For the writers writing sequels

There’s something about sequels.

Sequels are difficult for most almost every author I know. For those early in their careers, it’s often their first time writing an entire novel under contract, and under deadline. Contracts and deadlines do a funny thing to books: suddenly the fun idea is also work. Suddenly it’s not just the writer’s; it’s the publisher’s, too. Add the layer of pressure that comes from reader expectation? Writing a sequel can be paralyzing. 

But there’s another thing authors talk about with sequels.

It’s always said with a self-deprecating smile, in a joking tone, in a way that reveals we’re not trying to complain but the feeling is real . . . 

“I’m writing this book for the five people who’ll actually finish the series.” 

It sounds contradictory to the crushing pressure of reader expectations suddenly imposed on the book, but it’s not. Not really. Because we know the people who pick up our sequels are predisposed to like the book, or they wouldn’t bother to continue the series. And those are the people we desperately don’t want to disappoint. 

But series drop-off is a real thing. Even with series that get bigger and bigger, there are always people who read the first book and decide not to continue — for whatever reason — which means sales of the second and third and fourth book are always lower than sales of the first. 

“I’m writing this book for the five people who’ll actually finish the series.” 

Yes, it’s hyperbole. Chances are that more than five people will read it, but lots of writers are keenly aware that the audience for their sequel is limited. And considering how difficult sequels are . . . it can sometimes feel pointless to put in the extra effort to make sure the sequel is a worthy followup to the first. To make the sequel better than the first. 

Honesty moment: I was in this position with my forthcoming sequel, AS SHE ASCENDS. Late in the editing process — week-before-deadline late — I realized why one section of the book had been bothering me during every single round of revision I’d done. And there, with one week before my deadest of deadlines, I was faced with a choice: 

I could rewrite the last 20,000 words of the book, or I could leave it.

Because the ending I’d been working with wasn’t bad. It wasn’t wrong. Indeed, most of the events in that version would stay, just get reorganized with new context. But . . . the new ending was better. 

I could have left the story as it was, and very few readers would have complained. Most would likely decide to read the third book, too, since they were already invested. But I would always know that I could have done better. 

So I did the work. I put in twenty-hour days (I wish this were exaggeration, but it isn’t) and I rewrote the end of the book with only minutes to spare before my deadline. Even after the book was off to the copyeditor (dear copyeditor, if you are reading this, I’m so sorry), I kept working on it, rewriting entire chapters again in order to drop them into the copyedited manuscript when it came. 

During all this, there were times I thought bitterly about how this could be the best book I’ve ever written (we always want to think that about our latest), but the audience would be limited. All that effort . . . for the five people who’d actually read it. I could have left the end and they’d never know, but I’d have known.

I’m not telling this story for cookies or pats on the head. My job is to write books. My promise to my readers is to always try to make the latest book the best one I’ve ever written. 

No, I’m saying this for the other writers. For those of you just starting your first sequel and struggling with the feelings of expectation and futility. For those of you who’ve written sequels before and are sharply familiar with the conflicting emotions. And for those of you who haven’t gotten here yet, but hope to have the opportunity to write a sequel one day. You’re not alone — none of you. 

              

14 Responses to For the writers writing sequels

  1. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2018 at 12:27 pm #

    Jodi! What an inspiring post!

    I’ve only written one sequel (I know you’ve written many more!) but this is so true about how you want to make it as strong as the first book, even though you know that it will always be in the first book’s shadow. And your story about fixing that problem and how much work it required… I feel you! But in the end, you made the change because it was for the good of the book. Writing is such a labor of love. *sigh* I can’t wait to read this sequel!

    Thanks for inspiring me to put in the long hard days. It’s definitely worth it!

    • Jodi
      Jodi May 14 2018 at 4:35 pm #

      It’s always nice not to be alone in things like this, Julie. You’re right — it is a labor of love.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon May 14 2018 at 4:32 pm #

    First: I write my books to satisfy me, not some hypothetical five people. The fact that I would know is the only relevant fact.
    Second: I’ve only got one series, with three books, and neither of those sequels are like their predecessors in any way, except for some of the characters. Carrying those characters’ logic forward was actually pretty simple, it was adding the new characters to extend the story that took a while. I suppose that may be a benefit of writing based on the characters and their logic rather than with a plot-based story.

