Series vs. Stand-Alone: What Should We Work on Next?

by Jami Gold on November 13, 2012

in Writing Stuff

New leaves branching from a twig with text: Should We

Whenever we finish a writing project, we’re told the best way to keep moving forward, especially when we’re dealing with querying/submitting nerves, is to start another project. But that brings up the question: What should that next project be?

Should we write a follow up to that previous book? Or should we go in a different direction with a stand-alone story?

I’ve seen writers take each of those approaches and be successful, so there’s no wrong answer. However, when we’re moving on from our very first book to our second, the question brings extra complications.

Too often, I’ve seen (and I myself almost fell into this trap) writers who decide to work on a follow up book for the “wrong” reasons. That is, reasons that should prompt us to dig deeper into our choices.

The Pitfalls of Second Books

First books are unique. Maybe we didn’t think we had it in us to write a whole book, but we did. Maybe our deep passion for that story was key to pushing us to “The End” when we didn’t think it was possible.

Love: When we love something, we often want to spend more time with it. In the case of our first book, if we work on the sequel, we get to spend more time with those characters and that world.

Fear: Or maybe we worry our successful finish with that first book was a fluke, and we might be scared to branch out and try something new. So we might stick with a sequel for our next project because it feels safer.

In a comment on my post last week about “getting close” to publishing success, Krysta Man mentioned:

“What if nobody liked the first story of the series?”

Wasted Time: That brings up the third concern of sticking with a sequel: putting more time into a dead end. Self-publishing has created new opportunities, so dead ends often aren’t completely dead anymore, but marketability is something to be considered no matter our publishing route.

I’m not saying that every time we choose to work on a sequel as our second book, we’re making a bad decision. Far from it. But we do need to be careful about our choices.

When Branching Out Feels like “Cheating”

As I mentioned above, I almost fell into the trap of working on a sequel for an unsold series as my second book. I say “trap” because if I’d gone down that road, I would have made that decision for reasons that would have hurt my writing and my career.

I love that story and those characters. Those characters truly feel like family members to me, and I desperately wanted to continue writing about them.

However, right as I started working on the sequel, I had an idea for a stand-alone novel. I wrote a few pages, you know, just so I didn’t forget the idea. And then I wrote a few more. And a few more.

It felt like I was “cheating” on my series. What was I doing, spending all that time on “that other book” when I should have been working on the sequel? Was I abandoning that story? That series?

The Benefits of Writing Stand-Alone Stories

Sure, this new story was fun to write, but I also discovered other things. Things that helped me become a better writer and brought me closer to writing success than I would have been if I’d stuck with the sequel.

I strengthened my writing voice: A story’s voice is usually a combination of our author voice and the voice of our point-of-view character. When we write in the same world with the same characters, we might not be sure where our character’s voice ends and our author voice begins.

I learned my writing style: Similar to voice, our story world and the plots that evolve out of that world often create a tone and mood. If we stick to the same world, we might never discover that we’re good at humor or dark or sarcasm.

I created varied characters: The familiarity of writing sequels with continuing characters means that we miss out on what it takes to create characters. Expanding into new worlds forces us to exercise that character creation muscle, and when we give every new character their own voice, we again learn more about our own.

I developed new worlds: Like the character creation process, world-building is another area where we might get lazy if we can reuse the same details all the time. Creating new worlds and new situations strengthens yet another writing muscle.

I proved I’m not a “one-hit wonder”: Agents want to form relationships that will last for an author’s career, not just for a single story. They want to see that we have multiple ideas in different worlds. They want to know that if they can’t sell one story, they can try with another one.

ETA: I should qualify this to explain that by “stand-alone story” I don’t mean our second story shouldn’t have potential for its own sequels. Any new story world that doesn’t continue from a previous story would grant these benefits, whether this new story has sequel potential or not. We just want to avoid locking ourselves into writing a continuing story that might not go anywhere if the first story dead ends.

Still Querying? It Might Be Better to Start a New Story

Should everyone make the same choice I did? No. Some writers will have very good reasons for continuing a series as their second book, even as newbie writers. Maybe they already have an agent for that first book. Maybe publishers are interested in the series. Or maybe they’ll do this one sequel while they have the right voice and then start a new project.

But if we’re still querying, a sequel won’t give us something new to query, enter in contests, or put out there to create interest in our work. Only a fresh new story can accomplish that that for us. So if we’re pursuing traditional publishing, we should carefully consider which approach will better help us reach our goals.

As for myself, I realized that when I return to my series, all of those above benefits will help me write a better version of those stories. I haven’t abandoned them or those characters. But in the meantime, my craft and storytelling abilities have grown beyond what I could have learned by limiting myself to that world. Those stories are important to me, so I’m glad that when I’m ready, my craft will be too.

Do you disagree and have a case to make for sticking with the same world? Have you finished your first story? What are you planning (or what did you write) for your second story? If you’ve written multiple stories in different worlds, what did you experience? Do you recognize any of these benefits?

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56 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Roni Loren November 13, 2012 at 8:46 am

Great look at an important decision. I know for me, I benefitted from not getting caught up in writing sequels. I wrote a YA with series potential. While I queried that, I wrote a contemporary romance with series potential. While I queried that, I wrote my erotic romance, which was the one that landed me the agent and book deal and has turned into a continuing series. Had I kept working on the other projects, it would have been spinning wheels on something that would never have an engine.

