For many authors, one book simply isn’t enough to contain all of their ideas and the complexity of the fictional world they’ve dreamed up.
But series are tricky beasts to write and even trickier to get published. I was fortunate enough to turn my Jacob Wonderbar novels into a series, which was fabulous fun.
In this post I’ll cover everything you need to know about:
Planning a series
If you are planning to self-publish a series, there aren’t any rules. Have at it. Write a twenty book arc if you want to.
However, if you are planning to traditionally publish, it’s trickier. As you move through the process, a literary agent has to believe it would work well as a series, then a publisher has to agree with the literary agent.
Even if a publisher starts with the intent of making a book the first in a series, there’s a general rule of thumb that every installment in a series sells fewer copies than the previous one. So publishers may opt to pull the plug on a series if the first few installments don’t sell well.
So what do you do?
To start, there is one key nugget of wisdom in particular you must bear in mind for series and traditional publishing…
It’s not a series until the second book is published
As you plan a series, if you’re planning to pursue traditional publishing it’s crucial to shift to a flexible mindset.
You can’t be dead set on a book becoming a series because the publishing professionals you encounter along the way might not agree with you. They might like your first installment but not want to invest in a multi-book story arc and want the first book to be a standalone.
Or, you might be thinking of a five book series, and they only want three. Or you want three and they want five. And every other permutation possible.
Sure, it’s great to have ideas for a series and this may be appealing to agents and publishers if they share your vision. But you may have to adapt to the publishing professionals’ vision and the economic realities.
Book one needs to stand alone
If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, it’s crucial to avoid ending book one on a cliffhanger.
Sure, leave some threads dangling, such as the novel equivalent of Darth Vader flying away in the TIE fighter at the end of Star Wars. But you want to end book one with a conclusive, satisfying climax that doesn’t depend on future installments.
I can’t emphasize this enough: go for broke with your first novel. Don’t withhold your best ideas. Get all your best stuff into that first novel.
And above all else…
Don’t make sacrifices in book one for future installments
Many times when I’m editing novels, I’ll come across an extraneous stretch or character that doesn’t make much sense given the plot. And when I flag it, the author will say, “Oh yeah, that’s important because I’m going to use it in Book 3.”
Don’t do this! Don’t make sacrifices in book one for a future installment that may never even exist. The future installments almost certainly won’t exist if you have too many weak stretches in book one.
Book one has to be cohesive. It needs to stand alone. Throw everything you have at book one. You’ll be able to think of plenty of ideas for the future books. (Trust me, I’ve been down that roller coaster).
Don’t get stuck with sequel-itis
Sometimes authors get so connected to a world they’ve created they develop symptoms of a disease I diagnose as acute sequelitis.
Acute sequelitis is characterized by an aversion to starting fresh with a completely new project even after being unable to place the first book in a series. Authors suffering from acute sequelitis then write a sequel, then the third in a trilogy, and pretty soon have six or ten or a dozen interconnected books, the fourth of which might actually be publishable… if it didn’t need the three before it in order to make sense. Side effects of acute sequelitis include an aversion to yardwork and bathing.
Again. If your primary writing goal is to have fun or to self-publish: more power to you! Write a fifteen book interconnected series if you want to.
If, however, your goal is to be published by a traditional publisher, writing a sequel to an unpublished, self-published, or under-published book is not a wise strategy. Placing a sequel to an un/self/under-published novel is virtually impossible, no matter how good it is.
Writing a series
So how do you write these beasts?
I never knew just how hard it is to write a series until I tried it myself.
It’s tricky to keep the main characters fresh, interesting, and evolving. It becomes difficult to remember what in the heck even happened in the first book after enough time elapses, let alone characters’ eye colors, extended families, and all the little rules you’ve introduced about the way a world works.
Here are some tips I learned the hard way.
Build in optionality
It’s hard enough to outline a book, let alone three, five, or more. All your best laid plans can completely implode when you try to write a scene and it doesn’t end up working on the page.
So don’t even bother trying to over-engineer multi-book series. The crucial thing is to build in optionality.
You can’t get paralyzed thinking that if you blow up a plot line in one book it’s going to blow up your whole series. Start with enough flexibility that you can prioritize one book at a time.
When I started writing the Jacob Wonderbar books I had very, very, (very) rough ideas for three, five, and seven book arcs. But the future installments were little more than very rudimentary ideas and I felt free to discard all of them if I needed to.
(One of these ideas, Jacob Wonderbar and the Vacationing Aliens From Another Planet never made it past my query letter).
Again: be flexible.
Plot dynamic character arcs
For me, the hardest thing about writing series is keeping the characters fresh. You want a character to change and evolve over the course of a novel and to keep the stakes high, but after a few books it can get a bit exhausting to keep having to find new ways of making the same characters seem interesting and changing.
You can quickly get tired of even the characters you love. So as you write a series, keep thinking of ways you can give the characters ups and downs over the course of the series as a whole. Look for ways to keep evolving.
One of the reasons I admire Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix so much is that J.K. Rowling kind of just lets Harry be a jerk for an entire book. She trusts that the reader will stay invested and will be able to contextualize this into his broader story. It’s part of his growth as a character over the course of the series.
While you don’t have to get overly specific planning these arcs, I found it very helpful to have a sense of where I wanted to take the characters and the primary relationships.
