Six impossible things

The Problem with Sequels

The problem with sequels is that the writing and publishing process gives readers too much time to think.

Let me unpack that a little.

It takes me one to two years to write a novel, and this is fairly typical of most of the professional writers I know. Yes, there are folks who work faster without detriment to their quality; the speedy crowd seems to work at a rate of around three to six books per year. And then there are the real outliers (whom the rest of us don’t like to talk about so much). The fastest one I know could do a novel in two weeks without a decline in quality (two weeks really was her limit, though: the one that got written in eleven days shows some stress fractures).

But even the really fast folks do not end up with a book on the stands every two weeks. The publishing process doesn’t allow it. What with getting the copyediting done, arranging for the cover art, doing the book design, printing and proofreading the galleys, advance publicity, and getting the book out to reviewers and bookstore buyers…well, the whole business takes six months to a year unless they throw massive amounts of money and people at it, which they only ever do when they have a hope of making some of those costs back.

What all this comes down to is that in most genres other than Romance (which has its own rules), a given publisher will do a book a year by a particular writer. There are occasional exceptions, but they’re exceptions. Some of the extra-productive writers deal with this by working under pseudonyms; others rotate through multiple series for different publishers or even genres. But even if the writer has a book out in a different series under a different name every month of the year, each individual series usually has to wait a year for the next volume in sequence.

The wait is due to a combination of things: the production process, the fact that most writers can work to a book-a-year production rate, the desire of publishers to give the hardcover maximum time to sell before putting out the paperback (while also timing the paperback’s release so that the hardcover of Book 2 or 3 will  be just out and available for eager new readers who can’t wait). But one of the consequences is that it gives all of the eager readers who grabbed Book 1 the minute it came out lots and lots of time to speculate about what will be in Book 2.

Speculation is fun; I engage in it myself quite frequently. The trouble is that it is exceedingly easy to become overly fond of one’s speculations, especially if one happens to have a lively crowd of Internet companions who like the same sorts of characterization and plot twists. It’s frighteningly easy to convince oneself that one has a pipeline into the author’s mind, and that the sequel will be a better, shinier, spiffier version of whatever plot-and-character developments one’s particular group of readers thinks is most likely.

Inevitably, when this happens, the result is that the actual Book 2 (or 3, or whatever) arrives, it’s a disappointment to any and everyone who had constructed an alternate vision of who’d live and who’d die, who’d end up in a romance and who wouldn’t, what the important plot-points were and which things were totally extraneous. Either the readers have guessed right and worked themselves up so far that no writer, living or dead, could possibly find words shiny and spiffy enough to live up to their mental construct, or (more often) the writer is going in a completely different direction and the readers are outraged that their lovingly-rationalized vision isn’t going to play out the way they thought.

It’s a compliment, in a way, when readers get so obsessed with ones characters, plot, and world – or with their vision of it – that they spend the between-books year talking and speculating and constructing their own extensions. And speaking for myself, there’s nothing quite like the thrill when I realize that somebody got exactly what I was going for. Most of the time, though, folks are doing what my ex-husband used to call “jacking up the radiator cap and driving a new car underneath it.” Where they think I’m going, or where they want me to go, isn’t where I’m headed at all.

Even that isn’t a particular problem for me, right up to the point where the readers start berating me for not writing the book they would have written. (I think I’m the most taken aback by the ones who come up and inform me that my main character couldn’t have used magic to do X, because their magic can’t do that. Um, what? My world, my rules. It’d be one thing – an embarrassing one – if they actually ever found an internal inconsistency, but as far as I can tell, they’re just pulling it out of air.)

It is very hard to explain to these folks that they are not my patron and I am not ghostwriting their ideas for them. Usually, I don’t even try. Occasionally, I get cornered by someone who has bought into the whole “ideas are the hard part” thing, and who thinks that the reason Book 2 isn’t out fifteen minutes after Book 1 is that I must have writer’s block. These folks are always eager to give me their outline for my next book, and they’re generally quite crestfallen when I explain as gently as I can that Book 2 is all finished and working its way through the editing-and-publication process, so their pile of ideas is far too late to be useful, even if I were inclined to use them.

On the whole, I do have to admit that I much prefer having intelligent, involved, enthusiastic readers. Even if they do outnumber me by many thousands of brains to one, and therefore can and will catch every plot hole, inconsistency, implausibility, or factual inaccuracy anywhere in my books.

  1. I found myself guilty of doing that with my favorite tv show this year. All summer long I imagined how the new season was going to go, and it took me the first two shows to realize they weren’t doing with the characters what I would do, and I could either sulk and write it off, never watch again and only write fanfiction for it based on the first two seasons, or I could accept it and see how the actual writers’ ideas will play out.

    I’m usually more careful when reading book sequels, because I have more sympathy with those writers, but occasionally I fall prey to that disappointment there, too, and have to remind myself that it isn’t my world, as much as I wish it could be.

  2. I have to admit that people thinking they’ve a better idea than I do for my writing time makes me a tiny bit squirrelly. I usually stop them before they get started and say I think the idea goes to the person who’s supposed to write it. And sometimes the muses may hand an idea out to multiple people and see who gets there first, so they should have a go soon. Yay!