I didn’t write a standalone as each next project but instead wrote another start to another series (though admittedly the stories I write are complete stories and CAN stand alone but were set up for series potential.) So that’s an option too. And don’t be afraid to stretch into another genre or subgenre. It took me a while to find my voice best fit sexy romance. : )

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 9:28 am

Hi Roni,

Great point! What’s important is not so much the stand-alone aspect as the starting in a new world aspect. Either way, we’re still focusing on all the new characters, new world-building, unrelated stories, and other benefits. And honestly, I’ve been thinking about how I can take that stand-alone novel and turn it into a “separate but related” stories type of series. :D

And thanks for sharing your story about the search for genre as well. That fits into discovering our writing style, I think. I know my first story was more serious than those I’ve written since then, so I’ve discovered that I like adding in touches of humor to my stories, even though they can be quite dark. :) Thanks for the fantastic comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc November 13, 2012 at 9:16 am

I agree with Roni one hundred percent. I do the same thing. I write books that can be effective stand alone novels, but have the potential for a series.
I also stretch into other genres. I’ve written paranormal, contemporary, historical, etc. I like them all and have fun writing them all.
Great post, Jami!
Have a wonderful week,
Tamara

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 9:31 am

Hi Tamara,

I absolutely agree! I think the trap is more about continuing the same story because if the first story dead ends, where does that leave the follow up books? I’ll tweak the post to explain this point better. ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc November 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

Thanks, Jami!
:)

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Vanessa November 13, 2012 at 11:08 am

Hi Jami,

This reminds me of trends, because most of the trends are series. As I mentioned on my blog, about trends and one book series in particular House of Night, the publisher put it for a 12 book series, back when vampires were popular, now that readers have grown tired of that trend it’s a curious thing to see if the rest of the books will be sold. I read all 10 books that were released and the same thing happens in the end of every book, just to keep the series going.

I am currently writing a dystopia trilogy, which I am excited about because no one has ever written a dystopia that way I have been planning. If you read Elana Johnson blog post, Dystopia, and Overused Genre, the comments from the readers keep me going with writing of this particular genre. They like dystopia, its not like the other trends where it was vampires in finishing school, teenage girls finding out they are fairies or the long lost daughter of the king of fairies, or angels who fell from the sky and fell in love with the human, it’s easy to see why the Big6 gave up on these trends.
http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/2012/04/dystopian-oversaturated-genre.html

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Krysta November 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm

@ Vanessa,
Don’t let the comments from readers bar you from writing the story, especially if this story is completely different from vampires in school, finding out that they aren’t humans and long lost daughter of some dude- this dystopia is the story you want to read the most, right? (I personally dislike the idea of a trilogy – it reminds me of Shakespeare except the not-printed words of Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3, not that I dislike the guy’s works or anything. It just feels generic.)

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Hi Krysta,

Ooo, interesting point about trilogies. Yes, the series that have cliffhangers and depend on later books to finish the story drive me crazy. That’s not to say I don’t read them. :) I inhaled the Hunger Games series in a week–but only after all 3 books were out and I could read them as an Act One/Two/Three complete story. I prefer the series where each book can stand on its own (like what Roni mentions above) and the stories are connected.

That said, I have story ideas for both kinds. ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Vanessa November 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Thank you Krista, actually my dystopia is something no one has done before

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Hi Vanessa,

Good point! Most of the “big” books–ones that become trends–are series based, as the continuation of the story gives readers more time to get involved with the story/characters. So I certainly don’t mean to bash series here. As I mentioned in an above comment, virtually every story I (or anyone else) write could have the potential to become a series, and that’s not a bad thing. :)

My point is more about how a Book 2 to a series (when it continues a previous story) isn’t something that can be queried on its own, so limiting ourselves to a continuing story while we’re still in the querying phase of our writing career limits our choices and opportunities. Thanks for the comment!

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Vanessa November 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Hi Jami,

I think the stand alone also depend on the author. Like Jennifer Wiener, all her novels are stand alone, same with Jodi Picoult. I think it really depends on the author and the publisher. Publishers are so strict with Word count now and days, my stand alone novels are 120,000 words, which some consider too much for a YA book.

If you think about big names, let’s say J.K. Rowling, was to write another Harry Potter series (if she did I would be the happiest person in the world!), can you imagine all the pre-order sales the publisher would gain. Most publishers end up making a single book into a series because if the first book sold well, then the pre-order sales for the second book would be incredibly high. Meyer said Twilight was suppose to be a single book, but because of it’s sales, the publisher wanted more books in the series, and those other books in the series sold a lot. Publishing is a business, and just like any other business they have one thing in common, to make money

Thanks for letting me comment.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Hi Vanessa,

Yes, series are great for building that buzz and getting pre-orders. I really wish there was a way to do pre-orders for self-published books. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal November 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm

What’s funny to me is that while I tend agree with the advice to not write a second book in a series until you’re sure the first will sell, I recently started taking notes on what would be a stand-alone, and as I got more into it, discovered that it actually was the second book of a prior book I thought was also a stand alone. Is that confusing?

Now I like them both much better as part of a series.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Hi Susan,

LOL! I totally understand. The “stand-alone” story I mention in the post is just that, a stand-alone in that it doesn’t depend on any other story. However… :)

When I first started working on the WIP I’m doing for NaNo (which, as I’ve mentioned, I’m doing NaNo Rebel-style and already had Act One complete) and I worked out the world building for this new story, I realized that this story could take place in the same world as my stand-alone. So they’re each independent stories, but they could be a series simply because of the world-building aspects. And like you, I like them better that way.

If the publishing options for them don’t work out to make them an official series, it won’t cause any harm, but in my head, they’re now related. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee November 14, 2012 at 7:57 am

I know the feeling. A Fistful of Fire was supposed to be one book, but then I realized there was more to the story. “Okay,” I thought. “I can write the prequel.”

But then I realized that there were two books’ worth of story after that, too. Each one its own story, but they’re connected, ultimately telling one larger story. >_>

And then, in working on some side stories involving a character who shows up in the first sequel to A Fistful of Fire, I realized there was an entire story worth telling in how two characters had met. I’d thought it a novelette, maybe a novella…but discovered in starting it that it was a full novel, considering I hit 7k words and was still in the first planned section after the introduction.

And then there’s another story I’ve thought of that’s in the same era as that “how two characters met” story.

