Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Round Table: Writing the Sequel Part One

I've been itching to do another round table. Both the Gender Bias and Violence in SF/F series were well received and I really do enjoy moderating these discussions and the chance to get multiple author's takes on various parts of the genre and the writing process. So when I noticed that I was reading or waiting to read so many sequels in the next few months, I thought I'd ask some of the authors with sequels releasing this year a little about the process of writing that second story. I consider myself very fortunate to have such great talent to work with.

M.L. Brennan's second novel in the American Vampire series, Iron Night  was released early this year and has garnered lots of rave reviews. I certainly make no bones about my love for the series. Brennan's unique approach to character development and world building has yet to disappoint and I can't wait to see what Brennan has in store for readers in November.

Django Wexler's The Thousand Names was perhaps the most unexpected treat in my reading last year. His blend of military drama, political intrigue, personal secrets, and powerful and mysterious magic was one of my favorite debuts of the year. With the sequel, The Shadow Throne coming soon I'm sure Wexler will gain even more praise from readers.

Jeff Salyard's atmospheric and gritty debut Scourge of the Betrayers has been on shelves for a while, but it continues to gather excellent reviews and with The Veil of the Deserters just around the corner and great advanced praise it's no surprise I asked Jeff to contribute.

Jay Posey's debut Three was another pleasant surprise for me. Posey's post-apocalyptic tour de force managed to tell compelling personal tale while employing some of the most beautifully minimalist world building I've ever seen. The next installment, Morningside Fall releasing next month, is one of those novels I can't wait to get my hands on.

Lastly, we have the author who's been on my radar for the longest.  Douglas Hulick's debut Amoung Thieves was one of the first novels I ever reviewed on this site, and I've been exciting about catching up with Drothe and Deegan ever since. Sworn in Steel is slated for release later this year and I'm sure Doug has spun yet another edge of your seat tale of cunning, corruption, and the price of power in store for his readers.

It's an awesome panel, if I do say so myself. And with all that out of the way, let's get down to the main attraction.

52 Reviews: The series is a staple in speculative fiction, with very few one and done titles on the stands in comparison. What prompted your decision to write a series instead of a stand-alone novel? Was it the weight of the genre's tradition, market forces, publisher pressure, or some other factor?

Jay Posey: Some combination of all of the above?

I genuinely did write THREE as a stand-alone novel.  When I set out to write it, my primary goal was just to finish something, and I didn't give a lot of thought to what would come afterwards.  But as I got closer to the end of that manuscript, I realized I was already thinking ahead to what The Trilogy would be.  That was partly due to the fact that there was More to the Story than I'd told, but also because I was very aware of the tradition of trilogies within the genre.

That said, I'd already had working titles for Books Two and Three before I heard anything back from Angry Robot Books (my publisher), but I hadn't really decided whether or not I'd ever write them.  I was pretty content with the story I had told in THREE.  But then the Robot Overlords offered to publish THREE and a second book in the same world, and so that pretty much settled it for me ... I knew if I was going to write a second book, I'd also write the third.

I think a lot of what we've already talked about probably highlights why writing a series is such an appealing idea; creating a new world is labor intensive, so once you've got that foundation in place, it's nice to be able to continue to build on it.  It's the same from the business side of things.  Once you've invested the money to promote a New Thing, it's easier to continue promoting further installments of that Thing than it is to start over with another Newer Thing.

M.L. Brennan: I wrote GENERATION V to function as a standalone, with enough larger elements that I could build a sequel if the situation presented itself, but nothing written or even planned beyond the first book. Then my agent got The Call (okay, The Email) from Roc, and they were all, "We really like it, and we want to know if you have plans for a series. Because we'd really like a three-book series."
You know that moment in Ghostbusters where Gozor is all, "Are you gods?" and Ray is all, "No." -- well, in selling a book, you should always keep in mind what gets yelled next (after the lightning):

"When someone asks if you are a god, you say YES!"

Someone asked if I had a series planned. I did not. However, I immediately lied my ass off. Oh, YES, I had a series planned! I had big plans! Impressive plans! Hugely thematic plans!

The publisher said that that was great, and could I get them proposals for the second and third books? Preferably by Monday?

