Friday, April 15, 2016

Take Two: When to Start a Sequel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

So many books are series-based these days (especially in some genres), which can leave a lot of writers asking the same question--when is a good time to start my sequel?

I asked my agent the same thing before she sent my manuscript out on submission way back in 2008. She'd advised that I prepare a synopsis for the next two books so she'd have something to show editors, but to start on a new, non-sequel book in the meantime. Her reasoning was that if the first book didn't sell, I wouldn't have wasted time on a sequel that also wouldn't sell, and would instead be ready with a new book.

Sound advice.

Just about everyone will tell you not to write the sequel for a book you haven't sold yet (for the above reasons). Some folks (myself included) who've written the rest of the trilogy after they sold the first book swear they'd never do it again. They'd write the whole thing first and then submit. There are pros and con to either side, and no right or wrong here--just what you feel is best for you.

From the "Write it All Before You Try to Sell it" Camp

Stories change as they evolve, and what we think is going to go one way often goes another. When we have a book published and out in the world, we can't make changes to the story. Whatever we wrote in book one, we're stuck with. I found that true with The Shifter and after going through the trilogy experience, I'm in the "complete an entire first draft of a trilogy before I submit book one" camp. There were too many things I wish I could have gone back and tweaked by the time I got to book three.

If we write the entire thing at once, anything we do in book three can be added to book one, and the entire series can be fleshed out as one story. Stories do change as ideas appear, and even writing skill improves over the course of three books.

However, for a straight series (such as a mystery or romance), the stories are typically different in every book, even if they're set in the same world using the same characters. They don't rely on a previous book as much to understand the next book.

Writers in this camp often:
  • Want to see how the entire story plays out before trying to sell it
  • Want to stay in that world with those characters until it's all done
  • Enjoy writing it even if it will never sell
  • Don't want to sell just book one of this story
  • Aren't in a hurry to publish
  • Are planning to self publish on their schedules
  • Are more pantser than planner

(Here's more on writing a trilogy)

From the "Wait to Write it Until You Sell Book One"  Camp

The other camp sees no reason to spend time and emotional energy on books that might not sell. Having six or seven sequels ready to go is great if we sell that first book, but we can't guarantee a sale, and writing all those sequels could take years. We worry that spending so much time in one world with one set of characters, might make it harder to break away and write something new.

We also worry about the sheer time it takes to write an entire series before submitting it. Markets could change before we get it written, leaving us with a slew of books with little future until the market changes again. But if we have a variety of manuscripts ready to go when a trend hits, it could put us in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that trend.

Writing only book one makes more sense from a time management perspective. We can explore various ideas and have more options to show agents and editors. This is especially useful for writers who have multiple story ideas in multiple genres or markets. We can have several books out there at the same time.

Writers in the camp often:
  • Have multiple ideas they want to explore
  • Don't mind if the book one is the only book published
  • See series potential in the idea, but don't feel it has to be a series
  • Want to see what sells before devoting time to the series
  • Want to produce more sellable books in less time
  • Are looking for a traditional publishing career
  • Are more planner than pantser

(Here are 7 tips on writing a series)

Visiting Both Camps

Some writers prefer to visit both camps, borrowing a little from each side. We enjoy crafting a very detailed outline or synopsis to help us get the major plot points aligned and figured out, and still let us write one book and submit it. We create in-depth character studies and world building notes to make sure we have a solid handle on how things work and how people live in that world, and how those things will change as the series evolves. If we write one and then wait, the more details we can flesh out about the next few books will be a tremendous help when we sit down to write them. We might even write a few chapters in each book, such as the openings or endings, or major scenes we know we want to write.

Which camp we fall into can change per story, as well. Some stories might demand to be written first, even if our preferences lean the other way. If we have a multi-book story idea that we feel passionate about, and it's an all or nothing deal for us emotionally, then we'd likely be willing to invest the extra time and write all three before we start querying. If we have plenty of ideas and don't feel emotionally driven to write a sequel unless someone asks for it, we can move on to other stories.

Writers in the camp often:
  • Have multiple ideas they want to explore
  • Want to write efficiently, but still want to explore the stories that interest them
  • Are considering both traditional and self publishing, depending on the book
  • Like to plan, but feel comfortable adapting the plot if things change down the road
  • Want to be ready with a series if they sell it, but don't mind working on something new if the urge strikes them or the series isn't getting good feedback

No matter which camp you fall into, rest assured you're not alone there. It's your choice what works best for you, and you get to decide how your stories get written.

Are you in the "write it first" or "wait and see" camp?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Wow, I never thought of it that way. I think I'm going to follow your--and your agent's--lead and get started on a different book while I shop around the current ms. Thanks for the input!

  2. Very interesting. I'm currently reworking book #1 in a trilogy I have already planned out (though only from a bird's eye view), and I wondered what I should do when I finish book #1. I think I'll write book #2, but I'll try to make the first one as much of a standalone as possible, and simply wait and see if I'll ever get to write book #3 or not. :)

    Thanks for the post!

  3. I can see benifits to both sides. Having the first book out there (I self published), there are a couple of things I would have tweaked in the first book as I work through the second. I did have about half the second one done though, so there aren't too many of them. I'm finding that I'm having to be a little creative, but I'm still not sorry that I published the first while writing the second.

    Funny coincidence, I wrote about sequels on my blog today too!

    Rinelle Grey

  4. I like your idea of a detailed synopsis to pick up later, especially given the possible difficulty of diving into a different story.

  5. I'm currently working on a trilogy. The first book, however, can exist without the two following one, which are more closely connected. Most of the characters of the first book don,t appear in the following ones. That way, if the first one didn`t sell, I could always tweak the two others to be entirely disconnected from the first one.

  6. As a note, if you follow the self-publishing model, having them all drafted before you start lets you put them out on a regular schedule.

  7. I call mine "sequentials" because the stories are sequential with a mystery that carries across but the main characters change from book to book.
    Main characters from the previous books are in the later stories but they aren't the focus. There may be another name for this type of series but I don't know it.
    The plan is for each one to be written stand alone. Hopefully I can stick to the plan.

  8. Thanks Janice for this post! I never thought about approaching sequels like this before - very interesting! I think writing the first book as a stand alone is a very good and practical idea. Allows for some flexibility! : )

  9. Stephanie, that sounds smart :)

    Carradee, excellent point.

    Lynn, I like that name. And that style. You see that a lot in category romance, actually. Works great!

    Eisen, it also keeps you from saving the "good stuff" for later books, which could hurt the first book :)

  10. I have just finished my first book and am considering agents. I was sitting in front of my computer trying to decide whether to pick up on book two of the series or to get out another one I've been working on. You have certainly made me think. I might try to write the synopsis of the second book and inhabit the stand-alone one on the basis that freshness might improve the quality of both!

    Thanks for your timely post.

    1. Glad this found you at the right time! Sounds like a good plan to me :)