Margaret Fortune on Writing a Series of Standalones


Cover detail from Archangel by Margaret Fortune / Penguin Random House ©

I never intended to write a series. As a reader, I’ve never been big on them. My inevitable problem has always been that by the time the next book comes out, I’ve usually forgotten the last one. While the author proudly trots out all their old characters, clearly expecting me to greet them like long-lost friends, I’m usually sitting there, scratching my head and saying, “Who is that again?” So I find it particularly amusing that my first book deal ended up being a five-book series. Not a book plus sequel, not a trilogy. Five books.

What was I thinking?

Though I’ve never been a huge series reader, I can certainly understand the appeal. Most books in a series will feature the same characters doing the same types of things in the same or similar settings. As a result, if you like the first book, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll like the rest of the series. Who doesn’t like to pick up a new book they feel reasonably confident they’ll enjoy? The only downside is that if you’re utilizing the same story elements over and over, you can potentially get stuck in a rut and end up with books that are a little too similar. Instead of really pushing the boundaries of your world with each new book, you can get books that sound like covers of the same song—the musical dressing varies, but the basic melody remains the same. So when I conceived the Spectre War series, I decided to try a format that would really force me to break new ground with each additional book.

The first book, Nova, was written as a standalone. At the time I wrote it, I didn’t have a literary agent yet, and I didn’t want to write a sequel if I couldn’t get anyone interested in the first book. But Nova took some unexpected turns during the writing process, and the eventual ending left open some big questions which could only be answered through a sequel or even a series. Knowing any interested agent or publisher would ask about a potential series, I figured I’d better sit down and think about it ahead of time so that when the question came, I would have an answer. When the brainstorming ended and the dust cleared, I had gone from one book to five.

I guess you could say I did a lot of brainstorming.

Now there’s nothing arbitrary about the number five. While some series will go on indefinitely until the author finally finds a good stopping point or simply decides it’s time to move on to other stories, the Spectre War series has always been very finite. Everything, from the main plot all the way down to each and every subplot, is resolved within exactly five books—no more, no less. All loose threads snipped, all questions answered. It was conceived that way, and now halfway through book three, has remained that way.

While the five books form a (mostly) chronological series, they are also standalones to a certain degree. Each book features a different main character (chosen from the cast of the first book), as well as its own distinct setting, plot, supporting cast, and themes. While every book will do its part to advance the larger series plot, each book will also deliver a full story complete with conflict, obstacles, and a resolution. Some might describe the books as companions rather than a series; I think of them as the pieces of a puzzle. Each is a unit in and of itself, but only when you put them all together do you see the full picture.

At the time I conceived the series, I was excited about all the possibilities this format would give me to expand on my universe with every book. It was only later, after the series sold and I actually started writing the next book, that it occurred to me:

I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult way to write this series if I’d tried.

Instead of being able to reuse the setting, cast, and themes created for the first one, I would have to start almost entirely from scratch for each book, worldbuilding a new setting—or in some cases several settings—and developing a new cast. Additionally, I would have to create a different plot for each book, one that operated as a complete story on its own but still added a key piece to the overall plot of the series. As if that wasn’t challenge enough, I would have to then take these distinctly different books and seamlessly tie them all together into one overarching story. Any mistakes made in the early books, even small ones, could potentially come back to haunt me by the end.

However, despite the obvious challenges of formatting the series this way, it also provided me with the opportunity to examine an interstellar war from five very different points of view.

A genetically engineered human bomb who winds up in a serious conundrum when she turns out to be a dud.

A soldier who must hunt down a saboteur after he’s recruited to test new weaponry at the most classified R&D base in the galaxy.

A young woman caught in an oncoming invasion, only to turn around and become the most powerful resistance leader on her planet.

A biological testing subject whose immunity makes him the perfect guinea pig for an unscrupulous group of researchers.

A fledgling psychic whose growing abilities may just hold the key to saving the entire human race.

The books take us from space stations to alien planets to warships, exploring themes such as identity, grief, power, obsession, research ethics, and redemption. While arguably I could’ve featured every character in every book, splitting them up into separate books allows me to explore the various characters and themes in greater depth and detail, without the risk of overwhelming the reader with competing storylines and an overabundance of information. So while some of the challenges may be greater, I find the potential benefits to be worth it.

When I first began Nova, I figured one book and I would be done. Like I said—I never intended to write a series. But writing doesn’t always go the way you think it will, and sometimes you find that you have a lot more story to tell than you thought you did. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that wherever the journey takes you, you just have to hang on and enjoy the ride. I hope you’ll consider taking a trip through the Nova universe with me.

Happy Reading!