Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reading Sequels, Writing Sequels

"It's usually not a good idea to write a sequel to a book you haven't sold."

I've heard this advice countless times over the last two years, and one agent summed it up quite well: sequels are addicting. If you keep world-building and book writing without selling the first novel, it's easy to waste your time and creative talent instead of working on a story that sells.

Natalie Whipple (I love her blog posts, especially when she organizes her subjects in a list format, I wish more non-fiction writing was like that) lists a series of questions to ask yourself before embarking on a sequel.

Natalie is spot on.

With that said, I've read over and over and over (and over) how sequels are hard. How the second book was more difficult than the first, how the pressure to write a book already sold clashed with the creative energy needed to produce the novel.

I have also read many published sequels that did not measure up to the original book. Indeed, I can think of only the exceptions, like David Weber (The Honor of the Queen was arguably better than its predecessor).

Practical advice was telling me one thing, my over-stuffed bookshelves were telling me something else.

One day, I discounted the advice not to write a sequel to an unsold book, and wrote one.

It was difficult and a huge eye-opener. It took me twice as long to self-edit the second novel than it did the first. I found continuity errors that required much thought to fix and constantly waged war with my self-imposed word count limit.

It took me four months to complete the novel, and I would not trade that experience for anything. I learned so much about writing and my creative process that it changed the way I write novels for the better.

Was that worth four months of my writing time, even if the first book never sells?

For me, yes.

I can easily see how genre world-builders can get sucked into a idea that will not sell. I learn by doing, however, and for me writing a sequel was a vast educational opportunity. If you can separate the fact that writing a sequel and selling a sequel are two different things, a genre novelist could benefit from the opportunity to learn.

Still gives me nightmares (Stephen King may be working on a sequel)


  1. Way back in the days of yore, I tried writing sequels to two genre books. One, it turned out that after three years on the first book I was sick to death of the world and the concept. The other, the continuity checks were so numerous and so complicated it drove me batty.

    I admire the people who can keep up a long-running series and do it well.

    On the other hand, there are writers like Anne McAffrey, whose Pern novels are allergic to continuity, but still have incredible readerships -- so maybe I just need to not worry about those things either.

  2. If you want to check out a series of books that work, read Lee Child's Jack Reacher series. Since they are based in present day, he doesn't have to do much world building, or none actually. He also hasn't gone into a lot of detail about what the main character looks like, for instance, so you just know that he is a big guy.

    I am pretty sure that Lee thought about writing a series of books from day one, and planned out what details would be consistent from book to book. In fact I know that to be true, because he gave a talk on it at Thrillerfest two years ago.

    I agree with the Anthony's supposition that you should not create a sequel until the first book sells. I have seen that over and over again in agent blogs, and frankly it makes sense.

  3. That picture just freaked me out!

    I'm not writing sequels, but I am writing my three fairy-tale themed novellas that are interconnected. I can do whatever I want, though, since they are independently published. Go me. :)

  4. I would say anything that helps a writer improve his/her craft works. The four months you put into your sequel ultimately gave you finer insights into your own writing. Not a bad deal.

  5. Well, I can't' agree with that advice. And I have heard it over and over. I'm still not convinced.

    Sometimes a sequel is not so much a sequel as part of the same story. It would have made no sense for Tolkien to write The Fellowship of the Ring but not Return of the King.

    And think about the dumbness of the system that asks writers to wait years and years to break into the business with a one-off book ... but then wants the writer to hurry and rush a sequel to press *after* the first book sells. Sure, that makes sense for the publishers, but does it make sense in terms of writing the best books possible? Wouldn't it make more sense to write several solid books in a series and then have them all ready to go, mature and polished, not rushed and panicked?

    It's dangerous for the writer because you put too many eggs in one basket, but I still say that it might mean a better quality book.


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