by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
If you’re committed to writing stand-alones, good for you. If you could see yourself doing either a series or a stand-alone, welcome to the club! There are so many advantages, and so many disadvantages, to writing a series that it can be hard to decide how you’d rather tell your stories.
Stand-Alone vs. Series
Let’s look at some of the up-sides and down-sides for each option:
Readers who enjoy one book in a series are likely to stay loyal and keep reading the rest as long as you keep writing ‘em. You’re pretty well guaranteed a Repeat Buyer (or at least a Repeat Reader) all the way through to the end of the series.
On the other hand, that can be confining. You might have a story idea you’re dying to write, but it doesn’t fit in with the characters or setting or genre of your series in progress. When will you ever find a break from your current project for creating the next?
Then again, it could be easier to write faster because you don’t need to come up with completely new people and places for each book in the series -- you already know how your main characters think and talk and feel; you already know where they live and work and play.
Although, that kind of knowledge might be considered boring. If you stay focused on the same leading character/s in the same setting, it means you’re missing out on the fun of creating new people, new situations, and new worlds for any stand-alone stories you might want to tell.
How Can You Decide?
One way to determine whether you’ll be more satisfied as a series writer or a stand-alone writer (although nothing says you can’t do some of each):
Think about the authors whose books you’ve enjoyed most. It’s a pretty safe bet that some of those books were single-titles, and others were part of a series. But when you think about your top five or ten favorite writers, which category do their books appear in more often?
Sure, some authors are wonderfully prolific in both areas. Nora Roberts’ romantic stand-alones and trilogies appear as often as her alter-ego J.D. Robb’s suspense titles in the Eve Dallas series.
Michael Connolly alternates between two criminal-justice series and books that stand on their own. But most of the world’s celebrated writers are known more for their work in one neighborhood or the other.
- J.K. Rowling
- Robert Ludlum
- Agatha Christie
- George R.R. Martin
- Debbie Macomber
- Walter Mosely
- Philippa Gregory
- James Patterson
- Stephen King
- Danielle Steel
- John Grisham
- Elizabeth Berg
- Michael Crichton
- Jane Austen
- Ken Follett
- Gillian Flynn
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Choosing Your Preference
If your taste in reading leans more heavily toward one side or the other, that may be a good clue to which storytelling style you find most appealing.
You can also look at other areas of your life for clues to that same question.
Would you rather stay at the same tried-and-true hotel when you visit a familiar city, or choose a new location each time?
Do you prefer binge-watching favorite shows straight through, or watching several different shows in the same week?
When you find the Best Shoes Ever, do you buy more pairs in different colors or treat them as a one-of-a-kind delight?
There’s no wrong answer to any of those questions, nor to the question of whether you’re better off writing stand-alone books or series.
If you opt for a series, there are a few things to keep in mind about the biggest bugaboo:
The Story Arc
Of course, every story has its own arc. A single book has its arc. So does each book in your series. And so does the series as a whole.
You already know how to figure out the story arc in a single novel, right? (If you don’t, ask me about my class, Plotting via Motivation.) But as important as that individual arc is to every book in your series, you also need an arc that spans from Book One to the final novel.
How do you know which book is the final novel?
If you’re happy to continue writing an open-ended series, like those featuring Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes or Stephanie Plum, that can be whenever you decide to call it quits.
If you’re planning a trilogy, or an opening-plus-sequel, or a five-book series about five siblings each finding their own success, it’s likely you know what the last one will contain. And you also know how important it is to wrap up with a satisfying arc that concludes not just that final book, but your series as a whole.
Wrapping It Up
How to "wrap things up" is one of the important topics covered in my “Writing A Series” workshop that starts next Monday. One lucky commenter will win a free registration to that two-week class!
Here is my question:
When you think about the author whose books have most consistently delighted you, at any time during your life as a reader, do you think of someone whose books are primarily grouped into a series or whose books primarily stand alone?
Is it someone you discovered as a child or as an adult?
And if you remember this compelling writer’s name (plus the name of their series if that’s applicable), please mention that as well!
