Thursday, May 10, 2018

Talking about books within a series

I am writing a historical fiction series that will be about six books. It’s a saga chronicling events surrounding significant points in the evolution of early man, each book separated by thousands of years. The second book in the series is overly long and I must separate it into two books. The second book (of the two) will immediately follow the first with no ‘thousands of years’ separation.

Here’s my question: How do I describe the two books within the series? Are they a diptych? And would I then describe them as a diptych within a series?

Nothing will scare off editors faster than telling them you've got a six book series.
You think I'm joking?
I've got rejections letters on that very topic. (I revised the pitch promptly.)

Book One must function as a stand alone.
You query that.

If you get a two book deal, you tell your editor about what you envision as Book Two and Son of Book Two.

It may come as a surprise to you that editors might not want a book that happens several thousand years later as a sequel. For starters, all those characters we loved in Book One are dead. Long dead.

While series are certainly common, what you describe here doesn't really sound like a series. Series are connected by something other than significant points in history.

You do have something here that I've never seen before (but perhaps I'm missing something; if you think so, let me know in the comments column) and that's a plus.

I had to look up diptych cause it's one of those words I never remember the exact meaning of, and it seems to describe visual art more than how books relate to one another.

If at some point you need to describe the first three books in your planned six-title series, you call them books 1, 2 and 3. I like the power and clarity of plain words in a query (but I also love Jackson Pollock so there's that.)


Kathy Joyce said...

This sounds like the Clan of the Cave Bear series. Good luck OP, very ambitious!

Jen said...

Wow, I'm the first commenter of the day. I guess this is what happens when Thing 1 has a field trip and an early morning drop-off (Boy, do I need coffee).

Maybe it's just me, but I wonder if the OP might be writing narrative NF as opposed to a historical fiction? The "significant points in the evolution of early man" sounds a lot like NF to me, and if it is, is it pitched differently? Then again, my brain isn't functioning yet, so I'm probably reading everything incorrectly.

Jen said...

Make that the *Second* commenter of the day. Curse my slow fingers!

@Kathy- It does sound a lot like Clan of the Cave Bear, and you're right: that was an awesome series. I'd love to read another one like it.

K White said...

I recently finished reading the many years of posts on Evil Editor’s blog. I was shocked by how many of the query letters described a 3, 5, 8, 10 or more book series. Even as a reader I would frightened away by the sheer volume of commitment that would require (even reading all the blog posts became overwhelming at one point). I can understand why editors would be skittish. Their investment is much greater than the $26.99 I might pay.

However, Evil Editor always answered with the same advice as Janet: book 1 must be a stand alone. If it’s successful then publishers are more willing to talk series.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Kathy Joyce, my first thought as well.

OP, your dedication to subject is beyond admirable. And that's from someone who writes in less than 1000 word spurts regarding subjects ranging from the definition of love to yard sale fatigue. Sharing stories about the women in my family, three generations back, is about as historical as I get.
Good luck OP and 'write' on.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Here is a lesson I learned the hard way. Yeah, I have a bunch of stories that occur in the same fantasy realm, but noe they all stand on their own even when they share characters. Get that debut across the finish line and then deal with book 2, 3, etc.

Sam Hawke said...

Joan Wolf has a set of semi-historical fiction (but heavy on the fiction) books that are sort of like this - one for Alfred the Great, one for Arthur, one for an older king-ish figure whose name I can't remember - they're 'connected' only by reference to being about significant figures of power in Britain over very different time periods. I'm extremely fond of the Alfred one in particular (Born of the Sun).

I've only heard of triptychs and then only in the context of art (where you have 3 parts of the same image split into separate frames for display, or 3 connected images displayed together). I guess what you're describing is sort of loosely like the 2 books within GRRM's ASOIAF series (Game of Thrones, for non-fantasy people) which are really one book (one time period) split into two books dealing with different characters' perspectives over the same period. But no-one calls them anything different, they're just books in a series.

Anyway, that's Future You's problem, as I like to say. Present You only has to sell book 1 and you can sort all that pesky stuff out later. :)

AJ Blythe said...

OP, I have no knowledge of this at all, but Sam Hawke's description of Joan Wolf's series seems to describe what you've written/proposed. Google might be able to help define how Joan's books are categorised.

I have the last of the Clan of the Cave Bears series on my book shelf...unread! I bought it when it was released and promised myself I'd wait until got a weekend I could sit and read it through. Might need to revise that considering it's gathered dust for about 6 years. Don't think that weekend is ever going to happen.

Janet, I've been to the National Gallery twice recently and both visits took time to visit Pollock's Blue Poles. It's an amazing piece of art.

Julie Weathers said...


Yup, I have to agree with the Queen here. Sam has a good take on it. Regardless, your only focus is selling book one at this stage. If you don't get that done, it doesn't matter how many more you have or what you call them.

I'm not going to start writing a sequel to Rain Crow until I have a deal on it. Though to be honest, I'll be cutting so much out, I'll have quite a bit of material for book two.

I seem to have a problem writing single books, though I have written two that were. I didn't plan to write a sequel to Dancing Horse though early readers thought I should come back with a book about the Cajun cowboys. The other was my first fantasy that has been long shelved.

The agent who requested The Rain Crow at Surrey asked me if it had series potential. Oh, yes. It can stand alone, but it covers from Fort Sumter to the first Battle of Manassas in July 1861, so there's a lot of territory left. That's the way I'll pitch it. It has series potential.

Good luckk to OP. It sounds intriguing. That's an ambitious undertaking.

Jami said...

I'd probably say the two together make a duology. I wouldn't call what seems like otherwise unconnected books even a series at that point, from what you're describing. It sounds like, aside from the one pair, you just have multiple stand alone books inspired by historical events.

Kitty said...

