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To Be (Continued) or Not to Be...
The first full-length manuscript I sent around to agents I described as a “standalone novel with series potential.” The story was a self-contained arc, but I’d fallen in love with the characters, and I was excited about the possibility of taking them on more escapades. With that in mind, I deliberately wrote an ending that would allow me a reason to pick things up and carry on, if and when a publisher made me an offer. I even started working on a sequel, just in case, and did a thumbnail outline of a potential third novel for after that.
Long story short: my manuscript had no takers, and it was back to the drawing board. I was frustrated and more than a little crushed to see all those story ideas die on the vine; and although I wasn’t ready to give up, I definitely didn’t want to experience that kind of disappointment again.
For my second novel, I was much more methodical. I came up with what I believed to be a marketable concept, sketched an outline, and produced a ninety-thousand-word manuscript in record time. Refusing to get attached, this time I wrote a pure standalone; not only was the overall narrative fully resolved by the last page, but the characters’ individual arcs were completely tied up as well. If it didn’t go anywhere, at least I wouldn’t have to mourn the lost potential of multiple, unrealized follow-ups.
Anyone familiar with the concept of irony might (ironically) see this nest twist coming. An agent offered me representation for my second manuscript, and the first thing she asked me to do was write a sequel so she could pitch it as a packaged deal.
I struggled for a while, ultimately choosing a background character from Book 1 as my next protagonist, and retooled an unrelated plot from my story ideas folder to serve as the story line for Book 2. In the end, I was pleased. The second book was less a continuation than a complement—an adventure in the same universe, with familiar faces and a similar flavor—but one that could be experienced fully on its own merits.
The gag is: neither novel sold, that agent and I parted ways, and I turned back to my ideas folder—turned back to thinking about “series potential.” Rolling up my sleeves, I crafted the first book in a planned trilogy, writing detailed pitches for the remaining books so I could explain my vision to agents; and it went nowhere. Then I wrote another standalone, leaving an obvious door open for future follow-ups…and that one went nowhere as well.
Thereafter, I wrote two more “standalones with series potential” that I didn’t even bother to send to agents, and in late 2014, I finally decided to work on a novel that I saw as having no potential for a sequel at all. In point of fact, I couldn’t even envision an initial sale. My concept, a YA thriller with a gay protagonist, had very few precedents, and it felt like my least marketable idea yet. But it was a story I needed to write, and what was one more trunked manuscript?
Which brings us back to my good friend Irony, because that manuscript, Last Seen Leaving, became my 2016 debut. And, since it was released, I’ve been asked several times by readers if I plan to write a sequel—to elucidate the moves and motivations of specific character, whose actions were deliberately ambiguous.
So. To sequel or not to sequel? I admit I’m intrigued by the idea of reviving these characters and seeing where they take me—and before the title sold, I might have easily considered doing exactly that. But now people have read it. Now, people have formed their own relationships with Flynn and January and Kaz, and I risk upsetting the apple cart if I write something new that challenges their interpretations of the text.
Ultimately, I’m going with my gut. For now, my debut remains a closed arc in my mind, and I’m content to leave it that way…unless and until inspiration strikes, and I realize I have the perfect continuation in mind. In the meantime, now that I have some publications under my belt—and I'm less worried about the jinx of future planning—maybe it’s time for me to revisit the idea of a planned series after all…