see my books as falling close to the tightly woven side of things. Even so, I aim for stand-alone status. A good analogy would be to an ongoing TV series. Viewers coming in at season three or later will have to do a bit of guesswork but a well done TV show will provide enough backstory to keep all who watch in the loop.

Agreement on how much backstory is necessary can be mixed.

After reading Chasing Down the Night, a reader said, “I didn’t have a clue who Tim and Marlene were.” Soon after these characters were mentioned, I included a line that went something like – no wonder Lisa-Marie loved boarding with them when she was in high school. A reader felt sidelined when Brigit comments that Izzy has a lovely daughter and Izzy thinks that she will let that comment slide. Going into book three without having read the second book in the series, Sophie’s parentage is left deliberately vague. This is true to who the characters are; that is the first imperative for the author. And this bit of tension results in a delicious eye-widening when the truth becomes obvious.

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Wearing my reader hat, I have often jumped into a series partway through. I enjoy the guessing game tensions that ensue. My curiosity drives me to find out if my suspicions are right by buying and reading earlier volumes. Jamming my author hat on, I am profoundly thankful for reader feedback and take seriously the feedback I receive. The next time I’m back at Crater Lake writing book four, I may decide to add more clues.

To make sense of the third book in my series – Chasing Down the Night – is it necessary to have read the first two? No. My editor and I agree on one point – give only enough information to pique the reader’s interest but tell no more than is required to move this particular story forward. Will a finer understanding of the characters be derived from reading all three books? Definitely.

I don’t guarantee that readers starting the Crater Lake Series at book two or three will enjoy an effortless read but the breadcrumbs laid out along the paths are there. I do promise a story worth the energy it takes to put the puzzle together.

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