There's More Where That Came From!

Dear Miss Snark:

I have a friend who insists that it's worthwhile writing the second book in a mystery series before you've sold (or interested an agent in) the first. She says that if she can't find an agent for the first book, she'll start querying about the second book and then tell any interested agents that the first book exists.

This doesn't make sense to me. It seems highly unlikely that an agent would want to pick up the second book in a series if no one wanted the first. My question is this: How would you respond to a query that says, "This is the second book in an as-yet-unpublished mystery series?"

I laugh merrily. It usually means they haven't written enough yet, not too much. Most good writers have a tome or three under the bed before they get an agent interested. They might be standalones, they might be parts of a series; what they universally are is pretty terrible.

I assume the book you're sending me will need to stand alone. That's how I read it at the query stage or the full novel stage.

And, if you're not getting better with each book you write, you've got a problem. Once you have written the third, fourth or fifth book, you're going to look at the first book and cringe. You won't want Miss Snark to get even a whiff of it, let alone try to sell it.

One of the most reliable indices of "not right for me" is "this is my first book, fresh off the printer".

Write a lot. Write ten books in a series if you will. Send me the best, it's probably the last one.


SheilaC said...

Alas, you have found me out. I have written a series (I can't help myself). There are now four and a half books in this series. I queried Book One until the cows came home (I have to check--am I up to 100 rejections yet?). Maybe it isn't marketable, and I'll admit I cringe when I look at some of the things I wrote way back then (uh, three years ago?).

I'd like to think my newer books, and other non-series books, are better. But, my question is: if I submit Book Anything-but-One in the series, and Miss Snark falls in love with it, do you believe that you can sell that book as a stand-alone, or just that the writing is good and maybe I can go back and fix all the others, based on my new-found wisdom and the piercing insights of Miss Snark, and, ta da, it's a series again?

Simon Haynes said...

I was working on book four in my series of comic SF novels before I snagged a publisher. I planned to write fifteen books in the series before giving up on my dreams. Stubborn or deluded, I didn't care which.
Getting published is a long term plan - say three or four completed novels over a five to ten year period - and there are no guarantees whether you write five or fifty.

Anonymous said...

Write ten books in a series if you will. Send me the best, it's probably the last one.
If for no other reason than by then the characters will have histories and relationships and backstories that are just there, and that aren't the point of this book.

Anonymous said...

Too true, Miss Snark. I've re-written a book with the same plot and characters over and over again, and it is only now, some 10 years later (started it in college) that I feel I've developed my writing skills enough to do the story justice.


archer said...

Write ten books in a series if you will. Send me the best, it's probably the last one.

Not to mention you probably inflicted that first-book-that-now-makes-you-cringe on your Aunt Hattie's dear and close friend, Miss Snark, or other industry pezzonovante,who still recalls your opening line, "The passenger train roared swiftly through the dark night."

Charlie (Colorado) said...

CS Forester handled that by starting in the middle. Of course, then he had to figure out how to get rid of Maria ....

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I whole-heartedly agree. While my series of four books recieved rave reviews from friends and acquaintances, I maintain I learned to write with those books. They haven't read my fifth book yet.

Someday maybe I'll go back and fuss over those four books. Someday they might be bestsellers. Right now, I can't stand to look at the shoddy writing, and I'm still not sure how tell the stories.

Bernita said...

I began putting the first chapter of my first up on my blog quite sometime ago - to rip it apart as a what-not-to-do exercise.
Couldn't stand it for long.
The glare.
My eyes. My eyes.

Anonymous said...

I've seen a lot of writers advise others never to write a sequel to an unsold book. I think that's bad advice.

I look at it this way. If I sell book one (which wasn't by any means the first book I wrote) in a two-book deal, ta dah! I have book two ready to go. That gives me a breathing space in which to write (okay, finish) book three. If I don't sell books one, two, or three, I still learnt a heckofa lot writing them.

