There’s something magical about a series. Writers of fantasy and science fiction naturally aspire to be granted follow-up books. They want to trail in the famous footsteps of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and so many modern superstar writers. How could a writer resist? It’s a chance to expand on your world building. To take characters you love to new and devilish places and situations. To put them in new dangers.
To be awarded a series is a show of faith by your publisher. As I finish writing my Birth of Saints trilogy, I can’t help but look back on how my series was crafted together, starting with the beginning of when to start writing sequels.
Grudging didn’t start out as the first book of the Birth of Saints trilogy. No, it began as something a little quieter. No matter the stage of your writing journey—whether you have an agent yet or not—if you want to follow the path of traditional publishing, you need to manage your time wisely. Even prolific writers can only produce so many books a year. Wisdom says not to spend that valuable time working on the sequels for a series that may not sell. Or not until you’re an established writer, anyway.
So three years ago, I crafted Grudging to have a standalone ending and kept any deeper ambitions for it shoved in the back of my mind, sent it to my agent, and waited. I tried not to even imagine sequels and was mostly successful at that. Then I got the news a publisher wanted to talk. Commence freak out. But in my moments of calm, the first thing I did was scramble for ideas for sequels and jot them down so that during the call I could slip in some details. The editor let me send a blurb to him with a direction for future books, and when the offer from Harper Voyager came it included three books. Success!
But also a new challenge.
If you write the first book as a standalone, then where do you go from there? And how do you get enough material for sequels?
Well, obviously many series don’t have a Happy Ever After in their first book. If the author leaves things hanging open, it’s easy to carryover to sequels. That wouldn’t work for me.
Fortunately, I had that very short three paragraph blurb I wrote for my editor to give me a starting point.
For Birth of Saints, I took the standalone ending from Grudging and turned it sideways on the characters. No spoilers but I used something the characters did at the end of Grudging to distract the Northern army and had it start to go horribly wrong in Faithful, full of unintended consequences. It resulted in a wider story and put the epic in epic fantasy. Ramiro and Claire won a battle but not the war, and riled something even darker and nastier than an enemy army. Voila, more books with new and tougher goals for the characters to accomplish, against ever more impossible odds.
So that’s the first book and the beginning of the sequels. But what should go in the middle? An author needs to keep readers’ interest from one book to another. Something must tie the stories together.
Characters can connect a series together, and so can the plot. The readers hopefully have a commitment to finding out what happens to their favorites and seeing how the larger plot evolves to a completion. How do Ramiro and Claire throw back the Northern aggressors who are burning and looting their cities, all while fighting their inner demons? That’s a good start to fleshing out future books. But there’s also the world building and the magic system. I didn’t have space for all of the details about Claire’s voice magic and the witches in Grudging. That gives readers something to learn in the follow-up books.
Sequels need to expand on where the first book started, but also give the reader something new. Birth of Saints features three cultures—the Spanish-themed desert people, the swamp-dwelling witches, and the Northern army—this lets me bring in something new to each book. Grudging reveals the culture of the Spanish-themed desert people, Faithful focuses more on the isolated and matriarchal witches, and Steadfast showcases all three, giving inside details about the very foreign and bloodthirsty Northern antagonists for the first time.
Characters need new challenges as well. In Faithful, Claire meets a grandmother who pushes her at the magic as hard as her mother used to hold her back from exploring her Song. This leads to all sorts of conflicted feeling for Claire and drives a wedge between her and Ramiro. Characters should grow and changed in each book as they meet more adversity to keep the story rolling.
And now that it’s rolling, and the opening and middle of your sequels are filled out, that leaves the endings. Do middle books of a series always have to be Debbie Downers? The books where everything goes wrong. That’s kind of predictable. The answer is not necessarily.
With five point of view characters each driving part of the action in Birth of Saints, I had a lot to work with. That let me completely resolve bad situations for some characters, give partial closure to others, or even leave characters totally hanging at the end of Faithful. You’re not going to get a Happily Ever After in the middle book of a series, but there can be momentary success. A resolution perhaps for Claire and Ramiro—and indecision for some of the other characters like Teresa, Telo, and Julian. Maybe enough to give a reader hope, while still pushing them toward the ultimate showdown.
Which only leaves the challenge of writing the grand conclusion. The reveal of which characters live and which die. The ultimate tying together of loose ends. Probably the biggest test of a writer’s skills.
I tried to keep Steadfast moving, lots of action, lots of reveals, and all set into a fast pace. But I won’t know how I did on the biggest challenge of wrapping up a series until you tell me by reviews or reaching on twitter. The true answer to whether a series works or not lies with the reader.