Series or Standalone or The Problems of Estimating When You Don’t Outline

By Carol Berg

Carol Berg PhotoIn my published writing career, I've started six projects. Three of them, I intended to be standalone novels. Only one of those three stayed that way. One project I sold as a three book series and it turned out to be four. Clearly I'm not great at estimating.

My problem is that I am an organic story developer. I hate the word pantser, because to me that implies the writer doesn't know where he or she is going. I always know where I need to start, and I always know where I'm going. My problem is, I don't always know how many events or scenes or words it's going to take me to get there. Nope, I don't outline individual books or a series as a whole. I generate events and scenes as I write, because, for me, story ideas blossom as I get to know my characters and see what kind of challenges and personal interactions will drive them toward the climactic events that I want to happen.

Berg_ThreeCoversOne example: My novel Transformation was intended and sold as a standalone. I brought it to a very satisfactory ending. A true completion of the story is very important to me. Only, just about the time I sent the book off to my editor, I realized something critical about my demonic villains. The story I had told was only a piece of a much larger story arc that dealt with the identity of those demons and how that related to the identity of my hero's people, their religion, and their single-minded pursuit of a war that took place in the physical landscape of human souls. That realization delighted me, but it also generated two additional novels that became the Books of the Rai-kirah. The single fantasy story became epic.

Three of my five "not-standalone" projects are this same kind of series. In these three series, the individual novels are separated by as little as a single day, or as many as four years. Each volume is a complete story in itself, but also a piece of a larger, continuing (epic!) story arc involving the same core of characters. Sometimes the books will have the same point of view character (like the Rai-kirah books) sometimes different ones (like the novels of the Collegia Magica).

I envisioned my Bridge of D'Arnath series as three books - and proposed and sold them on a three-page synopsis. The story centered around a disgraced noblewoman, a sorcerer/warrior who happened to have a displaced soul in his body, and the search for a kidnapped child - a child who had been brought up to believe he was evil. The third book ended when the boy was sixteen. But once I got there, the ending wasn't right. Having sons myself, I knew that no kid, especially one who had undergone the traumatic childhood of this one, was "finished" at age sixteen. That's where book four came from - Daughter of Ancients (NAL/Roc 2005) my first Colorado Book Award finalist. Oops!

Another project I mis-estimated was the novel Flesh and Spirit. I sold it as a standalone. But I also sold it on the basis of a single paragraph . When I was about halfway through writing it, I realized that there was no way this story would fit inside one book. I had to go back to my publisher and say, "You know this book I'm writing? It's really two." That is not a happy thing to say to a publisher. Fortunately, they liked it well enough to buy the second book! This became the Lighthouse Duet, a slightly different kind of epic series because it is really one big story split into two volumes. The resolution at the end of the first volume is really more of a turning point. Hey, I'm in good company. Lord of the Rings is really one big story split into three volumes, right?

Berg_DustandLightMy new series, the Sanctuary Duet is a parallel series to the Lighthouse books. I had the idea for Dust and Light (released just this month from NAL/ROC Books!) and wrote it up. Uh-oh, a paragraph! But I also wrote the first six chapters before I sent off the proposal. And this time, I told them it was going to be two books, even though I wasn't sure the story was big enough. . . Indeed, when I reached the resolution mark of Dust and Light, there was an overarching mystery that had not yet been solved, and so I clobbered poor Lucian de Remini on the head and sailed into Book 2, Ash and Silver (NAL/Roc, August 2015). But I haven't finished Ash and Silver yet, and there sure are lots of threads to resolve. Stay tuned…


Carol Berg never expected to become an award-winning author. She chose to major in math at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado so she wouldn’t have to write papers, and ended up in a software engineering career. Now her fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. A starred review from Publishers Weekly uses words like captivating, impressive, and perceptive about her newest novel, Dust and Light. Learn more at

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2 thoughts on “Series or Standalone or The Problems of Estimating When You Don’t Outline

  1. Thanks, Carol. As a plotter, I’m afraid of organic writing taking me out of control. But lately, I’ve been clobbered with the organic idea from all fronts and fear the universe is sending a message. I’m not sure a straight mystery lends itself to organic writing but I might give it a try. Your books are always so complete (and complicated) it speaks well for your process. Can’t wait to read Dust and Light!

  2. Thanks for a most helpful post, Carol. I wish I’d read it before I sold my upcoming novel Dead Wrong as a standalone. When I started my new wip, I realized right away that I could use the same cops in the new story….so there will be a character overlap even though it’s not a true sequel. If I had realized that way back, I would have set those characters up a little better. Live and learn. I’ll try to stop the pantsing and do better planning as I go forward.

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