On Drafting Sequels Out of Sequence of Traditional Publishing

Drafts of all three books in my proposed trilogy (and a single sheet of paper to spare!)

Experts are adamant that you shouldn’t do it.

When you’ve written the first book in a series that you want to have traditionally published—or rather a book that has “series potential”, to use the correct querying parlance—they say you absolutely should not write a sequel (or sequels) until the first book is sold.

The reasons for this are sound. They say there’s no guarantee your first installment will sell, and that unless you choose to self-publish, you might end up having to shelf the entire project.

They say that even if your first book does sell, by the time it goes through both agent and editor revisions, it might be so different from how it once was, the sequel no longer aligns with the initial book and has to be completely rewritten.

They also say that while querying a given book, both your time and effort are better spent writing a entirely new story—new characters, new setting, new plot with new complications—for this will strengthen your writing skills more than writing the continuation of an existing story.

At this point you may be expecting me to list the reasons I nonetheless feel I should write a sequel to the novel I’m currently querying.

Well guess what?

I already did write it. Two of them actually, for I always envisioned this story as a trilogy (although I’m slowly re-evaluating that opinion, thinking a duology would be better).

I did this years ago upon completing the first draft of the first book. It took me a whole other year plus to do so, which is in part why I’m only now just querying for the first time (the other reason is because I could clearly see what a shitty writer I was for so very long).

I was well aware of the reasons to not write a sequel upfront even then, but I went ahead and did it anyway.

Even though I’d already written the first book start to finish, it was important to me to complete the story as a whole—to prove to myself that I could, that I actually had what it took to go the distance with such a big project.

I also figured that if I did someday manage to sell book 1, having the rest of the story at least drafted would give me a leg up on my contracted time to turn in a polished sequel.

Reading the past

But now I’m re-reading these drafts of book 2 and 3, both for fun and to remind myself of what I envisioned happens next.

Dear god—the writing in these things!

It’s like a mausoleum of all the worst writing habits I’ve since worked so hard to overcome.

Emotionally-distant narration? Check.

Emotionless main character? Check.

Excessive showing over telling? Check.

Awkward inclusion of unnecessary historical facts? Check.

Overwrought, at times absurd dialogue? Check.

Why am I even awake at this unholy hour of morning?

And, naturally, zero reference to the many changes I’ve made on my own in book 1 since its first draft.

It’s all a bit painful, really. The fact that I’ve been doing this reading at 5:30 every morning—the ungodly hour my body has inexplicably chosen as its wake-up time this winter—is making the experience all the more horrifying.

And yet.

Within the plot itself, I see potential. I’m up to chapter 12 of book 2 so far, but the sequence of events in the story (if not at all the way they’re written) isn’t terrible.

Even in my early days as a shitty writer, I always had a decent sense of both scene arcs and story arcs, and it shows. The chain of cause and effect is logical, largely character-driven, and dare I say, an intriguing parallel to the events of the first book.

(I’m not gonna lie, though—we’re talking external plot only. The internal plot and arc of the main character needs serious work.)

Plotting is one of the hardest parts of writing for me (the other is remembering to express, and then actually expressing, the emotionality of the main character—see previous paragraph). It literally took years of thought plus five solid months of butt in chair, hands on keyboard last year to work out the plot for the next book I actually plan to write, set in Ancient Greece.

It’s immensely valuable to me to have at the very least a workable plotline already at hand. It means that if I do sell book 1 and get greenlit for a follow up, I can hit the ground running on the first day rather than agonizing over what should come next.

Whether that actually represents a saving of time compared to all the revision I’ll still have to do—essentially a gut job right down to the beams and studs—I can’t actually say. So I’ll choose to call it even and leave it at that.

~

(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G. Noelle)

6 thoughts on “On Drafting Sequels Out of Sequence of Traditional Publishing

  1. And yet, those early drafts have so much of value in them from when we were young(er) and very enthusiastic about the project.

    In fact, I’ve written that my OT (Old Text), a complete rough draft of the full story (even then designated a trilogy), can be so compelling it brings me to a stop when I’m trying to write the new version of the story now.

    Lots of good stuff in there – and, as you noted, appalling writing. Screams ‘amateur’ – because I was one. Luckily, I had enough sense to recognize that: face it, no one is born knowing how to be a novelist.

    And I’ve learned that being a voracious reader since I was tiny did NOT qualify me to write. Eventually I realized that the reading helps create the standards you will write by (especially for autodidacts like myself).

    Even in my first class and coaching, I could tell that the story on the page couldn’t hold a dim solar-powered outdoor light to what was in my head. I’ve spent twenty-five years battling that.

    Fortunately, though you can learn forever, you can achieve quite good competence by working hard. In my case, my instructors were the at least one hundred books on craft I’ve read since I started. Unlike instructors, they were coherent, and I could go back and read what I vaguely remembered, exactly as I needed it, any time. With my damaged brain that’s important and necessary.

    I never run from a challenge (you may have seen some of my blog posts generated by my mastering of some kind of scene, including the latest one). After that many years, there are few holes left in the list of what I need to learn to write my kind of books.

    That doesn’t mean I know it all, or can do it all, which would be boring. But I’m comfortable, and it takes days, not months, when I need something new – and haven’t realized it yet.

    I’m constantly amazed by how differently we write and plot. And hoping to see what your system has created for you. I’m not above stealing techniques.

    I think you’ve done what you knew you’d have to do – to be serious about writing.

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    • We are quite different in how we plot and write, but that’s half the fun of meeting other writers, learning how they make the magic happen.

      I’ve since finished reading this draft and there is loads of good stuff in it! There’s also a lot that needs fixing, though.

      Ultimately I’m happy I wrote it when I did – as you say, when I was younger and enthusiastic. But I don’t plan to ever write an entire series upfront again unless I’ve already decided to self-publish it. I envision my current WIP as at least two books, but I will only write and try to sell the first one to start. Now that I know I actually can finish a series (some kind of way, anyway), I no longer need to put all my eggs in one basket.

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  2. I am currently reading “How to Market a Book” by Ricardo Fayet, one of the cofounders of Reedsy. He disagrees with the alleged wisdom of the traditional book industry. If Fayet reads this comment and thinks I am wrong, he can correct me. But what I have read in his book is that the best way to be successful as a writer is to write a series and wait until you have several of the books finished before publishing them together. For the rest of his advice, you’ll have to read his book.

    As for the rest of your journey as a writer, few improve as a writer without writing, and that is what you are doing. Writing is a craft and jumping in as you did was a great way to improve as a writer.

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    • I think this wisdom works well for self-publishing. With traditional publishing, you could end up spending considerable time writing a series and then be unable to sell the first book (and hence the subsequent titles). But I definitely agree that the only way to learn to write is by writing. I’m very much a student of the “learn by doing” school, and for that if no other reason (although it’s not the only reason) I’m happy I wrote this sequel draft all those years ago.

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