Tuesday, April 05, 2011

On Writing Sequels

I've written a manuscript and have been querying agents with little success. I've outlined a sequel and a third story, because (it may surprise you to hear this) I think my book is excellent, believe it will be published soon, and I want to have a sequel ready when publishers start beating down my door :)

Ok - seriously: I am beginning to think that writing the sequels is not a valuable use of my time. Thus far I've found two blog posts, one from an AAR agent - who agrees with that for a number of reasons.

When I was researching agencies yours seemed particularly friendly towards advising new authors - and I wanted to get your take on this. I want to write a new manuscript: should I write the sequel in the hopes that the first may be published . . . or is it time for me to set this plot line aside and start with something fresh and new?

I do think I’ve written on this before, but as I’ve discovered firsthand, it’s not always easy to find the exact old blog post you want to read. It also never hurts to repeat yourself, and, believe it or not, sometimes my attitude/opinion changes and a new blog post will need to be written to reflect that. In this case, though, my attitude will not change.

While it’s great to outline your sequel or series, I do not think an author should ever write the sequel or full series until she’s under contract. A huge piece of finding an agent or selling your book is based on the marketability of the idea, and the last thing you want to do is spend a significant amount of time on an idea that won’t sell. You can always go back and write the sequel after you’re under contract, but in the meantime, moving in a new direction with a new book and/or series idea is the smarter move. That way you have two fresh, new things to shop around, both with series potential.



Joseph L. Selby said...

I completely agree. I wrote the first in a trilogy and then moved on to other projects. It's a thorn in my side, though. Like a constant worry that you left the stove on. I know I have an incomplete story and I want to finish it!

lena said...

While I wouldn't be so bold as to contradict the expert, I will say that for me, this wouldn't work. The reason is simple- I get so involved in a storyline that it would be very difficult for me to go back and write for an old project once I've moved on and gotten involved with new characters.

I like to get out everything I have to say about a story and characters, and when it's done, I move on. I never stop doing rewrites and edits for old projects, but as far as writing a new book for a series, I dont know if I could do that once I've moved on to new projects.

Even if I never sell a project, at least I know, for my own peace of mind, that I finished the story. And that would never be a waste of my time. If nothing else, I think of it as practice, experience, and an opportunity to hone the craft (which all my writing thus far has been :)

Phil Hall said...

I agree too. My first, and still un-agented book, was always meant to be the first of two; but after writing one, I moved on to a new direction. Mainly because I wanted to preserve my sanity--you can't sell a series if the first doesn't sell. I'm still hocking it about, and hoping someone takes it--in the mean time, I sit, wait, and work on a completely different story.

Pia said...

I could imagine you also need to differentiate between writing a series in which each book can be read as a stand-alone, or a series like f.e. Lord of the Rings, where the story's not really over till you've read all books in the series? Though my guess is that the latter is very difficult to sell as/for a newbie author.

RayMorgan said...

I've tried to tell a couple of my friends this - they're co-writing a series and have already started the sequel, before they've even finished editing the first book. But as I myself have very limited knowledge on the publishing world, they're not really inclined to listen to me. Hopefully if I direct them to this page, it might get them to think about their story in terms of marketing.

Monica Mansfield said...

Scribbling down a summary or a rough one page outline to a sequal or sequels isn't a bad idea, but writing the books is.

What if the first book does sell but you edit a lot out or change character names, locations, or tweak the plot. Now you have to go back and edit your second manuscript to jive with the first. It creates extra work.

And if the book doesn't sell, your agent will ask, "What else are you working on?" and you should have something different that could sell rather than a sequel to a book that has been shelved.

The time between getting picked up by a publisher and getting the first book published is two years or more, plenty of time to work on sequels.

Jacklyn Cornwell said...

I can't agree. If a story takes you somewhere, why waste the story? Even without an agent or publisher, the purpose of being a writer is to write and continue writing.

And there's always self-publishing, which is gaining more credibility every day. Nothing wrong with having two books out at the same time.

