"Don't work on the sequel while waiting to hear back on your first book…"
"Write a stand alone novel first…"
If you follow agents, attend writing workshops and panels, or read writing articles, you've probably seen or heard this advice once or twice. If you're a science fiction or fantasy writer, in particular, you may sport some bruises for having it banged over your head. What is it about sequels that intrigues and inspires us – particularly sf&f writers – so much that people feel the need to constantly advise us about them? And what can we do when we've planned out the sequels' sequels in our heads already?
I've got some ideas.
On the "Why?": It's about our relationship to books.
Most writers – at least the good ones or the ones who actually have a chance of selling a book – are voracious readers. And, like chefs who cook their favorite styles of foods, writers will often find themselves writing the kinds of books they love to read. Because those are the books they have a relationship with.
Before we jump on the self-perpetuation of various fiction genres, particularly the already sequel-ridden SFF fiction, let me say there is more too it than that. There is a certain psychological profile of people who like these genres; the readers come looking for different things – thusly, so do most of the genre's writers.
As I haven't any "official" research to this, I offer only my own humble observations and experiences – but they paint a pretty vivid picture.
When I do read outside of genre, or speak with readers of mainstream, literary, or chick-lit type books, the overwhelming purpose of reading is entertainment, diversion; the book is just another medium that delivers entertainment similar to a television series or movie. The next largest reason for reading is intellectual stimulus: the reader is looking to learn something either from a trusted source or within the beautiful chambers of fiction prose.
To personify this relationship, some might compare the book characters to friendly colleagues or bar buddies or casual acquaintances. For others it’s a passionate fling, maybe including breakfast, but with an exchange of numbers and no real intent to follow through unless chance throws you together or you want another – temporary – sense of familiarity. "Yeah, I like those people. Sure, I'll grab a few drinks with them again."
Most SFF readers I know start a book looking for a relationship – at least on a subconscious level. You might say that they're "just meeting for coffee" or "having a few drinks," but the antennae are up, like any date. "Will this be a new lover? New close friend? Someone I can go to when the world is just too much to take?"
Part of that comes from the fact that many fans have gone through a certain level of being socially ostracized. In all the SFF conventions I've attended, I'm constantly finding people who share similar experiences of being bullied, not feeling comfortable in social situations. Some have confided social disabilities, such as autism, Asperger's syndrome; others have physical disabilities or issues that led them to be easy targets of childhood's cruelty. Many were just the "smart ones" in class, leading to the taunting and daily torture by classmates.
Books were our escape to places away from the painful classroom; characters were the friends we didn't have in person, who we could cry to, and who would never leave us for the "popular" group. Books with sequels created "peers" who would travel with us, confronting new challenges as we did, and – in the good books, changing and growing as we did.
On top of that, these characters were the ideal partners we just weren't cool enough to have in real life. I, for one, had a steady relationship with R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden for most of high school. And he forgave me for my flings with Margaret Weis's and Tracy Hickman's Tasslehoff Burrfoot.
Another look at how SFF fans create such deep relationships with our characters is the flourishing fanfic communities. If the author is no longer providing us with sequels (or even if s/he is), readers and writers take their relationships with the characters to all sorts of levels. Think of the oft-cited Mary Sue problem of writers who write a more perfect version of themselves into the story!
I know there are some fanfic writers and more obsessive readers outside of SFF fandom, but their numbers can't even compare. However, those would be the non-SFF writers the above warnings were written for.
So, this need for a deep, ongoing relationship with characters is what drives the constant need for sequels. Many in the SFF community are also gamers, who've created these fictional but safe – though real on an emotional and psychological level - relationships via role-playing games, so their writing (you know, those 400,000 word doorstops that drive fear and loathing into the hearts of agents and editors) reflects that level of obsession. Writers, who have grown up nurtured by these long-term relationships with book characters, continue to create those kind of relationships in the characters they write. It's part of their entire psychological, spiritual, and emotional definition of relationships: fictional characters. There are even studies into fandom's mourning rituals for characters who die.
Sometimes, you just can't help the fact that your writing will have sequels; you just have that relationship with some characters. What can help is to look at other potential fictional relationships. Have you ever had that one person who came into your life, changed you at soul level (for better or for worse), and left? What about some of those work colleagues or bar buddies or casual friends? Treasure the relationships you have with your ongoing character(s), but even in real life, utter devotion to a person or small group – to the extent of excluding others – is unhealthy. Search out and discover other relationships you can have with characters that let you work in a variety of media: short story, stand alone novel, poem. Unless one of my short stories is tied into a novel, most of my relationships with those characters don't have deep character sheets or workbooks or bibles. They're my casual acquaintances, work friends, and coffee-shop buddies (I'm not too much of a barfly).
When you have a work interview, you don't focus on the deep intricacies of your love life, right? (Please, say you don't.) Or how, exactly, you expect each and every one of your children, pets, siblings, and spouses will live their whole entire lives? You might share a single story to show who you are and why you're best for the job--that doesn't require the interviewer to know you crashed your (then-future) husband's Rocky Horror Picture Show party, started dating over a 4-hour long staring contest, which 8 months later, resulted in a proposal with a rubber chicken, and let me tell you about the sex! (Again, you don't do this, right? Right?) Your interview anecdotes should still reveal your passion, but they should suit the situation. Your first novel (that you send to an agent or editor) should also be able to stand alone; it shouldn't require sequels and prequels (though they may exist). Make it as amazing as you would want to present yourself in an interview, but just like you wouldn't expect your potential boss tie her/himself to your entire life in one sitting, don't expect that of your agent or editor.
As you're writing, absolutely cultivate your relationships with your characters – all kinds of relationships! Know their whole life stories and sequels, even if all the details won't ever make it to the most final sequel ever. If have a passionate relationship with your characters, others will want to, also. (And it's not even cheating!) When you're querying, however, remember it's for a job and present your relationships accordingly – professionally.
You want a sequel to that book contract, too, right?