Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Writing the Sequel/Series

I'm beginning to notice that when I go dormant with my posting I start gaining followers quicker. *Quickly ponders whether or not the new followers are to get me to shut up*.   As of right now, I'm inching oh so close to 100 followers and still plan on doing some sort of a giveaway once that milestone is reached.  To all my new followers, thank you for following.  Unfortunately, I do post more than what you've been noticing lately. ;-)

It seems like every time a movie (or a book for that matter) does exceptionally well, a sequel to it is automatically guaranteed--whether that's a good thing or not.  Nowadays, it appears as though there are more series being produced than stand-alone bodies of work.  It's almost as if single novels or movies are slowly becoming extinct and a series potential is the only selling point to a book.  Don't get me wrong, I love sequels (which is a good thing considering I'm working on a trilogy).  I just have a fond appreciation for those great, solitary novels that are able to captivate readers in fewer pages.

Besides just for the pure enjoyment and the demand from a book's readers, a writer should set out to accomplish something as they progress with each book in a series.  Each book should serve a greater purpose.  The following are examples of what I believe a writer should set out to achieve with each subsequent book.

1.  Each book should stand alone--The difference between a good writer and a writer who's clearly writing for all the wrong reasons lies within the necessity of this statement.  A good writer--one who writes because it's an extension of themselves--believes the aforementioned statement to be silly and grossly unnecessary.  Unfortunately, however, there are those writers who, after achieving immense success and a loyal following, forget why they began writing in the first place and start churning out novels as though they were working on an assembling line.  One great novel is used as a crutch to support the others. There are several instances (a couple series come to mind of whom shall remain nameless) where the second and/or third book seem to be pointless and just there to fulfill the obligations of the author's publishing contract.  If these books were meant to stand alone, they most likely wouldn't make it into publication without some sort of overhaul.  As a lover of the written word and an unpublished author, this obvious lack of attention angers me.  As a writer, all of your books should be the best reflection of yourself (the reflection you cast when you're gussied up for a big event and not just rolling out of bed).  A writer shouldn't let one book in their series stand by itself. Instead of your readers having a clear favorite book in the series, make it tough for them.  Give them something to marvel over in each book instead of  leaving them wondering was that it?

2.  There should be references to events in the previous book but not a full blown recap--I loved the overall storyline in Amanda Hocking's Trylle Trilogy (for the most part), but what I didn't really care for was the constant rehashing of the events in past books.  To me it seemed sort of redundant and unnecessary as most people read a series in order (albeit there are those people who don't which really confuses the hell out of me).  I understand that if there is a significant expanse of time between books in a series that readers may need a refresher course, however a book report is not necessary.  Include only the most pertinent information.  If you did your job in the previous books, your readers should remember all the specific and important details that are driving your series along.

3.  Tie up loose ends--If your character's Aunt Matilda uttered something poignant and decidedly attention- worthy while on her death bed in the first book, then at some point in time throughout the rest of the series the importance and relevance of that statement should be revealed to the reader.  One of the things I hate the most is when a loose end is left dangling and not tied up in a nice, neat bow.  Do something with that can of worms you just opened. Carry the mayhem over to the next book if you have to  instead of turning what could have been a very memorable facet of your series into nothing more than just filler whose inconclusiveness leaves your readers feeling irritated and cheated.

4.  The sequels should stay true to the fans of the first book, but must be able to draw in new fans as well--As I've complained about  above, there are those people who start a series in the middle or at the tail end  (or those who don't read the books at all and just wait for the movies to come out--shudder). Whatever the case may be, a writer needs to stay loyal to their fanbase, but must also be able to spice things up a bit in order to expand this base.  You can't depend solely on one book out of a series to build a readership.  The entire series needs to do this job.  As the writer, you will need to balance on a tightrope in order to do it as your readers will begin to develop certain expectations of you and their favorite characters of which you will need to adhere to or risk alienation.  Still, the story has to move and it has to do so with enough oomph to capture the attention of those outside your circle of fans as well.  After all, the more the merrier.

