Beginning to Plan (and Write) that Sequel
It is a new year and a time for new beginnings. As I am working to bring my final revision to a close on my first novel, I am beginning to think about what will happen in the book that follows. Which inevitably led me to thinking about a discouraging trend that I encounter when reading the second book in a series: they are almost always not as good as the first book. Why is it that series, especially trilogies, often have excellent first and third books but inferior second books?
Why I Believe the Second Book Suffers from the “Sophomore Slump”
So much effort goes into that first book. It takes blood, sweat, tears, gallons of coffee, and some stiffed-neck stubbornness to take that first book and get it written and published. The desire is simply to get that book finished and to find a willing partner who will publish it, or to get it self-published so that you can begin building that base of readers who are eager to read that next release. Unless you self-published it, you wrote the book with the hope that it might get chosen by the publisher to become a series but you couldn’t count on that fact. It had to be a good enough book to stand on its own, without the tagline “Book One of the ____ series” on the cover. Every effort went in to making sure that would happen.
But that isn’t the approach when writing book two. There is interest in a multi-part series now, perhaps even a contract for a specific number of books. Let’s say the number is three, because trilogies are the thing that almost every spec-fic writer dabbles in at least once. As you begin to plot out the rest of the series, the excitement and anticipation pours into the climax of the trilogy. You chart the path from where that first one ended to where the final one will end up. And boy, you have some brilliant plans in mind for how to wrap it all up. But before you can get to that magical moment, there is tension that needs to build. Bigger threats and bigger failures than happened in the first book. The darkness needs to sweep over your characters before they can emerge victorious. And that, inevitably, is what falls to the second book.
A new threat emerges.
The main characters are placed into encounters and scenarios where they will fail.
A bit of growth will happen along the way for the character.
But the best bits are saved for Book Three. Almost without exception, the best scenes and the best moments are reserved for that finale. So while the second book isn’t bad, it doesn’t do enough to stand out while sandwiched between the other two books of a series.
Planning that sequel
While it is a great thing to have the whole of the trilogy, or series, planned out in advance, you should also bear in mind that some readers do not feel the obligation to read a series in order. Understand that some readers, even if they are in the minority, may not have read your previous book when they pick this one up. The book should be just as stand-alone as your first one, rather than depending on the readers loving that first book and building their excitement for the third book.
This does not mean that your heroes or heroines must be victorious in their encounter with whatever force they are pitted against, but it should not feel like the story is just building up tension for the next book. But it should be filled with scenes and twists that leave your reader gasping for air as they plummet deeper into the immersive story you have been weaving. The reader should still be able to look back at the things that happened in the book and be blown away by the changes to the characters and the struggles they have overcome (or failed in the process of trying to overcome).
Pour the same effort into this book as you plan to the first and third ones. Dare to be the writer who pulls off the rare feat of making the sequel better than the first book!
Writing that Second Book
I’ve heard the story before: I spent years working on perfecting that first book, but I had to get the next one finished quickly or else I was going to lose readers.
I’m going to call B.S. on that myth. Sure, you might lose a few readers here and there, but how can you truly expect to pump out a new book in a fraction of the time and expect it to be as good as the first book? This is another pitfall that I think we fall into as writers, that fear of losing readers if we aren’t churning out new release after new release. We can’t all be Brandon Sanderson and have 2-4 new books published each year. But we probably also cannot realistically be George R.R. Martin and take more than half a decade to write each book. The area where we must try to operate lies somewhere in between, whether that means writing a book every 2-3 years or so and perhaps publishing a novella or short story collection in between, or shooting for a deadline of around 18 months.
Take some deep breaths, give yourself 3-6 months more than what you think you need to write the book, and focus on making the second book your best one. And then repeat that process with the third book, and every book after that. Think of each book as its own fresh start to introduce these characters, and this world, to your readers. It takes time, and tears, and effort, and coffee to make a great book. The only competition you have is with yourself; don’t look at how fast Author X is pumping out books. Their books are not your books. You are the one entrusted to tell your stories. Let them be told in the time it takes for them to be finished, not in the time you think you need to have them finished.
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