I agreed --- and then had one of the most stressful, yet one of the most creatively productive, weekends of my life. But I had the proposals on time, and that was how I got published. And I actually did stay moderately true to those proposals when it came to writing the books (a few big events actually got moved later because of pacing reasons).

Two months after my sequel was published, I actually have a much better understanding of why publishers like sequels. When IRON NIGHT was published, the GENERATION V sales had a huge uptick. From what my editor tells me, there are actually a lot of fantasy readers who wait until a series has about three books in it before they ever check out the first, so what the numbers people are really paying attention to is what happens to the sales on the first book when the third comes out in November.

Jeff Salyards: There are some fantasy writers who bang out some great stand-alones—KJ Parker and Guy Gavriel Kay immediately spring to mind, and some of Joe Abercrombie’s recent offerings as well (though those are in the same world, so still have the benefit of the built up foundation, history, cultures, etc.)—but there is no denying that series are a staple of the genre.

While there are dangers in writing a series (e.g., I’m sure we all read bloated behemoths that proceeded at a glacial pace because the author had invested ten thousand hours developing the world and didn’t want you to miss a single leaf or button or dialect), there is also an undeniable draw in creating storylines that bridge several books, crafting something rich and deep with plenty of room to introduce (or kill off) tons of characters, pursue world-shattering plots, and explore some fun nooks and crannies along the way. Of course, not all fantasy series are epic, but the two often seem to marry up.

I always envisioned BLOODSOUNDER’S ARC as a series, so there weren’t market forces or publisher coercion in play. Part of the draw for me was gambling a little and trying to see if I could begin with an intimate story with a small cast and low-magic in book one, and gradually open the scope and ratchet up the stakes through the next books, both in terms of drama and in the reader’s exposure to wild and wacky things.

Of course, another potential drawback with a series is figuring out a way to make each book self-contained enough that it’s satisfying on its own, but leaving the reader wanting more and looking forward to the next one. I sort of stunk up the joint on SCOURGE on that count, as the ending was kind of abrupt (well, a big fat cliffhanger really) but I feel like I did a much better job on book 2. Still, that “middle book syndrome” is something that crops up a lot.

I wouldn’t mind doing standalones at some point, but the draw of a series is always there, despite the pitfalls.

Django Wexler: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a series, so the decision was a no-brainer for me.  Publisher pressure and market forces weren’t much of a factor – I just wanted to build something grand.  I think there are good reasons for the series being the bread-and-butter of SFF, particularly fantasy; there’s often a lot more to world design than you can show in a single book without getting overly didactic.  The investment in terms of time and effort is longer, but the payoff is wonderful if you get it right.

Personally, I also wanted to show an evolution of relationships over time.  The question of loyalties is the heart of The Shadow Campaigns, as it must be in any story of rebellion and revolution, and I wanted to try to capture how those loyalties change over time, and what happens when circumstances put someone in a position where their past allegiances are no longer tenable.  The period of history from which I draw my inspiration was rife with this, and it’s one of the things that really captured my attention in the first place.  A series helps lend weight to that kind of decision – if we’ve seen two characters fight by one another’s side for a book or two, their decision to stay loyal to one another or not carries a lot of pathos!

Douglas Hulick: I was very similar in my approach to ML, in that I wrote AMONG THIEVES so it could both function as a stand-alone, as well as be spun off into a series if necessary. The thing is, I didn't expect it to sell, so I didn't put a lot of thought into what would come after. I thought AT would be my "foot in the door" book: the book that would get an editor to say, "Hmm, we like this, but not enough to buy it. What else have you got?" So when the three book offer landed from Roc--yeah, I jumped, but I also 'jumped.'

But even when I was planting all those "seeds" in AT, it was with the idea of it being an open-ended series. I wanted each book to be able to be read more-or-less on its own, sort of like Steven Brust's Taltos series, but the with added possibility of changing narrators and/or setting down the line. There's a reason it's called "Tales of the Kin" and not "Tales of Drothe."

In that sense, I think I may have made things harder on myself, since I don't have an on-going story to anchor things; but I do love the world and the characters and the criminal (and other) cultures I have built there, so I suppose wanting to continue to play with them required a series. That, more than any other consideration (market forces, genre tradition, etc.) was what did it for me. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to stumble into a publishing house that wanted me to write a series, despite my scatter-brained approach to this whole thing. :)

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