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.
“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?Pin It