Welcome to March of the Sequels, Dan.
First of all tell me a little about your series and introduce us to the sequel.
I have two series, the Maer Cycle trilogy and the Weirdwater Confluence duology.
The Maer Cycle starts with Hollow Road, a twist on the classic save-the-village-from-monsters trope. It’s the story of three childhood friends hired to take the body of an old friend back home for burial, with rumors of hairy man-beasts called the Maer roaming the hills. It’s a bit like a D&D adventure gone sideways, where the enemy is not quite what you thought, and there are larger forces at work.
In the sequel, The Archive, humans and Maer join together in a quest for a fabled lost library, and great love and tragedy ensue. It’s a book with thirteen total POVs, though not all at the same time, and it includes nonflying feathered dragons, as well as a fair amount of action, sex, and scholarship.
My Weirdwater Confluence duology starts with The Living Waters, the story of two painted-faced nobles who take a guided raft trip and discover mysterious swirls in the water and other wonders. It centers around humans’ relationship with nature, and with hidden worlds, both exterior and interior. Along the way, they meet an alchemist named Patia, a minor side character, who ends up being one of the main characters in the next book.
The sequel, The Isle of a Thousand Worlds, is comprised of two convergent stories.
Patia is an aging alchemist who finds love as she searches for the key to the Universal Tincture said to allow direct access to the thousand worlds of the mind.
Gilea is a meditation acolyte exploring the mystical social media known as the Caravan, while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship that developed in the first book.
It is the story of the confluence of the physical and the metaphysical, with alchemy, spicy sex scenes, meditative mindshares, and a semi-feral pet otter named Vera.
Do you find that most of your readers continue to read the whole series? Why do you think that is?
With the Maer Cycle, some did not continue, though most who did were very positive about the second and third books. Part of it, to be frank, is that while Hollow Road is a good book, it was my first, and while it has that debut energy, I’m sure there are things I could have done better. The Archive is a much more coherent story and by all accounts a much better book overall, but I can understand someone reading the first and thinking, yeah, that was fun, but I’ll try something else next. After all, there are just so many good books and series out there, and I must admit I am not always eager to continue in a series unless the first book absolutely blows me away.
It’s early days for the Weirdwater Confluence, but I hope to get more read-through, in part because The Living Waters is a much stronger book than Hollow Road (which I do love dearly, to be clear). And it has what I hope is a really good hook in the end; while the main arcs are closed, a new one is opened that I think will pull in some readers, especially knowing it’s just one more book, so not as much of a commitment. But also, I am a bit more established as a writer, more of a known quantity, and readers are more likely to invest their time and money into someone they feel has some kind of track record. I do have some concerns, knowing that The Isle of a Thousand Worlds is spicy, while The Living Waters is not, so I expect to lose a few readers who are not into that, but I hope most people who liked the first book will continue, and perhaps some will pick it up on its own.
Is it easier to further develop characters you’ve already written in book one?
So much easier. You ever notice how many TV shows really seem to gel in the second season? Lines of dialogue, throwaway gestures, and other little details can have so much more weight because of the history of the characters together. It’s never easy, but you can do subtle things in a book 2 that you can’t in a book 1, because the readers already know the history, and you can play off that knowledge.
How difficult is it to add new characters in a sequel into already established relationships?
My strategy in both cases has been to take side characters from the first book and make them main characters in the second. The Maer introduced in Hollow Road become some of the main characters in The Archive, along with the three human mains of the first book.
The two main characters in The Isle of a Thousand Worlds both appeared in The Living Waters, though Gilea was a main and Patia was a side character.
I will say I had a lot more work building Patia’s character, and she went through several iterations until the final version, but that’s less related to the function of her being new than the fact that she’s just different from the characters I’ve written before—she’s older, and a little rougher around the edges, which made her fun to write, but it was a hard balance to strike. I knew that she was a free spirit, and I quickly discovered that she has a strong lusty streak, but in earlier drafts she was unbalanced. Luckily, I had some amazing beta readers, and my fantastic editors at Shadow Spark, who helped me find the weak spots and point me in the right direction. I love the way she ended up—plenty of edge, but not all edge, as she was in earlier drafts.
Is it difficult to continue with worldbuilding for a world you have already built in book 1? Do you find it easier to switch locations for the sequel and start again with worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding for a second book is a bit different. In book 1, you can throw out fun little random tidbits here and there as you go, but as a series progresses, you have to make everything make sense as a whole. In both series, I kept the main world but explored a different corner of it.
Hollow Road takes place mainly in the human world, whereas The Archive takes place mostly among the Maer. So in a sense, I was taking the smaller pieces of Maer worldbuilding from the first book and going all out, which was fun, but also a bit of a challenge!