Those are all one of my examples. I have more—including a short short story I’d looked at to finalize and release for Halloween…and realized I’d come up with the perfect setup for a novelette. Trilogy. Based around Halloween, Christmas, and Valentines’ Day. And a NaNoWriMo project that definitely sets the scene for books to continue after it…while also possibly being an outline for more than one book, in itself. And then there’s the…

You get the idea, I’m sure. :)

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Jami Gold November 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Yes, and this is exactly what I mean when I replied to I.J. Vern’s comment. Sequel potentials can be realized after the fact. :)

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Amanda November 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I started my second book before I’d finished writing my first (I was getting bored and frustrated). Book number two was always meant to be the start of a trilogy, and I wrote all three books, one after the other, before moving on to something else. And I don’t think the story would have turned out half as well as it did if I’d written one book, moved to something completely different, then came back and did book 2 in the trilogy. It’s a continuity issue for me.

That said, at the beginning of the year I wrote a contemporary romance that was meant to be a stand alone. It still could be. My beta readers, on the other hand, say otherwise :P

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, I completely understand that issue of continuity. I made sure to take good notes for my series before setting it aside. :) Plus, it helps that I know that I’ll have to heavily revise book one to bring it up to snuff craft-wise before even starting on book 2, so I’ll have plenty of time to get back into the groove with the story. LOL! (Yes, that’s me trying to find a silver lining in yet more revisions. ;) ) Thanks for the comment!

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Krysta November 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Hey Jami,

You hit almost all of points about why I’m very indecisive about working on a sequel when querying the first novel, and the ones you missed pertains directly to the series I’m writing.

(In the following blurb, where I explain why I’m particularly indecisive about this series, I will either sound insane or like a mastermind – both of which fits a writer…)

After the first novel ends, the second novel begins with another character’s story with minor relations with the first novel’s plot. The main character of the first novel might get a cameo or a scene in the sequel, but the readers wouldn’t know what happened in the first novel (unless they’ve already read it).
For example, a scientist has to escape from a laboratory and survive a bear-filled forest to get rid of a case of pills that could turn the person who eats it into a unicorn does so by disolving the pills into a bottle of expired milk and throwing the bottle out, hoping that the bottle would be buried in a landfill/thrown into a volcano. In the sequel, a beggar picks up a bottle of expired milk and found himself as a unicorn in the big city – then getting chased the people who wants a unicorn. (Not that this is the actual story, I just want to type the word unicorn.) While the beggar does hear the gunshot that wounded the scientist from the first novel, that’s the most spoiler-y part of the sequel. Each novel is supposed to be read as standalone – in a way that if the reader picks up the fourth in the series, they wouldn’t know it was actually the fourth in the series until they wanted more (from me).
The series would have this kind of format – different main characters with different storylines – until the last book, which would tie the series together in a way that the ones who read the entire series would know it is the end. (Why? Because the last one would be from the villain’s point of view…)

That’s pretty much the scary part about writing that particular series – especially it is such a departure from the books with sequels we see on Canadian/American bookshelves. While I do have other WIPs that doesn’t primarily fit into fantasy, the time and energy I placed on that particular series can’t be called as insignificant. Currently, I finished the rough draft of the first novel in the series and another standalone that is science-fiction, but I use NaNo as the springboard to rough drafts – so until the end of this month, I’m not thinking of those two…

Whew… I typed a lot.

… Did the structure of how my series works make sense to you?

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Hi Krysta,

LOL! Well, as someone who is currently writing a unicorn story, I don’t blame you for your fake blurb at all. :D

And ooo, can I say that I like the related-but-independent-all-tying-together-in-the-end series arc. That is my favorite kind. I’m a huge fan of Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series, and she’s doing something similar to this. I want my series to be like this, but I don’t quite have it all worked out how I’d pull it off yet. That won’t stop me however–I am a pantser. ;)

So, yes, I think your structure makes sense. I think you’ll get many of the benefits of independent stories with that approach (working with new characters all the time), but it will still be hard to query the second book and get representation for it unless the agent decides they like book one too. And really, that’s the only tricky part with this. If you’re trying to go down the agent/traditional publishing route, you might need to use those other stand-alone books to get agent representation. Once you have that, the sky’s the limit. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena November 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Must say I’m luckier than you in a way because I want to self-publish and I’m only targeting my friends (and maybe family) as audience members, so I don’t need to think about marketability either. So I have the freedom to choose either stand-alones or sequels.

Still, I really liked your points about what you gain in writing a completely new story. You are right that we develop a clearer idea about our writing voice and writing style(s). StyleS as in you are definitely allowed to possess more than one! For example, I’ve tried the 3rd person limited, 1st person, 3rd person omniscient (this was so fun), and 1st person but where the character may address the reader (the 4th wall is partially broken down.) I’ve also written something where there was no 4th wall at all! Lol. (One day, I swear I’ll do the 2nd person too. :D) Apart from perspective, there was writing style: I tried the very descriptive (metaphors, imagery, fancy adjectives) heavier language style, the super simple devoid of any “decoratives” style, and also the in-between style where there is some description and elaborateness but is still relatively light and easy to read. As for tone, I had the sympathetic tone, the default straightforward storytelling tone, detached/ neutral tone, disparaging or condemning tone, admiring or appreciative tone, the satirical / poking fun at everyone tone, and the very silly random tone—and some others. Finally, for genres, I tried adventure, action (:D), fantasy, sci-fi, romance, literary, ordinary (no magic, no sci fi), and comedy / farce. I did want to try my hand at horror one day, but now I’m not so sure I want to try that anymore….I’m a real scaredy cat and I still don’t know what induced me to read Stephen King’s It.

Oh wait a minute, one more thing. I tried some different kinds of endings too. Happy endings, and ambiguous endings: ambiguous endings that are looking grim, and ambiguous endings that seem to promise a turn for the better. I’ve also tried the “pseudo-happy ending” where on the surface it’s a happy ending, but you can tell that this is just a temporary solution to the problem, or the characters are deluding themselves that they’re fine now, or anyway the problem is still there, though everybody tries to cover it up.

