Why I Don’t Write Sequels or Series

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As an author, is there any better feeling that that of being on fire? I mean, of course, being inflamed with inspiration, with an idea, with a story. What’s better than that little *pop* as an idea flares to life, blue and orange and yellow, that little flicker that when shielded from the wind, when protected and encouraged begins to bite into the fuel of possibilities and grow, reaching ever upward, ever outward as the possibilities turn into inspired plot points and compelling characters? You know the feeling. But does it happen every time we sit down to write? Does it herald the beginning of every new project?

We wish.

But even when we are sufficiently inspired, when the creative juices flow and we can’t wait to get to the keyboard to get it all down on paper, does that mean it’s going to be a blockbuster book? Does the flame of divine inspiration ensure that we can convey that spark well enough to put out a book that fires the public’s imagination, as well?

Again we wish.

What’s my point? That this kind of inspiration is few and far between, and even if it strikes us, it’s difficult to catch that lightning in a bottle. How much more difficult is it if we set out to accomplish just that? If we take our bottle out into the night and hide in the deeper shadows beneath the trees, waiting and hoping to be at the right place at the exact right instant?

Okay, stay with me.

I’ve had many readers query me about sequels for several of my books. Ask, cajole, even plead. Which is hugely flattering. It’s head-turning. I won’t deny I’ve thought about it. But the biggest problem, at least for me, is that what was once a flash of inspiration then becomes an exercise in mechanics. I’ve told the story that kept me awake nights, the one I didn’t really understand until I’d finished it, the one that came from some place I wasn’t even aware of. Now I was going to go back and try to construct a follow-up? Now I was going to go back and try to logically, intellectually, figure out an encore when the inspiration is not that spark but a willful desire to replicate the spark and try to pass it off as the real thing?

With all due respect to those who have penned successful series and sequels, to me this is unimaginable. It’s hard enough to tease out the thread of a compelling story when it’s oozing up from the archetypal subconscious of my brain; thinking about trying to capture this intangible flash, trying to fit a harness to it and train it to sit and stay while I peck out the story just seems ludicrous. I can’t imagine anything less inspired.

We’ve all seen it. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code electrified the world. By the time we got to The Lost Symbol, it all seemed rote to me. More clues, more escapes, more riddles. Borrrrrrrring. I know I’ll catch flak for this, but the Harry Potter books got less and less interesting to me as time went by. And who can forget Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children saga? Again, the first book hit with a bullet, but the ensuing books were more of the same (plus more sex. Can’t you just hear her editors? More sex! More sex!). It feels terribly sad to me when an innovative idea is milked into a desiccated husk of the original. When Fast and Furious XII or Rocky 43 hits the Multiplex.

So … I don’t do sequels. I don’t do series. I should qualify that by saying that I might consider it, IF the inspiration for the whole kit and caboodle came at once, and just needed to be separated out into different books because it was too much for one book. But that’s the only way I’d consider it. I think.

Here’s my challenge to you. Which sequels/series would you nominate for being as inspiring and phenomenal as the original book? And what are your thoughts on unplanned inspiration vs. planning a follow-up book? If you think I’m off-base on this, I’d love to hear about it from those of you who have done series and/or sequels.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

44 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Write Sequels or Series”

  1. I think if your story were meant to be a series you’d know it. That spark would not have burned out yet. That’s what happened with my trilogy. By the time I got 1/4 of the way through writing the first one I knew it would be three before it was done. Some suggested i make it four but, like you, there was not enough creative juice left in the story to make it worthwhile. I love series, as a rule. i have read several that rocked to the very last. I have also read some that petered out with a whimper. I really believe it’s the story that determines the length, to a large degree.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne; I knew you’d done a successful series so was hoping you’d add to the discussion. I’m very glad to hear you say you didn’t go for the 4th book when the inspiration wasn’t there. As you say, it’s painful to read a series that goes out with a whimper. Thanks for commenting.

    2. Well said, Yvonne. Sometimes, to tell a story well, you have to give it space. The series I love are the ones with one over-arching storyline told in a series of ‘bites’. Writing a series just for the hell of it doesn’t work, IMHO.

  2. If each book can stand alone, yet remain connected in an intrinsic way, you can introduce new characters and bring fresh perspectives into a series. The key is in knowing when that can’t be accomplished anymore…and to let go. Personally, I enjoy reading series and reconnecting with characters from the previous books, even if it’s only peripherally. However, writing a series is tricky, I know.

