Friday, August 09, 2013

To Sequel or Not to Sequel?

Say you write a book. It doesn't exactly take off like a rocket (one of those good rockets, the kind that doesn't arc into a nosedive), but a number of readers really like it. And, of course, you like it too.

So what do you do when the readers who really like it express an interest in seeing more of the characters and their world, even if you'd intended the story to be a stand-alone? Do you give those dear readers what they -- and maybe you, as well -- want, or do you adopt a more hard-nosed, objective approach?

This isn't an easy question to answer.

I'll admit I dithered around after Mongrel was released. Nothing I've written has ever taken off like a rocket, and this novel was no different. But it had enough enthusiasts (bless you all!) to keep a follow-up story simmering in the back of my mind. Still I remained cautious, to the point that I published seven books before I threw caution to the wind. Why did I even bother? Because, regardless of the passage of time and the relatively small audience for anything that isn't a contemporary feel-good story, I hadn't managed to root Clancy Marrowbone and Simon Bentcross and my dirty steampunk world out of my brain.

Finally, I began Merman.

It was a struggle. Boy, was it a struggle! Not that I didn't adore the characters, but my old doubts still lingered. I told myself I should've been writing an angsty contemporary laced with humor. That would have more of an audience than this. But I'm stubborn . . . with a touch of delusional. I kept going and got caught up in the tale. To make matters worse, I OCD'd my way into a third book, just to give myself a sense of completion with the Mongrel storyverse.

Not a day goes by that I don't ask my computer, What the hell am I doing here? Why do I keep writing this book? When all is said and done, there might be five people, max, who'll have any interest whatsoever in reading Machine. And yet I press on. I have over 17,000 words written and I can't seem to stop, no matter how often I tell myself it's an exercise in futility.

What have I learned from the Mongrel Trilogy experience that I can pass on to fellow writers?

DO NOT follow my example. At least not the one above.


1.) Plan a duology, trilogy, or series before you begin writing the first book. Don't wing it. When I began the Utopia-X series for Loose Id, I knew I wanted each of the first three "installments" to concentrate on the development of one relationship, and the fourth to put the primary world in danger. Therefore, Book I focuses on Win and Pablo; Book II, on Tole and Ridley; Book III, on Zee and Sebastian (with a wrap-up of the Tole-Ridley story arc, which proved the most complicated). Book IV centers on a threat to the entire Utopian Metroplex of Regenerie. It also tests the Win-Pablo bond and resolves other issues, so it brings the series full-circle. That's the kind of planning I'm talking about.

2.) Unless you're as popular as Rowling or Ward or Meyer, and have millions of rabid fans salivating at the thought of a sequel to anything you produce, it's imperative you not let too much time go by between books. Adhere to the old adage, "Strike while the iron is hot." Sure, give the first volume a chance to take off/catch on, but after six months to a year, your next book should be ready to launch. M/M fiction, like most pop-fic genres, has an explosion of new releases every damned week. If you want readers to remember your first story and retain their enthusiasm for it, release the subsequent stories in a timely manner. I waited waaaaaaay too long to get cracking on Merman.

3.) Stay abreast of readers' preferences. They change rapidly. Today's Big Thing could easily be part of tomorrow's Glut. Or become tomorrow's Meh. Gay steampunk was still something of a novelty when Mongrel came out, but while I was doing all my dithering, the novelty started wearing off. And vampires fell even further out of favor. What's more, even though interest in mermen was rising, I deliberately chose not to create a fairy-tale merman and make him a sexy, romantic hero -- which is, I think, what most readers want. Oh well. That type of character wouldn't have fit into my universe.

By ignoring all these trends, either perversely or on principle (in my case, it was a little of both), I took more steps toward jeopardizing the success of my sequel.

Here's where another consideration comes into play. If you notice a change in tastes that could influence the reception of your next story, whether it's Series Book 2 or Series Book 10, do you alter it accordingly or remain true to your original vision? There is no right or wrong answer. Which way you go probably depends on how much you crave approbation . . . and royalties. ;-)
4.) Know when to call it quits. Granted, some series become so beloved, readers never seem to tire of them: e.g., Sookie Stackhouse, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, J.D. Robb's "In Death," and the chronic diarrhea that is Anita Blake (sorry; I'm not a fan). Our genre has been blessed with some excellent ongoing series: Boystown, The Administration, PsyCop, to name a few. But . . . keep in mind these are the exceptions, not the rule. Most authors can't get away with producing an open-ended and seemingly never-ending series. Their writing suffers, their readers get bored, and soon, their reputations are taking some serious hits. Counterproductive, for sure. (I really admire Josh Lanyon's wisdom and courage in putting the brakes on Adrien English. He could certainly have squeezed a lot more mileage out of his central couple, but for some very sound reasons, he chose not to.)

Now, I'm obviously not averse to letting favorite characters make cameo appearances in stories that aren't theirs -- Jackson Spey turned up in Fugly and Abercrombie Zombie ('cause, hey, he's a wizard, so he can show up whenever and wherever he pleases!) -- but I'd never drag out an actual series past three to five books, and I don't think too many authors should. It's a matter of recognizing limitations: your own, both in terms of creativity and popularity, and your readers', in terms of their interest level. So don't, don't get too big for your britches and assume the world will never get enough of your wonderful characters. The sad truth for most of is, the world will more likely forget about our wonderful characters than eagerly await their return.

