Thursday, 24 March 2011


Last week I brought you the experiences of two writers who have written sequels and I promised to come back this week with my own technical advice to you.

First let's sort out the difference between sequels and series. In a way, a book which has a sequel is a story divided into more than one part. Note, however, that the first part needs to contain a complete story, too - it's just that there are aspects which can be carried into the next story. The reader must feel at the end of the first that this story is complete, that what was set up as the main conflict or goal has been sufficiently achieved. And the trick for the writer is to leave enough ends open that a sequel is possible, even desirable, but not necessary.

For example, my The Highwayman's Curse, which is the sequel to The Highwayman's Footsteps, ends with our two heroes galloping off into the sunrise with this adventure complete but with the distinct possibility of another one to come. (Actually, there isn't, but I hadn't decided that then.)

A series, on the other hand, can be one of two things:
  • A number of books about the same characters or the same setting or the same theme, but each stands fully on its own. Despite the implication of the word "series", books in a series like this can usually be read in any order, even though there will usually be some chronological threads. Crime novels featuring a particular detective are a series.
  • Or several (more than two or three, usually) books in a sequence - in other words, several sequels. The Harry Potter books, for example, can rightly be called a series. They would be read in order and the whole series is the complete story.
These may seem to be nit-picking distinctions but they are important for one main reason: publishers love series but are often wary of the proposed sequel or trilogy.

Why do they love series? Because when a series works it can sell in large numbers and make author and publisher very happy. Readers become comfortable, know what they're going to get, and the marketing gets easier as the series goes on because you are building on existing loyalty.

And why are they wary of a proposed sequel? Because if the first one sells in mediocre numbers, the sequel is pretty much doomed. Even more so with the third. I know of too many very unhappy authors whose third has been cancelled because the first two didn't sell. I am quite sure that if I'd proposed a third book for my highwayman sequence it would have been rejected, because although the first two were critically acclaimed in fab places and the first was short-listed for things, they didn't sell well enough. If I'd been contracted for a trilogy - as easily might have happened if I'd asked - I'd have faced the third contract being cancelled, which would have been horrible.

There are a few other disadvantages of sequels, from the author's point of view:
  • There are some tricky aspects to the actual writing, highlighted in last week's post.
  • A sequel is much less often short-listed for awards.
  • Most readers, on reading the sequel, will focus on saying whether they thought the first or second was better. Both those comments are very irritating.
So, what do publisher attitudes mean for you, the aspiring writer about to pitch a novel which you believe has sequel potential? Here's my advice:
  1. Make quite sure that your first book stands strongly on its own, so that a sequel is not a necessary part of the deal.
  2. Be very sure that you are not exaggerating in your own mind the sequel potential - many writers over-estimate the fascination of their idea. And do not exaggerate the potential in your covering letter.
  3. If you do believe there is sequel or series potential, mention this but don't ignore point one above.
  4. If you are specifically pitching a series, remember that a series requires big marketing to get it off the ground, so you need a publisher with those resources and skills. Make sure you're pitching to a publisher that has no competing series - publishers will happily commission single novels which are similar in style and theme to others on their list, because this strengthens the list, but they won't want two series that are too similar in target and content.
Inbali Iserles actually put it very well in her interview: "If a book is part of a series, e.g. a trilogy, my sense is that it’s probably worth mentioning this to publishers – to see what they think – but to be flexible. The key thing is that the book stands alone on its merits. Whatever happens, and for at least a few months (perhaps years), that lonely first book will have to survive without kith or kin in an unforgiving market-place."

Let me take some of your comments and questions from the previous post:

HelenO asked:
I've got a sequel already in outline, and I'm strongly tempted to work on that while the first ms is doing the rounds. But what if the first book doesn't sell? Would an agent prefer to see another standalone? (I have other ideas that I could develop.) I'm keen to work on the sequel - I've done the world-building, and now I want to take these characters further. But am I being blinded by my own enthusiasm here? Should I put the sequel idea to one side and work on something else until I know I can sell the first book?
My firm answer is: yes, put the sequel aside and work on something else for the moment. Wait for a response to the first before working on the sequel.

Then HelenO also said:
Plan your sequel by all means, but if a novel doesn't work as a standalone it may well be disadvantaged when it goes to publishers. [Spot on!]
Helen V said:
As a fantasy writer where trilogies are almost mandatory I've been struggling with the idea of how to present my novel for publication. It is capable of being published as a stand alone but I've a story line which follows on into the next novel and for my own satisfaction I have started to write it. Whether this is a good decision or not remains to be seen.
My answer: yes, I agree about fantasy lending itself very much to trilogies. If you have started to write a sequel, no problem, particularly as you are probably immersed in the world you've created, but it's good that your first one would stand alone if necessary. Emphasise that it does stand alone. Saying that you are already working on a possible sequel demonstrates commitment. (But I'd always recommend that writers were working on the next novel anyway, whether in sequence or stand-alone.)

Thomas Taylor said:
It's especially interesting for me as I begin to imagine a possible sequel, and wonder if I should be seeding the first book while I still can. I have a one book deal, but a 'set-up' that cries out for another story.
Me: Congrats on the deal! And yes, I'd say seed away, without committing to anything.

There's a theme to these answers: don't commit. Be flexible. No problem with looking ahead but do not pin your hopes on the possibility of a sequel.

The highly commercial series idea, though - if you have one of those, I may have to kill you.


Dan Holloway said...

Nicola thank you for clearing up for my thick skull the difference between the series and sequel. Things now make vastly more sense.