    1. Linda, I think you bring up an excellent point, and that is to tell new stories about other characters rather than rehashing the same old story over and over. I think if I were going to do a series, it would have to be in this manner. Thanks for bringing this into the discussion.

      1. The Discworld series from Terry Pratchett is like this. The tie together is the world the characters live on and recurring characters throughout the series. But for the most part each book focuses on different main characters.

  3. This is the best sense I’ve read in a long long time and I’ve heard a lot of good sense on IU. “I AGREE” I shout from the rooftops.

    The only place I’ve seen sequels do even better than the original is in two of the “Green Knowe” children’s novels by Lucy M Boston. “Enemy at Green Knowe” was a sequel and it was a deserving Carnegie Medal winner.
    It was the fourth and fifth books in the Green Knowe series of six novels, that were the two best ones for me. Here they are:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Knowe

    But other than rare ones like that, it just doesn’t happen. You’re so correct in the examples you give above like Clan and HP. I read the first and love it, the second is blah and that’s as far as I go.

    1. Tui, thanks for cluing us in on the Boston books; I’ll have to check them out. It reminds me that often in movies we see a second or third installment that’s better than the first (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.), but I think it’s rare in books. Thanks for the tip.

  4. I hear you Melissa. I’m kind of stuck in the middle of the second volume of what was planned to be a trilogy. I don’t just want to do “more of the same”. Got a great plot for the finale, but the middle one has always been the weak link.

    As for my all time favorite series, I think I would have to say Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy. The additional four volumes that were added to the series later were good, but the original three are properly regarded as pivotal works of modern science fiction.

    1. John, I hear you on the middle part. So many of us bog down there, whether in one book or a series. I confess I have not read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, although I have read others of his. Interesting about the later books, although not surprising that they do not live up to the originals. Makes me wonder if Asimov himself wanted to do those books or if the publisher was the driving force?

  5. What do you call a number of books set in the same world but not following one after the other? A Parallel? I’m tackling a post-apocalyptic ‘series’ but so far the books run concurrently following different but related characters. I think if I was following a continuous narrative I probably would lose enthusiasm and fade out awkwardly, but my current ‘Sunstrike’ scenario has boundless opportunities to show differing reactions to the same event so I’m happily exploring that. Mind you, I’ve only done books one and two so far… 🙂

    1. Interesting question. Since we don’t currently have a niche for Parallel, maybe it’s time to invent one. I wonder if that’s a bit like Howey’s Silo sagas. I’ve only read Wool, but I know he has more Silo stories out there, and I wonder if they might be considered parallels. Anybody else want to weigh in on this?

      1. William Kennedy (wrote Ironweed) called his “The Albany Cycle.” Books in the same world (well, realistic, and set in Albany, NY) but with overlapping characters.

  6. Two many great series to list. Some of the most beloved books in history are series: Travis McGee, Sherlock Homes, Jane Whitefield, Harry Potter, James Bond, etc. etc.
    I think it’s a little presumptuous to rule out the legitimacy of this. If somebody told you they don’t write novels because short stories are more immediate, you’d give them the eye. I’m guessing you catch a few eyes when you say this.
    I have had series come to me in a batch, and start working on them. I’ve had others that came after a novel was completed and I saw a new situation for the main character. Also, a series taken from the scripts of my TV show, which is another kind of series story.
    I just don’t understand how anybody can rule things out like this.

    1. Yes, Lin, I have had people give me that look, which is exactly why I say above that I don’t “think” I would do a sequel or series, but that’s not definitive. I’ll put it this way: so far, I have not been sufficiently prodded to do so, or felt that I could do it justice. But your list of series above brings to mind another question, and that is about a reader’s (or writer’s) appetite for variety. Some people like the familiarity of a series, like knowing the characters or having a grasp of the story line from the get-go, while I do not. I like variety, I like being surprised. I wonder if that doesn’t have a lot to do with how we feel about series?

  7. Terrific post, Melissa. I’m so glad that I’m not alone. I have the same problem. Folk say–I loved Quinn (MC in my last book), I hope to see more of him. And I’m all–gee thanks, but Quinn was yesterday’s story. The only reason he didn’t die was because he was the hero.