Note: We'll announce the free-class winner TONIGHT. (If it’s someone who’s already registered, your $40 will be refunded.)
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After winning Romantic Times' “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops for writers from London and Los Angeles to New Zealand and New York, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. So far there are 48 titles -- will yours be next?
by Kris Maze
I don’t know about you, dear writer, but coming to terms with quarantine has been a challenge for me. Yes, I had extra time at home for the crucible of creativity, but not without a steep learning curve. Writing inspiration has been hard to come by.
During quarantine, my family pushed pause on activities and the daily grind. We found some comfort in the slower pace of life, dealing with the negative impact as best as we could. As many parts of the world begin reopening, let’s not forget the writing we have accomplished so far.
As always, I am inspired by history. There have been other pandemics, and great works have come from them.
Historical figures can inspire us with their great pandemic creations.
Sir Isaac Newton left Cambridge college when an outbreak of the Plague closed all schools. His year of uninterrupted self-study and exploration led him to write his theories on early calculus, on optics as he played with prisms at home, and of course, on gravity.
William Shakespeare wrote some of his best poems and plays when the plague forced a closure of London’s theatres. According to Scientific American, "plague was a near-constant presence in the England of Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. When the death toll exceeded 30 per week, London’s theatres were ordered to close, forcing theatrical troupes to take a break or perform in the country. When a particularly nasty outbreak struck in 1606, Shakespeare used his time well, penning King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra."
Edvard Munch, famous expressionist painter of The Scream, painted during the time of the Spanish Flu. Having contracted the disease himself, he recovered to create many more works.
Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, inspiring over a century of gothic writing. That same year, “The 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act” was put into place and Stoker’s native Ireland suffered high numbers of typhoid fever and the lingering Bubonic Plague.
Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein during a failed vacation with writer friends. It was 1817, and a volcanic explosion of Mt. Tambora had caused an endless winter throughout the world. The atmosphere was choked with ash and dust, keeping essential sunlight from crops and leading to famine, epidemics, and a cholera pandemic. Mary’s personal life suffered as well when her poet husband, Percy, drowned in an accident five years later. Her friend, Lord Byron, died of a fever two years after that.
The earth in 1817 was literally dark, cold and uninviting, but was fertile for writing the first science fiction novel. One thing is for sure: centuries later, Frankenstein lives on, evoking philosophical debate.
The hurdles of 2020 are undeniable but perhaps framing your ideas in literature can provide solutions. As society adjusts to the coronavirus outbreak, our stories, our insights, our projects can help bring hope and healing. Even if it isn't Dracula or Frankenstein, every story matters. Yours might just be the one that helps a reader hang on while they wait for the world to right itself.
How has the pandemic of 2020 affected your writing so far? Do you know of other historical figures who took solace in creativity during a world emergency? Please share their story down in the comments!
Kris Maze has worked in education for 25 years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and Writers in the Storm. Her first YA Science fiction book, IMPACT, arrives in June 2020 and is published through Aurelia Leo.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.
Set in post-pandemic Wind City, a young journalist races time as an incoming asteroid with certain destruction. Nala Nightingale must decide between broadcasting the news of a lifetime or discovering keys to her orphaned past.
Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?
To find out more about IMPACT, click here.
by Ellen Buikema
More than half of human communication consists of body language, which we use to communicate feelings, thought, and ideas without speech. Body language impacts other people’s perception and conveys our emotions far more than we think it does. Physical descriptions of what our characters are doing allows us to show-not-tell what is happening to them internally. It is one of the simplest ways to give the reader a feel for characters’ depth of mood and attitude.
Can you communicate well with others if you sit on your hands? I tried to and discovered that I don’t express myself as well. I’m a hand-gesturer. Plus, with COVID-19 upon us, I’ve realized how often I touch my face!
I also move around a lot, especially if I’m nervous. The first time I taught a classroom full of adults, I paced the entire time. Thinking back, I wonder if I made anyone dizzy.
Simple tasks require a surprising amount of movement.
Here’s a quick exercise that will give you a feel for how many movements you actually make. It will help you determine the balance needed between dialogue and description in your writing.
