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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Middle Books (and why they sometimes annoy me)

Last week I reviewed Linger - the second in The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy.  Several months ago I reviewed Captivate - the sequel to Need.  And late last week I finished reading The Broken Lake, second in The Pace series.  All of these seconds followed first books that I loved.  LOVED!!  And all of these sequels let me down.
But I don't think it was because my expectations were too high.  You saw me rave about The Soul Screamers series, and not a one of those books suffered from "middle book syndrome" - I think I just made that term up.  (Ok, quick google search reveals I am not the first to recognize this problem.)

Which got me thinking, what really is my problem with these books?  Why did I keep flipping the pages waiting for something to freaking happen already?

The answer: Because nothing happens in them until the very end.  I loved Need, and Shiver, and The Pace because in each of them, you have this fierce, forbidden, impossible love and insurmountable odds.  Then you top it all off with a crisis.  But in book two, the author gives us all the gushy lovey-dovey stuff we hoped for for the characters in book one, but it just doesn't make for very interesting reading.  When everyone's happy, it's kind of boring actually.  Now, in all of them, you the reader are waiting for the hammer to drop, which is a little suspenseful, but not enough.  At least not enough for me.

So that realization made me think some more: as an author, how can I be sure I don't write a book that suffers from middle book syndrome (if, praise Jesus, I ever have a first book)? IMO, there are two ways to do this, but only one way to do it well - anymore.

The first way is to have the romance fall apart as soon as it gets started.  That's what made New Moon so damn agonizing, right?  (I confess, I almost burst into tears in the grocery store when I took a break from this book to pick up some food. How could Edward do that to Bella??) But I now exclude this as a way to inject action into middle books because everyone will say it's an obvious Twilight comparison.  Don't do that to yourself.

Which brings us to method two: actually write some action.  I know, it's a shocking idea.  That Boy and Girl have overcome impossible odds to be together and now something else crappy happens.  But it's going to happen in book 3, right?  Crappy is coming.  Crappy is what makes us turn the page to see how the problem gets resolved. Don't write a whole freakin' book of perpetual love scenes.  It's like book two is nothing but an overly-long (and largely unnecessary) bridge to book three.  Great - your characters are happy and in love and they're singing from the rooftops.  I'm snoring.

Well, this turned out to be more of a rant than I perhaps intended.  And of course, I'm certainly not the guru of publishing (seeing as how I've yet to catch the view from the published side of the industry).  But come on, there's got to be someone else who feels this way, right?

Oh, and any other tips I missed for overcoming the dreaded MBS (it's a syndrome now, so it should get a medical-like abbreviation)?


Heather Howland said...

I feel the SAME WAY!! The only second book I liked as much as the first is CATCHING FIRE. If we look at how Suzanne Collins pulled that off, she used unexpected action (and a lot of it) and a whole slew of new challenges to keep the book going. I wish I'd have liked MOCKINGJAY near as much (this is a different post... sigh), but I think CATCHING FIRE is a great example of how to keep a series fresh in its second book. No one expected what happened. I think that's key.

Jessie said...

Great insight Heather. Keeping the reader on their toes - no matter how it's done - is important.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I read someplace that the best storylines always have one of two things in them: Self-sacrifice or Forgiveness. So my theory is that the first book should emphasize one and the second should have the other. Of course the reasons for either had better be really good. But what to do with book 3 besides tie up the story?

Jessie said...

@Carolyn - interesting theory & question. I would wager that all high-stakes YA (meaning not literary) has an element of self-sacrifice in it... MCs willing to put themselves at risk somehow to save someone/something/the world, etc. For me, I enjoy seeing this different adventure in every book. Book 3, IMO, also has to have a compelling and dramatic story line and not just be a wrap up. I think if any of the books I mentioned above were 3d books instead of 2ds, I'd be really mad at the author.

Beth said...

I like this post because I think a lot of middle books do feel like fillers, but I'm surprised you enjoyed New Moon! That one is my least favorite middle book of all. I only read the last 50 pages though I've read the rest of the servies one million times! Haha. Shows how subjective writing is!

Jessie said...

@Beth - I didn't necessarily "like" New Moon - it was my least favorite of the series, actually, because I'm so Team Edward - but things happened in it. For me, I was never bored. Depressed, anxious, worried, but not bored. But you're right, writing is SO subjective!!

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