Dear YA Authors

Dear YA authors,

I graduated from middle grade fiction a long time ago.  Hardly knowing what was to become of me, I left the world of short, heartwarming stories about orphans and cats behind and invaded the unknown land of death, kissing, and trilogies.  I used to bemoan the absence of books over 300 pages, but now the shelves are chock full of long books.  Not only that, but no author stops at a single book– they always write at least three books per series.  I thought that was great.

At least, until I realized I wanted something else.

Series are great.  It’s always nice to follow the same characters through a few books, watching them as they grow over time.  Trilogies likewise.  Trilogies have a distinct format that makes it enjoyable to see two opponents fight each other for three books in a row.  It’s a great feeling, when you reach the end, to know that the main characters have finally won out against all odds.  They can finally live.  Regardless of the predictability of a trilogy– with its charming first book, its slightly sagging sequel, and its dark and bloody finale– a trilogy makes a nice, tight boxed set that looks great on any bookshelf.

But after a while, trilogies get tiring, don’t you think?

The majority of books in YA are trilogies.  If any book you thought was a stand-alone ends in a cliffhanger, you can safely assume that it’s the first of three.  Trilogies have become the default series length.  Perhaps it’s because long series are more difficult to sustain, especially when it’s the same villain every time.  J.K. Rowling did it, but she added so many mini-villains along the way that we didn’t really see Voldemort until the fourth book.  If the villain keeps escaping from final battles, won’t the readers get bored?  Not with only three books.

But does the villain have to escape?  I know the thrill of cliffhangers– I know how fun they are to write, imagining the readers squirming in pain as you force them to wait for the next book.  I know how terrible they are to read as well.  This is no “Save the Readers– Abolish Cliffhangers” plea.  I simply think the reign of trilogies as lords of the book pile should end.

I have a hankering for a good stand-alone novel.

I’m sure I could find one anywhere.  Debut authors trying to break into YA; remnants of the middle grade fantasy I used to read; or adult crime novels.  But that isn’t exactly what I had in mind.  I don’t want to go back to middle grade.  Neither do I want to skip ahead to adult.  I want to see a YA fantasy published as a stand-alone novel.  No sequels, no cliffhangers– just a simple book that ties up its own loose ends.

I read Shadow and Bone a few weeks ago.  I loved it.  However, as I neared the end, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I loved the main characters, I loved the world, and I loved the plot– but I desperately wanted it to stand alone.  As a stand-alone novel, it would be perfect.  The romantic character arc had already happened, the villain was right there to defeat, the world could be set to rights in a single blow.  Everything was perfect.

Shadow and Bone ended with a promise for a trilogy.

I still loved the ending.  I loved almost everything about that book.  It would have been better, however, as a stand-alone novel.

Airman is my favorite book by Eoin Colfer.  It has remained my favorite book despite competitors such as Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian.  Why?  Because it stands alone.  It takes skill to write a good stand-alone novel.  The ability to create the same level of tension over one book instead of over three is extremely difficult.  Trilogies tend to take their time developing characters and romantic subplots, but stand-alone novels are forced to do it quickly and expertly.  In my opinion, stand-alone novels are more difficult to write than series.

Of course, trilogies have their charms.  As I said before, their structure works well.  Not only that, but with three books published instead of just one, that’s at least three times the money.  But is that your goal as authors?  Is your goal to write money-making books?  Or is it to write good books?  In the same time you write a trilogy, you can write three stand-alones, and there’s nothing to say they won’t sell as well.  Not only that, but they’ll help your reputation.  Do you know how many times I have picked up an interesting-looking book and set it back down because it was the second or third book in a trilogy?  With stand-alones, however, you have the opportunity to catch the reader immediately instead of letting them forget about you.

Still want to write a series?  You don’t think your publisher will keep you on if you only write stand-alones?  Fair enough, but take a look at a few series for me.  Artemis Fowl, for example.  Brian Jacques’s Redwall series.  The Iron Man movie franchise.  All of these series are made up of stand-alone novels.  Some, like Artemis Fowl and Iron Man, use the same main characters– others, like Redwall, only use the same world.  However, each novel stands alone.  How is that possible?  Simply this: they use different antagonists.

