Your Second Book Is Probably Better

Every time I write a first book in a series (and I’m writing one now), it’s a rush. Everything’s exciting. New characters. New setting. Establishing a tone and voice, a certain “feel.” With Jazzi, I wanted the feel to be cozy and family, as much about the characters as the mystery. With Laurel, it’s more straightforward–Laurel and Nick trying to find a killer. The mystery takes center stage and the characters are supporting actors. But every fiber of my little writer brain is engaged when I write a first in a series. And I’m holding my breath to see if readers like it as much as I do. Even if I get everything right, though–and how many times does that happen?–I think that usually, the second book is better.

And I’m not just talking about my own books. I love reading series. I like revisiting the same characters that I grew fond of in the first novel, the same world, the same type of set-up with a new twist for the new book. Visiting the second or third time is almost always better. Why? It’s fun to see the characters grow, to watch them interact. I get to know them better. The setting feels like home. I’m settling in.

Meeting a person who might become a friend is nice, but getting to know them is better. And that’s what happens with a series. One of my favorites, ever, is Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels, but the first book didn’t wow me. It was good. I liked it, but I almost didn’t buy book two. I’m so glad I did. Every book got stronger until the ending was like…wow! A lot of series are like that.

There are always exceptions. Every once in a while a first book is so wonderful, it’s hard to keep that kind of momentum going. Patricia Brigg’s first Mercy Thompson shifter novel was a knock-out for me. So was Elizabeth George’s Great Deliverance. Those books were so good, sometimes–for me–it’s hard to keep hitting that high of a standard book after book.

I’m always happy when I read a review of my Jazzi cozies and someone says, “the books keep getting better.” It makes me feel good, like my characters are coming to life. Part of it, I’m sure, is that I know the characters better the longer I write them. I try to keep that in mind when I start a new series and the first book keeps me turning pages but I want more. I tell myself, “Read the next book.” And that’s often when the writer hits his or her stride.

In contrast, I think there are some advantages to writing a series with recurring characters, but where the author features new ones in each book. For example, my friend Julia Donner writes Regency romances–The Friendship series. They’re all tied together by a group of friends who are close to each other, but each book features a different couple, following the bumpy path that leads to their romance. Writing a series like that lets an author relax into a familiar groove but still enjoy a fresh storyline with each book. That’s how I wrote my Mill Pond romances, using the same setting but introducing a different couple in each novel. Of course, when an author does that, old and loved characters don’t get to grow like they do when those characters are the protagonists every time.

When Ilona Andrews wrote the Kate Daniels series, she featured Kate and Curran along with a cast of minor characters who stepped on the pages along the way. Those minor characters grew in number the longer the series went, and we grew more attached to them. She used an overall series’ story arc. The big question was posed in book one, and wasn’t resolved until the last page of the last book. In her new Hidden Legacy series, she’s come up with a different rhythm. So far, she’s shortened the story arcs to three books for each sister, but the arcs are all tied together because of the sisters’ family. Each sister has a different magic ability. The oldest meets her romantic interest in book one, and they end up together at the end of book three. Then the next sister’s story starts. She meets Alessandro, and they become a couple at the end of her third book. The next novel hasn’t come out yet, but I’m hoping the third sister meets…. well you get the picture. Is it easier trying to keep the romance arcs contained to three books? I’m guessing it might be. But do you lose the intense closeness I felt for Kate, Curran, and minor characters when I stayed with them for ten books and several short stories? You bet.

Is one better than the other? I don’t think so. The advantage of having the same protagonists in every book is that they grow and we become more attached to them. Using new protagonists in familiar settings has the advantage of keeping a series fresh. It doesn’t get stale. Ilona Andrews came up with a hybrid where she uses the same protagonists for three books, then switches to new ones in the same setting for three more, etc. They all work. Does one of them suit you? Are you a fan of one more than another? Or do you prefer standalones? Share your thoughts….

13 thoughts on “Your Second Book Is Probably Better

  1. I think I can go either way, depending on the characters and the authors, although the bulk of the series I follow are focused on the same protaganist or protagonists. I’ve found that to be different (shifting to new lead characters) when the books tend to be romance–whereas the others are mysteries or thrillers. I’m also a fan of standalones. Most of those are domestic or psychological suspense. I never stopped to consider how genre factors into it, until composing this answer!

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  2. I agree with Mae, it depends on the book and the characters. I write series books, and the characters overlap, but with different leads each time. However, I do enjoy a good series where the lead is the same with different “adventures.” And yes, I think genre plays a big role. (Some day I’m going to challenge myself to write a stand-alone novel.)

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  3. I’ve always liked stand-alone books. The author puts it all on the page, and I switch genres as fast as I do when I write. However, there are series I enjoy, and some of them are my favorites. I love The Dresden Files, but still haven’t finished the series. As a writer, it’s both fun and scary to revisit my characters. I always wonder if they have another adventure in them.

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  4. I guess it depends on my mood. If it’s romance, you almost have to switch leads. (I say almost because J.D. Robb doesn’t and she makes it work, but she’s an exception, not a rule.) I love a Sherlock Holmes kind of series where I follow the same character through mystery after mystery. But I also enjoy series where there’s a core cast of characters, and each book focuses on a different main protagonist, though all my favorites are there to some degree. It’s kind of like a family. (In fact, sometimes it IS a family.)

    Long story short, if a book is well written, I guess I don’t care. lol

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  5. I think I like a kind of hybrid – where there is a very different story but one or two characters feature who are in other books written by the same author. I read some Theresa Driscoll psychological fiction novels and soon realised this was happening. The books are visually connected also in style and title but they aren’t actually a series. i’ve written two standalone novels, but I do miss the characters!

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