QOTW: Wrapping up Manuscripts

17 Dec

This question came to us via email from Ashley Rhone:

This question has been bothering me for some time now: is it necessary to write my the first book in a series as a standalone? Or can I leave a few strings untied, or even perhaps end the first book on a cliff hanger of sorts?

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This question is a great one because I learned the answer the hard way!  I think most of us would love the chance to see our first novel expanded into a series, and for some very fortunate writers, that’s exactly what happens.  That said, an agent will tell you that it is important that your first novel be able to stand alone, which means it must include a satisfying ending.  Early drafts of FIREFLY left many loose ends (just ask Savannah and Kat, who both read and gave me comments!) and it was very difficult for me to understand why those questions left in the readers’ minds mattered so much.  I wanted to believe that, even if there would never be a second book, the questions were just part of a somewhat mysterious ending.  What I came to understand was that it wasn’t so much about killing all the mystery; it was more about a sense of satisfaction after reading that last page.  You can shake up your readers’ contentment with the ending in Chapter One of Book Two, but your readers need a sense of resolution at the end of  each book.

Julie Eshbaugh

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Julie is exactly right. Readers have to come away from your book ‘satisfied’ that the story drew to a successful end, otherwise they will develop negative feelings about your book, which may impact your readership in the future. Consider M. Night Shyamalan. Man, I like his stories, but I HATE his endings (except for Devil, which I saw recently and really enjoyed!). Endings are very important in wrapping up the reader’s expectations. They invested time and energy into your book, expecting to be rewarded at the end. When there’s no reward, or only a partial reward, they feel cheated.

Agents and editors know this, and that’s why they prefer as many loose ends as possible to be tied up. Given the current economy, fewer trilogy sales are going on right now… many prefer to sell the first book and see how it does before authorizing the second. Therefore, you might only get ONE chance to tell your story, so you need to give it a one-story ending.

-Savannah J. Foley

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I’m gonna have to agree with Julie & Sav on this.  The book needs to be able to stand alone, meaning it needs to end on a satisfying note, track a full character-arc, full plot (with resolution!), and wrap up most loose ends.

That said, The Spirit-Hunters was written as the first book in a trilogy, and I queried it saying, “Though this is the first book in a trilogy, it can stand alone.”  Why did I say that?  Because it can stand alone.  The MC grew into a new, tougher person by the end; the main plot goal of book 1 was answered and resolved; and all but 2 subplots were wrapped up.  There were loose ends at then end of book 1, but they were “minimal”: the introduction of a new villain and an intentional non-resolution of the romance — they were aspects that I could remove if I needed to make the book 100% stand alone (and not part of a trilogy).

Like Julie said: meeting the reader expectations is very important in any novel, but especially your first.  Some series can get away with crazy non-conclusions (::cough, cough:: George R. R. Martin), but not most of us!!

-Susan Dennard

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12 Responses to “QOTW: Wrapping up Manuscripts”

  1. Ashley December 17, 2010 at 11:59 AM #

    Thank you ladies for answering my question, you all are beyond awesome!
    (Oopsies, my last name is spelled R-h-o-n-e, but no matter, you guys are still great:)).

    • savannahjfoley December 17, 2010 at 12:02 PM #

      Got that fixed, sorry!

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 17, 2010 at 12:30 PM #

      Ashley, thanks for such a great question! Wrapping up a novel is one of the toughest things I’ve had to learn to do. I hope our answers provide some help to you! 🙂

    • sdennard December 17, 2010 at 12:30 PM #

      YOU’RE SUPER WELCOME, ASHLEY! I hope it helped…

  2. Rowenna December 17, 2010 at 12:36 PM #

    Awesome post–nothing is more disappointing than an empty ending. A “lady or the tiger” ending where the effect is deliberate is one thing, but a “huh?” or “that’s it?” ending makes me feel cheated as a reader. Thanks for the question and the answers!

    • sdennard December 17, 2010 at 1:23 PM #

      I agree, Rowenna! A bad ending makes me not want to read any other books from that author! Not a good way to go… 😀

    • Caitlin December 19, 2010 at 12:10 AM #

      umm… what is a “lady or the tiger” ending?

      also great post ladies, a friend and I (as readers and not aspiring authors) have commented recently how in some popular trilogies we’ve been reading the first book could technically stand alone (but you love the characters/world/writing so much that you keep reading) and then the second book is totally cliffhanger-esque and we’re all “No! I have to wait how long for the next book???”

  3. Ellen December 17, 2010 at 1:49 PM #

    Why is it that the last few posts you guys have had pertain exactly to the book I’m revising? Just lucky I guess. 🙂

    Anyway, this is something I’m definitely going to focus on when I’m revising my ending, because at the moment it reads like you’d go right into book two. (Mine is also the first in a trilogy.)

    Thanks for the tips! I knew the answer to this, but it was still good to see it reinforced.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 17, 2010 at 9:13 PM #

      Glad our posts have been helpful, Ellen! I STILL need to have the rules about endings reinforced. I probably always will! 🙂

  4. Myra December 17, 2010 at 2:38 PM #

    The only thing I dislike more than open endings is an epilogue. Never seen one I liked–so far. I like closure, but wrapping your story up with a neat little bow? Ugh.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 17, 2010 at 9:11 PM #

      Here at LTWF there is a LOT of behind-the-scenes discussion about epilogues… particularly the one at the end of the Harry Potter series… 😉

  5. Tymcon December 18, 2010 at 6:41 PM #

    Lol. Yes definetly George Martin. Although he had a career already. So he has a little bit of leeway:P

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