The only thing that changes between each Redwall novel is the characters involved, but even then, only specific characters.  The main characters infallibly come from Redwall Abbey or have allies therein– all the main characters are remarkably similar.  However, the villains are diverse.  From book to book, we rarely found anything new about Redwall Abbey or Mossflower Wood, but we always found a new faction of villains to defeat.  It was the way that the world expanded; not by showing different places in which to battle, but by showing different people.

Iron Man couldn’t have been the only movie in its franchise.  Although the antagonist had been defeated, there was an unresolved threat– the public view of Tony Stark.  Similar was The Hunger Games trilogy, though it concentrated more on the Capitol through all three books than on three separate villains.  The Hunger Games did need to be a trilogy, though I have other issues with its format.

Artemis Fowl, like Redwall, always brought in new and interesting antagonists to defeat.  They might be completely unheard of, popping out of the woodwork because they want a crack at the boy genius, or they might be old enemies from even before the series began.  Things remain unresolved at the end of each book, but the villain is always defeated.

I don’t want any more trilogies.  I’ve grown tired of seeing Darth Vader spinning away from the exploding Death Star.  I want to see some stand-alone novels that tie up their own loose ends.  Stand-alones aren’t evil.  Neither is a trilogy the answer for everything.  Enough with boxed sets.

Sincerely,

Liam
Head Phil

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72 thoughts on “Dear YA Authors

  1. Liam, you have made me feel really great about writing not just one but two trilogies. Though, to be fair, in one of my trilogies the villain of my first book becomes one of the protagonists of my next book to discover the greater enemy at hand, who is then warded off in the third book. There’s even a prequel. I bet you’re thrilled.
    I guess I just don’t like to write stand alone books because I get far too attached to my own characters. The book I wrote for Camp NaNo was a stand alone though, so I suppose I’m not entirely hopeless.

      1. I don’t write because I want my books to sell (though that would be nice), I write because I love it.

  2. Wow.
    It’s been a while since I attempted a stand-alone. Drake’s story morphed into five books, Zeph’s story is a trilogy. The one I wrote before Drake was a sequel. That’s about 4 years ago.
    Still, off the top of my head, I can think of two ideas I have that could be stand-alones. Not that you were specifically asking me to write a stand-alone.

      1. I have a good feeling about this one. I’m not writing it for publication, but I do want to post it on my Google+. If it gets too long, I’ll break it into parts.

  3. I’d be okay with the boxed sets if all the books came out at one time. I am impatient and can’t stand reading books in an incomplete trilogy or series (particularly when there’s more than a year between books).

    1. Ah, yes, a common complaint. I usually don’t have a problem with that because I come late to almost all the parties– such as Mistborn and the Hunger Games– but with series like the Inheritance Cycle, where the last book was five years after the penultimate one, I got the gist of those feelings.

  4. I love trilogies. I have no qualms if a series is a trilogy. However, I do like it when a book is a standalone, because my lazier-reader-side can’t be bothered waiting for more books to come out (authors write so slow, apparently). I love all John Green’s standalones. Also The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Milkweed, and The End Games, and…I won’t go on. But least to say, I have a TON of top-favourite standalones. I don’t find them difficult to find. 😉

  5. I know what you mean about trilogies. Sometimes, I want a novel I can sit down with and read and not have to worry about having to read two more books to find out how it all ends.
    A good stand-alone novel, in my opinion, is Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken.
    Also a good series of stand-alones is Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan. Some of the books had a some spoilers for the earlier books, but not many.

    1. I almost made the example of Ranger’s Apprentice, but I didn’t. A few of the books have cliffhangers for the next ones– books one through four are connected that way, five and six are tied together, and eight and nine are as well. But you’re quite right, they’re all good stories in their own rights.

  6. YES. I’m not the only one who thinks this!

    I actually don’t read as much as I’d like to because of this exact problem. Almost every book I come across is part of a trilogy. When I’m waiting for the second and third book of one trilogy, I start another trilogy. And another. Soon enough, I’m attempting to read 20 different trilogies at once. Because of the suspense involved, I’m hooked, and I have to read them all the second I get the chance to do so. And then nothing gets done in regards to school, music, miscellaneous personal goals… So I become reluctant to start the trilogies in the first place – but that’s all there is to read! I can’t find much of anything that I want to read that’s not a trilogy (and I’m sure there are books out there, but I’m not finding them). As a result, I don’t read nearly as much as I should. And I do still want to read YA fantasy because I enjoy it a lot. I really wish there were more stand-alones, so I could just read the book and move on with my life at its conclusion.

