Thursday, September 10, 2009

Series and Standalone

I put up my query letter for Thorn of Dentonhill on the Absolute Write message boards, as I was told they would "tear it up and break it down and make it as good as you can get it". Always something I could use more help with, but with all things, you have to be aware of who you're getting advice from. All advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

However, this one bit jumped out at me. In my query letter I have the following:

The Thorn of Dentonhill is a stand-alone novel, but I envision it as the first in a series of several books.

That sentence I got from the fabulous Julie Kenner, and it struck me as a sound and reasonable thing to say. However, someone told me to cut it, saying:

Mentioning it could be a series for a first time writer is taboo. I had this tendency beaten out of me very quick.

I'm not sure what the source is for this "taboo". I've never heard of it before. Also it doesn't make sense. Why would an agent not want to know that you have more potential books in you? I mean, yes, the point is selling the singular book that you currently are shopping... but I would think if an agent is going to consider taking you on, they would want to know if you are aiming to be next Stephen King or the next Harper Lee.

Now, in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, the nature of series have changed. Gone, I think, are series like Lord of the Rings or The Belgariad, where multiple books really just tell one big story. At least, from a new author. That, I could see agents and publishers aren't interested in seeing. After all, with one of those you're asking a publisher to commit to three (or five) books that would all have to be published for the first one to make sense. Risky venture.

However, a standalone book that CAN be a series is a different matter. There, you aren't committing your potential agent or editor to doing more. But you are letting them know that more is there, if they want it. That, I'd imagine, is a selling point.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's the phrasing, the word series has baggage.
Stand alone novel from an expandable universe, conveys a different image.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Possibly so. Though "expandable universe", to me, implies that the other books have the same setting, but different characters. That's a different sort of fish.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Taboo is clearly full of it, as a cursory glance at the mystery aisle of your local bookstore will tell you. Non-series mysteries s written by new authors are at best exceedingly rare. As far as the SF/F field goes, the problem I see there is that there are far too many aspiring authors who approach their novel not as something that could be the first in a series, but as something that *is* the first in a series. So instead of writing a stand-alone novel that could be expanded upon, they end up with what amounts to a really long first chapter. The first Wheel of Time novel springs to mind here.

In my opinion, it's far better to write the first book as if there were going to be no sequels. I think you'll generally end up with a better novel that way, though that first book may seem a little "off" when viewed in the context of the series as a whole (take, for example, the first book in Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn series, in which Joe Leaphorn is a minor character).

As far as expandable universes are concerned, I think a well constructed series is by definition an expandable universe. Your pal Julie Kenner's Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series is a good example; the mythology she's created could very easily support any number of spin-off series: a YA series focused on a team of trainee hunters; a men's adventure series about a rogue hunter who travels from town to town; a romantic comedy series featuring a pair of married hunters a la Nick and Nora Charles; a Blackie Ryan-style series about a former aliamentore who becomes a Bishop (or, better yet, Pope!); and so on.

Perhaps what sucrelefey had in mind was the kind of series that is based more on a shared setting than on shared characters. Monica Hughes's Isis Trilogy is like this, as are Susan Howatch's St. Benet's novels (and, to a lesser degree, her Starbridge novels). I think "shard universe" would be the term to describe a series of this nature.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Good points, and I think that the Demon Hunting Soccer Mom series is a perfect example. You could read Carpe Demon and get a satisfying, complete story without having to read another book. And I think those are the kinds of series that publishers are looking for.

However, on the question of query letters, I would think using the phrase "expanded universe" (or similar phrase) would be far MORE daunting than "possible series". The latter indicates you have more books in you; the former indicates you wish to launch a franchise.