I love that point about getting to know different characters if you choose to write a stand-alone too. By the way, similarly to my “world discovering” that I told you about, I also prefer to “discover” characters rather than create them. By discovering, I mean I pull out a person that was hiding in my unconscious—I pull this whole person out so I never have to “design” them piece by piece or anything. To me, “creating” implies that you CONSCIOUSLY made decisions about how a character will be. But since almost all, or all, of my characters involved no conscious or deliberate decisions, they were all just “discovered”. I like to think of this as pulling out a person from a pre-existing universe. So the person also existed before I met them—they just existed in a different universe!. Hope you get what I mean. (My friends do think I’m weird that I subscribe to the “Discovery theory” and refuse to say “create” like everybody else, lol.)

Anyway, like you said, I indeed get to know different characters/ people, and each of them have a different voice. And also like you said, through writing these different voices, I learn more about my own, since my characters tend to share at least one strand of similarity with me—though I still see my characters as separate people from me. It would be very scary if they were me and I were them. O_o (I can think of some characters I would never like to be…)

New worlds…Hmm, so far, I’ve had this fantasy world in the cirrus clouds (I was in Primary school then…), this martial arts world, the—normal modern world, and the unimaginably far future sci fi world. Maybe there are more, but I forgot.

Back to the original topic about series. I’ve only ever written and finished one sequel (i.e. 2 in the series), but this was during primary school, lol. It definitely felt very good, because I was revisiting the same characters that I grew attached to. But, unexpectedly, I thought the sequel was BETTER than the first book!! There was more mystery and suspense in it…and the plot was less simplistic. I actually wanted to write a second sequel so it would become a trilogy, but unfortunately that didn’t happen as I was still a young and undisciplined writer—not saying that all young writers are undisciplined though. As for current stories…well I did write PREQUELS for this main sci fi story. (Do prequels count for your question?) I.e. I did backstories on 5 of the 6 main characters (still need the 6th)—though only one of those stories (for 2 of the characters) was actually finished. The story for another 2 of the characters was written during my “mock Nanowrimo” i.e. incomplete; and the story for another 1 of the characters is the one I’m writing right now in this real Nanowrimo. =)

The way I seem to approach this series vs stand-alone problem, is that I would always prioritize writing the sequels/ prequels first. But IN REALITY, what happens is that I get distracted by another “awesome” story idea and so that’s why my characters in my old stories will have to wait forever for me to come back to do their sequels. I used to feel guilty about doing that—not committing to my original plans and wandering everywhere else instead. And yes, it does indeed feel like I’m betraying my old characters. =( But now since I’ve read your post about the benefits of going to a new story instead of continuing with an old one, I feel a lot better about my constant “straying”, so thanks. :D

Uh…I hope you don’t mind me sharing so much about what I’m doing for my writing. I’m aware that this post is again rather long…

P.S. What do you call a story that happens at the same time as your original first book? A simul-quel (lol)? Or what about if your original book just covered, for instance, 10 years. And then your next book covers 25 years, where it covers 5 years before the original book’s 10, plus these 10 years, plus 5 years after these original 10 years? Would that book qualify for a prequel, sequel, and simul-quel? A pre-se-simul-quel? Haha, I know, strange question.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Hi Serena,

For me, even beyond my current publishing plans/goals, my approach makes sense for my marketability, but just as everyone’s goals are different, everyone’s approach might be different as well. That’s why I really tried to qualify this post with the “if you’re trying to find an agent and pursue traditional publishing” disclaimer. :)

Thanks for sharing all your different experimenting. You’ve done far more than I have on that count. :) I generally do 3rd person, but I have the 1st person/present tense novella. My paranormal romance stories have the happily ever after endings, but my urban fantasy stories have the bittersweet, temporarily happy-ish ends.

I love how you described “discovering” a character. Yes, that’s very much how I view it as well. They’re already there in my head, fully-formed, and I just have to uncover them. :)

Great question about prequels! I know of many authors who release prequels for free or low cost to build anticipation for the big book release. I think that can be a great approach, and especially if you’re looking at self-publishing, there would be no reason not to write them. For those doing traditional publishing, prequels would often be written post-sale but pre-publication.

LOL! at how you prioritize writing sequels, but end up getting distracted by shiny new ideas. I can relate. :) (And as for your P.S. questions, I have no idea.) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena November 15, 2012 at 6:12 pm

“That’s why I really tried to qualify this post with the “if you’re trying to find an agent and pursue traditional publishing” disclaimer.”
<—Whoops. Sorry about that. :( I must have been reading too fast that I missed it.

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Jami Gold November 15, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Hi Serena,

No worries! I added an “ETA (Edited To Add)” paragraph in the post because you weren’t the only one pointing that out. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson November 13, 2012 at 4:35 pm

I never really considered a sequel until my publisher asked about one right as I signed on. I was afraid, if I didn’t the sell first, why write a second. But when they asked, the story poured forth just as the first one did. And I do have a stand-alone for my third novel ready to flesh out. But I take things one step at a time. I only hope I get the second one out as well as the first, if for no other reason than to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Hi Nancy,

Yes, I think it’s normal to hit a point with almost every story where you doubt everything will come together. :) But if you stick with it, everything usually works out. Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda S. Collins November 13, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Hi Jami!

I’d say this is wonderfully sound advice for all non-published authors – especially newbie authors. I actually sort of fell in that trap myself, but my main reason for it was becuase I couldn’t move forward – or I mean, my muse couldn’t move forward – without getting the next book in that series out. So while I was letting the first book in that series simmer (after the first two rounds of edits), I ended up writing the second book in the series (that was actually last year’s NaNo project).

Becuase I wasn’t already in the query stage, I felt safe in doing that, especially since writing those two novels taught me a lot about my style in general (everything before those was just writing without even caring if it’s ever read or published, so style wasn’t anything I ever worried about).

