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Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, March 14, 2011


About six months ago, my agent and I were discussing a follow-up to the novel she had in front of her, and she said that when you write a sequel, the two books need to play into each other. They need to feel like each other, complement each other, and address the same questions. As kind of a one-off, she said that a sequel shouldn't be just 'the next book about the same character.'

I didn't realize at first what she said, but when it hit me, I was shocked. I understood then why some of my books took very well to a follow-up whereas others never got up enough steam, and I'd left them as stand-alones. By then I'd read hundreds of novels and completed an MA in English and no one had ever said it that way: a sequel needs to be more than just another book about the same characters.  

We'd discussed trilogies, of course, but trilogies divide up neatly into their own setup, intensification, and conclusion. It's different when broken up over two books. Ideally your two-book deal will have an overall arc: the first book will address the hidden need of the character, but the second book will resolve it more permanently or in a more complete form. 

More to the point, a great novel has characters with specific needs who have been put together by the author with a specific purpose in mind. If the author didn't intend to have that second book on the horizon, but sits down to write one, the novel won't work if all the central needs of the characters have been resolved.

And there lies your tightrope: your novel needs to stand alone; but in order to have a sequel, the characters need to be able to take their resolution further than they did in the first book. 

When you write a novel about a character, hold one thing in mind (told to me by author Alysse Aallyn at the 2010 Connecticut FictionFest): this should be the story about these characters' lives. Ten years from now, there won't be a better one. What you're telling now needs to be the moment these characters, at the end of their lives, will say it all changed: the pivot-point. 

Therefore you the author owe it to them to give the entire story its own harmony and its own set of central questions, no matter how many books it spans.

If not, then what you end up with is a book with another book tacked onto the end, the second book having a different feel, different scope, and an almost superimposed set of needs that should have been established (and worked on) in the first novel.

At the end, my agent told me to make sure that closing chapter points in the direction the next book will head, while still fully wrapping up that first book. The closing chapter of the first book, she told me, sells the second book.

And if the needs, the drive, and the conflict of the second book will be that dramatic a turn from the first book, possibly a sequel is not for this story. It might be time to end the story and start a new one.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Judie said...

Thank you for this post. I'm a pre-published author and I had this idea that I wanted to carry over three books. The first story flowed easily (with the usual drop-a-chapter-add-a-chapter;) ) The second book,howerver, was like running in water. But your post gave me the plot point that was missing.
So thanks again
Judie Troyansky

Anonymous said...

Love all your posts, Jane, but this is especially useful and well thought out. My WIP, which hopes to be the first in a series, creates these kinds of challenges.

How much of my characters needs should be resolved in the first book and what kinds of set-ups/clues can I include without giving away plot twists?

Your post helps me think through some of these issues in a broader way. (I'm giving you a shout out on my little blog.)

Thanks again for your great posts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, it really has helped me get a better idea as to how sequels need to tie into each other. I'm please to say that my last chapter definitely points to the direction of where the sequel will begin so I am quite happy I've done this already.

Liz R said...

Thanks for this, Jane.

While subbing the first book in my psychological thriller series, I had an editor advise me to create at least a five-book character arc. Being a pantser, this wasn't easy to do, but I did it.

Though she eventually rejected the story, I've been working on the sequel while sending out the first one. It's been like trudging through mud. Thanks to your post, I realize I wasn't exploring the complexity of the character arcs. I wasn't going deep enough.

The plot is now flowing, the characters are back to where they were in the first story, full of angst and unspoken needs, though a few have been satisfied, and struggling to achieve what they long for.

Paula said...

This is so helpful. I don't think I've heard it explained this way before either and it makes so much sense. Thanks.

It is a tightrope. I don't like it when a book leaves too much hanging and I have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next. But I like your agent's idea of planting a hint of where a second book could lead, should the publishing universe be aligned in the writer's favor.

Karen Duvall said...

These are great points, Jane. I've started sequels to books in the past, then when their predecessor didn't find a home, I trunked them. Now i have the first book in a series being published by Luna this fall and the sequel will come out six months later. That 2nd book sold on proposal, so I had to figure out fairly quickly how to tie that 2nd story to the first and give it its own hint for a 3rd book to follow (in the event there is one ).

Now I wish I'd tried my hand at writing a sequel before selling a series potential book. But I'm really enjoying writing it though, and it's a bit easier than writing a first book since the main characters are already fleshed out. To add to what you've said, Jane, I'll also point out that the world you build and the mythology behind it plays a big part in how you develope a series. There are nuances there you can build on that enhance an over-arcing plot and enrich the characters' arcs as well. Just something to consider when planning a series potential book. :)

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Great post, Jane! Now I'm off to share it! ;)

Lori said...

Your blog it timely and mimics my thoughts on the matter. Often writers think just because they have a character that works, that they can and should write a sequel. If only it were that simple. Thanks.

Peggy T said...

Thanks, Jane. Your thoughts on sequels really hit home for me. That is just what I am struggling with now.
Peggy Thomas
author of Farmer George Plants a Nation and Anatomy of Nonfiction.

Mary Mary said...

This is some good stuff to hear. I'll be writing a sequel to one of my novels, and I always had a sequel in mind while writing the first book. It's good to know what to look for and how to tool the story around what needs to happen and what needs to be resolved in the end.

Having said that, I do have another novel that I never wanted to write a sequel to, and after reading it through I'm certain that one would never work and that this is the one story for these characters.

Good advice! Thanks!

Stina said...

Thanks, Jane, for the great post. My current WIP ends in a way that begs for a sequel. I could tie it all up in an epilogue, but that just doesn't seem to be enough. There're so many miss opportunities if I do that, and the mc has a number of new problems because of the climax which require a new story to resolve them. Now I know it's not the end of the world as long as the story arc for the first book is resolved in the first book. :D

Cherie Reich said...

Great post! Definitely something to keep in mind when considering a sequel.

Jane said...

This is the best advice on sequels I have ever heard.

Lydia Kang said...

Great advice and this is all very timely for the particular story I'm working on. Thanks Jane, this is a jewel of a post.

Claire Merle said...

Great post! I'm just starting to work on a sequel and have been thinking quite a bit about the inner conflict/ need of the MC and how this carries through both books. Your post has helped clarify a few points. So thanks!