What Comes Next: Drew's Rules for Sequels
In case you haven’t noticed, this month’s blogs have been all about writing so far, and that’s intentional. It’s my way of tipping the cap to NaNoWriMo, which is an awesome event that encourages people to take a swing at writing a novel. It’s also why I saved this topic until now.
Occasionally, someone will e-mail me asking whether or not a book they liked is getting a sequel. Within that small subset, there are a couple that ask the more general question of what determines which books get sequels. And the truth is, despite the fly-by-the-pants mentality I seem to work by, there’s a set of criteria that goes into determining whether or not a book stays at one novel or stretched into more. And the first, most obvious one is:
If I Start a Series, I Finish It
I’m not going to dwell long on this one, because it’s pretty straightforward. When I wrote Super Powereds: Year 1, it was very clearly the start of a series. There were always going to be four books, with their own plots and a larger one that spanned all the books. I made it clear in the title and description that this was one piece of a greater whole. So, obviously books in a series get sequels. That pretty much goes without saying. Where things get a little more fluid is with books that start out as standalones, and are then subjected to:
The Fun Versus Sales Scales
Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that every aspect of this job is altruistic. I make my living off of books, and that means I can’t afford to ignore the ones that sell better than others. Here is one of the first determining factors in which of the one-off books get sequels, or are turned into series. When a new book comes out, the question of whether or not to continue is decided by two criteria: Did I have fun writing it, and is it selling well?
If the answer to both is yes, then I’ll usually immediately start planning out how to continue the story. And the truth is, I have fun writing just about every book I do, otherwise I wouldn’t write them. But some are more enjoyable than others, and that comes into play when I’m looking at my schedule and deciding what project to slot in next. If it was fun enough and is selling well, then it can still get a sequel. If it was a shitload of fun, then even if the sales are bad I still might write one just because I want to, and that’s a perk of working for yourself. However, this is far from the only question I have to ask myself before work begins on a next installment. Once I decide if the scales of fun and sales justify writing a sequel, I have to ask myself another question:
Can I Build On The Story?
Many of you know that I often refer to Pears and Perils as one of my favorite books I’ve ever written, despite the fact that it’s one of my lowest sellers. The truth of the matter is that Pears easily satisfies the fun side of the scales enough to justify writing another book with those characters. So why haven’t you gotten a sequel yet?
Because I have yet to find a plot that actually builds on the story well. I liked the original ending, and unless I can add a new dimension to the tale, there’s no point in adding to it. People need to grow and change and be different at the end of a novel compared to the start, and in every idea I’ve had for continuing their story I just haven’t found one that feels necessary.
One of my biggest gripes with sequels is when instead of growing, the protagonists are knocked back down to the starting place of the first book/movie/whatevs and spend the sequel struggling to regain what they lost. You’ll see this in pretty much every single sports film about underdogs, Major League 2 being a personal favorite example. It annoys me, because instead of raising the stakes and challenges to where what was good enough before now falls short, which would lead to growth, instead the story is about getting back to their starting position. A sequel should build on what came before, not walk the same path just because it’s already worn and visible.
But let’s assume I have a book that is high on the fun vs sales scale, and I’ve got a plot that I feel builds on the original. There is one more thing I have to make certain of:
Every Book Should Stand On Its Own
I’ve almost written a blog about arcs a half-dozen times, and I always end up scrapping it because it comes out too boring, but one day I need to finish that thing. To super condense, a good series should have a plot arc that spans from book one to book whatever the ending number is. But, that should be seen slightly, always in the background, until it finally comes to a head. In each of the books, there needs be to a plot arc all its own, one that is started and resolved in the pages between the covers. Ideally there will even be smaller plots between the big ones, but that’s going off onto another subject.
The point is, just because a book is in a series doesn’t mean it can get away with being incomplete on its own. And if that seems like something that really shouldn’t have to be said out loud, I agree, but holy shit you folks would not believe what I’ve seen on the indie book market. People just ending books with no resolution, assuming you’ll buy the next one to see where the plot goes. It’s a jarring, unpleasant experience, and the quickest way to make me never want to read that author again.
So when I come to a sequel, especially in a series, I make sure there is a cohesive plot all its own. When I share the work with editors and beta readers, it’s the criticism I’m most on watch for. Every book should be a complete journey, even if that journey is only a step in a larger overall trip.
Only if I can do all of that, justify the fun vs. sales, build on the original, and tell a story that stands on its own, do I write a sequel. Other writers probably have their own requirements to work through, but after trial and error I’ve found this is what works best for me.