However, having said that, there’s definitely something to be said about moving onto another story altogether, especially once your muse is primed and ready. I moved on after several more edits of the first story becuase I recently realized that the characters in that first series are definitely not ready yet. They’re no where near as fleshed out as I thought they were, and now they’ve gone in hiding. LOL! I take that as a I sign to move on? Guess so, because now I’m writing something with much, much more action, and way more romance than anything I’ve written in the past (serious or otherwise). And I haven’t even touched or edited the second book in that first series because A) All my muse needed was to get that story out of its system, and B) Now that I’ve flushed the next part of the story out for that series, I now know where the next will lead and can confidently say that writing a synopsis will easy peasy – which should be all I’ll need if that series is contracted for publication. ;)

I have yet to try writing in a different genre like Roni did, though, and after reading her response, it’s got me wondering about trying a completely different genre to see if it’s possible that my voice better fits another genre besides PNR, even though PNR is where my heart and soul lies. :)

Thank you for another awesome thought-provoking post! *hugs*

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Hi Melinda,

Ooo, being a slave to the muse–I can definitely understand that. :) I think my NaNo project will be the first story I finish (since my initial one) where I don’t write another story in the middle of drafting the other one. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee November 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm

(RSS feed was delayed, agian. :-/)

Honestly, I think the best choice (series vs. standalone) depends on your goal. If you’re aiming for a publisher, standalones are probably best, to give you more opportunities to find an editor whose taste meshes with what you’re writing.

However, in the self-publishing world, series help sales. A fair number of readers don’t even take a risk on a series until it’s all published, since they’ve been burned by mid-series cancellations. And if a reader loves your book, they’ll be likely to snap up whatever of that series they can. (I know that’s the pattern I’ve followed as a reader, more than once.)

Looking back, I wish I’d focused on my classic fantasy quartet of novels, getting that at least finished (though, to be fair, I’d hoped to be well into book 4 by now, but life intervened—and I’d also expected my YA UF to do better than it has. I’ll be looking at its categories and possibly rebranding it as dark fantasy when I finish the sequel.)

I have some other story series ideas for which I’ll seek a publisher—but that’ll be on the grounds of the first story. (I say “story” rather than “novel” because at least one of them is a sweet paranormal romance novella series.)

For now, I’m looking forward to getting this novel quartet done. I like this world, but I’m really really wanting to finish some other stories, too. Like, say, the one set a few centuries before the quartet and tells how two of the in-quartet characters met. :-)

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Vanessa November 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Very true! With self publishing, anything is possible. I have a dystopian trilogy I’m writing, I have no high hopes of Big 5 publishing the books because they said they are tired of dystopian. New York publishing is like New York fashion, what’s in one year is out the next. Even though readers like dystopia they have been reading self published dystopia, some of the self published works just need a better editor. The publishing industry is changing very fast.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hi Carradee,

Excellent point about self-publishing being a completely different set of goals! Yes, I really tried qualifying this post to apply to those who are querying for traditional publishing because you’re absolutely right–once we are published, readers want to see a completed series right away. So in self-publishing, where we control the publishing schedule, finishing a series before moving on to something else is more important. Thanks for making that so clear! :)

P.S. Hmm, not sure about the RSS. It showed up in my reader just fine this morning. *confused*

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I.J.Vern November 14, 2012 at 8:02 am

Hi Jami.

If before the end of the first book, one hasn’t already thought about a sequel, then it’s better not to do it. In most cases, it will not become a sequel, it will turn into a copy of the first, loosing in originality. Series (and I don’t mean series in episodes, where a book is left unfinished to be continued in the next one, which I don’t like at all) must be already planned from the beginning or at least by the time one reaches the middle of the first or previous book.

There must be some hints in the book to prepare for a potential sequel. Either in the form of secondary characters who show the potential to become protagonists (or antagonists) in a next book, either in the form of auxiliary events which give hints that they necessitate further development due to their importance, etc. Usually, series are thought or planned from the beginning. But there is the case that one does not know from the beginning that the book will become the first (or precedent) of a series. However by the time one reaches the middle, it should have shown the potential for series and give hints to the readers too.

Interesting article :D

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Jami Gold November 14, 2012 at 9:19 am

Hi Irene,

I wouldn’t agree with that “sequels need to be planned in advance” idea, only because there are so many different kinds of sequels. :) If the story continues in a cliffhanger, I’d absolutely agree with you. But in the case of the stories being connected solely on the grounds of taking place in the same world or picking up with secondary characters, I don’t think the planning has to be there in advance. (Remember that I’m a pantser. ;) )

For example, an author could finish a story where–just by pantsing their way through it–one or more of the secondary characters had a special spark. Afterward, that character could tap their muse on the shoulder and ask, “So… Would you be interested in hearing my story?” Just the fact that character exists could be a “hint,” but they weren’t consciously included to be that hint. They were around to serve the first story. Does that count? True story, so I know that happens. :D

So while I understand that “hints” should be there, I disagree that those hints have to be placed there on purpose with a goal of a sequel in mind. Sorry, that’s just the pantser in me. :) Thanks for the comment!

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I.J.Vern November 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Hi Jami.

I said:
1. “If before the end of the first book…” that’s for the pantser,
2. “either planned ahead or by the middle of the story” for the plotter and the second covers the pantser too. :D

Quote: “one or more of the secondary characters had a special spark. ” > but that is a hint. They have something special, they have a story, and that can trigger a next story.