    But here’s the rub. Readers (sweeping generalization alert) enjoy series. They like the comfortable feeling of sitting down with characters they’ve come to love, or worlds they’ve been fascinated by. Oh, and it’s easier to sell a series. Just check the popularity listings on Amazon.

    For these reasons and more, I really want to write one. So here’s my plan. . . Come closer. I have to whisper this so my muse doesn’t suspect. I’m writing a really long story, and then I’m going to split it into two or (shh) maybe even three parts. Well, that’s the plan anyway. Who knows if it’ll work out?

    I agree with John, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was a sci-fi masterpiece. My personal favorite–Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy–I still re-read that every few years. LOTR was one book originally (see there’s hope for me yet) and Tolkien fought his publisher to keep it that way (and lost).

    1. Pete, you sound just like me. When I’m done with a story, I’m done, ready to move on. And if I ever do a series, it’ll be the way you are planning, getting one big idea and breaking it up over multiple books.
      I’m realizing there may be two ways that we, as readers, enjoy spending time with characters we love. I believe you are right that many readers want more, more, more of the familiar characters, otherwise series would not be so popular. But like you, I like to re-read my favorite books about once a year. I like to go back and revisit my favorite characters, but I’d rather visit them in their original setting, experiencing all over again that lightning in the bottle. Maybe that’s the difference?

  8. I never thought I would do one. I don’t know if it will be successful, but I’m enjoying myself. I do like the idea of “connected” books with characters floating in and out as they have stories to tell.

    1. My feeling is that, if you’re enjoying the process, you’re in the zone and it’ll be a good thing. Sounds like we’re all pretty much agreeing on the connected books emphasizing different characters that interact. Thanks, Laurie.

  9. Sequels and series aren’t for everyone. I have a series and I’m writing it because there is more story to tell. In the final book of my series, we’re going to learn some things that we didn’t know were going on in book 1, and I like tying it together so people get the complete story. I think readers like the familiarity of a series, the continual pattern with different events. They like already knowing the characters and just finding out what’s happening next, sort of like catching up with an old friend.

    But, if you have no interest in them, it’s good to avoid them. Trying to push ahead when you’re not interested isn’t a good idea for a writer, if there are other stories percolating and wanting to be told.

    1. Agreed, RJ. I think your line “I have a series and I’m writing it because there is more story to tell” says it all. Having a story nudge us forward is the only way I want to write. I tried writing a “commercial” book once, and tossed it out after the first chapter. After all, if the story hasn’t set fire to us, how is it going to set fire to our readers?

  10. Apparently, I am a series writer. Even when I thought I wrote a stand alone (Serial Date) I ended up loving the MC so much I wrote another (I’m on her 3rd book as I write this). I long to write just one book and end the thing but fall for my characters too hard to let them go. I won’t ever force a sequel just for the sake of continuation, but if I come up with another story I like to go with the others, heck yeah, I’ll keep going! I like to have fun when I write, though, so if the fun leaves, so will I.

    That being said, if ya can’t envision doing it, don’t.

    1. DV, that’s funny that you started out with a standalone book and now are on book #3! Obviously your character just had more to say! I like your line, “if the fun leaves, so will I.” My feelings exactly.

  11. I’ve done it both ways — a couple of stand-alone books and, now, two series. I always conceived of the Pipe Woman Chronicles as either four or five books, depending on how much plot I had left after I finished the third book. 😀 I’m planning one more set of books in that universe — probably a duology — but those two will be set 20 years after the end of the first series, and I needed something else to fill in the gap. Hence, the Land, Sea, Sky trilogy, which is set 10 years after the end of the first series..

    The thing is, there are series and there are series. Mine always have an overarching plot, and each book gets part of that plot (plus its own beginning, middle and ending) ’til I get to the big payoff. Mystery and thriller series are often open-ended — the same characters doing the same sorts of things in book after book — and I think that’s where you have to be careful that you’re not writing the same book over and over, with different window dressing.

    Agreed on the Foundation books. And there are numerous examples in fantasy. The first three books in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever are all very strong — but again, I believe they were conceived together, and Donaldson didn’t plan to write any more until Lester Del Rey badgered him into it. 😀 Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are almost uniformly great, and there are 44 of them, which blows my mind a little. But an example of a series petering out is Piers Anthony’s Xanth books; the first few were fun, but then he started running out of ideas and relying on his fans to give him puns to work with, and in my opinion it stopped being quite as entertaining.

