Middle Book Syndrome

So, I’m currently battling my way through revisions on The Wood Queen.

Not only am I trying to write a sequel – the first time I’ve ever done that – it’s a very specific kind of sequel. It’s a sequel that is more than just ‘Book 2’ of a series: it is, in fact, the middle book of a trilogy. Something about this makes me think longer about each decision I make during this rewrite… It’s basically a lot harder than I thought it would be; and trust me, I thought it would be pretty damn challenging to begin with.

You see, I want to avoid what is known as ‘that Typical Middle Of A Trilogy feel’ – which was brilliantly summed up by Leila at Bookshelves of Doom during a (mostly positive) review for Book 2 of a trilogy, like so:

But it very definitely has that Typical Middle Of A Trilogy feel — less Story For the Sake of Story, more Move Plot and Characters to the Necessary Places for Big Reveal/Final Showdown — which is unfortunate, but, as we all know, not uncommon.

(From this review here.)

I don’t want The Wood Queen to turn into a book that’s all about setting things up for the third and final book. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s what it is so far – I’m pretty certain there’s enough cool stuff happening that will make sure I don’t fall into those potentially tricky-middle-book traps just waiting to trip me up.

Whenever I think of middle books – middle stories – I always end up thinking of a movie. That movie is The Empire Strikes Back. (Why yes, I am about to get my geek on. Please feel free to exit this post now. *g*)

For me, The Empire Strikes Back does everything that a great second act in a trilogy should do. It has all the right ingredients that help it (imho) to avoid Middle Book Syndrome. With that in mind, just what are the awesome ingredients that I need to put into The Wood Queen?

Here’s a handy guide (with thanks to The Empire Strikes Back):

A kick-ass female lead

New enemies

Wise mentors

Charming new characters

Romance!

Cool fights

Betrayal!

Shocking! Truths! Revealed!

The best final scene/image EVER

But above all else, here’s where The Empire Strikes Back achieves greatness in my estimation – it constantly makes things worse than you ever thought they could get. I think that’s the way we should be left at the end of any middle book: shocked and reeling. Sure, there will be a victory of sorts, but there will also be something potentially shattering that still needs to be faced – something that, preferably, comes out of the actions of one of our protagonists. Have I done this to Donna in my Book 2? Oh yeah, I think I have. Poor Donna. 😉

What do you think about Middle Book Syndrome? Are there any great examples of a middle-book-in-a-trilogy that you can think of? My mind keeps wandering to films, but I’m trying to make a list of effective YA books, too. Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Covenant would be one, for sure. And Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes

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20 Responses to Middle Book Syndrome

  1. Tom Clempson says:

    I couldn’t agree more! I too am writing (what I hope will be) part 2 of (hopefully) a trilogy and I too keep mentally referring to The Empire Strikes Back and other such films, moreso than books. I’ve tried to avoid finding the winnig formula from the rare successes but have tried to learn from the multiple mistakes of the endless failures. And that’s the scariest bit – so many sequels are just crap! Or, if not crap, just…bleh. Then I begin to worry that over-thinking the whole thing is where the mistake is made (I definitely never thought this hard about my first book! It came so easily!)

    Books/film sequels that I do admire though, are the ones that don’t try to repeat what happened the first time and just carry on where we left off (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials). The tricky thing I find here though is that (especially with LOTR) the beginning is the end (of book 1) and the end is the beginning (of book 3)! Maybe I should write the story backwards?!?!

    I have to stop thinking about it before I begin to bleed from my eyeballs.

    • Kaz says:

      Over-thinking is such an easy trap to fall into, but I’m totally doing it! You’re not alone.

      Thanks for stopping by and joining me in my angst. Maybe we should start a middle-book-of-a-trilogy support group… 😉

  2. Artemis Grey says:

    This is probably the only thing I fear even more than never getting any of my novels published, getting one published, having people love it, and then having the next one be ‘meh’.

    I think it’s worse because the dystopian YA that I’m querying is a standalone. I wrote it because the protag showed up and slapped me around until I agreed to tell her story. I didn’t write it thinking ‘geez, series are going to be the ‘thing’ and I should try to set up for that since I’m trying to break into the system’. I wrote it like it was, a standalone. And it’s strong that way.

    But now I’m working on what will be a trilogy set in the same dystopian world. And I have another urban fantasy project that is set to be a trilogy. And I’m scared to death of that Middle Book Syndrome. Especially since (unless Evernow sells as a standalone to an agent/publisher) that second book in a series will also be the second one people judge me by. Everyone will be waiting (well, hopefully waiting) to see if that debut author from last year can swing a second book, or if she’s going to fall on her face. Assuming that I do eventually snag an agent, and then a publisher.

    Um, I can’t say much because it hasn’t been released yet, but Janni Lee Simner’s Faerie Winter is a middle book that kicks Middle Book Syndrome’s ass. Just saying.

    • Kaz says:

      Oh, I wish you all the luck in the world with getting your work represented by the Right Agent – I really hope things take off for you!

      Thanks for commenting – I’m glad I’m not alone in my Middle Book Syndrome(tm) angst. Also, thanks for the rec of Janni’s book. I’m assuming that’s the sequel to Bones of Faerie? I loved that!

