Today, we're diving into the fascinating world of sequels. As an author who's penned multiple series, including The Sword Chronicles, The Colony Saga, The Powers Saga, and the I Am Legion series, I've learned a thing or two about writing sequels. And a thing or two about what NOT to do, as well!
In the self-publishing market, writing a sequel isn't merely a creative endeavor; it can also be a strategic move that can significantly boost your visibility and reader engagement. Sequels can help authors to build a loyal reader base that is eager to follow the characters and the story through multiple books. This can lead to a steady stream of sales and reviews, which are crucial for visibility on platforms like Amazon. Plus, with each new book in a series, you have a new opportunity to promote your work, attract new readers, and re-engage existing ones.
And in a market that is increasingly crowded, a well-written sequel can help your work stand out.
Take my I Am Legion series, for example. The first book, Strangers, was a standalone horror novel. But seven years later, an idea for a sequel popped into my head. What if the villain became a vigilante superhero? This unexpected twist allowed me to explore the character in a whole new light, adding depth and complexity to the sequel. But it also served a strategic purpose. The sequel attracted readers who had enjoyed the first book and were eager to find out what happened next. It also attracted new readers who were intrigued by the unique premise. Suddenly, my "pretty successful" horror book had become my most successful series!
And I definitely had a commercial reason in mind when I wrote The Colony Saga. Zombies were all the craze, and I wanted a piece of that rotting-flesh pie! And it worked--not only did the books do fantastic business, but the audiobooks became Audible bestsellers as well.
That said, no matter what, you do have to find something you love about the process! With The Colony Saga, I wrote it for a commercial reason, but also to deal with my frustration with a few zombie tropes. Namely:
1) Just shoot 'em in the head, and avoid crowds, man!
2) In almost every zombie series, sooner or later the people devolve into such human cruds that you start rooting for the zombies.
So I wrote TCS to address these: 1) shoot MY zombies in the head, and things go from bad to Apocalyptic; 2) the entire series is full of kind, good people--and it's critical to the story that they are!
Writing sequels is a commercial endeavor, make no mistake. But if you're going to live with these characters for months, years--even perhaps your entire career--make sure you're doing something you love. Otherwise it's like voluntarily going into quarantine. Only instead of fighting with your family for six months and then avoiding the main room because your spouse/child/parent is in there, and you're still angry over the dirty dishes, you're stuck in an even TINIER space (your own skull) with a ton of voices that NEVER SHUT UP.
Series work is great, and can be incredibly rewarding...but take care with it!
Writing a sequel also means understanding your audience and their expectations. When I wrote The Billy Saga, it was a gift for my wife who loves MG and YA fantasy. I knew I had to create a story that would appeal to her tastes, and thankfully, it worked! We totally made out. *fist pump*
That said, usually we're writing for a larger market of some kind. And it better not be MY wife you're writing for, or else, buster! *different, more threatening kind of fist pump*
Seriously, though, knowing your audience is key. It helps you deliver a story that resonates with them and keeps them coming back for more. But how do you get to know your audience? And how can this knowledge inform your sequel?
Understanding your audience begins with identifying who they are. Are they young adults who love fantasy? Are they horror geeks who can't get enough of of ax-murdering madmen? Or are they fans of romance, eagerly awaiting the next love story? I'm not saying you have to sell out completely, but you DO have to understand what people want, and either give it to them (good), avoid giving it to them on purpose (risky), or give it to them in a way that they've never seen before (best!).
But knowing your audience isn't just about understanding their preferences. It's also about engaging with them. Social media platforms, author websites, and email newsletters are all excellent ways to connect with your readers. You can share updates about your writing process, ask for their opinions, or even run contests. This not only helps you understand your readers better but also builds a community around your work. You don't want to have "fans," you want to have "missionaries," ready to go out and spread the good news of your work and your personality, encouraging others to follow you for book after book!
Finally, don't forget to pay attention to feedback. Reviews, comments, and direct feedback from your readers can provide valuable insights into what they liked or didn't like about your first book. This can inform your approach to the sequel, helping you amplify the elements they loved and address any areas of improvement.
An author who does everything his/her audience asks for is probably cruising for a soulless, empty world where everything is the same. [khoff * Disney * khoff, khoff*] But an author who doesn't pay attention to ANY feedback is probably cruising for trouble as well, as that kind of author tends to drift away from the needs and expectations of the fans and turn the series into an ever shallower and more self-congratulatory parody of itself.
It's not what you think. I have nothing against people named Norm (though it is a pretty bizarro name, like Zod or Goftoprachi, or Michaelbrent). But all norms should be challenged in your sequels!
When writing a sequel, it's easy to fall into the trap of sticking to the tried-and-true. After all, if it worked the first time, why change it? But challenging the norms and tropes of your genre can be a game-changer. It can make your sequel stand out, keep your readers on their toes, and breathe new life into your series.
In every genre, there are certain elements that readers have come to expect. In romance, it's the happy ending; in mystery, it's the unexpected twist; in fantasy, it's the epic quest. These elements are comfortable and familiar, but they can also become predictable. That's where challenging the norms comes in. By taking these familiar elements and turning them on their head, you can create a sequel that is fresh, exciting, and unexpected. This not only keeps your readers engaged, but it also allows you to explore new aspects of your characters and your world.
I've already gone into the concept I tackled with The Colony Saga, and how I twisted some of them around. Similarly, my most popular series turned a bad guy into an aggressively awesome good guy (albeit one you really don't want to cross). I can't tell you how many reviews I've read that essentially say, "I can't believe I'm rooting for a serial killer!" or how awesome that is!
But challenging the norms isn't just about being different—it's about being true to your story. It's about asking yourself, "What does my story need? What will serve my characters and their journey?" Sometimes, the answer to these questions will lead you down a path that defies genre conventions. And that's okay. In fact, it's more than okay—it's exciting, it's innovative, and it's what makes your sequel truly yours.
Sequels can be awesome--both financially and emotionally, for you and for your readers alike. They can also be a stale, heartless, soulless time-suck. So go into yours knowingly. Have good, sustainable reasons both internally and externally, and make sure you pay attention to the easy character and story choices...so you can avoid them, and give your audience something so delightful they'll be clamoring for more.
I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.
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