  7. I never get around to reading trilogies, I see too much of them everywhere. I love stand alones too! My school library doesn’t exactly have all the books in one series, or trilogy, so I prefer stand alones to series/trilogies. (The only full series my school library has is Harry Potter.Which I’m not allowed to read.)

  8. What. Wow. Yes. This is perfect! I was thinking about this only last night. Series can be nice but sometimes one gets the feeling that the author is trying to make money. Or doesn’t know when to stop. Sometimes it’s just nice to read a book that ENDS, that wraps up and is not “to be continued…”

    I know you don’t like Terry Pratchett’s books, but the Discworld books (both the big series and the little ones like the Tiffany Aching books) make a good stand-alone series.

    Do you want some suggestions for good stand-alone books? I can think of maybe ten or so great ones.

    1. I knew you’d be pleased with it.

      Terry Pratchett… yes, I know… I just can’t get past the hideous plots to enjoy the jokes. But you’re right, he writes a lot of stand-alones.

      1. All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen
        Sisterland by Linda Newbery
        Dramarama by E. Lockhart (I know the title sounds ridiculous, but the rest of the books is much better)
        The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
        The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
        The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck
        There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli
        And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
        Pretty much any Roald Dahl book
        Ash by Malinda Lo
        I could go on, but I won’t. 🙂

        It seems like most mystery series make good stand-alones. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple / Hercule Poirot books, and Peter Abraham’s Echo Falls Mysteries series. Maybe that’s because the villain MUST be defeated – through detective work and all that – at the end of each story.

      2. Wow. Just hearing the titles of those makes me not want to read them. Thanks for that.

        Kidding. I’ll look for those. You’re right about the mystery stories– same with thrillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t many YA fantasy thrillers that aren’t about a young Sherlock Holmes investigating vampires.

  9. As much as I love stand-alone books (and trilogies) the only problem I have is that in a stand-alone some authors try to cram too much in too little pages. They have so many ideas and don’t want to get rid of necessary things that add nothing to the story. Sometimes it’s better for things to be a series.

    I recently read Shadow and Bone, and I agree. As a stand-alone, it would have been an excellent finish. However, they hinted at a sequel, like you said. Same thing happened in Jinx by Sage Blackwood (though it was not a book I thought all that good, because the characters were weak and the plot all over the place as if the author had plot bunnies rampaging in her head).

    With Jack Blank, I read in his author’s note that Matt made his first book end in a way that it could be a stand-alone, but left the door open in case he wanted to write more in that series. Truth be told, I didn’t expect a trilogy, but it was carried out well, with only the second book ending in a cliffhanger.

    The Fault In Our Stars is a stand-alone I recently read, which now has a place in my book drawer (yes, I know I’m not as cool for having a revolving bookcase instead of a little drawer). It was quite good, though a bit predictable. It made up for that with emotion, though I can’t say it was as good as people made it out to be, but I haven’t met anyone who agrees.

    Funny story I had with a trilogy. I checked out from the library what I thought was the whole trilogy. However, it was actually the first and third book, plus the second from a different trilogy by the same author. I was not a happy camper that day, and my fictional characters suffered torture and water buffaloes as a result of my frustration.

    Long comment, yes, but your post had me thinking. I do believe an idea I’ve had brewing for a while now can be made into a stand-alone.

    So, excellent post, Liam!

    1. I’m glad it hit home with you. I’m hoping to read The Fault in Our Stars eventually, but an opportunity has not yet presented itself. When it does, I shall be happy to discuss the book with you.

      While Jack Blank was a good, wrapped-up book, I’m glad Myklusch decided to make it into a trilogy. Sometimes you must, and it’s better that way.

      I rarely check out the whole trilogy because I might not like the first book. I just leave the other books there. Unlike with Mistborn, which I bought as a boxed set. But still.

      1. Excellent. I’m always up for a good book debate/talk/rant.

        Absolutely. I love that series as a whole, and he just kept getting better and better as the books went on.

        I always check out a whole trilogy because if I do happen to like it, then I have the next books at hand and don’t have to go flying back to the library in hopes that they have it, because usually they do not.