Michelle 4 Laughs said...

I experienced the same problem. In theory, this seems like the best advice. But it is hard for the heart to let go of those first loved characters.

If you can juggle more than one project, why not start a new project and switch back and forth with the old. This would ease the transition. You might find over time that the new project grows more interesting and is better than the old.

That's how it happened with me anyway. My second project is much stronger.

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

I think this is great advice. In my own case, I made descriptive sheets with thorough outlines for planned books in a series. I wanted to make sure any interconnected plots didn't feel like add-ons. It also allowed me to get ideas on paper, without wasting my efforts.

Rachel said...

Wonderful and spot on piece of advice! Can you imagine the time and energy and resources expended on stories that publishers would then reject at the end of the day.

Learn from J.K. Rowling who took her time to pen each sequels after every film despite the book and film profitability.

Tere Kirkland said...

I think it's more important to write a new project—not because writing a sequel might be a waste of time—but because writing something from a new POV, with new characters, helps you realize exactly what makes the story and characters from your first novel different from those that come after it.

By writing a sequel to an unsold novel, you're robbing yourself of the opportunity to A. improve your writing and hone your craft (something we ALL could probably use, right?) and B. meet a series of new characters with a new adventure.

Then, if the novel does sell and the house wants a sequel, or series, you have the joy of getting to know those characters all over again. Maybe time and distance can help you look at the characters and the plot in a more objective way.

Rebecca said...

I have to side with the "move on" group. I spent quite a bit of time writing and revising a trilogy on my own. Then I joined a crit group, got some good advice for improvements, and made significant changes to the first book.

I *could* have spent the next year rewriting the next two books as well. Instead, I am a few weeks away from finishing the first draft of a new and very different book, and looking forward to polishing it up and eventually querying everyone who didn't like the other one. :)

I jot down notes for the trilogy when they come to me, I love the characters and the world, but I've come to realize just how much of my life I've spent working on one story, and I'm not at all sure it's been time well spent.

Anonymous said...

I'll respectfully disagree with Jessica on this one. If you truly believe in your characters and milieu, it's not a waste of time to stick with them. You learn craft; you gain experience; Book 3 is better than Book 2 is better than Book 1. If you end up selling Book 3 or even Book 4, everything you learned writing the earlier novels shows up in the published one(s).

One mystery writer wrote a quarter-million words' worth of books (three complete novels) featuring a certain protagonist, throwing out each book in turn because he was unhappy with the character and the voice. The writer was John D. MacDonald, and the character was Travis McGee. Both did OK.

Daniel said...

I timely post for me. I'm in about the same situation. I finished my novel and sent out the first few queries. Ideas for a sequel have started coming to me.

I guess I'll just collect notes for now.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'll agree with Lena that writing a sequel can be beneficial for learning to hone your craft, but it's probably more beneficial to get used to creating new worlds and characters, especially if you envision yourself trying to sell your work within a few years. There are too many variables that could make writing the sequel a "waste of time" in a professional sense: first book not selling, only getting a one-book deal, extensive revisions of the first book contradicting events in the second, and so on. Having an outline in place, though, would probably be a wise move, because then you'd be ready to hit the ground running if you were able to sell a series. But if you're still at the stage where you're just writing for fun and to learn how to construct a story, etc., feel free!

Anonymous said...

I agree, because of experience. The first manuscripts I wrote were linked to each other, not in a major way, but still. Well, as you can guess, my writing improved tremendously by Book 3. That one might be sellable, the other two probably not. So how do you shop just the third book in a trilogy? You don't, because nobody wants it (found this out the hard way). I have revised the third book so it stands alone and there is a possibility of a sequel, but it's on hold until/if the first sells. I'm writing something different now.

Anonymous said...

I will disagree. I found out the hard way that there were things I needed to change in book one for book 2. Things that you nevered realized couldn't work in future to make the next storyline workout without some crazy subplots. And you can't leave story hints throughout book 1 without knowing book 2.

Tara Maya said...