    1. Lynne, your observation on mystery and thriller series–same story, different book–reminds me of TV series. So often it’s 1. problem arises, 2. struggle ensues, 3. problem solved, happiness reigns, then rinse and repeat as often as necessary. I don’t care for any series that just keeps resetting back to zero at the end. I can see that it’s a major struggle to balance the overarching story line with the individual book story line, but those two things have to connect and nest perfectly. Obviously you’re not having any trouble doing that.
      Forty-four books in a series? Yes, that blows my mind, too. I cannot even imagine. I think at that point, I would just want to kill of every living character and move on. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  12. This is a very good article, Melissa, and I’ll give you a word of warning.
    Because of reader requests, I turned my first book into book one of a trilogy. I had lots to say for the second book – the story hadn’t been told, but the third one has been a hell of a battle to complete. It’s two years in the making and I feel this huge responsibility to make it the best in the series. I’ve thrown away tons of work and began over and over again. I’ve changed the protagonist, the pov, the setting, and I’m still not sure I’ve found my voice. So, be careful what you commit to. As you say, you have to be very sure that you have more story to tell.

    1. Martin, you make an excellent point about committing. I think that pressure would be tough to deal with. I have always felt it was hard enough when I have all the characters yammering at me to get their story down; how much harder to have the weight of readers’ expectations on top of that? Obviously, though, you are not taking the easy way out and I feel sure you’ll find your voice and finish the series. You’ll have to keep us posted.

  13. I like Yvonne’s point that the story tells you how long and how many volumes it needs to be. I’ve written six books which my publisher produced as the African memoir series. Yet I never intended them as a series, and don’t think of them that way. They don’t follow on, one from another, they just happen to have the common base of being about things that happened in Africa. But Africa is a big, big place, with 54 different countries in it and so much variety, so many stories to tell. None of my books is like one another. I wrote each one to tell a specific story, and they are separate and complete on their own.

    If you complete your story without leaving loose ends, people are less likely to demand a sequel, although you’ll always find the odd junkie who wants more of the same.

    1. Ian, that’s a very interesting concept–rather like a set of unconnected short stories, only these are full-blown books. I am guessing your publisher felt your style was consistent enough that readers of one book would enjoy the others, otherwise they would take the chance of disappointing readers if the stories were too different. That’s one thing I have to be careful of; I write in multiple genres and some of the books are VERY different than others, so I don’t want readers to think they’re getting something similar to the last one. In most cases, they are not. But it sounds like this has worked out for you. Thanks for bringing this to the discussion. That’s something I had never considered.

      1. Actually, Melissa, my style varies quite a bit between books. I have deliberately not adopted a particular style, but just told the stories the way i would if speaking to an audience. It is fortunate that I kept very detailed shorthand (an longhand) contemporaneous notes and am able to include a lot of dialogue because it was recorded. Apart from that, it’s down to the story telling art. Since each story is very different, they all come out in quite different ways.
        My novel, of course, is very different again, but that’s all fiction.

  14. I agree about many of the disappointing sequels you named. I didn’t like DaVinci Code for starters, people yakking while they ran up and down halls. And really, if you can’t write good sex, skip it. Same for dialogue. The best Dan Brown is the Tweet send-up that was going around. I agree that many authors flog their series schtick to death. I hope to never again read that Stephanie Plum is panting over Ranger while Morelli growls. But I have mowed down many many series and still wanted more. Ed McBain comes to mind. My husband couldn’t stop with the Patrick O’Brian’s guys-on-ships series. He still has every one and thinks maybe he’ll give them another go. A well-written series is as good as a vacation. Good writers even manage to pull off a full-bodied read without aging the main characters or changing their circumstances much. I think one thing driving the explosion in series writing is the belief that you MUST write 5 or 6 books a year to make any money. It’s a numbers game. Laying down a template and ‘grinding’ is common. Not many people can pull that off. The fact that they try tells you that readers respond to the series format. It’s a comfortable read. You can be pretty sure that King and Koontz are going to freak you out, that Lucas Davenport is going to be up against a truly vicious person but still have time to bang in his Porsche (though he’s mellowed) with no seconds to spare. That you’re going to laugh out loud at Hiassen’s main character, Florida. No emotional surprises. And with so much access to authors, readers can feel like we’re all just friends. It’s branding. It’s one approach to writing.
    I don’t think of sequels and series as the same thing. I think sequels are more difficult, and usually unplanned, which is why they lose steam. I didn’t plan to, but I wrote a sequel to my first book because I was curious to see how my protagonist would handle the next phase of her life. It is six years later. The third and final book is in work, it’s another ten years out and told by her daughter. We’ll see. I’m told the second is as strong as the first. In the meantime, I’m fleshing out the first book in what I hope will be a series. I’m writing it to stand alone. Something about writing a series feels like a trap. If the inspiration dies, I’ll drop the big one on the whole cast and move on.

