This was also cross-posted at Reader Questions: How do you Pitch the Multi-Volume Series to Publishers? on Deep Genre
In the responses to this I came across an oft repeated suggestion (from authors, editors and agents alike) that boils down to the following:
If you are a first time author and you want to write a multi-volume epic fantasy story it is best if the first book can be a self-contained, stand-alone book that can easily be the start of a longer larger plot.
Having Book One be simply the opening volume of what is really one large story told over multiple volumes isn't recommended. Not that it can't be done, but this would be the exception and not the rule.
After reading so many professionals express this opinion it has lead me to take a break from my book and stop and think about this.
I realize my story is 1 story told over the course of 5 volumes and that there really isn't any way to make book one stand alone. That said, I do have a book that is a prequel of sorts to this 5 volume story. For a long time this was the book I was going to write. I actually do have about 18000 words written from a long time ago. So, I've spent the past week looking at this story and looking at how much the multi-volume story has been transformed this past year into the story that has been waiting there all this time.
And last night it suddenly came to me how I can do this stand alone prequel. I realized that my opening has to go. In fact, the circumstances of my main character (a squire nearing knighthood) will be dramatically different than their current state.
And suddenly, this story is coming alive. Just as the multi-volume story has finally blossomed into the gem that has been waiting for so long for me to notice, so too has this simple tale of a squire's journey to knighthood in the face of betrayal and royal fratricide sprung to life.
I've a lot of plot work ahead of me before I can write the new first draft, but I think this may actually work out for the best. And since I have been writing and plotting the 5 volume epic story (which will contain many of the same characters) I can actually slip some subtle foreshadowing into this book.
I also think this will help me with how to handle these characters in the multi-volume series, since it is the events of this stand alone prequel that really set the groundwork for the relationships that exist at the beginning of that bigger story.
I enjoy writing, but I have made a commitment to trying my hand at becoming published. If authors, editors and agents are all recommending this as the better path, I'll give their advice a shot.