Writing the second book in any series kicks my ass.
Doesn’t matter if I’m writing mystery or romance, or whether the book is a straight up continuation of the same characters or different lead characters set in an existing world. I know enough about the characters/worlds/plots to be dangerous, but not enough to have every potentiality nailed down. Give me too many choices and I’ll wanna try ’em all.
I faced the “second book” syndrome twice in the past year. Lucky me, huh? I finished MERCY KILL, book 2 in the Mercy Gunderson series in March, and SADDLED AND SPURRED, book 2 in the Blacktop Cowboys series in June. Two totally different books. Two totally different experiences for me as a writer. But know the one thing that hasn’t changed? Bracing myself for reader reaction to the second book in a new series, which is almost…worse than bracing myself for reader reaction to the first book in a new series.
Why? Because inevitably, the first book in a new series will be compared to the previous series. Doesn’t matter if the previous series is dead by my hand or the publisher’s. Doesn’t matter if I’m trying to do something entirely fresh within the same genre, while trying to maintain my individual voice or my brand or meeting editorial expectations. Comparisons will be made. Some favorably. Some not.
And it’s always the NOT ones that stick in my craw, know what I mean?
I ain’t gonna lie. The Julie Collins mystery series was a tough sell in the publishing world. Julie is unapologetically brash. She drinks, she swears, she smokes, she has questionable taste in men, she has serious family issues — and I have to mix all those not always appealing character traits together and make her…not necessarily lovable, but believable, a woman to root for. And then I plop her dead center in the middle of life or death situations, in South Dakota, which I’ve heard ain’t exactly a hot spot to visit — as I try to entice readers into buying a medium-boiled contemporary mystery series with a kickass female character set in no-man’s land. For book 2, HALLOWED GROUND, I stalled early on in the writing process, I cried, I sweated bullets over my complex heroine, wondering if the critics who weren’t in love with Julie the first go around would feel more comfortable with her in a second outing. But what I didn’t change? Julie. I didn’t bow to reader’s criticisms and change anything about her. I let her be who she was. Who I envisioned her to be.
Guess what? That kernel of love started to bloom after book 2. Being with a small publishing house meant my sales didn’t set the world on fire, but the buzz, award nominations/wins and general interest was enough that I was contracted for a third book. It seemed readers who were on the fence with Julie for book one took a leap of faith and followed my bow-and-arrow toting bad girl on her next adventure. And her next. And her next.
During this time, due to the business end of publishing and circumstances beyond my control, I started another mystery. Same type of tough female character, still set in South Dakota (yep, glutton for punishment, that’s me) but with a couple of funky twists that intrigued me. Those last three words are the absolute gospel in my writing world — if what I’m writing doesn’t intrigue me, how can I expect it’ll intrigue readers? What I didn’t want to happen when I started the Mercy Gunderson series? Write books exactly like the Julie Collins books — just changing the heroine’s eye color, her hair color, the name of her love interest, the sex of her best friend, her preferred brand of booze and the type of weapon she carried. The character who silently but efficiently muscled her way onto my first page was a woman the polar opposite of Julie Collins. Mercy is as cool-headed as Julie is hotheaded. Their life histories are diverse, which makes their reactions in certain situations vastly dissimilar. After I finished the book (while I was still writing the last book in the Julie series, mind you) I was thrilled. I’d achieved my goal and luckily Simon and Schuster liked what they saw in Mercy Gunderson and offered me a two-book contract.
Fast-forward two years to 2010 when I hadn’t released a mystery at all in 2009, but had just come off winning the Shamus Award for SNOW BLIND. The very first fan review I read for NO MERCY, and yes, I read fan reviews, said the book sucked. Bad. They’d give me zero stars if they could. Mercy was hard and cold and no one would ever care about her stupid life, her stupid reactions, her stupid family, her stupid issues, plus the plot wasn’t plausible. The reader lamented that I’d fallen so far from the Julie Collins series that I’d lost fans forever. Then this fan postulated that maybe if no one bought the book in this new series, I could go back to writing Julie Collins. Nice try, but no. When I finished MERCY KILL, I realized I let Mercy be who she was. I didn’t soften her, change her, or force her into a comfortable little box along side the hard-to-categorize-Miz Collins. As long as my editor was happy, and I was happy. But the negative review got me to thinking, which is always dangerous, especially when I’m pissed off, and I realized something:
The reader’s comparison was based on ONE book from the Mercy series, but on FOUR books from the Julie series. Of course readers are going to know more about Julie and her world. I’ve had time to build her. I haven’t had time to build Mercy or her world.
So I sensed a pattern when the exact same thing happened with the Lorelei James books. With the Rough Rider series, I’m writing contemporary erotic westerns set in Wyoming. But again, I didn’t want the new series to be a carbon copy of my existing series, so I mixed it up, intending to alternate setting the stories in the rodeo world with life on a Wyoming ranch, not detailing the lives and loves of a specific family, but of a group of tight-knit friends who hail from one small Wyoming town. For the first book I had the main male characters already involved — albeit separately — in an intimate relationship with the female character. No first meeting. No first kiss. No first individual sex scene. Different, right? When book 1 in the Blacktop Cowboys series, CORRALLED, came out in August, with a different publisher, I was NINE books into the Rough Riders series. NINE. The inevitable comparisons started. Not as good as the Rough Riders series. The family “connectedness” was missing…well duh. It’s the first book in the series! There is no connectedness yet!
I’ll admit I’m not immune to this “favorite series” issue as a reader, but I’ll also admit it doesn’t matter what certain authors write, I’ll read it. Period. And if I don’t like book 2 or 3…then I’ll move on. And even if I don’t enjoy the jump in genres, I’ll give them a big thumbs up for trying something different and stepping out of their comfort zone.
So tell me, MSW readers, and be honest here, do you give a new fiction series from a favorite author a fair shake — meaning more than one book? All commenters will be eligible to win a gift card from the online bookstore of their choice!