Posted on March 25, 2016
Why do people read series? Probably not because nothing of consequence happened in the first book.
I love a good series. I don’t love a bad set-up.
There is this wonderful piece of advice that agents float around on their blogs or other social media homes: when pitching a novel that you envision as the start of a series (or as having series potential), please make sure that the first book stands on its own. There’s never any guarantee a series will happen, or maybe the series itself isn’t really necessary. Also, and most importantly, the first book in a series should feel complete.
I read probably a half-dozen MG and YA Book Ones over the last few months. Almost all of them were new, or their sequels were not yet out. And almost all of them were horrible examples of what a first book should be like.
Without fail (or, alternately, with a lot of fail), they were almost entirely set-up for the next book. Some were beautifully written, or funny, or had some good concepts, but they wrapped up maybe one plot point, and it often wasn’t even the major one. Most of the real development went towards something that never even happened. More infuriatingly, they posed tons of questions and hints and declarations that were not answered. Not even a resolution that we later find out (say, in book two) is false.
Like, think about this. What if the first Harry Potter book went along as follows:
Harry Potter weirds-out his aunt and uncle and schoolmates with his strange, unexplained abilities all summer long. He feels like he is destined for more and doesn’t fit in. Then, on his eleventh birthday, Hagrid shows up and the Dursleys imply that they know more than they are telling. Then the novel ends.
I mean, that’s essentially the structure of these books I have been reading. Had the first HP book been an example of it, you would never learn Harry was a wizard. You would never get to Hogwarts. The only thing “wrapped up” would be the idea that Harry is, in fact, extraordinary in some way. But the mystery would continue into book two, where the reveal would actually happen.
Instead of getting to the meat of the series (that is, Harry joining the magical world and learning about Voldemort), you’re focused on his plight while he’s still in the dark. There’s no momentum. No tension. Just a bunch of hints and allusions.
Book one, in no way, would stand on its own. It would be half a meal. Half a pair of pants. Half a car. Sure, it would do some of its job, but it wouldn’t fulfill its potential and it might be unbalanced and annoying.
Each book needs its A Plot. That plot needs to be wrapped up in some way. Sure, we knew Voldemort was probably not going away after his second defeat, but he had been defeated. Dumbledore gave an explanation as to how Harry survived the original attack, and though we later learn how much more to the story there is, at the time it seems serviceable. The school year ends. The biggest and most emphasized mysteries in the novel are dealt with. Only later in the series are there more loose threads.
I do not want to have to read the next book because the first book didn’t give me essential information. I want to read the next book to see what happens next.