No disagreement there. Just different words. :D

But I disagree on the “Just the fact that character exists could be a “hint,” ” > the mere existence of a character or an event does not justify a base on which a story can be built for any book, pantser or plotter. :)

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Jami Gold November 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Hi Irene,

“the mere existence of a character or an event does not justify a base on which a story can be built”

But as a pantser, I’ve written whole stories on far less than that. ;)

Yes, I understand what you’re saying, and I’m not trying to disagree. :) My point is more that in pantsers, these things happen at the subconscious level. So I think it would be wrong to make a conscious decision (i.e. not to do sequel) just because we’re not consciously aware that our subconscious already has a plan. In other words, we shouldn’t make conscious decisions based on subconscious uncertainties. Just because our subconscious hasn’t clued us in to the plan yet isn’t a reason not to think of sequel potential.

I’ve discovered plot threads or subplot hints or emotional arcs, etc. (no joke) TWO years after my subconscious put it there. (My male muse is crappy at explaining things. ;) ) So sequel potential ideas could come–and yet fit into the first story with these secret things my muse did behind my back–long after the drafting is completed. That’s why I don’t want to say: No, don’t think in terms of sequels unless you have conscious ideas by halfway through. That doesn’t match with my non-communicative muse’s ways. :D

I hope that explains why I agree with how sequels work, but disagree with the statement about when not to consider doing them. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins November 20, 2012 at 4:28 am

Jami, I agree you can think of sequel potential after the fact, but I think some writers, including myself, have a hard time writing stand-alone because not only are you starting from scratch, you’re not always sure how to transfer whatever you learned from one book to another, it’s not automatic for me as it seems to be for other writers I know.

I didn’t plan on a sequel to my last novel, but in the feedback about my antagonist, I started seeing there was something there. I did outline a sequel, but it’s from my antagonist’s POV, (the MC of the last book won’t be in it), he’ll be mentioned and talked about where it’s appropriate, but he’s physically not in this story.

But it’s not necessarily a “stand alone” because it takes place right after the previous book, and the emotional weight won’t be as strong if you hadn’t read the previous book. Yet it can’t be a “Side Story” because it’s a year later, the antagonist hadn’t yet learned what he needed to for the sequel to make sense from a characterization/plot standpoint.

As opposed to something like “Millicent Min” or “The Misfits” where the preceding books are billed as side stories, taking place the same time as the first book, but a different story from a secondary character’s POV.

Anyway, I don’t think I’m “Seat of the Pants” type anymore, Jami. I used to be, but long story short (I wish!) let’s just say the agony of learning to write query letters changed me forever.

I know when I was revising version 2 my last novel (I had to do essentially 4 versions of this book before it was right) a lot of my early feedback was in the vein of “Your Antagonist is so interesting and more relatable than your MC” and while that kind of irked me at first (Because my MC was the hardest to get right because he’s shy and soft-spoken [NOT wimpy] yet the antagonist is feisty and sharp-tongued , yet not a total sleazebag) it also kind of surprised me.

He (My antagonist) was a patchwork quilt of every bully I had growing up, plus all the worst aspects of myself, but with a WAY deeper voice than me (Think a higher-pitched Barry White with a “Brooklyn” accent) and I didn’t get why he was so much easier to relate to. Now I do, but I know the MC for that book was the right choice, he was just harder to access than my antagonist was.

I personally NEED to know more than a couple scant details or I will have a not-so-fun revision experience.

I started out more “spontaneous” one might say.

I’ve now become one of those “Write a query before the ACTUAL BOOK” people. It’s obviously not an agent-ready query, but it does help (to a point) prove my concept and better visualize it. I still wish I didn’t have to write them (Or pay someone to do it for me) but it can be fun if I don’t get too stressed about, but it’s kind of hard not to when most folks we’ll judge the merit of the end story on this concise “blurb.”

There’s a reason why some of us aren’t in marketing outside the context of publishing, Jami…

As I mentioned in a previous comment-

I HAVE to know a few things before the first draft-

I MUST know my main character’s name
I know names of other key characters (i.e. Antagonist, secondary character whom without the story can’t exist)

I have a (Working) Title (I know you struggle with titles, Jami, but for me, they’re the LEAST stressful because I like coming up with character names and book titles, this is the only “parent-y” thing about my process)

I know the broadstrokes of the story. (Example: I could tell you what MC and Antagonist want and why, but not so much the “why readers should care” breakdown. I seriously believe people who have background in marketing in their “day job” or just are shamelessly extroverted just don’t struggle as the rest of us introvert (and non-used car salesmen/women) do in this area.

I know how I want the story to end (thematically) but not always specifically. (Example: The story will end on a bittersweet note, but I don’t know how to specifically get there)

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Jami Gold November 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Hi Taurean,

“you’re not always sure how to transfer whatever you learned from one book to another”

Great point! And I think that’s more common than you think, at least on some level. Multi-published authors I know struggle with the sagging middle the same as newbie authors. (There are several multi-published authors in my local writing group, and our Facebook group is a constant stream of, “Arg! I’ve now reached the point that I get stuck on in every, single book. Why can’t I figure this out?” LOL!)

Anyway, it sounds like you’re finding a method that works for you, and that’s what matters. By the way, I’ve done that “write the query first” approach as well, even with some of my pantsed novels (believe it or not!). :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins November 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

I know, and when I first heard of this concept on
Janice Hardy’s blog, I really thought it was so backwards, or at least something that only works for those “extremist” plotters who analyze and research to the umpteenth degree.

Now, I do it all the time since this past summer, and while I’d eventually like to write the actual books, these take less time to compose, and when I say that, remember these are for quantifying my book ideas, these aren’t the kind of query letters I’d send to agents or editors, but as I will say until I die, writing about about book will never be the same experience as writing the actual book. It’s something I hope more writers will start to understand so the process will feel less agonizing.

We can’t always avoid disappointment in life. But that’s not the same as feeling defeated. Something I’m sure you know, Jami.

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Jami Gold November 21, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi Taurean,

“I really thought it was … something that only works for those “extremist” plotters”

Exactly! I actually go into this in my workshop as well–how pantsers can write the query (and even some aspects of the synopsis) ahead of time. Thanks for the comment!

