Monday, April 07, 2008

What to Write Next

Conventional wisdom seems to be that while a writer has their book out on submission to agents/publishers they should be working on their next book. But what should the next book be? Should it be the next book in the series they've envisioned, or should it be an entirely new book (because if the first book doesn't sell, chances are the second can't either)?

Also, I'm assuming that if an agent has a book out on submission, that they would urge the writer to write the next book in the series. Is that correct?

Thank you so much for asking this question. It’s actually a post I’ve been meaning to write but haven’t gotten around to yet.

I’m going to start from the bottom of your email up. I would never urge a writer to work on the next book in the series while I’m submitting the first. When a series idea is on submission I talk with the author and encourage her to start coming up with fresh new ideas. Why? Because if the first book in the series isn’t going to sell, it’s very likely the second book isn’t either.

When I'm in a pitch appointment with an author there are few things that make me wince faster than an author saying that she’s pitching me the third book or working on the second, third, or fourth book. There are so many reasons why a book isn’t picked up by an agent—writing, voice, marketability, etc.—and if the first book in your series isn’t deemed marketable enough, the second and third won’t be either. You can always go back to the series when you get an agent or get that publishing contract in hand, but you can’t go back and get the time you spent writing books you can’t even submit.

Now there are exceptions to these rules and the biggest is when your series is very loosely tied together. Sally MacKenzie is an example of this. Her “Naked” series is technically a series. Many of the same characters appear in the books. However, they are loosely connected in that the protagonists change from book to book and the “continuing” characters play secondary roles. In this case it’s really a series of stand-alone romances, and when initially selling it I probably wouldn’t have thought of it as a series, but instead as a historical romance. Karen MacInerney’s Tales of an Urban Werewolf series is another story. Each book has the same protagonist and is somewhat of a continuing story. While you can read them in any order, each is a stand-alone book, there are some continuing story lines. In this case I would not have encouraged her to work on the next book in the series, and I didn’t. She had begun to think of new ideas and work on new things while I had this book, Howling at the Moon, out on submission.

Think of always moving your career forward. Don’t get stuck working for years on the same book or the same series. If you truly want a publishing career, and not just to write books, you need to be in search of the next thing.



Shirley said...

Thanks for this, Jessica. It's something I've wondered about for years, and freely admit to wasting a fair bit of precious time over.

But where do you come up with the fresh new ideas?

I've dicovered that what works for me is having a "mourning" period when I bid farewell to my characters and their world. Much like a bereaved person does at a funeral.

I use this time to catch up on housework, gardening and the million and one things that go on the back burner during a concentrated wrting jag.

Sometime during this time a new idea will niggle away in my mind and then one day it will burst forth in full bloom.

And so the cycle begins all over again.

Fresh characters, fresh dilemma's and it's usually something that catches my funny bone in a newspaper, book ormagazine and the what-ifs begin to pop up.

How do other writer's find their inspiration?

Diana said...

Thanks so much for covering this topic! I am now working on what I hope will be the beginning of a series, but I, too, wondered "how deep" to get into it before submitting.

Anonymous said...

So what if you're writing a series such as Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series? Where each book has it's own hero/heroine and their own storyline and could stand up on their own, but they do have the same secondary characters throughout and some storylines that are loosely tied throughout the series?

Where would that fit in the "keeping writing it" versus "find something else to focus on" choice?

Tia Nevitt said...

I'm so glad to read this. It makes me feel better about a decision I made. Once I finished the first book in my series, I wrote three chapters of the second book and set--no, shoved--it aside. Then I came up with another novel that was nothing like my first fantasy. I'm almost done with that one and when I am, I have something completely different in mind for the next book--it's even in a different genre from my first two.

Julie Weathers said...

Good topic.

This will probably really make an agent wince. I have the final scene for the final book in my Paladin series written. I've "seen the movie" of how it gets there, but I'm sure it will take lots of unexpected twists and turns along the way. However, the final scene was so vivid when I saw it, I had to write it.

I actually keep two books going at the same time. The primary one I'm working on and my step child. The step child just kind of simmers in the back of my mind, but when a scene is particularly vivid, I write it down and file it away for future use.

When I get stuck on my primary, I put it out of my mind for a bit and play with the secondary. Usually, by the time I write a bit in the secondary, the problem with the first one has worked itself out.

Yes, I know that sounds psychotic, but my mind is happiest when it has things simmering on the back burner.

Obviously, I hope Paladin sells because I'm enjoying the movie, but if it doesn't, dragons await.

If Paladin doesn't find a home, all the widow scenes I have stashed have been good practice. I don't consider tham a waste.

I jot down ideas for new projects and stash them away. My biggest problem is going to be living long enough to write them all.

Oddly enough, all the people roaming around in my head, have very unique personalities. Maybe I just have a split personality.

I think I'm relatively harmless, though.

Sean McLachlan said...


I'm a bit like you. I always have a post-book slump where I'm mentally and creatively exhausted. I use that time for catching up on email, doing light editing of other projects, researching markets, etc.

My ideas don't generally come to me during these periods. Instead, they come when I'm working on other projects. I find myself trying to ignore my inner author while working on something else. My next novel is trying to write itself and I'm only halfway through the present one!

Jessica, I agree with everything you said. It's hard enough to get published without the writer spending time on potentially unmarketable books. This is a very useful blog. I've linked to you. Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

So when you are in the pitch session, do you expect the author to have two completely different books finished?

Or if you ask the author what else they have written, is it enough that the author is in the middle of their next project?

Aimless Writer said...

