Sequels Before Publication (or “Why Write a Trilogy, Sage?”)

Starting in November, I turned my unpublished standalone-with-series-potential superhero novel into a trilogy.  I did so knowing exactly the reasons why I shouldn’t and totally aware of the risks involved with moving ahead with the trilogy instead of letting it sit in my head indefinitely.  I’m going to detail the reasons why it’s not suggested that an author write sequels before book 1 is accepted for publication, and then I’ll tell you why I did it anyway.

I would also point out, right away, so there’s no confusion, that if you are planning to self-publish, you should just ignore the reasons not to write sequels because it’s actually better to have your series ready to go if you’re going that route.  I would prefer trade publishing, if at all possible, and most authors I know prefer it too, but there are plenty of authors who want to self-pub, and that’s just a totally different situation when it comes to sequels.

So reasons not to write those sequels before trade publishing book 1:

Book 1 may never go anywhere.  It’s sad, but most first books don’t get picked up, and most people who want to write sequels before selling are looking at their first books.  But even if this is your, say, 10th book, it still might not net you an agent and a publisher.  If trade publishing is your goal, and book 1 doesn’t get published, then you have spent time on more books that, more likely than not, also can’t get published.  You can’t query them, so now you have nothing new to query until you write your next book.

Book 1 may sell, but the publisher may not want sequels. It could be a numbers thing.  It may be that they only see this as being a one-book deal.  I’ve seen plenty of series that never got to the end because the publisher dropped them, or sequels that authors wanted to write after selling book 1, but the publisher said no.  This is petty much the same sitch as the first I mentioned, but now you have one book sold, so that’s cool.  Of course, now you have to figure out whether you can self-pub those sequels, and that’s all about the contract.

You probably don’t know what book 1 will look like in the end.  You’re almost certainly going to have to do some revisions on book 1 before it’s published.  Editors will make you revise.  Before the publisher makes you revise, the agent will probably make you revise.  And some of them will make you revise before you even have an offer of representation or a publishing contract in hand.  Now, these revisions might not be too devastating to those sequels, but they may be.  When I revised Taylor-Made last year for a publisher, I made gigantic changes that eliminated all plans I had for a sequel.  And that was in the happy first set of revisions that I enjoyed.  Now, that sequel was unwritten, so it wasn’t a big deal, but imagine investing yourself in one or more books that are now obsolete, sometimes just for the possibility of a contract.

Of course, you can always refuse to do edits.  If asked after getting an agent or a publishing contract, I would bring up the fact that I have a trilogy ready.  But before the offer, it seems presumptive to say, “But I don’t want to ruin book 2/the trilogy/the series” before you’ve sold book 1.  If you fight too hard on edits, you run the risk of looking difficult, so it’s a balance, and it’s a harder one to maintain for the sake of a sequel that the agent or editor isn’t even looking at.

The more you put into a series, the more heartbreaking it will be with each rejection.  No matter how cool you are about rejection, it’s just harder with so much invested.  If you’re absolutely in love with that third novel of your trilogy, but book 1 is still getting rejected and nobody can give you a reason that you can improve, it’s pretty sad for your beloved book 3.

So there are some good reasons not to move past book 1 until you have that contract in hand.  Yet, this did not stop me from writing books 2 and 3 of a trilogy in the past year.  So you might be asking yourself, if I know all of the above, why would I do so?

Let’s start with a little history, here.  When inspired, I write quickly, as you know.  NaNo is no problem for me, and I even wrote a book in 3 days once.  I have a lot of books under my belt at varying levels of quality, and I’ve had way too many close-but-no experiences in publishing (and, of course, there’s Love Sucks, but somehow I never count that as getting an agent or getting published, even though it did do both).

I wrote two decent books in 2012.  Usually I write one I want to pursue and one that’s not worth pursuing, but that year I had two that I wanted to pursue.  I edited Taylor-Made and started submitting it.  A Paranormal Bromance was my NaNo book, and I put it on the back burner for revisions while I focused on TM.  And then I put my house on the market over the objections of my co-owner and had to do everything towards selling it myself.  2013 was a non-writing year.  I did nothing except NaNo, which was a book I knew I didn’t want to pursue.  2014 was a year of revision.  I fixed some aPB problems and sent to betas, and then I received some major revisions for TM for a legitimate publisher who I would have loved to publish any of my books.  Unfortunately, after 2 rounds and months of revisions, I didn’t receive a contract.