Here's an online sit that allows you to paint like Jackson Pollock!

Megan V said...

OP's series as described here immediately made me think of an author I enjoyed reading in high school and college.

Edward Rutherford. He wrote (and I believe is still writing) epic historical novels that span thousands of years in the same location. In some cases, the books follow fictional families through the generations. For those of you who are European history buffs and haven't heard of him, I highly recommend reading his debut book SARUM. Fair warning, Rutherford's books are lengthy (over a thousand pages). It sounds to me like OP is trying to break down a Rutherford style book into a more acccessible series.

And I'm not sure what that would be called.

All I can say is best wishes OP. And if you're talking about a series in a query, "standalone with series potential" is the language I've often seen recommended. You just have to make sure book 1 is a standalone.

James Leisenring said...

I sometimes see the word "cycle" to describe a series of books that are related to each other but don't necessarily follow the same characters, or have to be read one after the other but still share the same universe. Maybe that's more what we are going for here?

Sam Mills said...

Second vote for duology over diptych. They're usually complete at two books (y'know, like a trilogy, but two), but I think what you're really describing is just a Part One and a Part Two.

Good luck! Sounds interesting.

Craig F said...

I think that in a query you should stick with 'stand alone with series potential'. Don't even bother to go into anything else at this point.

After you garner some attention and get asked 'what else you got?', then you can talk of duologies and a series with new characters in each installment.

I still can't quite get my head around that, new characters in each installment. I always thought that the object of a series is to create a brand, a Bosch, Davenport, or Lord Corwin.

LynnRodz said...

I guess I'm the only one who had to look up diptych, but I like learning new words. Like Kathy Joyce, the Clan of the Cave Bear series was the first thought that popped into my mind. After reading the first book, I couldn't wait for the next one to come out, and then the third, but by the fourth and fifth, I didn't have the same enthusiasm as I did for the first books. Like AJ Blythe, I still haven't gotten around to reading the last one and it came out years ago.

That's not to say, OP, that the same goes for your work. It's quite admirable to dedicate so much time and effort into a series. Good luck!

I like Jackson Pollock, not all his work, but mainly his drip period. I can say the same about Picasso, I didn't like all his work, but his blue period was my favorite.

KariV said...

Yes, each book needs to be standalone esp. because of the time span.

I'm reminded of the Clive Cussler novels - of which I own so many I could start my own library - those books follow a set of characters and are considered a series, but each book is very much stand-alone. I'll pull favs off my bookshelf at random and still get the whole picture because each book is self-contained.

@Julie Weathers - you need to finish Rain Crow and any sequels because I MUST read them! Civil War fiction used to be one of my favorites *genres* to read but I haven't had anything catch my eye for a while. Yours excites me!

LynnRodz said...

Doesn't the mind work in a strange way? I read my comment several times and it wasn't until I posted it and read it once it was published, that I noticed I went from present tense to past tense. I should've said, I can say the same about Picasso, I don't like all his work, but his blue period is my favorite.

I think when we see something in a different font, the obvious stands out. Why does our brain do that?

Okay...I'm leaving.

Jill Warner said...

OP's series sound like any one of James Michener's books. And from what I understand, he did *pretty well.*

LynnRodz, I had to look up diptych too.

Kali Delamagente said...

Thank you, Janet, for your thoughts on this. Between your post and all the helpful comments, I have a better understanding of the writing journey I've been sent on by my muse. Much appreciated, everyone!

Timothy Lowe said...

I don't think the words "stand alone with series potential" should appear in the query. Give genre and word count. Let the agent in question tell you if it has series potential. Believe me, they will if they believe so.

Each book you float is like gently placing a clam shell on a lake. You watch it go as far as it can. If you're really lucky, it reaches the other side.

Best of luck, OP.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Your second para. Seriously, I almost cried after reading it.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

@Megan V - I loved his book "London", but have yet to brave another of his books.

Timothy Lowe said...


Wow thanks. My brother and I did that when we were little. As I am readying to kick my book out the door and say a little prayer, the image came to mind.

Megan V said...

Morgan LONDON is by far my favorite! Such a great read. But it’s definitely a lengthy journey

Anonymous said...

When scouting around for other takes on queries, I see quite often comments from agents saying, "Oh, a series! So, you want a career! Fantastic!" It seems like half of agents don't want to hear about anything but the one book, and the other half of agents assume if you don't mention more than one book that you only want to write and sell the one book. What's a woodland critter to do?

Julie Weathers said...


Thank you so much. I'm working on the final battle now. I had the MC Lorena trapped in Alexandria where many of the wounded come after Bull Run, which affects her terribly. She's been working in a makeshift hospital. I may have to cut that for the sake of word count.

Stupid to say, the scenes have kind of torn the heart out of me to write. Today is the anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson who plays prominently in the story later. He was a remarkable man and haunted with tragedy all his life.

Anyway, there's a lot of story there, but one step at a time and as the agent in Surrey said, it's going to be a tough sell.

BrendaLynn said...

Good luck, Julie. Finish the race. Your book won’t be a tough sell to this reader.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

One of my BIG problems with Frank Herbert's DUNE series is that after the first three books there is a couple century time skip. And then between three and four is a HUGE time skip. Like, 4,000 years. As Ms. Reid says in her answer, all the characters I cared about are no more (and weirdly, one of the main technological flaws still....exists?). And then there's another similar time skip in the next book or so. And then the ending....

So that's scifi, not paleolithic folks, but books are characters.

Brittany Constable said...

"Duology" is the term I've heard most often. I know I've heard "duet" used for the same concept of paired books, but I think that might have been a story specifically relating to music.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Janet - great you've highlighted Jacqui's query ... and answered it succinctly and clearly - obviously a great help to many - cheers Hilary