Choose an activity you commonly do at home or at work. It can be as small a task as sitting in a chair, working on the laptop, or other computer keyboard. Here are a few possible questions to get you started.
- Where are your hands when not on the keyboard?
- Are you leaning in, or away?
- Do you cross your legs?
- Crane your neck?
- Arch your back?
- Tap your finger on the mouse?
- Use the dog as a footrest?
- Lift the cat off the keyboard?
- Roll your eyes?
Write out what you are physically doing, making a conscious effort to write all the steps you take. The first time I tried this I was shocked at how many little steps are involved in doing even simple tasks. Weave these descriptions into your manuscripts to help your characters come alive.
Other Body Language Recommendations
Make a list of the emotions your main characters exhibit along with the accompanying body language. Think about how your main characters move and react. How does your antagonist look when she is amused? What body language does your protagonist use when angered?
Avoid repetitive gestures.
Repeating gestures can be annoying. Certainly, it feels forced. Not every character should clench their fists or waggle their eyebrows. One character can habitually use the same gesture now and then, but not everyone. (Although thinking about a town full of people waggling their eyebrows makes me chuckle.)
Use vivid action verbs.
Choosing the right verb helps express the emotion you want to convey. For example, there are many ways to walk and each alternative verb implies an emotion. We can:
- stride into a room
- sashay down the boardwalk
- lumber across the floor.
Each of the three verbs is a form of walking, all with different nuances. Each paints a distinct picture.
For dialogue tags, said is never wrong. Unfortunately, I find myself using smile, laugh, and nod. My current Work In Progress had a whole lot of nodding going on. After someone brought this to my attention, I did a "nod search" on my Word document and was appalled by the many cheerful yellow highlights.
Wise words from my editor about empty words and gestures. (Those are pauses between lines of dialogue that don’t advance a scene or characterize.) She said, “If you point something out by putting it down on the page, it needs a reason to be there. Your job during your editing phase is to second guess every image you put down on the page and make sure it’s clearly what you mean.”
Too many descriptors make readers focus on the details instead of the feelings you want them to experience. Or worse, it gives readers a chance to trip on the details and get pulled out of the story. Meaningless details interrupt the flow.
As with all else in writing, put just enough body language in your prose to get your point across.
- For a great list of body language phrases, see Sharla Rae's post.
- Margie Lawson also gave us tips on writing FRESH body language.
Do you struggle with writing effective body language? Do you have a gesture like nodding that you overuse? Share your body language tips and questions with us down in the comments!
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.
by Kathy Meis
Much of my workday at Bublish is spent talking with authors about the intersection of creativity and commerce—how to be true to one’s artistic intentions while writing work that is commercially viable.
Early on in these conversations, I encourage authors to take some time to articulate both their artistic and commercial aspirations—no matter where they are in their writing career. To me, this is very important work for all writers to do as early as possible. It’s an exercise that should kick off every writing career and every new writing project.
A writer should ask themselves: Why do I write? Where do I hope this creative journey will take me? And they should be as honest and thorough as possible in answering these questions.
Often I learn that this is the first-time the writer on the other end of the phone has engaged in such self-reflection. Up to our call, they explain, the story has led. They may have a vague sense of what they hope to achieve, but they haven’t taken the time to fully explore their intentions, motivations or desires when it comes to balancing creative and commercial interests. They are simply swimming in story ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, creative immersion can be filled with growth and wonder. It’s a beautiful thing to behold and experience. But over time, it can also be exhausting. A writer can lose his or her moorings. There can be a sense of being adrift and alone.
Riding creative currents is fine for a time...but if an author feels disheartened when a colleague achieves commercial success, it’s probably because they haven’t been completely honest with themselves. They haven’t fairly considered their professional hopes and dreams and what it takes to achieve them. Now, they are drowning in story.
Great writing careers are driven by the author, not the story. By no means does this imply an author has abandoned creativity; they have simply learned to harness it. The creative is in charge, not the creation. There is a big difference. With intentional work, the author has mastered craft and commerce.
