Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sunday Musings: Is every story a potential series

A super Sunday to you all!

In February we mused on the aspects/elements of a character...mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. For March it's time for minds to meld a little more. I had thought of today's question while Chuck Bowie offered more questions along the same theme...series.

Now, let's get to musing:

Is every story a potential series?

In a blog I guested on this week, hosted by Janie Franz, I chatted about the 'contract' we writers have with our readers. I noted that, if we begin a series in a specific sub-genre (such as International Suspense-Thrillers), we really need to stick with that area and style. If the coding, dust jacket blurb and ads suggest it is a suspense-thriller, you must not be turning it into a cozy, halfway through the series.

Conversely, you may have this amazing story that needs to be told, and it doesn't walk, talk (or quack) like the series you typically write. DO NOT try to turn it into a series! If it is a one-off, write it, be proud of it, and let it go. Series are awesome. One-off novels are awesome. But they do not have to morph into each other.
I've been carrying a stand-alone novel for five years, now. I think it's going to be a splendid work of fiction. But I have no intention of forcing it into a series. It's just not that kind of story. I'll just let the characters tell their tale, and let it stand, proudly, over in the corner by itself.

At the same time, I've been toying with two more stories that have been waiting to be written. One is a cozy series, and the other is a thriller series. I already know they are series, before I key in one word. They behave like a series. The arcs are long, complex, and require back story, and extended character development. And there are several mini stories that need to be told by these characters. So they will be series, and never the twain shall meet.

Of course every story is a potential series, but you do, as an author, have to guard against that tendency. Why? I think that, as a reader, I feel a tiny bit short-changed when I'm finished a book and No 2 or 3 or 4 is presented to me as a 'must-read' follow-on. I like the opportunity to spend some time imagining the 'what next?' for myself.

On the other hand, Lady Daisy whose own romance is the story told in my Daisy's Dilemma, was a secondary character in Mariah's Marriage. She was such a colourful, lively character, I had to re-write one scene when I realised she was over-shadowing the heroine, Mariah. So there are two books set in London 1822 with many of the same characters in them. A series? None of the other characters are nipping at my keyboard, but who knows. One reader has expressed a wish for more about one of the male characters.

No. No story is ever a potential series. A series involves a number of stories based on a single set of characters or a world or a theme encompasses more than one story. But each book is a separate tale, with a beginning, middle, and most importantly an end. Agatha Christie wrote series, but each was a separate story, a separate murder mystery featuring Miss Marple or Inspector Poirot.

Every story has a natural length. Any attempt to make THE LAST LEAF by O'Henry into more than a short story would destroy all that is good in it. Longer stories can be serialized, doled out piecemeal, but that is a serial, not a series. Serials originated as a way of publishing long (often novel length) stories in newspapers. Charles Dickens earned a living that way. These days it is still done to provide a story in digestible chunks, often with cliffhangers--but that is a serial, not a series.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: "A story is a story is a story." It can be a serial, but never a series.

There’s always the potential of a series in every story. Writers don’t want to end or walk away from cherished characters so they push another dilemma to bring them to life again. That’s fine. The problem is mapping out a series properly, making sure in book 1 there are a few foreshadows of what’s to come in the next book. Think Potter, think Twilight…there was an overall dilemma that characters had to face to complete the series.

Mind you, in some genres, like mysteries, you can have the same character placed in various situations which have nothing to do with book one. A new murder or mystery to solve.

The bigger problem is when an author has good intentions of writing a series, says it’s book one, and then book two never materializes and readers are left hanging with no finale. There is a risk of losing potential fans when this occurs. So before penning BOOK ONE, make sure to map out the next book or the entire series, knowing how and where your characters will end up with the final solution solved.

If you had asked me that question a few years ago, I would have said, no, because my book is a standalone. However, I had to change my mind when my line editor gave my book to his daughter and she came back and having loved the book said to him, “Where can I find the sequel?” For me that story ended, but suddenly a whole world opened up and I realized that yes, I could write a sequel to it. So I wrote the sequel and then a friend said to me. You really need another book so it can be a series. I thought about it and saw potential in a character whom I had put in just to do one job. Then I realized he had pretty much moved through the second book and I decided to write a book for him. So that is how the third book came about and it is still a WIP. So my first book spawned two books and became The Mill Valley High series. If this book, which for me was as I said, stand alone, could become a series, then any book can be a series. So I now agree that you can turn any book into a series. It think this is especially true if more than one character appeals to your readers. In my case, I wrote Jennifer’s Story, which is not yet published, based on the popularity of my character Jennifer Taylor in the first book. People either identified with Carolyn, the main character, or Jennifer, the secondary character. Many people wanted to know more about Jennifer, so I wrote the book in her point of view. Then in this second book I introduced Danny Ryan and suddenly he was such a strong character that he needed his own book. So the third book is called Danny’s Story. Then of course with three books it became a series. Hence the new name: The Mill Valley High series. I think if you have a standalone book you might start to think in the same direction as I did. You just never know until you try it.

I would have to agree that every story is a potential series although in my opinion, there are some stories that don't necessarily benefit from a sequel. I usually find it easier to write a follow on story using the same characters and setting if the original story is short. If I write a long story, it usually feels like it is complete and doesn't need any more. There are very few series that I have read where I enjoyed the sequel as much as the original story although the Poldark series, by Winston Graham is one notable exception.