I recently launched the first (much polished and re-edited/rewritten from a few books ago) of a mystery series, The Company of Fellows, for Kindle only to realise/remember (er, thick skull agian, I was actually reminded when I googled the title) that I'd submitted the synopsis for one of your workshop posts last summer - it was a mindboggling 2000+ words, and your help got me down to a much more manageable pitchso vast thanks. It's not an earth-shatteringly original/commercial series concept (the Hannibal Lecter novels transported to Oxford University) but I'm flabbergasted by the apparent appetite for such fare.

womagwriter said...

Series seem to be especially good for children's and teen books I think. I know my own sons read a book they like and instantly look for more in the series. My 15-year old is about to read the last couple in Bernard Cornwell's enormous Sharpe series and is wondering what he'll read next!

Anne A said...

I've followed this with interest, as I'm currently working on a sequel to my fantasy novel. I've got got the first book out with an 'alpha reader' right now (is that a thing? I've heard of 'beta readers', but this is a good friend with writing experience that I trust to tell me whether or not the whole thing is worth pursuing or scrapping entirely... she's getting what I'm calling version 1.5 -- without a lot of revising yet...), so I went ahead and started on the next one.

Something I haven't seen addressed here is what I think I may be encountering: I think the sequel may in fact be better than the first one, and perhaps, the story I meant to tell all along.

I still like the first story, but my vague, uninformed opinion is that if I shop around Book 1 and it doesn't catch, that I may decide it was all a long exercise in world-building and shop around Book 2 instead. Is this a reasonable strategy, or will agents go "Hey, that's the same character name as I saw from this writer before. It's just a sequel to what I dismissed before. Reject!"? (I'm sort of hoping they won't remember the details of every rejection so much... or do I run the danger of such foggy memories that they think I'm shopping the *same* book again? It's completely different, but if only the main character catches maybe that could happen. Oh dear...)

Sorry for the wash of questions and I hope this wasn't too insensible!

HelenO said...

Much forehead-slapping in my neck of Oxford too this morning. Of course: most crime series are indeed just that - series. But I suspect my planned follow-up to my current ms is a fully-paid-up sequel. That ain't necessarily the end of the world - sequels and trilogies can work in crime too (Stieg Larsson, anyone?) - but they ARE different. When you say it, it's obvious - but believe me, I needed telling, and I'm now looking at my plans in a rather different light.

In the meantime, the next one's going to be a standalone!

Huge thanks to Nicola for answering my question, and for all the other advice too. I suspect so many of us writers-in-training are beavering away in relative isolation, with little contact (yet) with publishers and agents ... and as a result we can so easily make decisions about our work that may trip us up further down the line. Thanks for telling it like it is!

Nicola Morgan said...

Anne - interesting questions. I'm just rushing to get ready to go the York Writing Festival so I might not have time to answer them till I get back. You'll either get your answers tomorrow morning or you won't get them till Monday!

helen and Dan - glad to have helped. To be honest, i only thought of the difference myself while writing it ;)

Womagwriter - and if I could think of a good commercial series idea I'd be writing it like a shot!

catdownunder said...

I can see the difference between sequels and series but (there had to be a but) it also seems to me that there can be a sequential quality to some series - e.g. perhaps starting out with a young detective constable and having him/her rise through the ranks with some things in later books being dependent on things in earlier books. The books will stand alone but the out of sequence reader will perhaps not pick up information that a "sequential" reader will.
Oh,go and enjoy York!

Dan Holloway said...

HelenO you're in Oxford? If you're around on Monday April 4th we have a super duper evening of readings and music utterly for free at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore as an alternative to the Literary Festival

Ebony McKenna. said...

Another great post Nicola,
I wrote my ms as a stand alone - it wasn't until my agent got me a 2 book deal that the publisher asked for a sequel - more of the same please, but different!

Ayeeeeeeeee! But, I didn't hold back from book one and made sure it had a proper ending. The same for book 2. It has a proper ending but there is some room for more if the publisher wants it. Al the same, I didn't hold back there either and packed in as much story as I could.

I've read few books lately where book 2 simply ends (in some cases, mid scene!!!) because there's a book 3 on the way. This is so frustrating as a reader, so I try very hard not to do it as a writer.

Love your work!

Anne A said...

Sorry to pop on with yet another question, but as I'm nearing the end of my first revision of my Book 2, it occurred to me that the denouement of that book actually draws upon/relates to what might seem purely trivial anecdotes in Book 1.

Then I worried -- what if I shop around Book 1 and someone says "you ought to cut these scenes"? Could I legitimately argue that they're needed for Book 2? Or is that a big no-no? I think they add to the story of Book 1, however, for that book they could just as easily be replaced by a completely different scene that serves the same character-development purpose.

I'm actually not sure what I could do about it at this point -- perhaps I shouldn't be worrying about such things at this stage (still at least need one more revision before I send it on to beta readers), but the more I read about publishing the more I can't help but panic about the oddest things...

In case that didn't entirely make sense, here's a quick summary of my situation: Book 1 minus scene X would be a perfectly legitimate stand-alone; Book 2 minus Book 1 would be a perfectly legitimate stand-alone; but Book 1 minus scene X plus Book 2 would be a major continuity error.

(In fact, as I go through revisions I find I do this sort of thing, if on a smaller scale, with frustrating regularity -- I'll be happily revising, decide that a particular detail is not necessary for a scene, and then find that I happened to string that detail into another two dozen scenes scattered throughout the book. "Detangling" implications of what I've revised away is turning out to be one of my major tasks on revision. Does anyone else have this problem?)