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.

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I’ve been querying my YA fantasy novel since September 2014, and oh man, it’s been a journey. I’m not quite done, so I can’t talk about stats yet, but I can definitely talk about the random things I’ve learned.

Lesson #1: I hate competitions.

I really, really, really hate competitions.

I’ve participated in PitMad, Pitch Wars, WriteOnCon, and Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent. They’re great resources, but I don’t know if I like them.

And really: It’s me, not them. Contests consume me. I find myself hovering over the computer at all hours of the day, stalking the most successful entries and trying, desperately, to figure out what they’re doing right and I’m doing wrong. I get super competitive, I stay up late, I obsess until I have to force myself away from the computer, and then… well, I crash. Because that’s not sustainable. I almost always came away feeling miserable and spent.

These are wonderful resources. But they’re also crazy-stupid stressful. I’ll probably participate in more in the future, but I’ve got to be super careful. I have a lot more success in quieter, more private, less competitive situations… Like, you know, just querying agents directly.

Lesson #2: Fantasizing about success is poison.

When I first started querying, I got super into it. Every time I sent a query I spent hours pouring through the agents’ backlists and dreaming about what would happen if they liked my novel. That giddiness kept me going even when I didn’t feel up to querying.

But every time my emotions went up, they had to come down.

This also might just be me: If I get excited about something, there are only two options left for me. I either maintain that excitement (because all my dreams came true!) or I’m disappointed. And the more excited I am, the more disappointed I have to be.

And if it’s already hard to query, you can darn well bet it isn’t easier for me to depress myself first.

This was especially true whenever I got a full manuscript request. It was tempting to keep myself up at night going, “OMGGGG, I’m one step away from an offer! Most people don’t get this far!” Nope, that sucks, too.

Enthusiasm is poison to me. The best I can manage is a business-like professionalism. “Ah, a full request. Great. Let’s see how it pans out.” That’s a level of emotional involvement I can keep up forever.

Lesson #3: I probably was a little too cautious about querying.

For several months, I queried 10 agents at a time and waited for (almost) all of them to respond before I tried again. I was following some commonly heard advice: Send 10 queries, see how it goes, and then use your response rate to measure whether you’re doing OK or not. So I did that. Forever.

The problem was, this made me read too much into my response rate. I got two full requests in my first 14 queries. That’s really good, right? Then I got nothing for the next 34! That’s nearly 40 queries without even a personalized rejection! That’s awful, right? That’s “There’s something super wrong with your query” levels of bad, right?

Or, er, is it?

Really, numbers don’t mean anything. Queries are random. Some people like stuff, some people don’t. You can’t literally crunch your numbers, calculate a “success rate” and determine the numerical strength of your novel.

I had gotten some requests, so my novel had potential. Eventually I just sucked it up and blew through the rest of my agent list. But by the time I had done so, I had taken already slow process and drawn it out to almost a year.

Lesson #4: Don’t let the querying process keep you away from writing.

It’s really tempting to get deeply, deeply involved in the querying process–to spend hours and hours pouring over your query and triple-quadruple-quintuple checking your first few chapters and getting feedback, feedback, and more feedback! There are contests! (See above.) There’s #MSWL!

And QueryTracker! QueryTracker has stats! You could spend hours pouring over each and every agent you’ve queried, trying to guess where they are in their inbox. Oooooh, they’ve rejected all the queries ahead of mine! Maybe I’ll get an answer soon! Oh, this one’s rejected queries before and after mine! Am I in the “maybe” pile?

And… yeah, that’s just another form of getting my hopes up, isn’t it?

So yeah. If lesson #1 is to be zen about querying, lesson #2 is to query and forget about it. I remind myself to check in 3-4 months if I get a manuscript request, but that’s it. Queries go in the memory drawer, where I don’t have to think about them unless the agent responds one way or another. I have to go back to writing, focus on a new project, and let life go on. Otherwise I will literally lose hours of writing time.

Lesson #5: Querying is how you learn about querying. Do it sooner rather than later.

I waited until I had the best story I had ever written to query. I had kinda-sorta queried agents before, but… not really. I tried once. With one novel. I sent it to 10 agents, shelved it, and never tried again. I wasn’t really trying, because I knew the book wasn’t that good and I wanted to write a better one.

And while that’s not bad–good on me for recognizing that I had a lot to learn!–I also missed out on a chance to learn about querying.

