I started this series talking about issues in books that pretty much everyone can agree are a problem: weak writing, clichéd characters, unclear character goals, etc. Last week’s post on Action Openings was a little more subjective, and today’s pet peeve is going to be more so. It has to do with sequels and why I may finish the first book but not read any of the rest.
First let me say that I’ve never written a series. All of my books so far have been stand-alones (though I’ll eventually be turning one into the first of a series). So I don’t have any experience writing a series. But I’ve read a TON of them and, as a reader, I have strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. You may agree, you may want to stab me with your voodoo pins. Either way, here are the reasons why, in the past, I’ve finished book one of a sequel but failed to read any of the rest:
1) Too Many Unanswered Questions. I recently read a paranormal thriller that had me RIVETED. It involved a killer on the loose, a tropical island, a curious weather pattern, a mysterious clique of fascinating but ominous people, and frequent vanishings. The stakes were clearly high, the characters interesting, the premise fabulous, and I was completely invested right up to the end. Then I finished the book. I slammed it shut, held it up for my husband to see, and made some form of unkind declarative statement that I won’t repeat here.
A lot of questions were raised in this book, and I think maybe two of them were answered by the end. The rest…well, you’ll just have to read the sequel to find out. Um, no. I was so confused (and pissed) when I finished, that I won’t be reading any of the sequels.
As authors, we have an obligation to our readers to deliver what we promise. If you give readers an indication that the hero’s eventually going to have a show down with the villain, you need to fulfill that promise and make sure it happens. In the same way, if you raise a bunch of important plot-based questions, the reader expects those important questions to be explained. Now, I’m not saying that everything has to be ironed out by the end of the first book. Far from it. But you have to answer enough of the questions so the first book makes sense on its own. Every book, even one in a series, needs a complete story arc. So please, for the love of all things literary, if you’re going to write a series, answer the pertinent questions at the end of the first book. Don’t be coy and mysterious and assume that readers will be intrigued by your ambiguity. No, they’ll just be annoyed. Let’s try to avoid that.
2) Too much elapsed time between books. I read a really popular first book in a series a few years ago. The second one came out in the fall; I put it on my reading list, and there it sits. Six months later. Still unread. I really liked the first book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads—high praise from me. I recommended it to friends when I was finished. But a year-and-a-half later, I just wasn’t into it any more. Now, the books that I absolutely LOVE, it won’t matter how much time goes by before the next book is released: the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, the Grisha trilogy, The Wicked and the Just (please please PLEASE, when is the sequel coming???). I snapped up (will snap up) these sequels as soon as they’re available. But, to be fair, these kind of LOVE books are few and far between for me. I may like a first book—I may really really like it—but if too much time passes before the next book in the series, I could very well lose interest and never another of those books.
So here’s my first suggestion for avoiding this, and please bear with me, because I know this isn’t possible for everyone: If it’s possible for you as an author, self-publish your series. This way, you can control the timeline and release your books at intervals that will keep readers salivating.
Now, I realize that this may not be possible if you’re working with a publisher. Readers may have to wait a year to eighteen months before seeing your next book and you may not be able to do anything about that. So here are two suggestions that may help tide readers over from one book to the next:
- Before the second/third/etc. book comes out, publish a summary of the previous books on your website. Sometimes, I find out a second book has come out, but I’m not really interested because so much time has elapsed that I can’t remember what happened in the first book. But if there’s a summary for the first book out there, I read it, and I remember why I liked that book. I get jazzed again and many times end up continuing the series.
- If possible, micro-publish related pieces in the interim. If your readers will have a while to wait between books, provide some related material that will give them a taste of your world/characters/story between releases. Write a novella from a minor character’s perspective (à la the supplements to Susan Kaye Quinn’s Mindjack series). Provide a short story that explains an important event from your hero’s or villain’s past. Now, I don’t know what limitations traditionally published authors might have in this area (maybe someone could chime in on this?), but your interim pieces don’t have to be books for sale. Post them to your blog and let everyone read them. Save them in PDF format and make them available for free download at your website. Send them to your newsletter subscribers. This is a great way to keep readers interested in your series during a long interim between releases.
- This is an idea I’ve been toying with, so it may not work for everyone (or anyone), but consider writing most of the series before starting to publish. I’m not a prolific writer by any means; this is one reason why I haven’t published fiction yet, because I can’t supply books as quickly as I’d like to. But, I figure if I get 2 or 3 books written before starting to publish, then I can release them in quick succession without keeping readers waiting.
As a reader, I love me a good series. Right now, I’m on book two of The Last Apprentice, which has apparently been out forever and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME? As a writer, sadly, I’ve got few personal words of wisdom to share. But that’s what friends are for, right? Janice Hardy’s got 7 tips for you on writing a series and Joanna Penn has some great advice on avoiding continuation issues when writing a series. Jami Gold’s started an interesting discussion on if you should even learn how to write one. And then there’s Holly Lisle, who I wish was my friend, offering a video-series workshop on How to Write a Series. Enjoy!