After aPB, I hadn’t gotten a bit of inspiration that I could hold on to.  Some of that was obsessing over preparing a house or putting my creativity towards writing new scenes for old books at an editor’s request.  The exception to this was in sequels (and short stories, but that’s a whole different blog post, maybe). Sure, my TM revisions killed my plans for a sequel, but that led me to envision a sequel out of the new route being plotted for the book.  I could write stories and stories with my aPB boys, and I have a sequel envisioned, but won’t tackle it until I figure out how to get book 1 in a place that I can even query.  And then there was “Winner/Loser.”

My write-in group did a series of prompted short stories, and one was to write a story backwards.  Using Evie and Ace from Hero/Villain was so natural for this storytelling device (though a writer friend had to point that out to me), and so I wrote this 10K story with them that would have taken place during the sequel I had sort of envisioned back in 2010 when I wrote the H/V.  This story had me realize, not only new details about book 2, but where an overarching plot could go if I were to write a trilogy.

That’s what did it for me.  That one thing that wasn’t even in the story, but showed me what I had been missing behind the scenes in book 1, was the thing I couldn’t let go of, and I spent March of last year plotting the trilogy.  That is, until I received the R&Rs that halted my plan for months.  When November came around, and my R&Rs were over, I had resigned myself back to “You have to write something new because, otherwise, you have nothing to sell.” (Which is kinda ridiculous because look at all the books I’ve written).  I planned a magical realism book.  MR was all the rage in the slushpiles.  I had a little idea, but felt anchorless in it.  And I tried to plot as I drove around the country for work, but I kept coming back to book 2 of the Hero/Villain trilogy.  And by mid-October, I knew that that was what I was going to write.

I finished book 2 during NaNo (of course) and felt a little burned out, so I took a break, then wrote book 3 in March and April, a year after all that exciting plotting took place.  And book 3…book 3 is where my heart is.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Hero/Villain.  But book 3 practically wrote itself, and I mean that in a serendipitous way, not a “I was fooling around and it was easy because I wrote crap” way.  I knew almost nothing about book 3 going in, but every detour my characters took made the book better, and somehow it ended up as this intricately woven story that was near impossible to synopsize because every scene tied into everything else.  Of course, I’m just saying this with less reader feedback than I have on the other books so far (getting betas to book 3 is a challenge for obvious reasons), but those who have read it seem to agree with me.

Yes, I’m a little frustrated that I can’t do anything with books 2 and 3 until book 1 sells.  I worry about revisions to book 1 and whether they’ll destroy the beautiful trilogy.  I anticipate the heartbreak that will come when I start querying the new-and-improved H/V (updated because of the trilogy and because I’m a better writer than I was 5 years ago, plus with free freelance editor feedback, thanks to a contest) and get some rejections, as we all should expect from any amount querying.  Superhero novels seem to be a hard sell, so I’m anticipating quite a bit of rejection.  Book 1 is still absolutely standalone.  It reads differently from the POV of knowing how it all ends, but if you don’t know how it all ends, it still works.  After all, it stood alone for 4 years.  But that means that there’s every possibility that some publisher may only want one book, and I’ll have to let these 2 books I adore go.

So why do it, Sage?  Why put yourself through that potential heartbreak, the potential fight over revisions, and the possibility that all the work I’ve done in the past year will go nowhere.  And the reason is: for the past year, I’ve been working on new words that I love.  I hadn’t written anything I wanted to pursue for 2 years before I started writing book 2.  That’s a really long time for me.  And if I wasn’t going to be inspired to write something I could query anyway, I might as well write something I love.

I don’t discourage anyone from writing sequels if that’s where their heart is.  But I do think that if you’re going to do it–especially the newer you are to the writing world–you have to go in knowing the pitfalls of devoting yourself to books that you can’t query and that might never see the light of day even if you sell book 1.

Don’t worry, guys.  I will still query as “Standalone with series potential.”  Because, boy, isn’t that the truth.

Lots of love