Focus on creating nuanced characters and rich settings
I’ve worked with and befriended quite a few authors at this point who have written beloved bestselling multi-volume series. I don’t know a single one of them who started with a detailed outline that plotted out every plot point of the series in advance.
Instead, they mined the worlds they already created for more plotlines. They took minor characters and delved in deeper to their histories. They seized upon small details in the setting to explore in richer detail.
If your characters are complex enough and the world of your novel rich enough, you’ll have all that you need for future installments. Just keep pulling on threads from previous books.
Sure. You can have a general idea of where you want to go. But this is another argument for focusing on making the book you’re writing as strong as possible rather than making a lot of plot sacrifices for the future volumes.
Use a Series Bible
When you’re writing the first book in a series it feels impossible that you’ll ever forget all those lovely little details you painstakingly slaved over when writing
Then it comes time to write books two and three… and it will seriously feel like some other writer wrote the first one. Seriously who wrote that thing?? That was ME??
I highly recommend using a Series Bible to track all those impossible-to-remember little details, particularly if you introducing technology and/or magical powers that could introduce plot holes in future installments. For instance, if you have a teleportation drive, for the rest of the novel people will wonder why the main characters aren’t using the teleportation drive whenever they encounter a problem.
A Series Bible will save you a ton of time in the future, even if it’s hard to imagine at first that you’ll need one.
Only plan a cliffhanger if the next book is under contract
Ah, the intersection of the lofty ideals of creativity and the cold reality of the traditional publishing world.
If you write a cliffhanger and the publisher decides not to extend you another book deal in the series… well, you might have a mess on your hands. You could leave your readers hanging.
Sure, you could always self-publish if you have to, but that might not be the natural next step in your writing career. The publisher might still be interested in your books, just not in another series installment.
So be very careful with cliffhangers. Only plan one if you have a multi-book contract and you’re very confident the publisher is on board.
Pitching a series
We’ve already discussed why you need to remain flexible about the first book in a series. Literary agents are going to want to know that you understand the reality as well. It’s good to show that you have more ideas, but you want to show that you’re flexible.
So here are the magic words when you’re pitching your series: “My novel stands alone but I have ideas for a series.”
That’s it. That’s all you need to say.
Be flexible. Trust that you’ll think of more ideas.
Think in terms of one book at a time and make the one you’re working on as strong as you possibly can. The future books are just hypothetical until they’re published.
Have any questions about series that I missed? Take to the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
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Art: Interior with a Woman at the Virginals by Emanuel de Witte
Nancy S. Thompson says
While currently a stand-alone, I left the very end of my fourth book–which garnered me an agent–open to a sequel/series, if my agent or a publisher request one, but I started a new manuscript totally unrelated to the one out on submission. I really needed to get my head out of the last one, and I’m excited about this next story (in the same genre). Is it a mistake to do that without at least minimally outlining a possible sequel?
Nathan Bransford says
I think that’s a fine approach. If you want to turn your last one into a series you can always return your attention to it and trust you’ll have new ideas/be excited by it.
Neil Larkins says
This is great, Nathan. Very encouraging and helpful, as always.
In 2007 I self-published a book that is stand-alone. All loose ends wrapped up at the close. I did, however throw in one last sentence hinting there could be a sequel. In 2012 I started that sequel and got maybe 1/3 through on a first draft. In 2013 I fell and received a bad concussion throwing me in the hospital for six days. Then I had vertigo for a year after that. I’ve never gotten back to it. But since I’m now getting some health issues under control and looking to rewrite the first book and epub it, I just might get around to finishing the second.
Hi Nathan, is it possible to pitch the second book of a series to an agent, assuming the author is unrepresented and only the first book is under contract (although the publisher might be keen on publishing the sequel)? Is there a chance that any agent might get on board?
Nathan Bransford says
Yes, this is a different situation. If there’s a publisher who is or may be interested in a sequel an agent may be more interested.
Hi, Nathan. I’m about to publish book #4 (finale) of my Cupid’s Fall series. As this book is a retelling of the Cupid & Psyche myth on its own, even though the world and characters carry through from book #1, I’d like to market the book as standalone-friendly. I’ve included a synopsis of books 1-3 for the ebook ARCs to entice new readers into the series. Have you ever seen anything like that published in a final version of either ebook or print books? I could also post this synopsis on my website and link to it in the front matter (back matter seems too late). Any thoughts? I’d be most appreciative!
Denise Culver says
It makes complete sense that you should have the first book of a series as a stand-alone “just in case.” However, my story extends through several books. Being an MG, I am limited to the number of words that I can use; therefore, I can’t tell the entire story with just one book. It will have wizards, magic, time travel, and end with the protagonist(s) being heroes, plus, each book is a lesson for children. Now I am second guessing this series. How hard will it be to publish something like that?
Billy Dean says
I recently completed a trilogy and was planning to find an agent until I read your advice to make the first book a standalone story. But the word count for the first book is only 32,000 words, so it’s unlikely I’d find an agent willing to represent it. After reading your advice, I considered the idea of making all three stories one standalone novel for a word count of just under 80,000 words. There are reasonably good segues between each book, but I’m pretty sure I’d have to do some serious editing to make sure the transition from one story to the next is smooth. Any advice you can give me about these potential problems would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!