Could every story be a series? As a writer who does series, you’d think I’d be right there chanting, “Series! Series!”, but my answer is “No.” I write and read mainly series because I’m enamored by the world the author has created, and I don’t want to leave. Series allow me to prolong my fantastical journey. However, some stories are meant to stand alone. Of course the first one to come to mind is Stephen King’s THE STAND, but since that book can double as a foundation brick, I’m move right along into the stories I know have stood all by their lonesome with no problem-fairy tales. Let’s look at one of my favorite classic writers, the Brothers Grimm. Each of their stories could be expanded but if they were, I think they’d lose something. Not to say I wouldn’t like a bit more about Red Riding Hood and her fellow nightmarish companions, but if the universe was drawn into more books, the tension would be lost. Seriously, once the Big Bad Wolf is gone, how much longer are you willing to follow Red and the Hunter? Me, not so much. It’s not just fairy tales, the same stretches across genres. I adored Kathleen Woodiwiss’s historicals, Dan Brown or Brad Meltzer’s thrillers, and various other fantasy, mystery, thriller, and romance writers who only focus on standalones. So, no, not every story needs to be a series.

In the broadest sense, every book or story is the start or part of a potential series  The characters’ lives or at least the situation do go on.  In fact, certainly in creative fact, I've found this to be anything but true.  All my tales are open-ended, but I am not moved to carry on with most of them.  When I am so inspired, I know I'm really going to have fun.  I was only three or four chapters into STAR COMMANDOS before everything started opening out for me.  I knew I had to work with these people and to work with them in length and in depth.  The series ultimately numbered twelve volumes.  I've had the same thing happen with several of my short stories.  One sparked others that wanted to be told, and I was happy to accommodate them.

Thanks for making Sunday Musings part of your day. I confess, offering my opinion on questions that use "always" and "every" makes my heart beat a little faster. This musing while spiking my anxiety also got me thinking. My immediate thought was NO, every book doesn't have to be a series and then I realized I misinterpreted the question. Does every story have the potential to be a series? I won't say every--psycho brain refuses--but I'd say most stories have the potential if it's the writer's intention. For me, a story is organic, especially in the early stages. With the right elements I can expand the plot, continue a character's growth and depending on genre, build their world. I'm writing book 2 in my series, but I've already plotted two novellas for secondary characters who I like and find interesting enough for their own story.

While writing a series is rewarding it is also challenging and at times, overwhelming. The author needs to stay true to the type of series, characters and mood the first book created. Maybe that should be another Sunday Musing topic?

MJ LABEFF, New Mainstream author

I think this is dependent upon two people: the author and the reader. The author may have intended the novel to be a single title stand alone, but the reader(s) might demand more. When Dean Koontz wrote “Odd Thomas”, he planned to write a second book but waited to find out if readers liked Odd as much as he did. Readers couldn’t let go of Odd. The “Odd Thomas” series ended up being a total of 7 books. As authors wouldn’t we all like to have a character so beloved, our readers demand another book and another and another? Series are wonderful when conceived by an author. It’s like carrying triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets- the author already knows a series is gestating. It’s an opportunity to build a world with characters that grow and change with each book. It’s an opportunity to give secondary characters their own stories. It’s an opportunity to create sweeping storylines that crossover. It’s an opportunity that can and should never be forced, unless conceived by the author or demanded by the reader. Sounds a bit contradictory, but I think as authors we would agree. If our readers demanded we write another book because they needed more of our protagonist or demanded we tell a secondary character’s story; we would find the inspiration and give our readers what they wanted. After all, this is what we do, we write.

No. Not in the least.

And even those that seem like they could be are probably better off not becoming series.

I don't like writing novellas very much - if I have to create a world and a set of characters each with their own back story, I want to give them more life than just 25 thousand words. And while it is nice to use the universe you create for more stories, especially if that universe is kickass and cool and populated with beings Darwin only wished could have evolved, sometimes the story to be told about that world has its beginning, its middle and its ending. And they say "that's all she wrote" because there was nothing else to tell.

Trying to come up with a something new to say in a series is often difficult, and sometimes contrived, if not an abject failure. Just look at some of the movie franchises that have "graced" our cinema screens over the years.

I've never written a series. Nor do I plan to. But I am writing a trilogy, which didn't set out to be one - I got the idea for the second two parts twenty years after I wrote the first book, which stands alone fine. I just needed those twenty years to get the novel right, get it published, and have the characters age that much - kind of like if Sylvester Stallone made Rocky and then just went straight to Rocky Balboa. And thought the story for second and third books came pretty easily, and I have first and second drafts of both, they still feel a little contrived and not as fresh as the first, and are having an equally long and difficult birth as that - my first ever novel.

Though some of my other novels are open ended, so that the characters are mostly alive and well at the end and could hypothetically continue their adventures, I'd feel like I was just throwing more shit at them just for the sake of it. They did their time. They paid their dues. They deserve to live happily ever after in everyone's imagination. Aside from this fact, I don't have the time for them anymore. They came, they conquered my imagination and I obliged by giving them a story and now I've shown them the door.

There are too many other ideas knocking to get in, demanding mind time and requiring their own stories be discovered and told.

And while I wish they'd hush now and then, I'm forever in love with the next book, whose possibilities are endless and unprescribed by stuff I've already written.

I think every story could potentially be a series, but perhaps not every story should be a series. I remember reading an article by one of the authors I followed several years ago. She'd said that her book was about the most important event in her character's life and by definition there could only be one 'most important event' so she never did sequels.

With Olivia in my Crucible of Change series, I write about periods of excitement in her life and figure that things flow pretty much normally between those adrenaline moments. I suppose someday I will reach the end of what I want to say about her, but I don't feel marriage and family stuff has to mean the end of someone's interesting life.

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

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