When should you write the sequel?

A friend of mine just finished a rewrite on his first novel and is preparing to enter the soul-crushing world of querying (nonwriters: this is when you send letters and sample chapters to agents hoping they’ll fall in love with your book and want to represent you and get you a huge publishing deal).  Like every person who has ever queried a book (Every person.  All of them.  J.K. Rowling included), he is going to get rejections.

It’s not that his book isn’t good.

It is.

But the odds of sending the right novel to the right agent at the very moment they’re looking for something just like it are quite slim, and most writers find they have to open an awful lot of oysters before they find a pearl.  Agents find that same truth.

So my friend asked me for advice.  His book is intended to be the first in a series, and although everything he’s read tells him NOT to start writing Book Two right now but instead to start something new and different, he doesn’t want to.  Book Two is burning in his soul and he wants it out NOW.

I get that.

He’s invested in the characters.  He’s been living their lives for the past two years while Book One took shape.  Why not continue while he’s hot?

Here’s what I wrote to him:

Let’s think about this logically.

Your plan (like most people’s) is, I assume, to look for an agent first with the hope of getting a big publisher to buy your book.  The minimum time that will take is a few months (because there WILL be edits/rewrites based on your agent’s feedback even if you are the powerball winner who finds an agent right away), but it can take years.  And once you have an agent, publishers are currently acquiring for 2017, so it will be over a year before Book One hits the shelves.  You will want a sequel eventually, but you have a LONG time if this is the road you get to travel.

What if it doesn’t?   What if you query for at least 6 months, do online critique events, do Twitter pitch events and  writing conferences, and still no agent bites?

Then what will you do?

If the answer is: look for a small publisher on your own, then you might need Book Two.  Small publishers move much faster than large ones and can go from the “Yes we want it” to the “Yay it’s published” in a few months.  So you’ll want a sequel then.  But that’s not going to happen until/unless you’ve given up on the whole agent thing (because you will NOT submit to agents and small publishers at the same time), which I would give at least a solid year (it took me over 2 years, and it was my 4th novel that finally got her).  So you have a lot of time before you need Book Two in this situation as well.

What if that doesn’t work either?  Then you have two choices.  You can give up on it for now and write something else or you can self-publish it.  If you self-pub, you’ll want a sequel to release within a few months.  But again, that’s not going to happen for at least a year or more if you’re looking for an agent/publisher because they move SOOOOOO slowly.

You have a lot of time before there’s any need for a sequel no matter what happens.

And that’s part of why you should write something else now…you’re just not going to need Book Two anytime soon.  I hope you’ll need it eventually, but it’s going to take a long time no matter what.

That’s how publishing works.

Right now you’re way too close to this series.  You’ve lived and breathed it for years, thought of nothing else.  You’re so invested in your characters and your story that you can’t entertain any options for where the story is headed.  That could change with time and experience.  You have to give your brain time to think about it anew before you try to write another book to make sure it’s the direction you really should be going with these beloved characters.  And the only way to do that is to turn away from it for a while by writing something unrelated.

The benefits of that are many.  I would strongly suggest trying to write something new from a different narration point of view (third person vs first, for example).  You will learn a lot just from that simple change forcing a new writing style.  You will also learn a lot from creating a new character, a new story, and organizing your thoughts on that new story with the experience you earned writing Book One.  When you come back later to start Book Two, you will be a much stronger writer by having written a different book in the meantime.

It’s just like any other craft…you have to practice to improve.  We all do.  Book Two loses nothing by waiting 6 months while you write another book (which should go a lot faster than the first one did), and everything to gain.

Another thought:  there could be major changes in Book One’s future.  If an agent or editor wants it, there are going to be more rewrites.   Sometimes major ones.  They might suggest huge changes that could really alter where you’re going and what the characters are doing in the next book.  You might be wasting time writing something now that just won’t work after that process.  And you’ll learn so much from the editing process that again, you’ll be a better writer for Book Two than if you go at it now and it just becomes a continuation of Book One.

The last reason is to buoy your spirits.  I hope you’re the exception to the rule and the first agent you send it to falls in love, and the first editor SHE sends it to also falls in love.

But for most people that doesn’t happen.

I queried my first 3 books for over 2 years (starting when I finished the first one, writing and querying the others as they came to exist) before the fourth finally landed my agent.  During that time I got literally HUNDREDS of rejections on all 3 books because although I thought they were perfect, they simply weren’t ready.  If that was the only option I had, I would have been devastated.

But if you are working on something else, you have that to think about.  “Maybe I’ll never get Book A represented/published, but wow, Book B is turning out amazing and I’m SURE they’ll love it!”

See how important the clause after that comma was?

How sad to stop with “Maybe I’ll never get Book A published.”

And, sorry, but even once you have an agent it’s no guarantee of success.  The murder mystery that my agent loved and signed me for has been on submission for over 9 months now.  All the editors she’s sent it to really like it…but none have yet loved it enough to make an offer.  Even after I got my agent, I’m STILL getting rejections.

So what am I doing?  Writing the sequel to that one she’s trying to sell?

Nope.

I’m finishing another unrelated book so that if my mystery never sells, we can start with the new one once it’s ready.  And I’ve also started yet another in case THAT one doesn’t work.  You just never know.  And if one of these others is the winner, then maybe the mystery will follow once I have a name in the publishing world, so it isn’t dead…just waiting.

The final reason to write something else is the juju.  There’s just something about starting a sequel to an unpublished novel that seems to annoy the Writing Gods.  They don’t like the presumption.  I learned that the hard way two years ago when I thought I had a deal with a small publisher for my second novel and started its sequel in happy anticipation only to have the editor who had fallen in love with it tell me she’d recently learned that a romance has to have a happy ending and since my paranormal didn’t, her romance publishing company couldn’t publish it.  Really bad juju there, folks.

But with all that said, if your gut says write the sequel, there’s no one to say that’s the wrong thing to do.  If it feels right and that’s what will make you happy right now, then go for it.  It’s the only good thing about this time when you’re unagented and unpublished.  You can do any damn thing you want and nobody but you gets an opinion about it.

Just make your choice knowing all the things that could happen with Book One in the next few years, and consider this: in 6 months what you will wish you had started writing today?  Will you want to have a completed sequel?  Or will you want to have something different?

So how about you?  What are your thoughts on writing sequels?  I’d love to hear in the comments.

 

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2 thoughts on “When should you write the sequel?

  1. I think somewhere Stephen King published a list of things to do when finishing a novel. I think writing your sequel should always be dead last. For me proper marketing research, submission queries, and finding a new completely different subject of exploration and development. Anytime I finish a project I always like to go in the opposite direction. At the very least step back from your proposed series and look at it as a whole to see if the original outline for the series is the same or if it needs some new blood. But then again today it’s all about cranking out as many books in a series as fast as possible.

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