Annie Neugebauer November 14, 2012 at 9:55 am

This is a great topic, and one I’ve struggled with quite a bit myself over the years. My second novel was planned as part of series. My third novel had sequel potential. And my current novel is the first in a trilogy. But each time, as I finished those books, I decided to write the next unrelated book instead of the sequels—and I’m glad I did. If I were still working on sequels to book two, I imagine they would be much harder to query. How do you query the middle book in a complex series? And if there’s not enough interest in said series, I would have “wasted” (for lack of better word) three books instead of one. So I agree with you wholeheartedly. I always start something new when I finish one book, and it’s always an unrelated project.

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Jami Gold November 14, 2012 at 10:00 am

Hi Annie,

“How do you query the middle book in a complex series?”

Exactly! If we’re self-publishing or already agented, it’s a different story, but for those in query mode, new stories give us more options. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles November 14, 2012 at 10:32 am

I think you bring up great points and it aligns with what I’ve heard from published authors, and that is–what if that first book doesn’t sell? I disregarded that advice and wrote a loose sequel to the one that landed my agent while I was waiting for Beta feedback. But my agent doesn’t think it’s the right direction for me to go in BUT she does want to know what an alternative 2nd and 3rd book would be so she can pitch that. And when I pitched to an editor after signing with my agent, she said sounds great, what’s the 2nd book. So my takeaway is maybe to just plan out potential sequels in case you do get an agent, but while you’re waiting, write something different

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Angela Quarles November 14, 2012 at 10:35 am

To clarify– my agent wanted to know what my sequel ideas were, not that she was expecting them to already be written

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Jami Gold November 14, 2012 at 11:05 am

Hi Angela,

Great point! Thanks for sharing your experience. :)

Yes, it’s fine to have potential sequels in mind–either while we’re writing or after the fact–but that’s different from needing to take the time to write them right now. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins November 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Jami, if I sound particularly intense here, it’s only because this is a subject I continue to have mixed feelings about, and any angst is about my experience, no one’s fault but mine.

For me, as much as I REALLY hate to admit it, writing new stories outside the scope of what I wrote before (Series or stand-alone) is HARD, and unlike many of my writer friends who can’t wait to “Move on”, I struggle here.

Here’s the thing, I LOVE series. Many of my favorite books are in series, and some of my early stories I personally believe would work as series, but I know lots of readers loathe books in series (Most notably trilogies) that end too much on a cliffhanger, just because it’s part of a series.

That’s probably why a lot of series the past few years seem to be open-ended, in that there’s no overarching plot and each can stand on their own and rarely refer back to earlier books, if at all, and while I get why some readers can feel gypped by series, as a writer I’d be hard pressed to write a more open-ended series myself. I personally didn’t like more open-ended series as a kid because a pet peeve of mine are characters who don’t retain what they learn from previous books.

I like seeing things evolve over time, because real life evolves over time, and while there are times when “Staying frozen in time” works for a story, especially for readers in the early years, I like some progression, something I felt at least when I was growing up, it was hard to find from a lot of american entertainment.

I used to be a more organic writer like Jami in that I didn’t plan my stories ahead of time, I knew my character’s names and personalities and a working title (Unlike Jami, I find titles less agonizing, and for me, are the least stressful part of the process) and just wrote.

Now, while I avoid the kind of intricate planning that would (For ME) take all the fun out of storytelling, because I’d get overly paranoid about every freaking detail, it reads bad no matter how technically sound it is, I personally HAVE to plan things out more because plotting is my greatest weakness.

Along the same line, there are/were times, even as a child, when I just wondered what some characters would be like when they became teenagers or all grown up? How would Eloise handle being 16 and more self-aware of her actions, how would she navigate life without Nanny, or The Plaza, and how would the bond with her long-distance mother crack or strengthen?

How would Pippi Longstocking stay true to herself in a world where the pressures of “Growing Up” (Especially in the 21st Century) can feel like a Death Sentence for such a free spirit so outside the mainstream, as much as she is unabashedly a kid.

Would Madeline grow up to be a world traveler and be a frenetic swinging single with no immediate plans to settle down, if at all?

(I apologize if I’m somehow stepping on some reader’s childhoods. I’m just being honest with myself here)

I still wonder that stuff sometimes, but just let my own characters have that journey, maybe I’m just more sensitive to this since I “missed out” on a lot of experiences other kids had due to my shyness, lack of money, and being unable to travel and to rely on my imagination more than I think most kids do on average.

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Jami Gold November 15, 2012 at 8:24 am

Hi Taurean,

I’m with you about not liking when characters continuing in an open-ended series don’t seem to remember previous events. That sums up why so many TV shows don’t work for me. :)

I haven’t seen too many of those in book form–at least not in the genres I read. I suspect those would be fairly common among other genres like mystery and maybe some thriller series.

Ooo, my brain perked up at the modern Pippi Longstocking idea. :) I think your imagination comes up with new ideas just fine. It’s just that, as you said, you incorporate those ideas into the existing framework of characters or stories you’ve already started.

Hmm, and I’m just thinking out loud here–Is that planning stage you go through difficult for you? If so, I wonder if that makes you reluctant to embark on that planning step for a new story if the plot or character ideas could more easily be integrated an existing story. I could be way off base, but I just thought I’d mention it in case it triggered any insights for you. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins November 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Thanks for replying, Jami.

I should’ve clarified what I meant better. I write primary children’s books, and I was speaking more to books in that area of publishing.
That’s why I used children’s books in my opening statement.

There were a few more of those open ended series that had a bad
habit of characters NOT retaining what they learned, or at least felt to me like they sacrificed character development for action scenes because the writers of said books (If they weren’t work-for-hire books that have limits imposed and whatnot) were terrified of letting their characters “Think too much” and thus bore readers. At least, that’s what I felt when I read them.

