Stop Pissing on the Floor; the Challenge of the Second Book

Brian StaveleyWelcome to Brian Staveley, who’s on a blog tour for his second book, The Providence of Fire which I am greatly enjoying at this very moment. It’s outstanding! (I loved the first book, too.) Fittingly, he’s here to talk about the challenge of writing a sequel to a successful debut, and to ask you about sequels that you’ve enjoyed. One commenter will win a copy of both The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire. You don’t want to miss these books!

Stop Pissing on the Floor; the Challenge of the Second Book 
by Brian Staveley

When I was teaching high school, I had a good friend, also a teacher, who used to say, “The first day of school is great; even if you just come in and piss on the floor, the class will be interested.”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI never tested this particular pedagogical gambit, but I understood my friend’s point. In some ways, beginnings are easy. In the classroom, you can get through the first day by rearranging the chairs in an odd configuration, or playing some unusual game, or posing a riddle up on the board. All but the dullest of dullards will go with you for a day. It’s the rest of the school year that’s tough.

It seems to me now that the same principle applies to the writing of a fantasy series. The first book is the easiest. The writer can introduce strange mysteries and unusual settings, can hint at wicked plots and fantastic monsters, and the reader, who presumably picked up the damned book because she wanted all of these things, will usually go along for the ride. For one book.

It’s the second book when people get impatient. By the second book, novelty has worn off, and it’s time to start delivering on all those promises so blithely made over the course of the first volume. If an author has hinted all through book one that a certain character had an amazing back story, by book two it’s time for her to put her cards on the table. If we’ve been led to believe that the evil scheme is beyond brilliant in book one, we’d better seem some serious brilliance in book two. Book one is all about promises; book two is about delivery. Book one is the whispered innuendo; book two is the kiss.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAnd yet there are limits. You can’t, as an author, go all the way in book two. After all — there’s another volume still to come. The writer needs to be fulfilling expectations with one hand while continuing to string the reader along with the other. For every plot thread that gets tied neatly off, another has to ramify. Otherwise the reader will tire of the tryst before it’s truly finished.

I enjoyed this challenge immensely as I worked my way through The Providence of Fire, and I found myself turning to second volumes that I admired to see how other story-tellers before me had handled the task. High on my list are Ursula Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan and, of course, The Empire Strikes Back. Both strike that delicious balance between satisfaction and frustration. In this vein, I’m curious what second installments (either in books or movies) the rest of you have enjoyed, and why?

One commenter will win a copy of both The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire.


BRIAN STAVELEY is a teacher and writer. He has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling. BStaveley.wordpress.com. @BrianStaveley. Facebook. Goodreads.


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JOHN HULET (on FanLit's staff July 2007 -- March 2015) is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years.

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38 comments

  1. Absolutely LOVED Blades, probably my favorite book of 2014. I’m super eager to dive into PoF. Blades had awesome world-building, great characters (looking forward to seeing more of Adare), and a rollicking roller-coaster ride of a narrative arc. And the Kettral! Love this!

  2. I really enjoyed this post. It’s true that I often don’t enjoy a sequel as much because the novelty wears off. It is definitely a challenge to keep up the quality and excitement because I’m often ready to move on to the next shiny new thing. Very good points…. and obviously I need to read these.

  3. William Conner /

    Coming right off the high of finally finishing my childhood series, The Wheel of Time, last year I was at a wall of what I should read next. I was very excited to get out there and start reading some newer fantasy authors and such. The Emperor’s Blades was my first book that I picked up as I was pioneering away from The Wheel of Time and a setting and world that had been with me my whole life.

    What I’m trying to say here is that Staveley is amazing. I love everything that he set up in the first book and Staveley has captured me in. He is now in there with Sanderson and Rothfuss as people whose books I will automatically buy.

    You’ve captured entire chunks of people’s lives and I appreciate it, Staveley.

    Thank you.

  4. You mentioned the sequel I would have picked; THE TOMBS OF ATUAN. It defied expectations immediately and by doing that, let me know that I was reading a completely different kind of story from LeGuin’s first book.Of course, that was a different type of trilogy than the conventional high fantasy trios.

    • Skye Walker /

      I was going to say nearly the same thing. For me, I loved that Atuan presented a story that had little to nothing to do with the first. That made me read it so much more thoughtfully, never missing a detail, because I was trying to figure out the grand connection between the two stories before it appeared. It’s been a long time but I think I should pick up The Earthsea Cycle again.

  5. Kurestin /

    ANCILLARY SWORD and GOLDEN SON are two recent second installments that completely destroyed my idea of what a second book could be, in two very different ways.