Great post. I usually work on more then on book at a time. When an idea pops into my head I write a few paragraphs, scenes or quick snopsis of the idea so I can go back when I finish my wip.
Is it wrong to admit this to an agent?

Mark Terry said...

Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I wrote a book about a biologist/toxicologist who discovers a murder, my then-agent loved it, shopped it around, no go. I wrote another book featuring the same character. And another. And even a 4th, although when I finished that book I put it away, because, even though I'm apparently a slow learner, I'm not a complete idiot (evidence often to the contrary).

It took me a while to realize something that Jessica doesn't quite say here:

Agents have relationships with a finite number of editors, generally speaking. They know what those editors like.

So, you wrote a book about, in my case, Theo MacGreggor, professor of biology and toxicology whose old college roommate is now the local Medical Examiner, and your agent's 8 editors that like this type of book all turned it down. You come back to your agent with another Theo MacG book and, typically, your agent needs to show it to the same 8 editors--if they're interested. And given that they turned the first one down for whatever reasons, they're not going to be exited about reading another one unless you do something dramatically different.

It's a good lesson to learn and I suppose it's better late than never.

Kimber An said...

That's what I figured. I tend to write series. However, I only actually write the first book and as a stand-alone. The others remained completed in my head, but with only a brief description jotted down in my notebook.

Sheila Connolly said...

The problem is, you fall in love with your characters. You finish one book, which comes to some sort of satisfactory conclusion, but you can't let them go. They've become real to you; they're friends. So putting them aside is like killing them, as Shirley said, and it hurts.

But here's a different point: how often does it happen that you as agent sell one or more series by a client, and that creates an opportunity to revive that dormant first series, now that your author has a track record in the market?

Just_Me said...

Is there a rule for what you shouldn't work on next? If I've found an agent willing to rep my sci-fi book is it okay for my next piece to be fantasy or historical fiction? Do I need to stick with one genre or will my agent (hypothetical at this point) understand and support crossing-genres?

JHFaust said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BookEnds, LLC said...

anon 2:19a

Let me clarify when I talk about series here I'm really talking about serial series. If your books are a loose series, but each book definitely stands alone (not one continuing protagonist) then you should feel free to go ahead with it. That's usually only the case with romance though. In most SF or mystery series for example you are following one character through a series of books.

anon 8:21
When in a pitch session I hope the writer has one book finished, but have no expectations of how many should be completed. I just like knowing that by the time you query me on a book you feel it's finished and ready to query and aren't still editing. Honestly, I think it makes it easier on you.

Just Me
If you've found an agent that's something you should discuss with an agent. That's part of career planning.


Bija Andrew Wright said...

It's also worth noting that manuscripts go through a lot of revision after they are accepted. The title can change, the characters can change, the organization can change--and editors and agents hope you'll be open to those changes. It might be difficult to accept changes in Book One if you know that those changes are going to ripple into the Books Two through Five which you've already written.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post!!!

I wrote the first book in a mystery series, found my dream agent, started my second book . . . and then the editor rejections started rolling in. Fellow writers advised me to keep going on the second book. (Unfortunately, my agent offered no advice.) I decided to start something new.

The book didn't sell, primarily for marketing reasons, and I lost my agent.

Thank God I set aside that second book. But at least I can pick the caracass for plot ideas.

Anonymous said...

Great advise Jessica.
I believe I just realized that on my own and started working on another WIP while tweaking my books within the series. It is good to know though, for my own benefit, that they can each stand alone but the characters do visit in each of them.
Thanks again.
Laurie K

Just_Me said...

Thank you. I haven't shopped just yet, probably by Christmas I'll be querying but I tend to write mostly sci-fi with some random fantasy pieces thrown in. I've seen other authors so it but I know they started with just one genre and built off of that.


danceluvr said...

I must admit that this advice is depressing to me since I've fallen in love with my characters and their world.

I really don't think I have any other fictional work besides them in me.

sigh. A one-hit wonder, maybe?

Anonymous said...

I think there's some confusion between "series" and "sequel." You can use the same characters again and again in a series, but each book still stands alone. (e.g. Clancy's Jack Ryan character or Fleming's James Bond); a sequel is what unpublished writers should be careful about--unless you've published the first book, I think it's a waste of time to write a sequel, because the first one might never be published. But with a series, you can reuse the same characters in different situations, and eventually when one of them sells, you've already got a backlog of them going.

Jen said...

This was very helpful.

Thanks Jessica!

Eamon said...

I think this is really useful advice.

I think that creativity is about exploring new things. Some will be failures. Others successes - enough perhaps to get published.

However, by the same token I think that creativity is, also, about doing stuff that you really enjoy. If you don't enjoy it but do it for the sake of being different, say, then chances are it is not going to work (or is not going to be the best work that you could do).

So Experiment and Enjoy! These are fundamentals of creativity - I think.

Dawn Colclasure said...

I really, really wish I had read this blog post before I started querying agents for my own series. Granted, the first book I've written can indeed stand alone, but I've been picthing it to agents as a series of 12 books! (Sorry if that caused you to faint.) As you might have expected, I received some rejections to my queries. What I didn't expect is that I'm not yet ready to write the second book. The story is there, but only in bits and pieces. I'm not "ready" to write it yet. I've actually been working on short stories instead of books. I really felt bad about that, but it's good to know there is no pressure to get the second book done NOW. I only hope I can pick myself up and just keep pitching this first book as a book and not as "Book One." I'm just glad that, at least, I mention I also have another novel ready to send out, as well (which is not a part of my series) and have other books that I'm working on.