Do You Have Any Tips for Writing the Second Novel in a Series?

As of yesterday, I officially survived my first term as a doctoral student. One term down, only seven to go! I have a few weeks to replenish my brain cells with some much needed rest, and then in the middle of January it’s back to it. For now, here are some thoughts I had while writing the second book in the Loving Husband Trilogy, Her Loving Husband’s Curse.

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Whenever I have a new writing task ahead of me, something I haven’t done before, the first thing I do is seek information from writers who have traveled that road before. There’s a benefit to searching out tips and hints since others have already been there, done that, whatever that is you’re doing at the moment. It’s important to learn from others, sit at their feet and listen to what they have to say about their experiences, their mistakes, and their successes, like Luke Skywalker learning from the wisdom of  Yoda (I’m not implying that writers are small, green, and heavily wrinkled—though I can think of a few that fit that description). I learned how to open myself up and not become stifled when writing a first draft by reading Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott. There is a ton of information—countless articles and books—about how to write a novel. But what do these experts have to say about writing the second novel in a series?

There’s a fair amount of information about how to write a second novel that is just a second novel—in other words, unrelated in any way to the first novel. An unrelated second novel can and should be written in a different style, with different characters, different situations. For myself, I found an unrelated next novel easier to write than the second novel in a series. Her Dear & Loving Husband wasn’t my first novel, you see. Victory Garden, Woman of Stones, and My Brother’s Battle were all written before Her Dear & Loving Husband was published. Since each novel was completely different (different historical periods, different situations, different voices), I could approach it in a fresh way and not feel tied down by expectations created by the previous story.

A second novel in a series, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. It should have the same style, the same theme, and a related plot. Often, though not always, it has the same characters. How do you give readers what they loved about the first book while keeping them guessing so they’re surprised by characters they’ve already come to know and hopefully love? That’s the million dollar question when it comes to writing the second book in a series.

Part of the reason I struggled when I began writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse was because I couldn’t find much information about the problems specific to writing a second novel in a series. With a lack of any hard evidence about what works and what doesn’t, I felt like I was largely on my own. Still, I pressed on and struggled through, missing the sage advice I’ve relied on whenever I encountered a new writing challenge. From the few sources I found, one common theme that echoed throughout was how the second novel needs to be “the same but different.” I agree. But how do I accomplish that?

A while back Joanna Penn’s excellent website The Creative Penn featured an interview with Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, authors of the London steampunk novel Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. I’m paraphrasing here, but one of the aspects of writing a series they talked about was that each book should have its own story yet there should be an over-arching theme that ties the pieces together. They also mention having a dangling plot thread which shows readers that there’s a larger plot throughout the books. As I wrote Her Loving Husband’s Curse, I found this to be true. It helped me to think of the books in my trilogy as being part of one larger story. This way the theme is evident throughout, and the plot feels connected because it follows through each subsequent book. If you’d like to read or listen to the interview, click here.

I also looked to see what other writers have done with their second books. This tip is obvious, though it didn’t occur to me right away. I’m a little slow sometimes. Try reading the second book in several series from different authors to see how the authors handled the transition from book to book. I chose to read the first and second books if I hadn’t read the series before since I wanted to see how the author moved from book one to book two. How much information from the first book does the author use? How does the plot flow from book one to book two, or were they seemingly unrelated or only loosely related? How do the characters change and grow? What is the common thread that binds the stories together? For myself, I only looked at novels that featured the same characters in each book since in my series you’ll see the same cast throughout the trilogy. If the plot in book two seemed unrelated to the plot in book one, I tended not to like book two as much, but that’s simply my personal taste.

Okay, so in this case—writing the second novel in a series—there might not be a ton of information, but we can always look to see how other authors have handled the problem with their own series. If you find a great resource on writing the second novel in a series, or if you have some tips for other writers because you’ve written a series yourself, then share by all means. One of the things I love about being a writer is how we all learn from each other.

6 thoughts on “Do You Have Any Tips for Writing the Second Novel in a Series?

      • Hi Meredith!

        I wanted to reply right away, because I always enjoy your blog, but I was busy giving a Spanish final to my college class and tutoring several panicky teens in French and Spanish for their finals.

        I wanted to tell you that in my first series, The Journals of Kevin Murphy, the books are all historical fictions for YA, they’re all coming-of-age stories, and all deal with the double histories of Euro-Americans and Native Americans. Each book has it’s own unique historical problems, and, although Kevin is the narrator in all three books, the stories are about three summers of his youth, one in Michigan, one in the Rockies (following the trail of Lewis and Clark, of course), and one in California. The Indian tribes and their histories are distinct in each book, and the problems faced by the protagonists are also different. In book 1, Summer of the Bear, the bear is the central symbol. The reader learns about real bears, bearwalkers, and about what kinds of bearwalkers each of the young characters turns out to be. In Book II, Son of Fireheart, the Indian industrialist from the Spiderman comics, who has such an anger management problem that he turns into Puma when he gets mad, is the Native American protagonist, Esteban’s hero. Esteban perceives Fireheart as powerful, and, naturally, he believes that only anger can push a person to become so successful. One of the strongest threads in this narrative is about the advisability of admiring comic book heroes. The books requires the reader to evaluate just how useful anger really is in becoming successful. Both Esteban and Kevin eventually discover that anger can be more harmful than good, when used inappropriately. In the end, Esteban is a “son of Fireheart.” The man he becomes has all of Fireheart’s noble traits without the core of rage that undermined his character. Finally, book 3, Eagle from the Dawn, is the name of the Nez Perce horse Kevin adores. The Eagle from the Dawn, like the bear in Summer of the Bear, is the central symbol of the book. The horse is named after the eagle, which flew into the world with the dawn. For many Native Americans, the eagle is the Creator’s favorite animal, the one who communicates with Him on behalf of the other creatures of the world. Kevin mythologizes the horse, and, in so doing, he fails to truly understand him. it is only after he learns to let the “winds dance between” him and the creatures he loves that he comes to value the horse, and the people around him, in a more realistic way.
        In short, to answer your question – how do you create a series – I think you need an overarching purpose to the series – in my case, coming of age and the various problems that beset teens. You need a character or two to tie all the books together, and many devices to point toward your narrative purpose. In my books, the surface story is simple – an adventure – but through characters, symbols, extra-textual references, and, again, in my case, history, the narrative grows much deeper and more complicated.
        Good luck with your Ph.D. Mine was very hard, until I moved to the just the right school for me, and then it was a lot of fun.

        • You don’t have to explain being busy to me, Leigh! Between teaching full time and taking my doc classes, plus trying to keep up with my own writing and The Copperfield Review, I have been plenty busy. Your books sound amazing, and I love that you point out how there should be an overarching purpose to the series. I think that’s key in tying the different books together. In my Loving Husband Trilogy there was definitely an overarching theme between books that readers could recognize from one story to the next. I’m very lucky in the PhD program at UNLV. I have great professors and wonderful classmates, and the work I’m doing (the teaching of writing) is fascinating to me. We’ll see how I’m doing after I take my statistics class next semester. 🙂

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