Query letters, synopses, how to find agents, how agents work, what to do when you get a request… These are all things you learn by querying agents. And it’s stressful. And emotional. And often upsetting.

It also gets easier with time.

It’s like all sorts of things: You start out clumsy and confused, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing, and it’s stressful. But by the time I had sent out all my queries, I felt good. I was a pro at this. I knew what to do, what worked, and what didn’t. I hadn’t sold a book, but I had a pretty darn good run.

And I should have queried sooner. Because then I could have learned this all sooner, gotten it out of my system, and had a way easier time with this one.

OK, so. A few weeks ago, I was terribly worried about book reviews. But then I finished Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, and discovered that she still very honestly reviews YA books.

So there you have it. It probably doesn’t matter that much if you review books.

So let’s move on to something that actually is a major issue: The fact that agents get so many submissions that they often decide to keep or reject your book based on the first page. Or even the first paragraphs.

This is not new information. This is not even surprising. But a kind reviewer linked me this post from the Author! Author! blog. It is absolutely terrifying. And possibly inspiring. And terrifying.

Author! Author! » The scariest Halloween ever: submitting your first page to a bunch of agents for critique

Let the “Do I do any of those!?” panic begin!

Here’s a question I don’t have an answer to: Should a writer also write book reviews? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ. (Here’s a recent thread from Absolute Write.)

(EDIT: Eep! It just occurred to me that this isn’t clear. I’d never argue that a writer who doesn’t review books should start. I’m asking from the other angle: Is there any danger for writers who do like writing reviews?)

On one hand, you have those who are pro-reviews: They write book reviews because they’re a service to readers. These folks feel that an honest, detailed, and well-articulated review will help others decide whether to purchase a book. They will write positive or negative reviews as needed.

On the other side, you have folks who believe it’s a conflict of interest. They believe that other authors in your genre should be your colleagues, your allies–and if you openly discuss how flawed their books are, you’re treating them more like competition. And if you’re actually out there and published, negative reviews can seem like a backhanded way of promoting your own work.

(And then there are lots of people who just won’t review anything that they didn’t like, for a variety of personal reasons. That also makes perfect sense, though it’s outside the scope of this post.)

That’s food for thought. I can see why an author–particularly one who’s already published, and especially one published through a large publisher–might not want to publicly post reviews of other authors’ novels. Once you’ve published, your name becomes part of your PR, and anything attached to your name becomes part of your brand. You are then Author X, Published with a Big 5 Publisher, who hates the most popular novel that came out in their genre this year. It’s easy to see why you might not want to take that stance.

So what does that mean for aspiring authors? For folks like me, who doesn’t have an agent and hasn’t published a book?

I have no idea.

I doubt it matters for me: I don’t have a fanbase, I’m not widely followed, and no one is going to care if I 1-star a popular book. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried. I’ve given middling reviews to books and then queried their author’s agent. Sure, I’m honest and non-confrontational on Goodreads–but am I spoiling my changes? If I, in some hypothetical future, actually publish a novel, will I wish I hadn’t nitpicked every YA novel I read?

It’s an interesting question. And not an easy one.

I’m querying! That means I glom onto absolutely everything I find online that is related to the process of querying. In fact, I am currently I’m sitting on a treasure trove of agent-related links, none of which I have actually bothered to post here. So it’s time. I am actually going to start posting these things.

So here’s one: A post from New Leaf Literary and Media on what it means to them when they have to give the heartbreaking response of “Your story is good, but it’s just not for me.”

When agents reply, "It's good, just not for me," isn't that admitting to being gatekeepers to traditional publishing? – New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc..

It’s a busy week! So instead of a proper post, here’s a link I found fascinating. This is from agent Sarah LaPolla, and it discusses what to keep in mind (and to not get too hung up on) when writing for the teens of the 21st century. And if that doesn’t make you feel old, the tweet that started it might:

Yep. And here’s the blog post:

Glass Cases: Writing for the 21st Century

First off: Pitch Wars! If you’re participating, you have until the end of the day to send your stuff in. Do it!

…And, uh. Now I’m not really sure what to say. I was going to write a rousing post about Pitch Wars and how everyone had a meager 24 hours to get their stuff in. But then they opened submissions nearly a week early, so most people are already done, the mentors have already been asking for partials and fulls, and today isn’t that special anymore. Well, outside of the fact that it’s the last day to submit.

So I need something else to write about. So here’s Rebecca Dickson on stuff people should have told writers by now.