    I’m not at the point where I have fans or sequels, but I’m headed that way. (At least to writing sequels, whether there are fans or no.) This was an interesting read, since I don’t do that with authors. I know what I’d do, that’s not interesting to me as a reader. I’m interested in what the author is going to do to further develop their characters and world!

  3. Well, since you bring it up, I just finished reading “Across the Great Barrier.” I really enjoyed all the surprises. And I’ll wait patiently for the conclusion. Now, where’s that map?

  4. And a corollary is that due to the long production pipeline, by the time I’m actually holding a shiny fresh copy of a book in my hands, you (or LMB, whose pointer I followed here) are probably well-immersed in the next volume and there’s *always* going to be a chunk of Canonical Story the reader hasn’t seen yet.

  5. On the gripping hand, there’s Season 5 of Beauty and The Beast, or It Never Happened and We’re All Happy With That. Sometimes a TV series jumps the shark _so_ severely that the fandom develops collective amnesia, and that can be a good thing.

    However, such a drastic change of pace is not often found in book series (cough Anita Blake cough cough), for which we are all grateful. Sometimes, the slow pace allows for quality correction in midstream (I believe this used to be called editing).

    Also, a lot of this is going to change with ebook publishing, especially the self-publishing branch of it–I have become addicted to a mystery series by Margaret Koch on Amazon that would drive me insane if I had to wait a year between books (caveat: I am not Margaret Koch, nor do I play her on TV, nor am I related to her in any way). Uncle Kindle (and its little brother, my smartphone) make it easy to follow series books much more rapidly than in the past.

    And then there’s Harry Turtledove, whose basic length appears to be the six book series. On the other hand, there’s Stephen King, whose latest epic UNDER THE DOME was actually _longer_ before his betas made him cut it (shudder).

    Does it count as a series when it’s published in one fell swoop, as is now possible?

    Anyway, interesting article about fans and expectations. This sounds like faster publication actually works for the author in these cases; for instance, reader expectations for say, _Dances With Dragons_ were ah, rather high.

    You’ve made a lot of good points.

  6. As a reader, I’ve never had quite that particular problem with waiting for sequels (as far as I can recall); I’m pretty content to see what the author will do.
    The thing that bugs me about waiting time between sequels is that it’s maddening! When I was in middle school, I read The Golden Compass, went back to the library for book number two I found that…it…hadn’t…been…published yet. what?!?!?! I’ve found that this bugs me far less in non-linear series, like Discworld.

  7. I personally enjoy guessing where the author might be taking things in the next book, it makes the waiting period less frustrating and is a good exercise for the imagination. However, I enjoy being surprised by the author just as much and would never think that they were writing their own book wrong!
    I just finished reading Across the Great Barrier and I enjoyed it so much! I love the world you’ve created and how it embraces science and exploration 🙂
    Oh, and P.S. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles was basically the series that made me fall in love with fantasy at the age of 11 or so. Thank you for all the wonderful books you have written!

  8. “The trouble is that it is exceedingly easy to become overly fond of one’s speculations”

    This is sort of related to a problem I’ve had with beta-readers, where the reader comes in with a base assumption and then distorts everything they read to fit with that assumption, even when the text directly and explicitly contradicts it. People will have assumptions, that can’t be helped, but what *does* one do when those assumptions are entirely contrary to the story, and the reader insists on changing the story rather than the assumption?

  9. Taking your speculations and filing off the serial numbers not only provides inspiration, it sometimes helps distract your desires from the sequel’s not fulfilling them.

  10. The problems with serials.

    In movies, there often “continuity errors.” Those happen (of course) within a movie; but in sequels/prequels they can be glaring or create incredible and otherwise unnecessary twists and time w/i the plot. Movies and comics at least have the ability to “reboot.” Magically throwing out all previous concepts and problems the story line has developed and start anew.

    In novels, thankfully, those never happen. Well, sometimes with “Thursday Next,” or “P&P and Zombies.” But those are more comedies using the frameworks rather than reboots. The endless “Mr. Darcy” books show how disappointing it can be with novels.

    Happily, I don’t see those problems in your books. Well maybe a few in the early Lyra books. The Kate and Cecelia are remarkably free given how the two of your wrote the books.

    In any case, I’ve loved your books for years. I’d love them to come more frequently, or the length of Stephen King, or even have multiple series coming out at the same time like some authors. (It does boggle my mind as how one could keep three or four story lines going at the same time.) Regardless, I enjoy what you offer me.

    In most all my favorite books & authors, I create internal story lines, characters, settings and so on in the universe you create for us. I’m never disappointed that your stories don’t match my internal stories. My internal stories/ dreams/ fantasies are for my amusement not anyone else’s. In fact, it would be disappointing to read something that I dreamed up.

    So for all of the “here’s an outline, all you have to do is write it.” Or people getting angry that their internal stories lines do not match your stories. There are many of us (and I hope many more of us) the enjoy being surprised and entertained by your next sequel or even the death of a series; ant the start of a new one.

    Even more so; I am disappointed by the “Bannerman” or “Bourne” books where the story line is continued far past the author.

    You always entertain me by writing the stories you want to write. I hope readers (or publishers) never push you away from that.

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