Authors who have taken the time to dig deep are often surprised to discover that creativity and commerce are not in conflict, as they might have once thought. Rather, their explorations show them that their creative intentions can be aligned with their commercial goals. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here, but there are answers. And having defined the terms of a unique, creative endeavor, an author can now confidently make decisions both inside and outside their manuscript.
Questions For Your Creative Journey
What do you really want out of your creative journey? Know your answer. It’s quite liberating.
If you’re comfortable taking the time to answer that question, I have another for you. This one is meant to help you dig a little deeper into your relationship with the commerce side of the equation, because that’s typically where the discomfort is most pronounced.
It might seem like a simple question, but your answer is pivotal to your commercial success, however you define that success. In a marketplace where more than 70,000 new titles are published each month, it’s crucial to be writing for someone. It might be ten readers in your hometown, or thousands of readers that purchase your books online or in bookstores and libraries across the globe. But are you writing for someone other than yourself?
Like you, each reader is an individual with different interests, likes and dislikes. But like all of us, they also yearn for connection through shared stories and ideas.
Do you think of them when you write?
Have you explored their commonalities?
Are you open to engaging with them, learning from them, and building community around your work?
After looking inward to define your relationship with creativity and commerce, try looking outward to learn about your readers. It’s yet another way to align your artistic intentions and professional goals, and will enrich your creative journey immensely. Much joy can be found in writing work that delights others.
Once you know your readers, it is your promise to them that will become the foundation of your author brand—a much misunderstood term that makes many authors cringe. Authors are told they need a brand to break through the noise in today’s crowded book marketplace. People talk about brands like they are something an author has to put on—like clothes. It can feel forced and lacking in authenticity. But, if done well, nothing could be further from the truth.
A powerful author brand is the nexus of an author’s choices about creativity and commerce. An authentic author brand emerges from the work we discussed at the start of this post and continues to evolve through ongoing self-exploration and continuous feedback from an author’s community of readers. That doesn’t sound terrible, does it?
As someone who frequently sees authors struggle with the commercial side of publishing, I encourage you to step away from the writing for a moment and have a frank conversation with yourself.
Ask yourself the hard questions. Define what you want. Come to terms with your creative and commercial desires. Find meaning in the entire journey of publishing and define success in your own terms.
How do you define success in writing? Do you know your audience? Do you personally write with them in mind?
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Kathy Meis is the founder of Bublish, the world's first complete publishing platform with built-in marketing. She is an entrepreneur, writer, editor and ghostwriter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the media and publishing industries. She has worked for such iconic editorial brands as CBS and Forbes and served as a founding partner of PubSmart, an author-centric publishing conference held in Charleston, South Carolina. As a frequent blogger and speaker on a wide variety of topics, Kathy has become a sought-after expert on the topic of independent publishing and disruption in the publishing industry. She has spoken at Book Expo America, Women in Media, San Francisco Writers Conference, GrubSteet, and IndieRecon, among others.
By Barbara Linn Probst
Writing a book is hard. So is getting published, and so is achieving success as a writer. If that’s true, then why do we do it?
We may have asked ourselves this question, and others may have asked us. It’s not always an easy question to answer! Our reasons can be complex, difficult to articulate, and uncomfortably personal, making us feel vulnerable and exposed. Yet it’s a question worth asking—especially now, when many of us are struggling to find the energy and motivation to keep going. We read editorials about how important books are right now, and how stories have always been a source of comfort and healing and hope. That’s true—for readers. For writers, it’s more complex.
So I asked fellow writers: Why do you write? And why are you writing this particular book? Their responses, together with my own reflections, point to three primary reasons that I’m calling artistry, identity, and legacy. They’re not mutually exclusive, of course. People can write for more than one reason, or for different reasons at different times. As one person noted: “Sometimes it’s to reach out for connection with others, and sometimes it’s for my eyes only.”
Artistry: the act of writing
Writing is both art and craft. Like painting, sculpture, or musical composition, writing allows us to create something new; like singing, playing an instrument, or acting, it allows us to express our creativity through a vehicle that someone else has provided. Language, rather than colors or sounds, is our tool.