    • Jodi
      Jodi May 14 2018 at 4:44 pm #

      Hey Marc–

      That’s great. First and foremost, we should always be writing for ourselves, and if you’ve got a system that works and doesn’t involve feelings of extreme inadequacy, then even better! It sounds like you didn’t need to read this post.

      But speaking for myself — and friends who’ve been through plenty of sequels — these are feelings that some writers experience and like to talk about.

      • Marc Vun Kannon May 15 2018 at 2:15 pm #

        Not my intention to ruffle any feathers. I just wanted to suggest that one way to avoid sequel-itis is to not write sequels. Write a different book set in the same world with the same characters. I don’t actually think of any of my books as being sequels. Each has its own unique structure.

  3. C. L. Polk May 14 2018 at 4:53 pm #

    Jodi! Thanks so much for writing this post! It reflects my experience with my first ever written sequel in uncanny ways. Since I’m writing this sequel for the five people who will actually finish this series, I really feel that vibe about not wanting to disappoint them.

    • Jodi
      Jodi May 14 2018 at 4:57 pm #

      All the hugs in the world!

      You’ve got this. I know you do.

  4. Julie Dao May 14 2018 at 4:56 pm #

    Jodi, thank you so much for this post. Writing my second book was just as hard as everyone had promised it would be, and it’s kind of frightening to face the reality that the debut might be as big as it ever gets. But we owe it to the readers who continue on with us to deliver the BEST we can, and I feel confident I tried as hard as I could. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Jodi
      Jodi May 14 2018 at 5:00 pm #

      Reality really is a scary and sobering monster! But there is something nice about sequels — the confidence of having done this before. Which you have. You wrote one book. You can write another. And another.

      I, personally, cannot wait to read your sequel! I know it’s going to be incredible. So thanks for working on it so hard.

  5. Keira Wattus May 15 2018 at 2:10 am #

    I’m a writer and currently working on my first manuscript. I’ve got three weeks to finish my last edit before my editor takes it to copy-edit, and though I’m not out in the published author world yet, this post resonates in me. Thank you so much for writing it!
    I’m so glad I subscribed to the emails, they’ve been a comforting and inspirational presence in my journey. 💕

    • Jodi
      Jodi May 15 2018 at 10:07 am #

      Keira — Hang in there! It can feel so weird at this stage, working on the second one when barely anyone’s read the first. And I don’t think it stops feeling weird — at least not yet, for me — but you do sort of get used to living in the future.

      Sending a thousand hugs!

      • Keira Wattus May 15 2018 at 8:42 pm #

        Thank you!
        Well, I’ll definitely keep this all in mind when I’m at this stage. It’s nice to know we’re not alone 🙂

  6. allreb May 16 2018 at 9:58 am #

    IT’S NOT JUST ME!!

    I have always felt a little awkward and guilty because when I was going through copyedits for my sequel I felt… kinda crappy about it. Even with all the work I’d done (I’d rewritten from scratch under deadline and once I had that done, *still* had to rip out and entirely rewrite a whole subplot *and* the climax…) I just didn’t love it, and I wanted to. I sent a despairing email to my editor and agent and was assured that was normal and *they* both liked it, but it still made me feel pretty conflicted about the whole thing. And yeah… very few people read it, alas.

    With a bit more distance, I can say: I *don’t* think my sequel was bad. Its prose wasn’t as beautiful as the first book, where I had lots of time to perfect it (and prose and imagery are not the pieces of writing that come naturally to me), but the plot is more complex and the pacing is better. It’s just that I got to spend years with the first book and only months with the sequel. But it was a weird thing to go through emotionally and I’m really glad this post managed to put a lot of that into words.

    • Jodi
      Jodi May 16 2018 at 12:02 pm #

      It’s not just you at all. Welcome to our sprawling club.

      I’m sorry you had to go through all that, and I’m glad you’re feeling more at peace with your book now. It’s such a hard part of writing, but you pushed through it that time, and you can do it again if you need to.

      *lots of hugs!*

Leave a Reply