Of course, if the editor for book one requires such changes that book two becomes irrelevant, then I guess I won't feel so smug about it after all :).

Anon E. Mouse

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

The novel I queried about was essentially my forth. They were all incarnations of the the first one, but redone so completely that they're unrecognizable. The characters don't even have the same names.
My very first novel deserves to be eaten by dust bunnies.

Anonymous said...

From the guy whose bed is now four feet off the floor with unpublished novels:

Any good thoughts on how one words a query so doesn’t sound stupid. “I wrote and wrote and now I’m getting better, doesn’t have that marketing punch!

Lisa Hunter said...

Like Anonymous Lizzy, I too am re-writing a novel I've been fussing with since college (more than 10 years actually). Each draft starts to seem more like a novel, less like self-indulgent writing-workshop crap (which is how it started out).

Anonymous said...

My agent is uninterested in looking at a mystery novel I have stashed away, because (according to her), most mystery editors these days are only interested in series books--that stand-alone mystery novels are just too hard to sell.

Do you folks (or Miss S) generally find this to be true?

Ms. Graham said...

I agree with anonymous when he said: "Any good thoughts on how one words a query so doesn’t sound stupid. “I wrote and wrote and now I’m getting better, doesn’t have that marketing punch! "

I'm in the same position! How can I tell editors I'm not a newb; I actually have some experience writing crap and have moved on to writing not-crap? I know my writing should stand out on its own, but wouldn't an agent/editor like to know that I'm not that anal-retentive sort of writer that thinks she is so brilliant that she'll never have to change a word and just because she wrote it down it's perfect? How do I let them know that?

Anonymous said...

"How can I tell editors I'm not a newb . . .?"

Show, don't tell.

A strong, professional query letter and your sample pages will tell an agent you're not a newb. Trust your writing.

Bernita said...

A strong character practically INVITES a series.

Anonymous said...

Interesting... so:

"This is my first book." = "This sucks."


"This is my 12th unpublished novel." = "Uh-oh, what's wrong with all the others?"

Sandra Ruttan said...

I heard of one author who had five books done before getting a deal and they took all of them, just reordered the books in the series.

That couldn't work for me, because of the history between the characters, but I did write my second in one series in such a way that it could stand alone, with the first book being essentially the backstory. The first book had its own backstory...but I figured if book 1 didn't go anywhere, I'd take another crack at it with book 2.

And sheilac, one of my favourite authors took in over 300 rejection letters before getting his deal. He's an internationally-known best-selling author, so just because you get a lot of rejections, it doesn't always mean your work isn't good. It may mean the agents aren't hungry...or you've queried all the dumb ones.

Anonymous said...

Does that make me a mutant for having sold my very first book, and my second, and my third . . . ? How rare is it for a writer to have sold every book-length manuscript s/he's written?

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

I didn't mention which book mine was. I said that it was finished, included a word count, and, when a book represented by that agent/agency was similar in tone, would mention that readers of "Nameless Gnomes of Nottingham" might enjoy my novel. I noted that the plot was complete but that I had a sequel partially finished and another book in outline form, just to show that I plan to keep writing.

I think "The writing is what counts" has been said often enough to show that the number of novel is less important than the quality.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Mutant,

Yes, I believe it is rare.


Anonymous said...

Ironically, I can't even give away my short stories.

--Anonymous Mutant

Brooke said...

You may have fielded this one before, Your Snarkliness, but should we mention the fact that this is our third/eighth/twentieth novel in our query to agents?

I used to think agents wanted to discover phenoms, so I was all about "oooh publish my debut novel," but have recently given that up because hey! agents are people too and deserve the straight dope.

Back to the question: Does copping to the manuscripts under the bed make you more credible in the eyes of an agent? All else being equal?

Anonymous said...

Brooke, I think one of the Anons already answered your question:

"This is my 12th unpublished novel." = "Uh-oh, what's wrong with all the others?"