  10. Ah, you speak the words of many a sore heart among us! I love standalones myself – I mostly write them, if I’m honest with myself, because I don’t handle longer plot arcs so well as to maintain a series (the trilogy I did attempt was alright, but the events of book two and three got so far removed from book one that I began to wonder if I really needed to bother at all).

    That said, I do think we need to cut authors a little slack – what the publisher wants, they tend to get, and if they want a sequel to a book that does well, even if the author didn’t intend the book to be a franchise, that is what they must do.

    I do have BIG problems with overlong series, though – you know, the ones that really overstay their welcome. The blasted House of Night series is running on nearly 9 books now, and it stopped being remotely engaging at the end of book 3. Less and less happens with every installment, and the same plot elements come up over and over again.

    1. I write a lot of stand-alones too. I’m no plotter, so I can’t rest until I tie up everyone’s plot lines– leaving, of course, no room for sequels. (Except in the case of the Phil Phorce. I can’t figure out how I do that.) However, I’ve been attempting a few outlines for novels and things, and I think if I really concentrate on it, I can outline a trilogy. Maybe.

      I agree on the overlong series thing. The Warriors series, if you’ve heard of it, is now something like six series’ long. Every series is six books, and two books come out every year, or something like that. It went haywire in the third series. The first series was excellent, and the second was good, but the third was weird.

      1. Holy biscuits! I’ve only read the first Warriors series – I really enjoyed it. Six series . . . oh my. How on earth is it still going? New characters and all that I’m assuming.

      2. Good plan. Unfortunately, the Brian Jacques books are very close to them– but I go by Pippin’s logic: “The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm!”

  11. I 100% agree with you regarding trilogies. They seem to have eaten into series too, being the go-to length for anything that didn’t finish in its first try.

    But the thing that hit home with me was what you said about LENGTH. It’s astounding how quickly the definition of novel is exploding, far beyond its “old” regiment. You mentioned that 300+ page books are commonplace now, which is so true. And it makes me wonder what happened to the clean, clear, short novel.

    Is there no place for them anymore? A shame, since A Wrinkle In Time, Picture of Dorian Grey, and Animal Farm are some of my favorite books.

    1. I don’t mind a long stand-alone, actually, but you’re absolutely right. If you can cram the same amount of emotion and power into 200 pages as you can into 500, you’re amazing.

  12. Huh. It’s funny that I should read this, because neither of my two fantasy stories are trilogies. One, I am, actually, planning to be a stand-alone. There isn’t *that* much story to tell and I’m pretty sure it’ll only need about 80,000 words to tell it in it’s entirety.

    My other story, on the other hand, is going to be four books, if it goes as planned. I’ll admit, it was initially going to be a trilogy, but I realized the format of this particular story doesn’t quite fit. Four books seems to be much nicer.

    I realized, recently, that you never see a series that’s composed of just two books…. hmm….

    1. Two book series are rare, you’re right, but I don’t believe they’re unheard of. There’s probably some series somewhere that’s only two books, though three is always a punchier number.

  13. The Scorpio Races, The Fault In Our Stars and Wormwood are all really good novels. I love series books. Trilogies are overused but it is generally the publisher finding a cash cow. I read Ender’s Game as a standalone novel.

    I’m currently writing a series of six, it’s actually more like two trilogies within the same world and a few of the same characters. Kai and Dante’s story is long and doesn’t end happily.

    Valentina is a character whose story is undecided in length. Is it a trilogy? Is it a standalone? I have no idea.

    When I write fanfiction I mostly write standalone but I have this one which is four.

      1. Yeah, The Scorpio Races was good, though I only read it in a day which disappointed me. Wormwood is sort of historical fiction but with angels and magic. You may not be into that sort of thing.

  14. Yes! The Airman.
    I am a really quiet person, but I actually started yelling when you mentioned that. (I was agreeing with you) There should be far more books with that level of, well, detachment, really. Oh, that and having the sense to realize that a child is not going to be able to solve the sort of problems that writers typically thrust upon their heroes.
    The Airman is a good book for the reason that it remembers that it is a book, that it is telling a story, that its writer is not limited by perspective, or time, or anything except imagination.
    Do modern trilogies really need all the words they use? I don’t think so.

    1. Indeed. It was a well-written, unique novel— but I don’t think all novels could be like that, or we’d lose respect for the ones we love most now.

      Thanks for the comment!

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