Chip MacGregor

November 27, 2012

Does a second novel have to continue the storyline?


Someone wrote to ask, “How do you handle the ending of individual books in a series that needs each book to stand alone, yet have threads of continuation? Is it possible to conclude the manuscript in the point of view of the antagonist?”

Fiction series have a tendency to flow in and out like the tide. For a while, publishers wanted everything to be written in two-to-four book series. But then they noticed that the second and third books of a series always seemed to decline in sales from the first book, so they began moving away from series. If you’re creating a series of novels, the most important lesson is that each book must stand on its own. You can’t have a middle novel that feels as though it’s nothing more than a placekeeper — words on pages that spread out the story from its opening to its eventual conclusion. Each book must be able to be read and enjoyed without feeling as though the reader doesn’t have the whole story. So the threads of continuation are typically an unresolved story element or a continuing character, all within the same setting, presenting a similar theme, and offering the same style and voice as the other books in the series. So yes, it’s possible to conclude a manuscript with a short blurb from the antagonist’s POV, or perhaps an extended note or conversation with the character. Thomas Harris did this with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, and Ed McBain used this device successfully with his antagonist The Blind Man in some of his 82nd Precinct books. The ending left the antagonist uncaught — and ready to go commit more mayhem.

Another author asked, “Is it true the foreword of a book should be the author’s honest explanation of his or her novel? I ask because the author of the bestselling novel The Shack makes it sound as though he is presenting a true story — and in fact some people have been led to believe that is a true story.”

I would disagree with the notion that the foreword of a novel must be the author’s honest explanation. British novelist P.G. Wodehouse would often write a hilarious foreword to his book that had not the least bit of truth to it. Ken Follett often uses a historical reference as the foreword to his novels, but it’s always just the jumping-off place to a great story. And William Young uses his foreword to The Shack as a literary device to set up his novel — just as many authors have used newspaper clippings, court documents, or letters as a way of introducing their subject. It gives a feeling of “this COULD be real” to the story. So I don’t have a problem with him doing it. Of course, I also think anybody who believes The Shack is a true story is an idiot. So there you go. 

One reader wrote and noted, “I’m halfway through a story I originally intended for adults, but the more I work on it, the more I realize it’s going to appeal to younger readers. Can you tell me what the difference is between a novel for adults and one for a YA audience?”

Sure: a YA novel is a story written for those in the 12-to-17 market, offers a story and subsequent details that appeal to readers that age, and almost always has an adolescent as the protagonist. Since adolescents have a tendency to focus on certain challenges (the relationship with parents, the need to grow and discover one’s identity, a desire for autonomy, a search for truth, a need for fairness, a desire to be accepted, a wish to overcome difficulties and prove oneself worthy, etc), YA novels tend to offer storylines that include those elements. There are few limitations in terms of setting and characters that would make a YA novel different from an adult novel, but there are frequently limitations in terms of theme and subject matter — for example, while many adult novels explore violence or sexuality, you’ll find it tough to get much interest in a YA novel that does so (the Newbery Awards not withstanding).

For those who enjoy history, let me offer a brief lesson in YA history: Sarah Trimmer was a strong Anglican church-goer who dedicated her time and her fortune to building schools, teaching Sunday School, and writing books for children. She believed the surest path to success for British children of the working poor in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s was for them to learn to read, and she did all she could to make that happen. Ms Trimmer particularly believed that teaching children Bible stories would help them to live out their faith, make them better people, and therefore improve the world. She was a reformer, and one of the most influential women of her day. She is also the person who came up with the notion of classifying books as appropriate for “Children” or “Young Adults” (which in her day was from age 14 to 21), and explained that some books needed to be written especially for the members of our society who are no longer children but are not yet adults. I note this only because contemporary publishing still uses Ms Trimmer’s classifications for children and YA novels. (And yes, I love publishing history. This is the sort of thing we have to remember so that future generations understand where they came from.)

Someone named Dale wrote to me — which excited me no end, since I can now say this part of the blog is from Chip and Dale — and noted, “I am deep into a middle-grade novel that was inspired by some drawings done by a colleague of mine. I’ve heard that some agents might be leery of an author who includes illustrations along with his manuscript. Do you have any advice?”

Yes, I do: Don’t send the drawings with your novel. Just send the words, and try to get a deal based on the quality of your writing. Once a publisher likes it, you can always forward the drawings and say, “This is what inspired me, and I thought something like this might be appropriate for you to use with my book.” But don’t get your hopes up — it’s rare for an editor who likes the words to also like the artwork. Or sometimes to have much input into the artist. 

And someone wrote to ask, “What is your take on prologues — do they help or hinder a novel? It’s my opinion they can be helpful in providing some backstory when done properly, but I’ve heard some agents despise them.”

I’m always looking for a great story. If that story requires a short prologue to set it up, so be it. I’m not opposed to prologues per se, but the problem with most prologues is that they are either too long (offering a bunch of boring details) or completely unnecessary (and therefore pushing me away from the actual story). I frequently see beginning novelists insert a prologue because they think I’m not smart enough to follow the story on my own. They could be right, of course… maybe I’m not that smart. But what I’d prefer to see is writing that is strong enough we jump right into the story, and I pick up the details I need after I’m caught up in the events and characters.

Does that help? Happy to answer your publishing questions — send them along. 

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  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    In my busyness, I almost clicked right on by this post. The title, “Does a second novel have to continue the storyline?” made me expostulate, “Good gracious, I hope not. I don’t much like sequels and all my WsIP are stand alone novels.” I opened and read anyway and am so glad I did. This post was chock full of interesting information; fascinating facts about Ms Trimmer and YA fiction, and such useable discussion regarding forwards and prologues. I think I want to be like Sarah Trimmer – and maybe Shakespeare, who wrote those funny introductions to his plays. Are those forwards and prologues?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you liked the YA story, Cherry. I’ve had others say that should be its own post. And yes, in some ways Shakespeare used narration as forewords and prologues to his plays.

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    Thanks for this. It’s making me re-think the 3-book series I discussed with a publisher at OCW-SC this year. Not that I can’t submit additional ideas to him, but I need to make the first book so great that, even if subsequent books never materialize or don’t sell well, he’ll be satisfied with what we accomplished. Does that make sense?

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I’ve heard that many readers start at chapter one. Also, I’ve noticed some Kindle books automatically go to chapter 1, skipping everything before it, including the prologue.

    As a result, the introduction/prologue to my memoir has now become chapter 1.

  • susyflory says:

    Me, too. I was catching up on blog reading this morning and that comment made me laugh out loud. (Sorry, Starbucks people. Really, I’m not crazy!) I would make the same comment about The Da Vinci Code. Thanks for the Sarah Trimmer story, too. What a cool last name for an editor (if that’s what she was). Reminds me of my writer friend, Tim Riter or my first editor, Dan Penwell.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Ha! Couldn’t agree more on The Shack, Chip.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I love the stuff about Sarah Trimmer. It’s a fascinating look at the history of publishing, but also our cultural past. There was a time when it was considered not only acceptable but laudable to want to teach young people Truth. Not so much today. I’m amazed at the garbage my kids’ teachers ask them to read. It’s the most depressing collection of books and short stories one could find. (I know–I read all the same stuff in high school. It’s the reason I didn’t fall in love with reading until college. I thought all literature was like The Lord of the Flies.)

    At least in the Christian marketplace, we can offer an alternative to much of the junk available for kids.

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