The Weirdwater Confluence as a whole is in some ways a sequel to the Maer Cycle, in that it takes place in the same continent, but in a different part of it (the supposedly barbaric South) so it feels like a totally new world. I wanted readers who started with The Living Waters not to feel like they needed to read anything that came before to understand it, but there are little tips of the hat to those who have read the Maer Cycle. And while the first book takes place mostly in natural spaces along the muddy Agra River, The Isle of a Thousand Worlds is set in the port city of Rontaia and the holy meditation city of Endulai, which are mentioned in the first book but not shown in detail. I was in essence building two new worlds, or microcosms within the already established world, which was fun, but not exactly easy.
Have you ever been stymied by a worldbuilding or plot detail from book 1 that is very inconvenient to deal with or write your way around in subsequent books?
Yes! But I decided to turn it into an opportunity. I created this enemy in Hollow Road called the Ka-lar, a creepy undead thing, like a king from long ago, with a little lore built in, and I decided to make them a key feature of the trilogy (one is even the point of view antagonist in the third book, The Place Below). But one thing didn’t sit right with me—why was the Ka-lar in Hollow Road so monstrous, and so cruel? Why did it tease its victims before killing them? So I had to figure out why, and build that into the second and third books. I won’t spoil the details here, but by the end of The Place Below, I think the mystery of the Ka-lar is pretty satisfyingly resolved, and my next trilogy (The Time Before) will have some good origin stuff built in, including further insight into the original Ka-lar from Hollow Road.
Did you notice your craft improving from book 1 to subsequent books in a series, and if so, how?
In the Maer Cycle, definitely. Hollow Road was my first published book, and I learned a LOT about craft as I wrote. As I got into the 2nd and 3rd books, I had a much clearer grasp on narrative arcs, on my strengths and weaknesses, and a lot of other things.
I also grew more comfortable writing sex scenes as I progressed; there is one fade to black scene in Hollow Road, but The Archive has a few spicy bits, among them a mystical surrogacy scene. And while they are not super explicit, they are definitely a big step up, and I hope all my hard work pays off for the readers.
Though neither The Place Below nor The Living Waters has any explicit material, I’ve taken those lessons even further in The Isle of a Thousand Worlds, which I hope will appeal to readers who want to see an older couple who can be sweet and loving but also hot and spicy, because to be honest we don’t see that portrayed in media enough.
Do you plan out the entire series at once or one book at a time?
I am a pantser, meaning I write without much of a plan other than vibes, and maybe a couple scenes I imagine near the climax of the book. I do occasional outlines when I get stuck, but they never last long. I just put my fingers to the keys and let the story play out as it will. The same goes for series. I might have some ideas about larger arcs and moods, but until the characters get on the page and start doing stuff, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I had literally no idea The Isle of a Thousand Worlds was going to be as spicy as it is. But Patia taught me quickly what she wanted, and who was I to argue?
Do you try to make sequels readable as standalones or do you design a series so that readers have to read the whole thing?
I do now, after seeing that I didn’t get the read-through I hoped for with the Maer Cycle! The Isle of a Thousand Worlds would be pretty good as a standalone, and my next trilogy will be three completely independent books with some strong links and shared characters between them. You could literally read the third book in the next trilogy (The Time Before), which will be the last book in the larger Copper Circle (8 books including the Maer Cycle, the Weirdwater Confluence, and the Time Before), without having read anything else, and not feel like you were missing too much context.
I say this without having written it yet, as I’m still drafting the first one, but that is my plan and I’m 100% sticking to it. Hopefully people will read them all, but maybe someone will try that last book and decide to go dabble in the other books or the other series. Not all series can work that way, but I’m always looking to try something new. That’s why each series is different in tone, none of them require you to read the others, but if you like one, there’s a pretty good chance you’d like them all. I learned my lesson from my debut trilogy.
Which, by the way, people should definitely check out. 300 pages per book, and there’s an omnibus containing the entire Maer Cycle, plus bonus art and short stories. It hits a lot of the classic fantasy vibes, but with some interesting twists on familiar tropes.
Do you have any marketing tips for sequels?
Invest in the first book. Make it as good as it can possibly be. Market the shit out of it. Bundle it, give it away, send out review copies, buy ads, whatever you can do. If you do a good enough job on the first book, the sequels will sell. I’m not saying don’t market the sequel, just make sure you’ve done a good job getting the first book as far and wide as you can. If you have money to spend, spend most of it there.
And if you’re a new author, maybe think twice about starting a nine book series, because you could end up with decreasing readership as you go. Build in multiple entry points into your writing if you can, because your first book, your first series, will soon be your back catalog, and readers who fall in love with your fifth or tenth book will go back and start reading there. That’s the dream, at least.
Thank you for joining me for March of the Sequels today! Good Luck with all your books!
About the Author
Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.
He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.
Find Dan here: