How to — possibly — torpedo one’s own career in epic fantasy.

OK, I told myself I wasn’t going to use the AWESOMA POWAH of being a guestblogger at Whatever to promote myself. And I’m not! Really! But the mandate I got from John was to write about whatever I felt like writing about, and, well, if there’s one thing pro writers like to write about, it’s angst over The State of The Career. So.

The title of this post is an hyperbole. As n00b fantasy writers go, I’m doing pretty well — my sales are decent, I’ve gotten great reviews from all the major sites, and best of all, no one has come at me with a broken bottle at a convention or reading! (Seriously, ya’ll, I had a nightmare about that once.) But since book 2 of my Inheritance Trilogy* is going to be coming out in a couple of months, I’ve reached a new milestone in my development as a Jane Schmoe Neopro (gender-switching Tobias Buckell’s term, which he used for a great series of articles on being a new published writer). Namely, I’m having Secondbookophobia.

Secondbookophobia occurs when you’re a new author whose second book is about to come out. And of course, having heard all about the dreaded Second Book Syndrome — in which an author’s sophomore outing suffers from the pressure of deadlines and/or the need to save the best stuff for the third book of a trilogy — I’m terrified. Not because I think my second book falls prey to SBS; far from it. Beyond the fact that I worked my butt off to make it good, the Inheritance Trilogy isn’t one story; it’s actually three. Each book has a different protagonist, and each is pretty much complete in itself. The plot of book 2 has been firmly lodged in my head for years; I had plenty of time to write it. So the structure of the trilogy itself works in my favor here.

But this series structure, already a bit unusual for epic fantasy, is part of why I’m anxious, because I’m actually doing something more. See, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, book 1, was firmly epic fantasy. I’ve seen some readers quibble about this because it didn’t involve a quest, didn’t include a map, and didn’t have a male protagonist (seriously). But regardless of whether I followed the conventions of the genre, I designed the series to quite literally emulate an epic, modeling its cosmology after the operatic (and soap operatic) shenanigans of the Egyptian pantheon, the legendary bromance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and so on. However, book 2 of the trilogy — while still sticking to the epic framework in most respects — is also very much an urban fantasy. It’s not just about the characters, but also about the city in which most of the story takes place.

In other words, I’m kinda… changing genres in the middle of a trilogy. Everybody freak out!

…Okay, gratuitous disco, sorry, couldn’t help myself. I’m having a moment, okay?

Here’s the thing. New authors are supposed to try and build an audience as soon as humanly possible, because it’s a lot easier to sell books when you’re a known than as an unknown, obviously. This is one reason why so many debut authors come out of the gate with trilogies — because a trilogy is a great way to build a new author’s audience quickly. Most trilogies are a single story stretched over three books, which makes it easy to hook the readers with the first book, as the conventional wisdom goes, keep them dangling with the second, and reel them in with the finale. But my Inheritance Trilogy is essentially three standalone books, so I’m trying to hook/dangle people without the aid of unresolved plot drama. And by changing genres midstream, it’s a given: I’m going to lose some readers. Will I gain enough new ones to make up the difference? I don’t know. But now you know the reason for my Secondbookophobia.

There’s no solution for this but to wait and see, of course. Book 3 is done and turned in, and I’m actually hard at work on a new project — more on this later — so I’m not exactly sitting around crying into my pear cider** about it. Just thought you guys might appreciate seeing what goes through the mind of a pro writer at times like this.

In the meantime — because okay, maybe I’ll do a leeeeetle promotion, just this once — I’ve posted the first chapter of The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance Trilogy book 2) over at my website, for those who’d like to check it out. (Chapters 2 and 3 will be posted later.) And maybe you might want to preorder it. Or check out the first book, if you missed it, which just came out in audiobook format today. Or, y’know, something.

* Yes, yes, I know it’s the same name as Paolini’s once-trilogy-now-Cycle. No, really, no one’s ever pointed that out to me before. There are neither dragons nor farmboys in mine.

**I’m not usually one for product placement, but I tried one of these for the first time a few days ago, and it was magnificent. Light, crisp, and aromatic; highly recommended.

About nkjemisin

Speculative fiction author in NYC. Likes fine wine, video games, jazz, anime/manga/doujinshi, gardening, travel, nonwestern mythology, and books. Lots and lots of books. And chocolate. (Wow, can't believe I almost forgot that one. That was important.)

35 thoughts on “How to — possibly — torpedo one’s own career in epic fantasy.

  1. nkjemison@0: “New authors are supposed to try and build an audience as soon as humanly possible…”

    From a business standpoint, sure. But which has a higher priority, your business sense or your artistic sense? I’m guessing the latter, and props to you for standing up to “the Man” and writing what you wanted to write.

    Besides, “well-behaved women seldom make history.” (grin)

  2. My wife and I both love perry (hard pear cider) and yet have never met anyone who drinks it unless it was someone we introduced to it. For awhile we thought it was a very local thing, but then we noticed how many brands came from Vermont (we are in IL). We’ve not try Doc’s before, we’ll have to see if the local store carries it.

    And since our surprise at finding an author who appears to share our fondness for an obscure beverage probably doesn’t help your secondbookophobia, I should mention that we plan on buying The Broken Kingdoms when it arrives at bookstores.

  3. pear cider: Kopparberg FTW.

    i’m sorry that people felt you had to have a male protagonist (wtf?), but some of us prefer urban fantasy to straight-up epic fantasy, so hopefully you will gain readers.

    good luck! (having my own just-sent-first-query-letter jitters, so i feel similarly crazy, if it’s any comfort.)

  4. I for one am not at all worried about you switching genres mid-trilogy. In fact, I’m kind of excited about it. I recently read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (LOVED it, absolutely loved it) so I’m buying The Broken Kingdoms as soon as it’s in stores (though I might have to get it specially shipped over from the US, since I’m in Denmark). Personally, I really like the idea of a three-book series that is both a trilogy AND three stand-alone books. Kudos to you for doing your thing! I’m excited about reading it all.

    And I’m totally getting pear cider next time I need an interesting alcoholic drink. For tipsy dramatic author evenings. Or, y’know, just sunny September afternoons…

  5. Second keeping up with the non-tradition. My 12yo daughter loves to read fantasy and specifically looks for female protagonists. I have read (and enjoyed) many books I otherwise probably would not have screening stuff for her.

    Her major disappointment this new TV season is that “Legend of the Seeker” was not picked up for a third season, but she has consoled herself with the books and now watching “Merlin” – to catch Gwen.

    And yes, I read your first and am looking forward to #2.

  6. For what it’s worth:
    I’m in the middle of reading the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms right now, and I really like it so far. I’d be happy to buy book 2 based on the strength of your writing, regardless of whether it has More Of The Same ™ in it.

  7. Dave @1,

    Well, I wouldn’t call it “standing up to The Man”, since The Man (or The Woman, in the case of my Orbit editor) bought the trilogy knowing that books 2 and 3 would be distinct stories. That’s actually pretty obvious from the ending of book 1, which wraps things up solidly. But that’s one of the reasons I like Orbit; they’re a new-old publisher (old in Europe, new here in the US), and they’re a little avant garde by industry standards.

  8. Matt and Alia,

    I’d never even heard of pear cider, but last week went to dinner at this place (also recommended, if you’re ever Brooklynside), which prides itself on selling only locally-grown/produced stuff. Doc’s is a NY state company. But now that I’ve discovered the delights of pear cider, I’m definitely on the lookout for new recs in this area, and will keep an eye out for both Perry and Kopparberg. Thanks!

  9. Keep Calm and Carry On.

    I can sympathize with how you feel. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to write as my first book. I love both fantasy and sci-fi, and love to be able to switch back and forth between both like L.E. Modesitt Jr.

    All the sci-fi ideas I have are one book concepts, while I have an idea for a fantasy series that could go on for a few books. So far the plan is to start on the sci-fi and put the fantasy off for now (want to do more research before I tackle the big project, and it’s probably better I start small on my first attempt to write a novel).

    Right now I’m wishing you all the luck and good fortune possible. May sales of your second book outstrip sales of your first!

    BTW, any plans to attend World Fantasy Con when it comes up to Toronto, or is that too far into the future to plan for?

  10. Leah @ 4, if it helps, THE BROKEN KINGDOMS will also be coming out in the UK on November 2; Orbit being a bicoastal company, it does launches on both shores simultaneously. So if it’s cheaper for you to get it from there, maybe you could try that. The US and UK versions are slightly different (size, glossy vs matte cover, stuff like that), and the US version will definitely include a teaser from book 3, whereas I’m not sure the UK version will (as with the first book). Just to help you decide.

  11. K. W. @9,

    Is it definite that it will be in Toronto, now? Last I heard that was iffy. If it’s in Toronto, I’m so there. I love that city, and have friends there that I’m overdue to annoy.

  12. I haven’t read Hundred-K Kingdoms yet (it’s on my reading list, honest, but I’m a jerk who reads things in the order in which they entered the list, the list is very long at the moment, and until I get done with this evening school gig, I’ve barely any reading time so the list is growing faster than it’s shrinking) but I definitely wish you luck with Broken Kingdoms. I’m curious to see how you weave a unified trilogy out of three distinct and separate stories. I assume they all take place in the same world?

  13. In case anyone is on the bubble about picking up a copy of The Broken Kingdoms: it’s awesome. I read it yesterday and LOVED IT. I think I might love it more than the first book, actually.

  14. All I know is every time I hear you talk about the second book, I get more interested in it.

    As for perry, I know of a beer festival (NERAX) that usually includes a couple of English apple ciders. I don’t know if we’ve ever offered pear ciders.

  15. I was gonna buy it anyway but the legendary bromance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu sealed the deal.

    I’m now going to track down my former college professors and ask them how to say “I love you, man” in Akkadian.

  16. I confess to disliking trilogies — mean, why can’t the story just be told in one book? So I applaud having three independent stories that fit together. Why don’t you call it a series — or does that make you persona non-grata in the the epic fantasy field?

  17. There is nothing wrong with you using whatever or any blog to promote your career.

    you are a businessman and this is part of your job.

  18. Can you blog about the following (ok you will hate it since it has self promotion and that is just awful)

    1. What types of discussions did you have with your editor, agent, and alpha readers about your stylistic change between books?

    2. How did you talk your editor and agent into letting you have the same series title as Paolini? I would thank they would not like that.

    3. What types of discussions did you have with your editor, agent, and alpha readers about making each book in your series stand alone as opposed to one big story?

    This would be a very interesting blog.

  19. Stephen @ 13,

    Yes, same world, different points in time, all affected by the same overarching event. This event continues to echo through all three books, and is the sole plot thread that remains unresolved (until book 3!). Aside from that, though, the second book takes place 10 years after the first, and the second takes place 100 after. Both followups contain only a few of the same characters as the first book. (There are some gods involved.)

  20. mythago @16,

    When I first read the epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, I kept wondering why people called them friends. It seemed blatantly obvious to me that they were lovers. I guess it could be read either way, and it works either way; a beautiful relationship regardless. The word “bromance” is perfect for it.

  21. Alice B @17,

    Because “trilogy” is easier to market than “series”, I guess. “Series” sounds open-ended; could continue on forever, as long as the author feels like writing more books. Not many people would be willing to invest in that unless it’s something they already love. “Trilogy” sounds short and sweet — worth the time it takes to invest in the story, but with definitive closure coming soon.

    Of course, that usage originated before “trilogies” that ran to 27 books and counting…

  22. Guess @ 19,

    I can answer your questions here, since the answers are pretty straightforward:

    1) I told them I’d be changing the style between books. They said “huh, interesting, go write it and we’ll see how it turns out.” I did, and they liked it. That was kinda it.

    2) The series title actually wasn’t my choice. :) Neither were the titles of the books, for that matter, though I’m very happy with the titles Orbit chose.

    3) I told them, “These books will be more-or-less standalone.” They said, “Huh, interesting, go write it and we’ll see how it turns out.” :)

    Seriously, these days I’m not sure whether authors really plan out their books to a great degree with editors anymore. From what I’ve observed, most authors just write what they want to write — though they do keep an eye on trends and standards within the field. And editors simply decide whether they want to buy it or not. So there’s not a whole lot of discussion; it all comes down to “we like this” or “we don’t.” At least, that’s been my experience thus far (remember I’m a newbie).

  23. I really hope that it works out. From what I’ve seen from most sequels / followups, they don’t succeed very well if they’re just carbon copies of the first entry, but a different take with the same environment and characters.

  24. I think that there is a strong crossover among the people who like to read epic fantasies with female heroes and the people who like to read urban fantasy.

    Not to dismiss your jitters, because I honor your experience (and have yet to publish any series fiction under my own name or with my own characters myself), but I am predicting you will continue to find a devoted readership with Book Two.

  25. Thanks for the answer to my question. Although 100K was already on my reading list, this concept of three seperate stories all impacted by the same overarching event sounds intriguing. I shall look forward to reading these.

  26. One of the things we talked a bit about on io9 when they announced The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a bookclub book is that people are reluctant to get into trilogies until all volumes are published. I flitted around telling everyone that the first book was very self-contained, and it was perfectly readable as a standalone – but also that I wasn’t sure where it could go, sequel-wise, because it was so well wrapped up. Good to know I was extra right!

    Also, I love this concept. I feel like we’ve kind of worn out the three-book story arc. I’m also a little tired of the endless one-character-centric fantasies, too. We’re definitely overdue for a new way to structure our fantasy and science fiction. This sounds like it could be it. I’m excited about this.

  27. The combined history of fantasy and the scope of fantasy fiction is so large now that some people really don’t understand that the small slice of fantasy with which they’re familiar is not all the world. It is not unusual for an alternate world fantasy trilogy or other fantasy trilogy to have different protagonists and not be only chapters in one big story. It is not unusual for the protagonist to be female. It is not unusual for a story set in an alternate world to take place in a city. (Indeed, the city assassin/thief/city watch novel is so common that Terry Pratchett has been successfully satirizing it for decades.) It is not unusual for an alternate world fantasy novel to be a quest with one group instead of a war novel with multiple groups and it is not unusual for an alternate world fantasy novel to be a war story with multiple groups instead of a quest story with one group and a map. It is not unusual for an alternate world fantasy story to be a mystery novel. And so on and so forth.

    So even though there may be a few fantasy fans with very rigid notions of what authors are supposed to put into books who may not be so jazzed about your second work, there are thousands of potential fans, some who’ve read the first book, some who may not have, who will have no trouble with it at all. Indeed, as some have mentioned, there is a contingent of fans who are quite vocal in their preference now for A) series that are finished; and B) series that are not interconnected and form a never ending story. So they’re going to love you, or at least will when you’ve got Book #3 done.

    I think it is highly unlikely that there is torpedoing in your future career.

  28. Guess: “Why would your publisher pick a series title that is the same as Paolini books?”

    Because fantasy titles tend to get recycled and because Paolini’s trilogy is YA, a sort of different market, and was put out several years ago. It may have been that Orbit hadn’t immediately realized they’d done it and then felt it was too late to change. But it’s not a real calamity, since the booksellers go by book titles, not series titles ,(and are also used to books having the same or similar titles.)

  29. Guess @30,

    “The Inheritance Trilogy” was actually used before Paolini’s books. It was the name of an older science fiction series by Ian Douglas, and also a 1980s mystery series. Like Kat said, titles (of books and series) get recycled all the time.

  30. I’ve gotta say, this actually makes me even more excited for Book 2. I adored 100K because as much as I love epic fantasy, I’m pretty much over the “farmboy goes on a quest, gathers a Scooby gang, learns to control his mysterious powers” standards. I loved that 100K wasn’t traditional in that way (and *really* loved that it had a female protag!). That said, I prefer epic fantasy to urban fantasy, and I’m really psyched to see how you’ll merge the two for this.

  31. Thanks for your responses. Your blog posts are getting me interested in your books. I know you don’t want that so I may have to restrain myself. :P

  32. books look pretty cool and will pick them up…but as a reader – based on the write ups on b&n…i would not classify the 2nd book as urban.

    for me as a reader – if you say you are jumping genre’s – say from fantasy to urban fantasy (which to me are 2 distinct genre’s)….but i dont see that in the descriptions i read on the site. i think you you safe.

    i will say for me i love serial books…i read fast and a LOT….# one reason i like serials – i get to keep reading about my fav characters….writers out there take note! give me more.

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