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The Stand-Alone versus The Sequel

April 4, 2012

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately, as I’ve gotten deeper into writing the first draft of “Book of M”.  It’s especially come to the fore the more I think about the background material that I’ve developed – and continue to develop – for this project.

I’d always conceived of “Book of M” as a “Stand-alone”.  It has a self-contained plot with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I didn’t always know exactly where the story was going or how it was going to end, but I had a general vision for it.  And now that I’ve got the thing outlined, I’m confident the story can be told in 250,000 words or less – even if I do go over my target length of 125,000 words, it will still be within the bounds of a typically-successful epic fantasy novel.  From my outline, I don’t really see a satisfying way of splitting the book into a longer story.  My plan for the novel does not make for the springboard to a traditional fantasy trilogy.

And yet, I’ve now committed nearly 50,000 words just to the backstory: the background details, the history, the worldbuilding.  That’s a significant investment in detail for a one-and-done story.  And naturally I’ve wondered: Should I make this the beginning of a series

Well, I don’t know the answer to that, yet.  Whatever I might do, I’m firmly committed to “Book of M” as a single, complete story.  But I’d decided I wouldn’t close myself off to the possibility of further stories in this world.  But there was another problem: how would I go about telling more of those stories?  Because not only was “Book of M” a complete story, but it’s also pretty epic.  It’s kind of a “Big Idea” piece, with the whole plot, world and story built around a few big ideas, and I feel like the story I’ve plotted out explores those big ideas pretty thoroughly.  So I wasn’t sure there would be any more ground to cover in this world.  No matter, I figured.  I’d always figured this to be a one-shot.  And that’s okay.

But recently… recently I’m not so sure that “Book of M” will be wholly stand-alone, after all.  Because while I realized I do a fairly thorough job in this book of exploring all the big ideas… there are some unanswered questions.  And a good novel leaves some unanswered questions, right?  But some of the unanswered questions of “Book of M” are big enough to drive an Epic Fantasy Doorstopper through. 

All of which is to say… “Book of M” was a big idea piece.  But what if there was a bigger idea that I hadn’t really poked or prodded with this book, but which is alluded to time and again throughout the story?  Well, whadayaknow?  Maybe… just maybe, I’ve got an idea for a sequel after all.

Well, that is, I’ve got a big idea.  And, wouldn’t you know it, I’ve even got an idea as to what the title would be.  It’s just the big idea of the story, though.  I’ve got no idea at all what the plot would be.  At first, I figured that if I did a sequel it would center entirely on a different character from the protagonist of “Book of M” – just be another story set in the same world, and not a direct sequel.  But the new big idea works, in part, because of the protagonist of “Book of M”.  So while I think she wouldn’t still be the protagonist of the sequel, she’d probably still be a major character.

Without a plot and a story to actually pursue, this is all still very hypothetical.  And it’s a bit premature, perhaps, to be worrying about the sequel before I’m even halfway through with the first draft of the first book.  But thinking about this has caused me to reassess some of my worldbuilding.  There are some loose threads there that I hadn’t fully explored.  And now, as I write the first draft, I find I’m digging into some of those loose threads and throwing down the bones of some additional worldbuilding that will tie “Book of M” in to the big idea of the possible sequel.  Whatever story happens, it will be a separate story from “Book of M”.  “Book of M” will still have a definite, hopefully satisfying ending that brings about the conflict presented to a clear close.  The sequel will be it’s own story, just set in the same world, dealing with the ramifications of some of the peripheral questions that were hinted at, but never really asked aloud within the story of “Book of M”: questions that, when you follow the threads, lead to a whole new and exciting story. 

It’s kind of weird, and exciting, and also faintly reassuring to think that I may have more story for this world left to tell, once I finish this book.  It sort of validates the experience of writing it.  But man… I’ve got a long way to go before I get there.

What about you?  Do you have any plans for sequels in the stories you write?  How do you feel about the issue of stand-alone stories, sequels, and stories in a defined cycle (one long plot spread over several books)?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2012 1:51 pm

    I think it’s a good thing that there’s more. I means you have a story worthy idea or world. It’s loaded with potential, and it’s always good to leave a few threads unanswered in my opinion. It feels artificial when every single item is resolved, because life doesn’t work that way either. It also leaves a few hooks to explore in future stories.

    I’ve got a sequel in my head right now, but I’m currently working on something else. I’m not sure if I should work on a sequel unless the first book sells, but I may just write it because I want to. Not just yet, but eventually.

    • April 4, 2012 1:59 pm

      Well… in the traditional business sense, the advice I’d give is: no, don’t work on the sequel until the first one sells. Otherwise, it’s potentially just wasted effort (as in: what if the first one never sells?). But the advice I’d give, if I were you and making the decision for myself: I’d totally work on the sequel (at least eventually), because if it was cool enough that I had a cool sequel idea, then it’s cool enough to write it, markets-be-damned. Besides, as an unpublished writer, you have the luxury of working on whatever you want to work on. The market is out there, but until you’re engaged with the market and actively marketing your work, what you work on is really just up to you.