    1. Mary Ellen, thanks for commenting. Obviously there are good and bad sides to this issue, as you point out. There has to be a large comfort factor to readers who know, when they buy the latest book, that it will be familiar and will give them the same emotional roller-coaster ride as the original, rather like going to our favorite restaurant for our favorite dish. To those who like to explore new restaurants and order something completely unfamiliar, it’s a different story. Your series sounds interesting, primarily because of the large gap in time and the different POV in the third book. One thing I’ve noticed in this thread is the fact that a series can be many different things, some of which I never considered. This has been an eye-opening experience! Thanks for sharing.

      1. I think Dan Brown has one basic plot and is determined to see how many books he can squeeze out of it. Put on a different coloured set of specs and read a different book and you’re reading the same story in an alternate hue. Not very original, but it’s caught readers’ attention and made him rich.

        1. And you know what? I’d rather be my same penny-watching self and put out books that I felt added something to the mix rather than be rich and feel like I was phoning it in.

          1. That may be the reason why you and I, and not doubt many other Indie writers, will never be rich. But hopefully our work will be worth something.

  15. People were intrigued, as was I (one time), by the whole secret society thing. How anyone could slog through his other books is a mystery. But I’m kinda cranky, I feel that way about a lot of books. I come out of the film business, like traditional publishers, they’re always looking for the franchise. The last movie I see will probably be The Hangover 1302. I hope my kids off me before then.
    Really, the Dan Brown Twitter thing is worth a visit.

      1. I just remembered Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series. That was some strange and engaging stuff. Lois, I hope my kids don’t off me before I outlive (an oxymoron if there ever was one) zombies. I just can’t get into zombies and vampires this go-round.

  16. I love this post, but I adore the Harry Potter books, and P.D. James is one of my favorite series. 😉
    I will know when I have exhausted the potential for the two series I have in process. I like the characters in the murder mystery series, and there are so many stories rolling around in my head that fit the local Tampa culture. It is too much fun not to jump in.

    1. Lois, good for you; go for it. And the good thing about doing a murder mystery series is, if any of the characters start being less than fun, you can just bump them off!

  17. I didn’t notice this in other comments but even with all the prevailing wisdom we have to look at a few big name trade pub authors. Most of the books Stephen King is famous for are not series books. Heck he didn’t even come out with a sequel to the Shining for what thirty years or so.

    Or Dean Koontz or even Peter Straube, not big time series writers. And these are just horror and thriller writers off the top of my head. I am pretty sure if we look around we can find many others who have paved the way without spending all their time working on a series.

    The thing is, sure series can be a way to pull readers deeper into your world but they are not the only path for a writer.

  18. I write YA fantasy where if it’s not an immutable law that all stories require more than one book, it’s pretty darn close. While many authors plot out the entire story arcs for their series, I haven’t. I come up with a few things that I want to hit in each book, create a rough outline (typically a page) and start writing. I think this helps me actively engage with the story and the characters. It also keeps me open to new discoveries. Often secondary or even background textural characters reveal deeper aspects of themselves and become more important as a part of this process. I generally get to my planned destination, but the journey is not always direct. I also don’t write the series books one after the other, instead I alternate between two series. I feel that stepping away from the characters gives me a chance to refresh my perspective. On the downside it is harder to get back into a grove with the characters. It also slows down the release of the books, which hurts follow-on sales benefits of a series, especially in YA where kids might grow out of the story. Admittedly, I’ve only published two books in each series, but so far I like the results.

    1. As with all processes, there are advantages and disadvantages; sounds like you’ve found what works for you. I actually think the alternating between series, giving you a chance to step back and refresh, is a good idea although, as you say, it can affect sales. And, hey, you’re in good company: Spielberg, Lucas, etc. Thanks for commenting.

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