Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sequel Trouble

If you have a question or topic you'd like addressed, please post it in a comment, and we'll try to help.

Lisa writes:

I might want to get going on Book 2. But knowing how much to repeat from Book 1 is becoming a bit of a struggle.

Getting going on Book 2 is a fabulous strategy. When I was doing the Unpubbed contest circuit, I noticed that the authors who were entering two titles at the same time seemed to do much better... in that they retired much sooner from the lists, and I infer that they made sales.

How much to repeat... is an important balance when you've built an alien world, and yet every book in the series has to be a stand-alone.

When I was writing Insufficient Mating Material (sequel to Forced Mate), my editor Alicia Condon suggested that I ought to take J K Rowling as my role model as regards backstory telling.

If course, I was not going get the page count or the ink. So, I spent a delightful summer acquainting myself with Harry Potter, and trying to extrapolate proportions for "potted" versions of my own backstory. (Bad pun. Couldn't resist. Sorry!)

Here's my take: (Somewhat repetitive)

1. Break any rule of thumb rather than bore your reader.

2. Avoid info dumps at all costs. (Six lines of explanation is more than enough.)

3. On any given page, tell the reader only what she absolutely must know in order to understand the current action, or rules of your alien world.

4. Delay telling as much as you can of the back story.

5. Reunions of beloved characters from the previous book are fun for your established readers, but not so much for someone coming cold to Book 2, not having read Book 1, so any cameo appearances must be meaningful and advance the new story.

6. Use family trees, charts, maps with annotations as creative and visually different techniques for communicating backstory, who's who info etc.

7. Do not rely on being able to use footnotes. Some editors will be nervous about the possibility of the printer being unable to line them up.

8. "Dear Reader" letters in the Front Matter are a possibility, but frequently are skipped by the very reader you wanted to bring up to speed.

9. Prologues ought to be short, but can be very useful and entertaining. A great example would be the J K Rowling scene where the Minister of Magic is obliged to brief the British Prime Minister.

10. Consider putting a fresh spin on the backstory by having someone else relate it... I like to remember that "Summer Lovin'" duet from Grease where the Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta characters gave different accounts of a sweet summer romance.

11. My personal favorite backstory comunicator is my own Grievous. A "Greek Chorus" character is extremely useful. Or an employee who habitually covers his backside by making absolutely sure he understands his orders.

What have I missed?

Rowena Cherry


  1. Thanks for all the advice. I'll definitely be taking this into account as I continue trying to get Book 2 on paper.

  2. All good advice.

    Two things I hear over and over from readers is they just hate when characters don't grow over the course of a series and they hate it when the plot is recycled from one book to the next.

    I think this is why I prefer trilogies over series. There's a definite arc, a definite beginning, middle, and end.

    I do love continuing sagas, as a reader and a writer. I get emotionally attached to characters and have a hard time letting go.

    Still in the aspiring author stage, however, it seems a waste of time to polish up a novel which is second in a series of any kind. The series will only sell if the first book is accepted and sells well on its own. It seems a better use of my limited time to file the second and subsequent books away in my imagination and polish up an entirely new book in a different universe.

  3. Rowena, you always give such great advice. I write in series and I always struggle to put just enough back story in and scatter it out so a new reader will know what's going on and perhaps be motivated to go buy that first book. I'm going to remember your six line rule.

  4. Lisa,
    You are very welcome. I'm glad you suggested a topic I was able to handle.

  5. Susan,

    Thank you for your kind comment.

    With my "reader" hat on, I would ask you to be very careful about trying to motivate a reader to buy an earlier (or later) book.

    If I perceive that the book I'm reading is doing double duty as a sales tool for another book in the series, I resent it.

    I'd be most interested to know how other readers feel about that... if they notice it.

  6. Kimber An,

    You raise some fascinating questions, and I thank you for the discussion.

    I disagree with two points, but fully accept that I may be mistaken.

    C L Wilson (Dorcester Publishing) wrote and sold Lord of the Fading Lands and Lady of Sword and Shadow (I do hope I've got the titles correct) virtually together, and I think both books were released within months of each other.

    So, it cannot always be true that an editor waits for excellent sales before buying the second book.

    If the editor loves a debut book, she is likely to want more of the same. That's why so many stand-alone debut books turn into series.

    Other authors write simultaneously under different pen names in different genres. More power to your elbow and carpal tunnels if you can do that.

    Hedging bets is also a smart strategy.

  7. Kimber An,

    I'd love to talk about this "growth" thing.

    I agree with you that an author who recycles the same plot from one book to the next might be perceived as short-changing her reader.

    (You didn't quite say that, but I infer that that's close to what you meant.)

    I don't appreciate the sort of series where the hero and heroine negate the Happy Ever After that was promised at the end of the first book.

    I like the sort of series where different characters from book one find love and excitement... not necessarily in that order.

    As for a character "growing", if I can say so without giving offense, I think "growth" is vastly overrated, especially over the course of a series.

    I accept that either the hero or heroine has to mature or mellow or lighten up or learn to love a side of their personality that they've repressed in the course of a single book, in order to find love and happiness.

    Once they've found love, I don't think they need to continue to change. My leopards don't change their spots all that much.

    My Tarrant-Arragon only changes as much as suits him in Forced Mate, and while Djinni is pregnant, he reverts somewhat to type and does a few well-intentioned but dastardly deeds behind her back.

    He doesn't stop wanting to neuter his political rivals, just because they are now his in-laws!

    In real life, if a significant other continued to "grow" beyond the way he was when one agreed to marry him, the couple might grow apart.