I get that too much internalization can be boring, but I still refuse to believe that even readers with shorten attention spans want no depth in their books, at all. Depth REQUIRES some emotion and internalization, not just “Humor and zany madcap antics, much as those are fun and important to stories, too.”

There are two open-ended series I love that DON’T do that. One is the Judy Moody series by Megan MacDonald, chapter books for the low MG set, she does refer back to earlier books when it’s applicable to the current book, though not necessarily in numerical order. One of my favorites refers to both the third book and the first one for those fun “in-jokes” if you’ve followed the series, and this was what I wish had existed as a kid myself.

Another is the Hermux Tantamoq series by Micheal Hoeye. You can read them out of order (Though I strongly recommend you read at least 3 and 4 in order for the best enjoyment and for plot reasons) but if you read them in order as I did, you feel a stronger bond for the continuing characters, but each book (Like HP, but shorter length!) does have a self-contained adventure/mystery plot.

One thing I do want to stress here is please don’t let the anthropomorphic animals scare you off. Even if that’s not normally your thing, this isn’t Disney (Much as I still love Disney stuff sometimes, and it does have more depth than people give it credit for, especially from the 60′s through the 90′s)

It’s more “Beatrix Potter for Grown-ups and “Wind in the Willows” for the modern day (Though teens can read it too, and it’s marketed as one of those YA-Crossover books), but they avoid the “cute factor” often attached to these stories, and while personally that’s not a major turnoff to me (Though I do have a “Too cute, even for me” limit, it’s higher than most readers today), this is a good gateway book for readers to see how fun and frankly gripping these stories can be, without always taking the Bizarre and Trippy or “Saccharine” route.

This is a series I feel is the best of both worlds. You can enjoy each book in the series on it’s own merit, plot and story wise, but they have more depth, power and emotional weight if read in order, or at least reading them all (So far…)

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Jami Gold November 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Hi Taurean,

Ah, yes, I wasn’t thinking in any specific genre, much less limiting to children’s books, but now that makes sense. And I’m in complete agreement with the idea that depth requires some internalization and emotion. I can’t imagine a powerful story without them at all, even if they’re handled at a distance, like in an omniscient point of view. Thanks for the comment!

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Veronica November 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I always joke about how I have to try EVERYTHING because I can’t say no when it comes to a writing challenge, and so I’ve actually gone both routes, in a way…

I wrote my first novel (YA contemporary) and loved it… but unfortunately, no one else loved it as much as I did. I put it aside and told myself it was a good practice novel, and I wrote novel #2 (MG contemporary with a touch of paranormal), which was completely different in setting, characters and age range. Then, I wrote a couple of picture books, because I had cute ideas that had to be told….

But then, I went back to my first novel, which I still loved, threw it out and wrote the “sequel” as my new “first novel” (same characters, same pov, but the story essentially starts where the first one ended and continues on from there). Maybe it was what I learned in the writing of the other books, but my second “first novel” was vastly improved, and I started getting personalized rejections and even a few requests instead of form rejections.

While querying, I wrote another middle grade novel, another picture book and a YA short story, which then became the outline for a novel I plan to write next year. Now, I’m back to my first world, writing (as my NaNoWriMo project) a companion book to the second version of my “first novel.”

Of course, I have to be contrary, even when I write a sequel, and so I’m not actually writing a sequel… This book is told from the POV of a secondary character from the first book, and it occupies the same space on the timeline, but it’s not just a re-telling of the first story from a different POV. There are some points where the storyline from this novel intersects the storyline of the first, but the plot for “book two” doesn’t rely on the plot from “book one” to make sense, and since the story is told from a completely different perspective, even the characters that overlap seem slightly different from one book to the other. Because I don’t need to sell my first novel in order to make this one work, I’m not afraid to explore a new story with the same characters. In fact, if the first one doesn’t get me an agent, I’ll just put it aside and try to submit the second one (or one of the others waiting in the wings) instead. :)

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Jami Gold November 15, 2012 at 8:26 am

Hi Veronica,

Interesting! I like how you’ve found unique ways to explore further in your story world without doing anything that would hold you back. That’s a great tip for those who really want to work on series, but also want to have something new to query. Thanks for sharing and for the comment!

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ChemistKen November 14, 2012 at 7:22 pm

If the new novel was something that caught a hold of you and just wouldn’t let go, I’d say go with the new novel. You’ll always have plenty of time to go back to a sequel if all goes well. Maybe a little time away from your characters will give you fresh ideas when you come back to them later.

BTW, I noticed you’re almost at 28K words on NaNo. Good work and don’t stop till you finish.

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Jami Gold November 15, 2012 at 8:31 am

Hi ChemistKen,

“You’ll always have plenty of time to go back to a sequel.”

Exactly! That’s been my thought as well. If I do manage to make the traditional publishing path work with the stand-alone story, we both know that’s a slow road, leaving plenty of time to bring up the series up to speed. :) Thanks for the comment! (And now I passed 30K. Yay!)

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Katrina Lantz December 12, 2012 at 9:41 am

Loved this! I agree writing a new book after the first one helps establish your personal voice, plus gives great practice with the essential element of world-building. I wouldn’t mind being a one-hit wonder, though. ;) My first book was actually a trilogy, but that was because I had no idea how to restrain myself. The words just came out. And series were my favorite to read, anyway.

I do like the trend toward companion novels instead of just sequels, though – that is, writing from the POV of a side character, turning their subplot in the first book into a full plot in the second. It’s sort of like if JK Rowling decided to write, THE ADVENTURES OF FRED AND GEORGE WEASLEY. *dreams* That would be awesome.

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Jami Gold December 12, 2012 at 9:47 am

Hi Katrina,

Yes, the first project I worked on (and then set aside) was made up of standard sequels. But like you, I’m enjoying the recent trend of companion novels, and that’s the type of project I’ve been working on lately. These stories take place in the same world, but each has separate characters.

And LOL! at your hoped for spin-off for JKR. That would be a trip! :) Thanks for the comment!

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