I attended the New England SCBWI writing conference back in April, and one of the most intriguing panels I attended–and the one that’s stayed with me the best–was called “And Then There Were More: The Art of Writing a Series with Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette.”

I’m a fantasy author, so–be it for better or for worse–series are part of the landscape. And when I plan a trilogy, I only know one way to do it. I’m an outliner, yes? So if I was going to make three books, I’d outline all of them at once. I’d think big, come up with a large conflict, and then break it into three, self-contained arcs that inch closer to the “true” final battle. This is how I think.

But know why this panel stuck with me? Because Ms. Paquette explained that you can’t really think that way if you’re getting published with a traditional publisher.

So, my friends, if you’re one of those folks who wants to go the big, big publisher route, gather ’round and listen. Here was her advice.

A publisher might not agree to a full series right off the bat.

The crux of Ms. Paquette’s talk was that, if you’re getting published with a big publisher, guess what? You can’t choose whether you get a sequel or not.

You can want one. You can tell the publisher you have ideas for a series. That’s great! Publishers love knowing you’re ready to write more. But do you actually get to say “Hey, guess what, I’m taking a three book deal or nothing?” Well, probably not. (Not if your agent wants to steer you clear of the chance they say “Great! Nothing it is!”)

Instead, the publisher gets to decide if you get one book, two books, or whatever. And if you’re new, unproven, or they just aren’t sure about this project yet, they may want to wait and see.

So they only sign a contract with you for one book. They want to wait and put out the first book before making any decisions. They want to see if there’s any interest in it. Is it selling well enough to justify a sequel? If so, awesome! Let’s do more! If not, oh well! We all got one book out of it, didn’t we?

…And that means you have to change how you think about planning a series.

So, you can’t guarantee you’ll be given the number of books you want. How on earth do you write a series?

Ms. Paquette recommended:

  • Write one standalone novel, which has potential for more novels, but doesn’t require them.
  • Put all your best ideas in there, because:
    • If you want a chance at a sequel, you need to blow sales out of the water. Your best shot is the idea that you love the most.
    • Your readers will only choose to read book #2 if book #1 blows them away.

I mean, this makes sense, right? The idea that you have the most passion about is the one you’ll write the best.

And if you were planning a trilogy with two small crises you kind of care about, leading up to one mega-ending that you love dearly, then you could shoot yourself in the foot. if Vaguely Interesting Conflict #1 sells so-so, what publisher would want to pay for Middling Book #2? Who would read 500 pages and two books of buildup just to reach the thing you really wanted to write about in book #3?

So you frontload that stuff. You use all your best ideas in book #1.

This turned my thinking around,and… also made it really hard to plan.

OK. Fair warning: I do a lot of how-tos on this blog where I give advice about writing. What follows is not advice. It is me, whining.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I plan linearly: If I do a series, I think of one big crisis and break it into pieces. But let’s think about that: if I put my best ideas first, in book #1, then… I can’t really plan like that, can I?

This is really hard for me! Ok, so I should… write one standalone book with my best ideas. But have more ideas! Just not the ideas that made me desperate to write
this thing. Just other ideas, which are hazy ideas, which could become full-fledged books, if they needed to. But which aren’t yet! But still have those ideas, because the publisher wants to know you have a plan.

Ooof. So many variables.

I mean, I’ve done this before. Justice Unending is a standalone novel with series potential. It’s one book, it has a crisis, and it resolves it. It has an really, really open ending that leaves room for more novels. I just didn’t plan any. I wrote one book and did not, in the process of writing that book, think about what book #2 could be about. That’s great for pitching (apparently) and terrible for my own personal planning, because it’s way harder to feel like I’m done and then to think, “OK, but if I was going to do more, what would I do?”

(Apparently I should, though, since all the book reviews mention wanting a sequel.)

And my current novel–which is not a sequel to Justice, sorry!–is just a standalone adventure in one mysterious land, designed so that this adventure in this country would be resolved, and any other sequels (if there were any) would just be other adventures in other places. You know, almost episode-style.

But this is tricky. It is, undoubtedly, way easier to plan if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, and this is something I struggle with mightily. Because writing in limbo–the book that can be book one-of-one and also book one-of-three–is hard.

This is the sort of thing that makes self-publishing way easier. At least then no one’ll tell you you can’t have a series if you want to have a series. But if you’re going the traditional publication route, you’ve got to be a little more flexible.

All’s fair in love and marketing, I suppose.