    ANCILLARY JUSTICE was fast paced and threw out a lot of hints about the world, while ANCILLARY SWORD took a more meditative pace and really fleshed out a lot of things that I had been wondering about since putting down the first book. So in that case, the two really complemented each other and Ann Leckie made a fantastic choice in doing something different in her second book, and doing it very well, as opposed to just trying to replicated the charm of the first book. She hooked me with the pace of the first, and then took advantage of my guaranteed interest to take a slower approach with the second one. A++

    GOLDEN SON, on the other hand, was a violent explosion of a book. I was so nervous after RED RISING because there were so many boring directions that plot could have gone in, and while I really enjoyed RED RISING, Pierce Brown was new enough to the game that he might have ruined the momentum already built up. But in that case, instead of slowing down he threw the story into an unbelievable place of tension and speed. The writing became more ruthlessly efficient, and it was really a hit every second. I feel like it’s very rare for the second book to be the more exciting one, but that was definitely the case with this series.

    And in both of these cases, I’ll be first in line to get my hands on the third book! I’m genuinely excited to see not just what happens, but how exactly they make it happen.

  6. Sandy Ferber /

    I’ve long thought that Asimov’s second part of his original FOUNDATION trilogy, “Foundation and Empire,” was beautifully done, with the introduction of the mutant threat known as The Mule….

  7. I’ve always thought that middle books of trilogies must be difficult to write. I like the way you laid it out, Brian, and I especially like your LeGuin example. Food for thought!

  8. I might be loving The Providence of Fire…talk about a story you can’t rush through…depth!!

    I also really like Sharp by Alex Hughes because she totally delivered an incredible expansion on the main character.

    A sequel rocks when the next book really expands your understanding of the series without becoming tedious. A fine line to walk….

    And I think the Flea is an amazing supporting character.

  9. The Empire Strikes Back is usually what comes first to my mind when I think of fantastic second installments. (It’s just SO GOOD.) But if we’re talking books, my favorite “second-of-trilogy or -series” are books that flesh out their universes and make them more real/complex for the reader. Titles like Ancillary Sword, The Drawing of the Three, Green Mars, The Golem’s Eye, and The Subtle Knife come to mind.

    On a personal note to Mr. Stavely: I’m really enjoying your blog tour because even though I haven’t had a chance to read your books yet, your essays are phenomenal. (From what I’ve heard, The Providence of Fire could have consisted of people flying around on huge birds, and 95% of your readers would be happy–so I’m very much interested!)

  10. Margo Hurwicz /

    I agree with Kurestin & Marion about Ancillary Sword being a great middle book. I also liked Tepper’s Sideshow. I’m wondering what people think of 4th books that weren’t originally planned, because trilogies, but were conceived and born anyway.

  11. That is a tough question. On the one hand, I probably have a billion examples in my head but on the other, they’ve all done well enough to not be noticeable as the ‘second book’. I think that is the key – if the story is done well enough that the reader doesn’t consider whether or not the second book is living up to the expectations created by the first.

    Additionally, the second book issue is one that I never have really thought about. I generally don’t think of books as ‘debut’ or ‘first’ or ‘second’. I think about – “Oh look! Another book by that author!” mostly. I can’t recall ever comparing one book of a series to another, other than a general “This is my favorite book of this series.” A trilogy, to me, is one book broken into three parts. If I actually notice that there are separate books and they feel like separate books, that might be a problem. But, I rarely run into that.

    I’m a fan of books. I’m a fan of authors. I don’t care if the books are standalone, trilogies, series, duologies…whatever. As long as the story keeps me turning those pages, it’s all good!

  12. Interesting commentary. Often the second chapter in a three chapter cycle can be filled with filler – I really like the way Brian positions it as “the kiss”. You’re not going to screw up the kiss.

    Really looking forward to this read.

  13. Sandy Kay /

    Second books are often problematic, especially if the first book was especially good and you’ve been waiting a long time for the next book. I try to make allowances for second books just because the structure of a trilogy or series means they have a lot of work to do in moving the story forward and am always happy when they surprise me by being better than expected. I have been looking forward to “The Providence of Fire,” especially because I hear Adare gets a bigger part in this book.

  14. Thanks for this, Brian! (And I loved your post on Tor.com this week, too.) A second installment that I really enjoyed was Lev Grossman’s The Magician King. I liked it for several reasons. First, it was just a surprise; I didn’t realize that The Magicians was going to be a series when I finished it and then all of a sudden, here it was, a second book. (Same happened with the third; I just like that he could write a series where each book ended on enough of a note of completion that I was satisfied.) But I really appreciated the different feel of The Magician King, too–it was a more thoughtful novel, a bit slower than the first or third. And my favorite thing was that so much of it was focused on Julia, not on Quentin, really fulfilling the promise you talked about.

  15. I’m chomping at the bit to start The Providence of Fire. I recently finished The Emperor’s Blades and it was fantastic.

  16. Forgot to check the “notify me” box.

  17. susan emans /

    I agree with John Hulet; Sharp is an awesome second book. Sadly, ROC chose not to renew Hughes’s contract for the Mindspace Investigations. However, I also agree with April; I do not often notice that it is a ‘second book.’ If I am reading a book by an author I love, I am usually just excited that I have another book to read. I have read enough ‘only’ books that scream for a sequel that I am overjoyed when a good author has more story to tell.

    • I’ve got the Mindspace Investigations on my TBR list too, in fact, I am waiting for the first, Clean, to become available at my library so I can start.

