As a reader, I’ve had enough disappointing experiences with series books that I’m wary of picking one up. Too often, book two or three or ten in a series has assumed so much that I felt adrift in a featureless ocean. I wish I had a dollar for each middle book that I started and quit after a few chapters or pages. Most of them were probably excellent, but the difficulties of jumping into the middle of a series made them problematic. If I’m browsing in a bookstore and find a book that looks interesting, I check to see if it’s in a series—and if it isn’t the first book, I often put it back.
I suspect I’m in the minority, because series sell well. Publishers love series, too, because they figure that if readers like one book in a series, they’ll come back for more.
I remember pitching to an editor from Ace Books when I was hawking my science fiction novel, The Trial of Tompa Lee. One of her first questions was “Will the book have sequels?” Like a dummy I said, “No, it’s a standalone.” Her eyes glazed. And Five Star, not Ace, bought the book.
But that editor planted a seed in my mind. I started out writing standalone romances for Silhouette Books, but I plunged into writing sequels for The Trial of Tompa Lee.
I remembered, however, the issues I encountered as a reader. Even though I can only dream about a truly successful series, I knew the kind of sequels I wanted to read. I decided to let my inner reader guide me around the following issues:
- Issue #1: Lots of names from previous books
- Issue #2: Lots of recapping
- Issue #3: Assuming that readers identify with protagonists because they read previous books
# 1: Lots of names from previous books
Having heard great things about the Liaden Universe series of science fiction books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, I bought one—without checking whether it was book one. I’m sure it’s a great series, but the first two pages buried me under an avalanche of names. Those names probably reassured returning readers that they were snugly back in Liaden, but they convinced me I should have started with book one:
- delm (a rank of some sort)
- melant’i (a concept parallel to honor)
- Daav yos’Phelium (person’s name)
- Korval (a clan, though I didn’t know the significance of clans in this universe)
- Bindan (ditto)
- Samiv el’Izak (person’s name)
- Aelliana (the heroine, I believe)
- Er Thom yos’Galan (person’s name)
Page ten is as far as I got. Some day I plan to go back and start with book one, because I respect the opinion of people who say it’s well worth reading. But for myself, I didn’t want to write a sequel that opened like this.
My solution: In my first sequel, The Tribulations of Tompa Lee, only one character, an alien, appeared on page 1. On page 3, my heroine, Tompa Lee, appeared along with a sentry (who is unnamed at first). By page 8, I hoped that Tompa was sufficiently well established that I introduced two more characters, as well as the social stratifications of the human embassy to planet Zee Shode. I tried to dole out my characters with an eye dropper, not a bucket.
#2: Lots of recapping
Laurel K. Hamilton is a wildly popular author. Even in my daydreams, I’m not as successful as she is. I bought one of her early books, though I don’t remember the name; it’s been too long and I no longer have it. Did I notice that the book was deep into a long series? Nope.
Big mistake. After introducing the heroine, Hamilton proceeded to spend much of the next two chapters recapping the forces aligned against the heroine. If I’d read those earlier books, the recapping would have made me smile in fond remembrance. Being a newbie, though, I nearly drowned.
All novels have backstory, and it’s always a major challenge to fit it in—but if you think about it, a sequel has no more backstory than many novels do.
My solution: I tried to be as miserly with the backstory from previous books as I would in a standalone. In the first book, my heroine is proclaimed a goddess by alien Shons. Instead of explaining how this came to be, The Tribulations of Tompa Lee opens with “The goddess from outer space moaned and thrashed in her sleep.” Her godhood is stated as a fact, just as I stated that the hero of my first published romance, The Perfect Ten, was an orchestra conductor. The reader learns—slowly, bit by bit—how Tompa’s godhood came about and how intensely uncomfortable she is with it. Just because Tribulations was a sequel doesn’t mean that an info dump was allowed, or even needed.
#3: Assuming that readers identify with protagonists because they read previous books
Making readers care about our imaginary people is an art. We work hard to make our heroines strong, powerfully motivated, and yet vulnerable. We strive to give our heroes positive traits, and yet they also suffer. We give them ‘save the cat’ moments to show they are likeable.
Sometimes, though, authors—even great authors—expect readers to already identify with their recurring protagonists, without making them as sympathetic all over again. Robert Heinlein, one of the gods of science fiction, was guilty of this once. In Methuselah’s Children, he introduced a great character, Lazarus Long. After appearing in several other books, Lazarus becomes one of Heinlein’s best developed characters—but toward the end of Heinlein’s career, in The Cat Who Walks through Walls, Lazarus is a stick figure, a symbol, whom readers would love only if they already knew him. Heinlein forgot to make his character sympathetic all over again. Lazarus not only doesn’t save the cat, he doesn’t even pet it.
J.K. Rowling is a master of creating sympathy, by the way. Each of the Harry Potter books opens with Harry suffering unfairly at the hands of his cruel muggles family, and we sympathize with his plight—and with him.
My solution: I opened the third book in the series, The Triumph of Tompa Lee, by showcasing many of my heroine’s positive traits. Readers first meet Tompa as she stands up to threats by alien bullies. Positive trait: bravery in the face of danger. When a friend tries unsuccessfully to help, she sympathizes with his plight. Positive trait: empathy. In the very next scene, her lover proposes marriage (I did start out writing romances, so you can expect to see love even in my sci fi). Tompa resists at first because she can’t imagine why anyone would like her, let alone want to marry her. Positive trait: modesty deepened by insecurity and vulnerability. The hero responds by pointing out her determination and strong moral compass.
As you may have noticed, the solutions that my inner reader devised aren’t unique to sequels. They can apply to all good storytelling.
- Don’t overwhelm your readers with too many characters—yes, check.
- Avoid turning backstory into an info dump—sure, that’s obvious.
- Make readers care about your characters—of course we want readers to empathize.
To produce my desired sequels, I couldn’t assume that I could skimp on any of these points just because I was writing a series.
Edward Hoornaert is not only a science fiction and romance writer, he’s also a certifiable Harlequin Hero, having inspired multi-published author Vicki Lewis Thompson to write Mr. Valentine, which was dedicated to him. In addition to writing, he is also a symphonic oboist.
These days, he mostly writes science fiction—either sf romances, or sf with elements of romance. After living at 26 different addresses in his first 27 years, the rolling stone slowed in the Canadian Rockies and finally came to rest in Tucson, Arizona. He married his high school sweetheart a week after graduation and is still in love … which probably explains why he has written romances.
You can visit him at http://eahoornaert.com.
Tompa Lee serves as ambassador to the Shons’ planet and is hailed as their goddess … but she has a dead man living in her head, distrusts fellow humans, and fears an imminent attack by Klicks, mankind’s greatest enemy.
Ming Mengliev is posing as a mere musician when Klicks destroy the Terran embassy … but although he strives to win Tompa’s trust—and her heart—whose side is this secret agent really on?
Lord Keevie, the leader of warlike Klick missionaries, wants to drive humans off Zee Shode … but above all he wants to eviscerate Tompa in person, because killing a goddess will surely make him a god.
A PARK CRAMMED WITH CARNIVORES
Can Tompa survive Keevie’s pursuit, the onset of divine madness, the predators of Palla Pelly Park … and conquer her mistrust of humans long enough to shepherd a ragtag group of Shon and human refugees to safety?
Buy ‘The Tribulations of Tompa Lee’ at Amazon.