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….

Writing: Story Arcs

I’ve mentioned before that when I started writing urban fantasy, I wasn’t too sure of what direction to go in, so I used a sort of shotgun approach that might not have been as efficient as I’d thought. I bounced all over the place, hoping to find something that “hit.” I wrote FALLEN ANGELS because the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I thought I could do a lot with a “good” angel who wrestled with his friend so that he couldn’t join Lucifer’s rebellion. Enoch saves Caleb from the pit, but they both get tossed to Earth as a result–Caleb as punishment, Enoch to clean up after him. When I read editors’ comments after they’d read it, though, that I’d veered too far from the norm, I decided to try for something more straightforward–witches, werewolves, and I threw in some gargoyles for good measure. The thing is, by the time my agent circulated Fallen Angels and I’d written and rewritten Wolf’s Bane, the urban fantasy market was glutted. So what did I do? I wrote another one, only this time I tried a myth-based niche. I don’t even need to tell you how that went over.

The thing is, it takes me a while to write a book. It takes me even longer to hear back from my agent. Then it takes longer still while she sends the book out to editors. By the time the whole process is over, a good year, usually lots more, has passed. That’s why writing to a trend doesn’t work so well. By the time you get your book out there, the trend’s probably peaked and died. But I was writing urban fantasy because I liked writing it; and since I’d written three books, and some readers found them online and actually LIKED them (thank you, Goodreads!) and asked for more books in each series, I decided what the heck? And I wrote them. It took me over a year to write a second book for each one, and I kept going.

What I didn’t think about–and I’m still debating–is whether my books would have done better if I’d gone for a big, from the beginning of the series to the end, story arc. One of my favorite authors, Ilona Andrews, did that for her Kate Daniels’ series. Every book has its own story arc, of course. And each is a standalone. But each book, unlike mine, also advances the OVERALL series’ story arc. Not all authors do that. When they write a series, the characters grow from book to book, and the reader learns more about them and hopefully, becomes more invested. That’s how I feel about Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. The easiest way for me to compare the two is through TV and movies. Star Wars had three movies that advanced one, big story arc. Each movie had a beginning, middle, and end, but the big, lurking question of whether good would defeat evil wasn’t answered until the final battle of the third movie. The Star Trek movies I’ve seen, on the other hand, (and I’m no expert in any of this) are self-contained. They’re fun and glorious, but they’re episodic.

My best example (for myself) of an overall story arc is the TV show Sleepy Hollow. In its first season, every single episode advanced the struggle of the Witnesses, trying to prevent Moloch from releasing the four riders of the Apocalypse. At the end of the season, they killed Moloch, and I assumed a new evil would take his place, but for months, the story resorted to episodic shows that pitted the heroes against one foul supernatural after another. Fun–at least, to me, but I missed the weight of the big story arc. I feel the same way about Gotham, that an overall arc makes it stronger. Why, I’m not sure. I’ve been a fan of Castle for years, and it’s fair to say that the characters on the show have grown and matured, and each episode is witty and fun, but there’s no pressing story arc. I watch it to be entertained, not to see what happens next. So maybe my preferences are based upon how the series started. I’m not sure.

I am sure that I never thought of writing X number of books to tell one, complicated story arc, but I can see that doing so would add depth and purpose to a series.

Writing: Hits and Misses

I’ve been analyzing my hits and misses in writing.  I’ve finally been at it long enough and tried enough things to look back and see how the dust settled.  I had no idea what I was doing when I started out, and I’ve taken plenty of wrong turns.

Wrong turn #1:  Novels take a chunk of time to write, so when I read an article that encouraged writers to post novellas between novels, to keep their name out there, that made sense to me.  I didn’t think it through to the next, logical step, though.  Most authors write those novellas about characters and events that tie into the series they’re known for.  They use those novellas to keep readers interested in the fictional world they’ve created and eager for a new book’s release.  That’s not what I did.  I wrote in the same genre, but I wrote whatever struck my fancy.  Not a great marketing ploy.  Readers prefer series.  They like reading book after book about characters they’re fond of.

Wrong Turn #2:  I wish I’d have researched how to market my books a lot more and a lot sooner.  I’m lucky enough to have Dystel and Goderich Literary Management behind me, and my wonderful, patient agent–Lauren Abramo–wouldn’t let me put my books online until I started a blog, had 50 followers on Twitter, and had a web page.  She encouraged me to try an author’s page on Facebook, too–which I’m still not very good at.  But those things are just dipping your toes in the water of book promotions.  I joined Goodreads and learned a lot from “listening” to the authors and bloggers on there.  I bought John Locke’s  and Kristen Lamb’s books on marketing.  I didn’t really “get” the basics, though, until I discovered Lindsay Buroker’s blog.  And then I finally realized that if an author doesn’t promote herself, readers don’t find her.  The sad truth is, I don’t have a ready-made audience, dying for my next book or novella to come out.  I have to jump up and down and say, “Hey, I’m here.  You might want to try my new Emerald Hills story.”  Or whatever I’ve put online that’s new.  I now set time aside to look at different sites on the web that promote authors’ books.  Before I offer a book or novella for free or at a reduced price, I have some kind of free or paid promotion set up.  Some of the sites only charge ten or twenty dollars.  Others charge more.  I’m experimenting with different ones, but anymore, I don’t cast my poor, naked novel into the cold, vast universe of millions of books without a little advertising love.

A lucky hit:  When I started writing, I had no idea what I thought might actually make a successful series, so I started three of them.  Now, this might seem to go against the wisdom that readers love a series.  After all, if I’d have written three books with the same characters, I might have built up more of a faithful following.  That’s what most authors do, and it works.  But part of being a writer is knowing what works for myself.  And I need a certain amount of variety to keep me interested in my own stories.  While I work on an Enoch and Voronika novel, Reece and Damian can simmer in the background.  And when I work on Reece’s plotlines, Tyr and Diana stew in my mind.  I’m not sure I needed three series to keep myself happy, but I know that when I finish a book, I’ve lived with those characters day in and day out until I’m ready for them to take a hike and leave me alone for a while.  But by the time I finish two other books with completely different characters, I’ll actually miss old Enoch and be ready to cause him grief and trouble again.   I think the breaks help keep my series fresh.

Lately, I’ve noticed that some of my favorite authors, who write some of my favorite mystery series, seem to be struggling.  The authors who only write one series with one set of characters, in my opinion, get tired of them.  Their books feel flat, forced.  Sometimes, I even wonder if they still like their protagonists.  I understand why so many authors write at least two, different series.  It gives them time to shift gears, to catch their breath, and to want to spend time with their characters again.  I stumbled on that by accident, but I’m glad I did.