Writing is art because it can evoke emotions and meanings that go beyond the surface of the words themselves. It’s also craft because it requires skills that have to be learned and practiced. While one can argue that some forms of writing, such as experimental poetry, are art precisely because they reject all conventions, conventions and skills are not the same thing, and I think it’s fair to say that good writing requires the development of skill, in one form or another.
As with all forms of artistic expression, people write because they have something they want to convey—a vision, a passion, a need to give voice, that they can’t quite account for and can’t quite control. One person wrote: “It’s a compulsion, brought on by these characters 'knocking on my imagination's door' screaming to be let out!” Writing is an outlet, a release, an itch that simply must be scratched. The story or characters won’t take no for an answer.
For some, it’s not so much a particular story clamoring to be written as it is the more generic opportunity for self-expression and exploration, “because it's such a thrill to compose and play and weave and see what happens.”
There’s a blend of the personal and the impersonal in the artistic process—the joy of the creative experience (a personal pleasure), and the sense of being a channel or vessel through which a story makes itself known (being “called,” in service of the story).
In short, people write for the meaning they derive from the act of writing.
Identity: the state of being a writer
Being a writer is an identity: it’s who I am (or want to be) and where I belong. “Writing stories is all I've ever wanted to do,” and “It’s just who I am.” As one person put it: “it just feels like my identity. I know, I know, you're not supposed to BE your work, but I'm not sure how to separate it.”
Others wrote about the experience of community, of finding one’s tribe. “I have met ‘my people’ in the writing community. A joyful side-effect of writing a book!”
Being a member of a community—claiming a place, asserting one’s right to the identity that accompanies membership—can, for some, evoke insecurity as well as connection. Do I have the right to call myself a writer? Am I good enough, as good as the others? Writers, regardless of what they’ve published or accomplished, sometimes speak of what’s called imposter syndrome—feeling unworthy and afraid of revealing one’s inauthenticity. It’s tricky because there’s no objective criterion for calling oneself a writer, no license or test, the way there is for calling oneself a doctor.
For some people, the identity of writer only belongs to those who’ve published. Unpublished writers are apprentices, members-in-waiting, hoping for legitimacy and entrance to the community. This is tricky too. Without a clear and common definition, I may think of myself as a “writer,” though my friends and family don’t. Or it can go the other way, as others urge me to claim an identity that I don’t feel I’ve earned.
It’s interesting to note that there are times when the focus on publication actually detracts from the sense of identity as a writer. One person confessed that, after achieving the longed-for goal of publication, “it took me years to come back to the joy of rediscovering the sacred place of writing.”
In short, people write because it’s a way to embrace an identity.
Legacy: the gift of having written
We write for ourselves, because we must, and we write for others. Although there can be a deep fulfillment in the experience of putting ideas and images into words—an experience that’s complete in itself—most writers do want their work to be read. Writing is restorative, healing, profoundly satisfying. But it’s relational too.
Through writing, we hope to touch others, and to continue to touch them after we’re gone. Whether it’s egoism or simply part of being human, we want to make a difference, to be remembered. Our writing is part of our legacy, stamped with our name.
There can be an impersonal aspect to this, as well—the wish to make sure that the story itself isn’t lost, especially if it’s a story about an individual or group that might not be able to tell it themselves. We can be the one to bear witness or bring a forgotten era to life.
In short, people write because it’s a way to leave something behind.
Artistry, identity, legacy, or a combination of all three?
Whether writing is an item on a late-in-life bucket list, an unfulfilled longing from childhood, or something that’s always been part of our lives—we feel its summons. We need to get the stories out of our heads and onto the page, to reach others and be read. As one person put it, the urgency to write “sometimes scares me and at other times gives me wings.”
For me, personally, artistry and legacy are the strongest motives. I love the process and want to give back to others in a meaningful, enduring way.
What about you? Why do you write? Please share with us down in the comments!
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Barbara Linn Probst is the author of much-anticipated Queen of the Owls, published by the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and is the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To order or learn more, please visit http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.
A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life. How much is Elizabeth willing to risk to be truly seen and known?
Click here to read more or to order the book.