Thursday, May 11, 2017

What’s so hard about book 2: sequels, series and spin-offs

While pitching to an agent at the 2017 DFW Writers Conference, I got a question I’d never heard before: do you think this book has series potential?

Luckily, like any good fiction writer, I answered yes (the answer to pretty much any question about writing). Equally luckily, a fellow critique member had already told me my book had series potential.

Laura Maisano
Luckiest of all, I’d attended editor/author Laura Maisano’s class on “Sequels, Series and Spin-offs, Oh My!” earlier that day, where she asked, “What is so hard about book two?”

Before those of us in her audience could say anything stupid, like, I blew everything in the first book! she walked us through what sequels and/or subsequent books in a series, can – and can’t – do.

“It’s not just another chapter, not just a ‘middle,’” she told us.

Like book one, a subsequent book needs not only to continue the overall story arc, but also to be complete in itself, with its own internal arc and a satisfying ending. It’s not a matter of writing a single long book and chopping it arbitrarily into parts. Neither can an author assume that readers have read the earlier book or books before they open the covers of the subsequent volumes.

But she also can’t afford to bore readers who have read the earlier books and, like a group she called “super fans,” remembers every word. That said, Maisano delineated three basic types of reader whose unique needs must be taken into account by sequel writers:

·         The super fan: OMG, I read your book a millisecond ago!
·         The ideal reader: I read the previous book when it came out about a year ago.
·         The random reader: Hey, it’s a neat cover!

To take care of each of these types of readers, sprinkle required knowledge – anything the reader must know now for the story to make sense – into the early chapters, roughly chapters one through six (or thereabouts).

Pick a starting point where there’s room for this – a big emotional point, or action scene, or major plot point, and don’t be afraid to define things. Just don’t try to cram everything into the very beginning.

Among those need-to-know essentials are the same issues addressed in book one: the main character, with an idea of his/her personality; the story’s setting; and the main character’s personal goal as well as at least hints of the overall story goal. And of course, the hook – for the book, or at least the first plot point (the significant event that moves the story’s action).

But won’t subsequent books have to contain a lot of backstory?

Yes, but. . . “Sprinkle the information in as needed. The biggest thing is to sprinkle it without disturbing the current story. You can put in hints, but delay explanations for later paragraphs – or later chapters.”

Is there anything special about dealing with longer works – series, or even spin-offs?

One of Maisano’s suggestions goes against frequently-quoted writing advice, but remember, she’s speaking as an editor whose clients’ previous works have indicated enough reader interest to make sequels worthwhile. And that is, use a preface.

This is especially helpful to deal with world building (an issue for genres such as fantasy), and to keep track of what happened in the continuing story of the main character.

Even with a preface, don’t expect random readers to grasp much of the more subtle plot issues, but do include plenty of hints and Easter eggs to keep super fans (and even the ideal reader) satisfied.

The ideal goal is convert even the random reader into a super reader!

For more about what Maisano likes, see her page at Manuscript Wish List.

(Tomorrow: I close a week of posts about the 2017 DFW Writers Conference with author/blogger Annie Neugebauer’s tips on the multiple uses of a query pitch.)

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