Step carefully

April 4, 2010 at 09:56 (1)

A fan called Lily sent me the following question today:

When you were sending stuff out to agents (like a query), how did you go about saying you wanted to have a series? I’ve heard several people say that saying, “I have a (number) book series waiting to be published” or something along that line will get you rejected. So how did you go about getting 12 of your books in the Cirque du Freak series published?

I think a series normally IS problematic in the majority of cases. I actually didn’t approach my agent with a series plan initially — he took me on as an adult author, on the strength of one-off books which I had written. By the time I wrote and sent him Cirque Du Freak, I had demonstrated that I was serious about this business, and that I could follow up on ideas and promises. He trusted me to deliver when I said that I could take the characters and storylines forward and do interesting things with them. But I think he would have been far less trusting if CDF had been the first thing that I’d sent!

In short, you usually have to earn the trust of your agent. The easiest way to do this is with a self-contained story, a one-off book that proves what you can do. If the story you want to tell is simply too big for a single book, and you feel that you absolutely have to take more than one book to tell it, my advice is to try to make the first book as self-contained as it can be. If you look at CDF, the first book is actually a rounded story — although it ends with the possibility of sequels, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. When I started the book, I wasn’t sure if I would write any more, so I tried to give it as much of its own life as I could. With Lord Loss, I was absolutely certain when I wrote it that it would be a one-off — I had no plans at all to write any more demon books!!! If you’re a young writer approaching an agent with a series, I think the first book needs to stand on its own legs and tell its own story — you need to be able to present it as a solo package. It’s great if you can promise more, but you need to avoid the trap of having to say something like, “I know this one isn’t great by itself, but just wait until you see books 2 and 3 — they’re brilliant!!!”

Every writer needs to prove themself when they’re starting out. As a wannabe writer, nobody gives a damn about you, and there’s absolutely no reason why they should. That’s why rejection slips shouldn’t hurt you when they come — you have no automatic right to expect anything else. You have to work hard to earn the right to be taken seriously. I love the equality of the writing business — if you have talent and work hard, you can come from nowhere and take over the world!!! Big ideas are nice, but absolutely worthless unless you are able to make the most of them. I had plenty of big ideas when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16… but I lacked the skills and experience to turn them into fully fleshed-out novels. It’s good to start small and learn with short stories and one-off novels — those are the walking steps that almost every single author has had to take to develop. When you’ve racked up time doing that, you will then be in a great position to run with a series if that’s where your heart lies.

Some authors DO start straight off with a series, though you’ll usually find that they’re written a lot of unpublished work beforehand. It ISN’T impossible to learn your craft by working directly on a series at the start of your career, or to attract the attention of an agent and snag a publisher while doing so. But, generally speaking, it IS difficult to convince an agent to take you seriously if you approach them with a book that is the first of a series and can’t stand on its own two legs. Unless, of course, you can send in more than one book at the same time — if you’re truly convinced that your series so going to be the biggest success story ever, you shouldn’t be afraid to work on it in private, to write the sequels before you have a deal on the table. I did that with The Vampire’s Assistant, which I wrote before we had managed to sell the first book — I was so intrigued by the story that I felt that I HAD to write, even if just for myself.

In short, as always, my advice is to write as much as you can, learn as much as you can, have fun while writing, and then taken the professional side of things from there. Too much planning and calculating is pointless. Tell the stories you want to tell, then try your best to sell them and keep your fingers crossed!!!! If you do that, at the very least you’ll have entertained yourself, and that shold be the primary goal of any writer. Public success is a fickle thing — nobody can be sure if other people will have any interest in their work. If you write for yourself, telling the stories YOU want to read, then at least one person in the world is guaranteed to be pleased by them!! After that it’s in the lap of the gods…


  1. Bella said,

    Great advice Master Shan! I will deffinitly keep that in mind. I always wondered about that also. I was just writing a great short story that I was really interested and confident in but my computer crashed and I can’t work on it. Hopefully I can remember it all.

  2. Jimmy O'Donoghue said,

    Dear Darrn,
    I just want to say thank you for your post step carefully as it was truly insightful and a great motivational piece. I cannot believe I only recently discovered your work considering my love of horror literature and the fact my grandparents live just outside adare (well its pretty close!). My name is Jimmy and I have dreamed of being an author since I was 8, reading goosebumps books daily which progressed to stephen king, blatty, lovecraft, etc. As I finish my english degree in the university of limerick I am still adamant of my dream of being a successful author in the horror genre and I just really appreciated your honesty in this piece as my idea for my first novel is the 1st of a trilogy but I will probably write a different stand alone novel first after your advice. Anyway I am glad you have come so far Darren and your success really gives me hope and I am more motivated than ever to reach my goal. Thanks for your time and I will hopefully get a book signed by you at the Listowel Writers Week festival soon, one of the few perks that comes with living in that town! Cheers and keep up the fantastic work.


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