  3. Empire Strikes Back is definitely my favorite of the Star Wars movies and it does “middle of a trilogy” right. The middle book seems a lot like the middle of a story: can’t slow down, things get worse, and can’t see the way out. I know you’ll do it! Good luck and I can’t wait for THE WOOD QUEEN.

  4. Jodie says:

    Yeah you nailed it, readers should be cursing the author loudly for doing THAT but with a big smile on their face as at the same time, because damn that author is so hardcore – the enjoyment of detsruction and trouble is natural to all fiction readers right? It’s the kind of a special feeling that I associate with big story arcs over whole tv series more than trilogies for some reason. I haven’t read it yet, but I have high hopes Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins will be one of those kind of books.

    • Kaz says:

      Yes! I love that thought: the reader cursing the author for daring to GO THERE.

      I do that, too, as a reader – and I love when that happens. You know… I still haven’t read Rachel H’s first book, but I know lots of people loved it. I hope Demonglass makes you curse extra-loudly. 😉

  5. It’s good you’re thinking about this, though I have every faith in your capability to not only avoid the boggy middle syndrome, but to smash through it with Wonderwoman kickassness!

    (Honestly, though, it’s one of my fears, too, especially since I plan all my manuscripts to be able to stand alone!)

    After glancing around at my bookshelves, I can actually think of some series with non-middlebookish middle books! (Not all of them are urban fantasy, though, sorry!)
    -the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce (The Wild Magic series, too, has good middle books)
    -The Awakening by Kelley Armstrong
    -Darklight by Lesley Livingston
    -I was also going to say Melissa Marr, but the way she handles the middle book thing is very unique (with the two non-Aislinn/Seth stories sandwiching Fragile Eternity) so I wasn’t sure if it applied. But it is awesome!

    I also have just realized I’ve read a lot fewer series/trilogies than I thought I had.

    • Kaz says:

      Aww… you’re so lovely. Thanks for always being supportive. This is very tough, though – whole new set of SKILLZ being learned. 😉

      Thank you for the awesome recs. I haven’t read Darklight yet, so I should get right on that. Also, I forgot about Kelley’s first trilogy – that’s a really good one. I should go back and re-read it; it feels like ages ago that I first read that.

      Trilogies are tricky. There are plenty of series that I can think of, but an actual trilogy is totally different. Well, not totally different, but you know what I mean. 🙂

  6. Kate says:

    I just DIED. AND. WENT. TO. HEAVEN.

    But seriously, I was about to get all pissy and be like “DON’T YOU TALK TRASH ON TESB RIGHT NOW GRRRRL”, but I see you went in a different direction with this. I think you have some good elements listed. You’re missing an ice planet and some taun tauns, but a gal can’t afford to be too picky these days. I do think it’s important to be willing to *go there* — I see that’s been commented on, but I agree. I mean, heart breakage is where it’s at.

    I do think your example of SRB’s Demon’s Covenant as an excellent second book is right on. The commenter who mentioned T. Pierce’s “Alanna” books is right on. I really enjoyed Libba Bray’s “Rebel Angels”, which was a middle-of-a-trilogy book, too. I feel Melissa Marr does her sequels well. I think a lot of the best sequels I have read were, unfortunately, series that were episodic in nature and did not necessarily require one to have read previous novels before reading the next one. Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl come to mind.

    • Kaz says:

      I KNEW YOU’D LOVE THIS. 🙂

      I just don’t think I can put an ice planet in The Wood Queen, though there is a little bit of snow. Does that count?

      “heart breakage is where it’s at” – yes, this exactly. I’ve never really gone there before in a book. This is my first time, and it’s hard to do… but I’m trying!

      Oooh… good one, re. Libba Bray. I still haven’t read that trilogy, though I have all 3 books. *sigh* Story of my life. I read some of the first book, then wasn’t in the mood for historical paranormal. I will read them soon, so I can STUDY the 2nd book. It’s harder than I thought to come up with actual trilogies. You can maybe take a series, and then break it into trilogies within the wider arc… but it’s not quite the same. I think Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy books work well for this. Six books in total, but they split into two trilogies. The first ‘trilogy’ is awesome, with Frostbite – the ‘middle’ book – really doing a good job.

      Lots to think about…

  7. Isabel says:

    Haha, yes, I agree entirely with the second-to-last paragraph. I’m sure this book will be fantastic! 😉

    Perfect timing, ’cause today I received both The Iron Witch AND The Demon’s Lexicon in the mail. I was torn for a bit as to which one I should read first, (because they’re both so delicious!) but now I’ve decided that I’m going to read TDL first and TIW immediately afterwards. I can’t wait to read them both! Eeep!!!!

    • Kaz says:

      The Demon’s Lexicon is one of my favourite books – I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

      • Isabel says:

        I started it today. So far, very enticing. However, I also have a book for school that I have to read, so tomorrow I’m going to force myself to read some of that before I delve too deep into TDL. At least it’s a good book, even if it’s not necessarily one that I’d read for pleasure. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A classic, of course. ‘Kay, ‘kay, since I have absolutely NOTHING else to do (besides write, but I’m not entirely up to that at the moment) I’ll go read that and then I can at least say that I read it today…
        Bye everybody!

  8. Renee Sweet says:

    Awesome post. That is all. 🙂

  9. Sarah (Essjay) Bryars says:

    I’ve just realised that my life would be so much more simple if people explained things to me using Star Wars analogies.

    Best post ever. Seriously. 😀

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