      • April 4, 2012 5:12 pm

        Part of me wants to simply say, “Market be damned, if you want to tell the story then write it!” I am consistently discovering that many of the people who have most impressed me are people who are doing what they want to do artistically even when it deviates from what was successful in their past. The real issue is whether you want to tell and share this story or not. Tell the story your excited about and work hard to tell it well. I just think it’s better that way, even if it doesn’t sell well to begin. As I recall, J.K. Rowling had written several of the Harry Potter series small time before they were discovered and gained the fame we know the series for today.

  2. April 4, 2012 5:21 pm

    It is exciting to have ideas and a dynamic world to play with them in. Cheers!

    For me, I try to be faithful to the characters and the story and let that shape what I do. I am working on a project now that I thought would be a stand alone, but as I dig deeper into the world and the characters that same story may better be told in two. I’ll know when the work is complete and it is published. That’s when I’ll know for sure, but I’m open to the story becoming what it wants to become. So far I’m not struggling with other stories sneaking in. The story hasn’t changed, there’s just a better way to develop and tell it. The best advice I’ve gathered is likely summed up as ‘Be true to the story’. When you’re world building resources likely exceed your novel x3, it’s easy to let other things take over and get consumed by extraneous information and subplots. We must know what story we want to tell, what we’re going to promise our readers, and then stay committed to the path we’ve chosen.

    Regardless, way to go… keep it up! Look forward to seeing where this takes you.

    • April 5, 2012 10:57 am

      Well, of course, it’s early yet, but “Book of M” is so far on-track with the story as I’ve plotted and envisioned it. I would add to your advice, though: “Be true to the story. Be true to the characters. Be true to the world.”

  3. April 4, 2012 5:25 pm

    I was thinking about stand-alones vs. sequels in the my own writing just the other day. Many of my books have or are sequels, but I rarely seem to plan things that way. I come up with what I think of as stand-alone ideas, and the next thing I know (or, perhaps, weeks or months later), I discover that I’ve either got more to say or, hang it, I *want* there to be more to say, so I dig until I find it. I don’t think I’ve yet started out with an idea that I intended to span across a trilogy or more. I’d be interested to try that, sometime, just for the plotting experience.
    Similar to the reader perspective, it’s great as an author to finish a book and find yourself craving more. If you can spend who-knows-how-long dealing with this book — frustrations, blocks, self-doubts and all — and still have it in your heart to tackle Part 2, it sounds like you’ve done something right. (:
    As for Kirk’s “Be true to the story” advice, I nod vigorously in assent. Words for an author to live by, those.

    • April 5, 2012 10:59 am

      One feeling I get as I contemplate this potential sequel is a sense of satisfaction that I’ve done well in creating a living, breathing, and interesting world. So yeah, I agree with you on that whole “wanting more” bit.

  4. April 4, 2012 8:44 pm

    I write series (serial series, I guess you’d say), but “series” means different things in different genres. Mystery series are usually just standalone stories or novels with one or more recurring characters (the detective and possibly others). Fantasy series can be anything from different stories set in the swqame world with no recurring characters to a coherent tale spanning many novels.

    I kind of prefer not to get involved with reading long and complex series, just because they might demand more time and energy than I have available right now.

    My best advice would be to make this book the best you can and then figure out what you want to do next.

  5. April 4, 2012 8:45 pm

    I write series (serial series, I guess you’d say), but “series” means different things in different genres. Mystery series are usually just standalone stories or novels with one or more recurring characters (the detective and possibly others). Fantasy series can be anything from different stories set in the same world with no recurring characters to a coherent tale spanning many novels.

    I kind of prefer not to get involved with reading long and complex series, just because they might demand more time and energy than I have available right now.

    My best advice would be to make this book the best you can and then figure out what you want to do next.

    • April 5, 2012 11:39 am

      Well, that’s advice I’d already planned on taking. The sequel is likely to stay in the back of my head, worming around in there. But my focus and attention will be mostly on this first book. I expect, in the intervening time, additional thoughts about plot and characters and whatnot will fill out, and I’ll put some time in on development work for the sequel. But largely none of that will be at all useful or meaningful until I’ve got a good chunk of the first book done.

  6. April 5, 2012 12:16 pm

    I think if you spend time world building, you might as well use that world for other stories! 🙂
    Personally, I’ve had enough of cycles with David Eddings. But someone creates a world and sets many stories on that world, even with different characters… that’s fine!
    But then, that’s what I do! And I know somebody else is doing it, and publishing titles based on his world in no particular order (hence I added the Silvery Earth chronology on my blog, to help readers to wade through my world-creation waters…)! 🙂

    • April 5, 2012 12:33 pm

      Well, personally I do have a soft spot in my heart for extended fantasy cycles – multi-volume epic stories – though I know that’s not to everyone’s tastes. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. It would be a separate, but related story set in the same world and likely involving some of the same characters and some new ones. I anticipate that the second won’t make much sense without reading the first – simply because there’s so much worldbuilding already down in the first – but theoretically could be read as a separate stand-alone.

      • April 5, 2012 12:59 pm

        I think you’ll do just fine. If you feel better putting somewhere “volume 1” and “volume 2” so readers know they should read them in a specific order, it’s just fine! 🙂
        I try to make mine all standalone, but of course if you read them all you see the full picture… 😉

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