Monday, April 20, 2015

Agency Lessons: Querying a series

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made. 

When it comes to writing a series, it seems like the extra questions that pop up seem to multiply with each book you add. Do you write the whole series and then query? Write the first book and then query with a full series synopsis? Write the first book and nothing else so you can walk away if it doesn't sell?

So many questions. And conflicting advice everywhere. So let's add a few more opinions into the mix, shall we.

I love a good series. There is something really gratifying about coming back to the same characters and following them as they grow. As an author, I appreciate just how hard that can be.

Let's start with when to write what. Some will say that you should only write the first book and that way you haven't wasted time writing a second book if the first doesn't sell. Others suggest you should write the whole enchilada before you sell so you have all the kinks worked out. Here's what I think.

Write what makes you happy. I wrote a manuscript and expected it to be the first in a trilogy. While I was mistakenly querying that plot-less wonder, I wrote the second book. I'm fairly certain neither one of them will ever see the light of day. But I'm not sorry I spent the time writing the second one.

For starters, I was so in love with the story that I knocked out the first draft in 10 days. Also, I know it helped me grow in my craft because practice is what makes me a better writer. And that was the story in my head right then. If I had tried to ignore it, I would have fumbled through writing something else until I came back to it. That's how my brain works. Maybe your brain works differently. The point is whether you write the series or just one book is up to you. Write what makes you happy.

Now when it comes to querying, I have a less touchy-feely answer. Do not query an entire series. I get queries all the time that try to explain an entire trilogy in a single query. As you can imagine, this is a disaster. Don't do this. Start with book one. Craft your query as if this book stood all on it's own. Then tell me that it's part of a series, completed or planned.

Also, let me know if your book can stand on it's own. If you are a debut author I cannot recommend strongly enough that the first book in your series should be able to stand on its own two feet. If it can't, don't tell me it can. I will know that it can't when I read your synopsis and then I will be in a bad mood because you lied. Don't lie. If your book needs the others in the series to tell a full story, tell me.

There is no wrong or right way to write a series. But no matter how you write it only the first book belongs in your query and synopsis.

Anyone want to share your best tips for writing a series? 


  1. So just query the first volume, and left the second volume to later? I was actually strongly thinking, because the second half is so short, to hybridize and sell the second half a sequel short on Amazon.

    Including the second half (instead of making it a series) would make it a query-able length), but also jarringly lack the subplots the first half had.

    1. My best advice is to focus on the first book. Decide what you want to do with that and start there. Don't worry about what comes next before you've gotten over the first hurdles.

  2. Very interesting. I've wondered if the rule about series applies the same way to fantasy books. The fantasy genre seems to be very series heavy, around 70%, suggesting that readers expect or want that. Whereas other genres of fiction seem to only have 25% series. Mind you, I'm getting my figures from walking around the largest Barnes& Noble in my area. I'm sure the numbers change if looking at Amazon or Smashwords. But if someone is bothering to query in search of an agent, it seems that the hope of the author is to gain a spot at chain bookstores.

    Also, while I can appreciate your not wishing to be lied to about a stand alone really being a series, it is worth noting that every query writing class and book from the last five years flat out states to call anything an author queries a "stand alone." It sounds like a set-in-stone rule. So writers planning on publication are faced with with either fibbing, facing rejection based on rule-breaking, or just going indie. Those are the only three options. That's the predicament. (And it comes along with looking at the first Harry Potter book and knowing that Voldermort was deterred, not defeated. That Harry's story has just begun. That the best selling books of our time would be lying if they called themselves stand alones... and yet, there's that rule to never, ever, ever, no matter what, pitch a series. Because it's impossible to sell a series. Which, again, is conflicting information, but that IS what's out there.)

    I'm sure it does me no good to point this out. But I've struggled with query writing, so I've taken a few classes on the subject. And the teacher will break out the red ink for the crime of being honest about a series being a series. (It's why my urban fantasy has been listed in the edit stage for three years. I can't figure out how to make the first book not part of a series, unless the word count boosts to over 150,000- which is also forbidden. I've shared with fifty beta readers who love the story, but all who hate every query draft I've ever done, and none who can tell me how to make it seem like a stand alone. But now I've gone and gotten personal, and that was not my intention.)

    Really, I just wanted to share that sometimes people are lying to you because they've been instructed to do so, or have paid someone $50 to edit their query and felt it wise to trust that experienced person who changed "series" to "stand alone." No writer wants to put an agent they're trying to hire into a bad mood. We'd all attach query letters to fresh baked goods if you told us to!

    1. I have to say I am highly disturbed that anyone would offer the professional advice that your best course of action is to lie to an agent. A query letter isn't a cog in the wheel. It is your first professional contact with someone who you, hopefully, respect and hope to form a productive business relationship. So let me stress this, you are not doing yourself any favors by lying. The secondary question here about what exactly makes a novel stand alone deserves its own post. Look for that in a future Agency Lesson.


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