      Susan, you say that the series won’t be continuing with ROC, did the last book end on a complete enough note that I shouldn’t worry that there isn’t one after?

      • susan emans /

        April, Alex Hughes planned 9 books (I think, I will check on that). She will be publishing the series indie, but each book has its own resolution, as well as a continuing story line. Currently, she is planning a break between Vacant #4 and book #5.

        • Thanks for the info! So I’ll keep them on the list.

        • Yeah, I think a break is in order. Vacant was a definite step down from the first three…

          • susan emans /

            I politely disagree; I love Vacant. I believe the break is due to the toll of writing two books in the same year, and her disappointment in the series not being renewed.

  18. A lot of great examples here. From the movies, I think one of the best middle stories of a trilogy was the second Spiderman movie. It was even better than the first and far superior to the the third one.

  19. Conal O'Neill /

    I really enjoy authors who take the premise delivered in the initial story and ramp up the story line with added detail or action. Two recent novels I read who delivered on this are Myke Cole in his Shadow Ops trilogy with Fortress Frontier and Pierce Brown with extraordinary Golden Son followup to Red Rising.

  20. Nathan G /

    Loved Emperor’s Blades, loved Providence of Fire. Now comes the long wait for book 3. PoF did a great job expanding the world EB introduced. Both obviously highly recommended.

  21. Sandyg265 /

    I agree that it can be hard to keep a second book as interesting as the first book. And it’s even harder to write good follow up books in an ongoing series. I often find that I will read a series for a while and then get bored with it.

  22. Two new books for my waiting list. Thank you Mr. Staveley!!

    Talking about second installments in a trilogy I’ve recently loved Before They are Hanged and Well of Ascension.

  23. shiznatikus /

    For movies, The Matrix Reloaded was a great second movie. It paid-off much of what had been alluded to in the first while simultaneously tearing down everything we knew or assumed about what was going on, and setting up a great finale.

    For books, Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. It perfectly continued the story that was established by the first book, deepened every mystery, and maintained and heightened the tension throughout. My anticipation for the third book could not be higher.

    I have not yet read Mr. Staveley’s books, but I enjoyed the previews on Tor.com and I look forward to picking them up when time and finances allow.

  24. Paul (@princejvstin) /

    In this vein, I’m curious what second installments (either in books or movies) the rest of you have enjoyed, and why?

    Cold Fire, by Kate Elliott. The second in her spiritwalker series, she took the characters to new places, physically, emotionally and in terms of character development. Plus, Lawyer Dinosaurs rule.

  25. I’ve always found the second books work better as a generality when the first book resolved an arc rather than the story being presented as a seamless narrative in a trilogy. Too often those second books fall into “bridge” problems, existing merely to get us two book three–focusing on getting characters into place or plot points into place for that already-determined end to the story. (And, I confess, too often I find there are two good books rather than three in many of those trilogies)

    That is one reason Atuan ranks so highly in so my mind. By resolving a single story in Wizard of Earthsea, Leguin was wholly freed up for book two, which could focus on exploring more of the world, more of the character, and have no issue focusing on an entirely different character instead of just getting Ged were he “needed to be.” Same for Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, another series with a great second (and third and fourth) book.

    That said, having just finished The Prividence of Fire, I can wholeheartedly say it completely avoids second book issues (in fact, it pulls off the even-better-than-book-one feat)

  26. The Emperor’s Blades was one of my favorite reads of 2014 and so far I’ve only heard good things about Providence of Fire. I think the final book is really going to blow the roof off the series and I’m willing to bet this series will be remembered for a long time.

  27. John Curtin /

    I can’t emphasize enough how excited I am for this book to finally be out. I’ve been looking forward to this book since I was half-way through the first one and proselytizing to anyone who may be a convert – friends, book store owners, anyone who happens upon my Twitter or GoodReads, etc. A great New England talent, writing great compelling fiction that just happens to be fantasy – and with the whole ‘geek-chic’ movement happening nowadays where good stories are being recognized regardless of genre, it just may be that Staveley’s next big project is a screenplay.

  28. I have to echo the people who’ve mentioned Golden Son. It did such a good job not falling into the Hunger Games trap. Instead of trying to make lightning strike twice by exploring the exact same idea for the second book running, Pierce Brown did a great job expanding on the world he created in the first book and going beyond the initial premise of the story and taking us into new territory.

  29. Keith Willis, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of both books in the trilogy.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  30. Sagar Jose /

    I can list a lot of authors who failed in this particular aspects. Stephanie Meyer’s New Moon, Suzanne Collins’ Catching fire, all failed to bring something new and exciting to an already new and exciting first book.
    Surprisingly, Anthony Ryan’s Tower Lord and Patrick Rothfus’s The Wise Man’s Fear didn’t meet the expectations raised by their phenomenal first books either.

    One book that blew my mind in the second episode was Valor by John Gwynne. He didn’t forget the promises in first book, and broadened the horizons in the second. Sworn in Steel by Douglas Huglick proved a gripping read, holding on to the same energy of the first book, yet with more revelations and all.
    And The Two Towers. Did I mention Tolkien?

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