To learn more about crafting series fiction the right way, check out Josh Lanyon's excellent guide, Man, Oh Man: Writing Quality M/M Fiction. He's devoted an entire chapter to the subject. (You should read the other chapters too, while you're at it, because a series won't fly unless you've mastered all the elements of storytelling.)


Anonymous said...

**raises hand**

Consider me one of the five now eagerly waiting for Machine.

Consider me one of those fans that has read EVERYTHING you have ever written.

Consider me one of the fans who is SO DAMNED grateful you don't whore yourself to every fad out there (SOOOOO sick of cowboys and S&M and mated pairs and whatnot).

Consider me one of those fans who recognizes what an amazing writer you are and as result will gladly read anything you write, even if it includes one of the above overdone topics, because I trust you to take me on an amazing journey, in your own unique (and VERY appreciated) way. (Except if you decide to write Anita Blake, cos there's loyalty and reader adoration, and then there's that, whatever that has become, and I do have some limits. **grins**)

**hugs** (If that's OK and not too creepy)


Anonymous said...

Consider me the second to jump on this bandwagon! (if Blue doesn't mind, she said it much better than I could have.) ;-)

Cris said...

I'll be third. I loved Merman and was excited to see that Mongrel had a sequel. Perhaps it would have been easier on you if you'd planned the sequels ahead of time, but I liked everything just the way it was.

And I LOVED that the titular merman wasn't a hero. I certainly expected him to be when I picked up the book, but thought it was brilliant that you subverted the genre and made it your own.

Finally, every genre there is has completely played out at one time or another - vampires, werewolves, steampunk, contemporary humor, etc., etc. The vast majority of readers are looking for GOOD (which you always offer) not a theme - though admittedly a reader's favorite themes will get them to check out a book, it won't, however, make them like it.

Write what you want to and people will read it. You're talented enough that the genre doesn't much matter :)

Tam said...

I think often stories featuring secondary characters within a story work better. It's rare that a single couple can maintain a series. I think it works well with mystery type books because the focus is on the mystery rather than the relationship. But how long can you string out an angsty relationship? I know readers often go "Oh, I loved them, give me more" but there has to be something worthwhile to give. However often when reading I want to know more about a secondary character so I enjoy sequels that feature that person with the originals on the periphery, but the same world. If the author can make me interested in another character, enough to want to know their story, they've hooked me. :-)

I'm not sure I think far enough ahead for a true trilogy and as for what's hot, well, you get what you get from me. :-) I don't do well with saying "I must write X". Then I can't do it. My internal 2 year old rebels.

K. Z. Snow said...

I love you guys like crazy. ;-)

K. Z. Snow said...

Tam, I think you're right about mysteries lending themselves most easily to sequels. Fantasies, too, if the worlds are elaborate enough.

And what you said in your last paragraph? Yeah, totally with you on that one. :)

C Kennedy said...

Great post, K.Z. I have fans clamoring for a sequel to one of my books where, IMO, there simply isn't more of the story to be told. It's tough not to give fans what they want, yet I am unwilling to write a "poor" story. Again, great post.

Anonymous said...

Great post, K.Z.!

I agree with Tam--on all points (except i don't have an inner 2 y/o, it's a 12 y/o boy who lives in my head making up urban legends and dirty jokes; anything i want to write has to be interesting enough to derail his plans to duck into the bathroom for a few minutes).


K. Z. Snow said...

"I have fans clamoring for a sequel to one of my books where, IMO, there simply isn't more of the story to be told."

When your belief is that firm, Cody, you likely have sound instincts that lead you to the right decisions. I think readers can respect that. They'll just look forward to the next book, even if it isn't the sequel they'd hoped for.

K. Z. Snow said...

LOL, Charley!

Theia Adoram said...

I am one of your newer fans. Honestly, I got Mongrel for free during #Tweetaway event with DSP, LOL. I wouldn't know KZ Snow otherwise.

However, before I got a chance to read Mongrel, I saw Merman was on coming soon page in DSP's site. I took a chance in buying Merman and read them simultaneously. I fell in love instantly.

Now, I am in the process of purchasing your backlist while waiting for the third book in the series, LOL. I just finished Abercrombie Zombie and purchased Zero Knot. I'm going to buy each one of your book until I read them all since I love how you tell your stories.

I think this is how I buy and read books. Once, I bought a book that was actually the 2nd book of a series. Since I like the book so much, I purchased the prequel and sequel immediately. The next sequel came a few years later, but I still purchased it because by this time, the author is in my auto buy list. this author being an active author who publish frequently helps that I don't forget the name.

So, even if you have doubts, I think it's still better to keep writing what you want to write. Your fans will only grow, and if in the future you want to write a sequel of a book you published years ago, they will still buy it because they love you anyway.(I for example, would love a sequel of Abercrombie Zombie, *wink wink*)

K. Z. Snow said...

Yikes, I never received notification of your comment, Theia! I'm sorry for such a tardy reply!

Just let me say, you've made my day. <3