Ultimately, it's pretty hard to make a living as a writer if you have only one book. If you write romance, it's easy to write a one-off. If you write mystery, you'll need a protagonist that can sustain more than one story, so even though the first book might stand alone, I'd say it's worth it to write a second book to make sure it can work.

In my genre, fantasy, a series is almost a must. Rather than just write one book, I'd say, go ahead and finish the trilogy. If it doesn't sell, write a second trilogy. Then try to sell the first again. If you still can't sell it, and you believe there's nothing wrong with it, self-publish it.

I think it's a mistake to ever hold yourself back from writing. Never write less. Always write MORE. You can always sell less than you write, but you can never sell more than you write.

Tara Maya
The Unfinished Song: Initiate (UK)
The Unfinished Song: Initiate (US)

wonderer said...

I agree. In addition to the points others have made about craft, there's the business side: write three in one series and you can only query the first, but write three stand-alone novels and you can query all of them.

Most of the novels I've written have series potential - I prefer not tying everything up too tightly, just the main conflict, and I often have an idea of what happens after "The End". It would be fun to spend more time with the characters, but I'll get a chance to do that if/when the first book sells.

Anonymous said...

Write what you darned well please. If the story continues to carry your imagination, then keep writing. It's also valuable to carry on immediately so you don't end up with a bunch of annoying inconsistencies as your characters grow dim in your memory.

While writing is a business, it's more importantly an art. I'll bet that painters don't wait to paint the second, third, fourth in a series until they've sold the first.

Do what makes you happy now because you never know what the future will bring.

Karen Duvall said...

Though you probably shouldn't write the entire sequel to the first book, you really should write the synopsis and first 3 chapters to present as a proposal if (when) the first book sells. Because that's how you'll get the deal for 2nd book.

The sequel for my 1st book sold and I was offered a 2 book deal, and didn't have the proposal ready because I'd followed the standard advice about moving on to new projects. Which I did. So when this deal came about I had to scramble to prepare a proposal for book 2. Not only that, they want the books released 6 months apart. Which meant book 2 had to get written pronto.

It's all good, i write fast (usually), but in hindsight I kind of wish I'd been more prepared. You should be too, at least with the proposal.

Shelli said...

I also think another consideration is that there are probably going to be rewrites involved if you do find an agent and sell your book. The final product is likely to be quite different from the one you started with, and the ensuing sequel may be quite different from the one you're thinking right now.

j. said...

As an unpublished fantasy author I write the first book of each trilogy. I know where I want the remaining two books to go, but I don't want to devote that much time to something that might not sell.

dolorah said...

My trilogy was written accidentally - it kept getting split from the original. Ah well . .

I haven't spent much time editing/revising book two. Just when a thought hits me at the right time.

Lots of shiny new ideas out there to keep me busy anyway.


Trisha said...

Yeah, I'm with those who don't agree - I'm not saying you should write sequels/beyond with the certainty they'll ever be published. And first novels should definitely always be able to stand alone. But I say if you've got the inspiration and the time, and no other deadlines, why not keep writing?!

M Clement Hall said...

The advice given is entirely logical. It then comes down to an issue of, "Are you writing to sell? Or are you writing for ego satisfaction?"
If you are writing because you enjoy the subject matter, then stick with what you enjoy. But if you want to be published, test the waters with different materials.
I have heard two answers from agents and editors re. sequels. One is, they may not wish to be lumbered with three books when they don't know they can sell the first. The other is, "sequence potential" enhances the saleability of that first book.

Nicole said...

Thanks for this! I was just pondering the idea of handling sequels the other day...

June G said...

This post is just what I needed right now. I'm in the final stages of revising my story and was wondering if I should continue with a sequel or start something new.

Commenter,Karen Duvall makes a good point about writing 3 chapters and a synopsis of a new work. At least you have something to show and it can get you grounded in continuing the story.

Moving on to a new novel from here would be prudent and give you more "tools" in your toolbox if anyone wants to have a look at what else you have to offer.

This plan seems to cover all the bases. Great post.