5.  Make characters grow--Your characters should not come out the same way they came in.  Everyone experiences growth in their lives. Whether it be growth in an entirely wrong direction or growth toward a more positive self-being.  Throughout a series, characters are put through the wringer (at least they should be).  Everything they thought they knew will be tested.  Their faith, their friendships, their hearts and even their souls.  Nobody should come out unscathed.  What were you like ten years ago?  Before you had your heart broken; before someone you loved passed away; or before your best friend stuck a knife in your back.  It's a good bet that you're a significantly different person now than you were then because of all you've experienced between then.  This kind of growth needs to be reflected in your characters as well. Everyone changes and life is hard on both the living and the fictional.

6.  Aim to make it better--I believe the goal of any writer should be to constantly improve upon themselves. If you aren't progressing forward, you'll remain stationary; stagnant and left alone floating in an ocean by yourself while everyone else sails away toward uncharted territory. Most of the time, sequels fail to live up to the original.  If you're writing a series, strive to change that.  Look at all the elements that made your first book great and enhance them in the forthcoming books.  Even if it's just a slight improvement upon the original, it will still make for a welcome read for your readers (who will already be poised to critique your subsequent novels within seconds after finishing the final paragraph in your first book).

7.  If your book series was made into a series of movies can you honestly say that each movie would be worth the cost of admission?--When I write, I often imagine how what I'm writing would translate over to the silver screen (oh come one, you know you do too). After I've completed a draft of something I've written I read it.  If I can't honestly picture myself enjoying it while sitting in a theater shoving snowcaps in my face, then I redo it.  After all, just like movies, books are meant to be entertaining.  However, unlike movies, you can't just wait for them to come to video.

All right readers, it's your turn.  Are you writing a single novel or a series?  What do you believe is important in order for a series to be successful?


Sarah Pearson said...

I think you touched on this with your 'stand alone' comment, but bring in some new characters in subsequent books. That said, you still need to give your old characters the same love you gave them in the previous books.

Melanie_McCullough said...

Like you said, I think the most important thing is for each book to stand on its own. I've read the first book in a few series lately that don't offer a conclusion and pretty much require that you read the next book in order to figure out what is going on.

As a reader, I don't think this is fair. I don't mind series. I love continuing along with the characters for a larger story arc. But whatever issue was presented in the book needs to completed or I want to toss the book across the room.

linda said...

Oh my goodness, I can't agree with you more about #1 on your list! I hate cliffhangers and incomplete storylines. If the first book in a series has an unresolved, unsatisfactory ending, I pretty much give up on the whole series. It's not ok in the second book, either, though so many authors do it. Sigh. I find that I much prefer series of companion novels to sequels/trilogies, since much of what I've read from the latter category suffered from the problems you point out in your post. It's awesome when the sequel is even better than the first book, though, since they so often tend to be disappointing!

Sophie Li said...

See Im torn when it comes to stand-alone books in a series (where it doesn't matter which book you pick up first) vs the series where is sequential (where if you read #3 before #1 & #2 you'd be quite lost).

Honestly I love both and appreciates both aspects of creating a series. I like things to be tidied up at the end of each book but it is also the cliffhangers which makes me hankering for more.

So my curiosity is why some authors do one over the other.

Great post & maybe the followers are shy? :)

Laura Lee Nutt said...

The series I have seen that make the most sales are book that include complex worlds that the author clearly put a lot of effort into creating, yet the series is not focused on revealing their grand creation. It’s about the characters.

I have a question about requirement 1 that I hope you guys can shed some light on. If I read the first book of a series and it ties things up pretty well—in other words, no cliffhanger—I lose interest in picking up the next book in that series. The story seems done, it’s over, and feeling satisfied, I move on to other authors and series. Only if I just absolutely loved the book, and I mean really loved it, or if my friends rave about the sequel do I get the next one. So can you guys explain your perspective of not liking cliffhanger endings in a little more detail so I can better understand?


Destroyer said...

I started writing a fantasy adventure novel, and I plan to turn it into a series. This article is really, really good.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a supernatural young adult novel. I didn't intend to make it a novel. I didn't really have any intentions whatsoever, especially that. Anyway, it's called Sisters with a Secret where the sisters are witches and the sequel will be Sisters Exposed. Obviously they'll be exposed as witches, but the mystery is how and what will happen? Will they become famous or will they be in danger? Again, I didn't really have any intention on writing a sequel, which is weird because it seemed to be a smart idea in the end. I mean...so what? They're witches, big whoop. Now what? There has to be some sort of danger, no? And the biggest thing they feared in the first was being exposed, so that's the only thing to do.