Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

Writers tend to be their own worst enemies.

Sure, some amateurs might cast aspersions at agents and publishers who reject their works.  And maybe published authors occasionally gripe about critics and other ungrateful readers who fail to find the genius in their words.  Some scribes might even eye a fellow writer with envy, casting a commercially successful contemporary in the role of rival.

But at the end of the day, a writer is solely responsible for the success of a story.  Notice I didn’t write “the sale of a story” or “positive reaction to a story.”  I happen to believe that a story can be perfectly wonderful without having earned a single cent—or even a second pair of eyes.

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What’s inside a successful, satisfying sequel? | Image by Retama, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether a bestselling novelist or an introverted dabbler, each writer decides which tales get told and which don’t, whether a concept is worthy of composition or destined to be forgotten.  The writer hones her craft, or she doesn’t.  He perseveres or surrenders.

Don’t get me wrong.  Obstacles abound, and the outside world conspires.  For instance, I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t wish he had more time to devote to writing.  However, external forces can be overcome—or at least mitigated—if the will is strong enough.

But a writer’s mind can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps the most notorious form of self-sabotage is writer’s block.  A related syndrome—which can traipse hand-in-hand with writer’s block—is a phenomenon that transcends writing (and the arts as a whole) to plague anyone who has tasted some measure of recognition in her field: the sophomore slump.

Or, in this case, the mind games that a writer’s brain engages in when he worries that what he produces next will pale in comparison to the premier effort.

A few years ago, I read a book by a first-time author and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—not because he was newly published, but because I was burned out on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre and was pleased to find a tale that made it feel fresh again.  I eagerly awaited the sequel I knew was coming.

And waited.  And waited.  And…

I can’t, with all certainty, ascribe the tardiness of the sequel to a sophomore slump (though I’m withholding the author’s name and book’s title just in case!), I’ve heard enough stories of writers who miss deadlines on subsequent assignments to suspect that many writers do, in fact, psyche themselves out when it comes to book number two, regardless of whether it is a direct sequel or not.

Perhaps it’s inevitable.  Before a writer has a contract for a book, she operates on her own timeline.  She can take as much time as she can to prepare her first novel, moving words around on the page for months before she decides it’s ready to send to an agent or editor.  She can take a decade or more to make his first book as perfect as possible.  But a publishing house won’t wait that long for the next offering.

I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately.  Even as my diligent agent continues to shop around If Souls Can Sleep, the first book in my Soul Sleep Cycle, I’m rethinking and reworking Book 2 (tentatively titled Almost a Fantasy).  During a recent conversation with my agent, he mentioned that because the events in If Souls Can Sleep and Almost a Fantasy take place concurrently, I should consider the possibility that Book 2 could be a better entry point into the series—that Book 2 might make a more suitable Book 1 (and vice versa).

Granted, this is a somewhat unique situation.  Most series move forward in a linear and chronological manner.  The plot of Book 1 precedes Book 2, which precedes Book 3, and so forth.  However, in the case of the Soul Sleep Cycle, I envision the possibility that some events in Book 3 could even take place prior to those in Book 1 before eventually catching up—and passing—the timelines in Books 1 and 2.

I suppose “straightforward” just isn’t my style.

So I now find myself dealing with some of the inherent challenges of writing a sequel, only they are exacerbated by the fact that the sequel could be the prequel, so to speak.  One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked of any sequel is how much of the first book’s plot needs to be filtered into the pages of its successor.

Readers need reminders, but a writer can’t spend too much time rehashing what came before.  Prologues and introductions can help set the scene for readers who are new to the series as well as readers who didn’t immediately pick up Book 2 after closing the cover of Book 1, but such devices can do only so much.

It takes a deft hand to weave relevant details into the narrative at the right time, to provide readers with helpful sips of backstory rather than drowning them in oceans of exposition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is to be a sequel to the sequel—that is, a Book 3—one must decide where to end Book 2.  How much should a writer save for the third entry of a series?  And how much should she know about what is to come in Book 3 so that she doesn’t paint herself into a corner, as it were?

When it comes to trilogies, whether books or films, the second installment tends to be the weakest.  (Yes, there are exceptions, you rabid Empire Strikes Back fans!)  Generally speaking, the first episode of an epic franchise is the strongest.  It’s the audience’s first thrilling glimpse at a new world and new characters.  The best first books do the same thing: leave the reader wanting more.

Book 2, on the other hand, can’t provide that magical first kiss of Book 1; neither can supply it the climax everyone expects at the end of Book 3.  So what do writers do with Book 2?  Build upon the problems of Book 1, set up the dominos for Book 3, maybe toss in a new character or two.  Those aren’t the only options, of course, but all too often the second installment serves as the less exciting but certainly necessary scenes sandwiched between the engaging beginning and the awesome ending.

If a series, such as the Soul Sleep Cycle, ends up being four or more books, the challenge to sustain a high level of interest only grows from novel to novel.  Every book must have its own story arc—a worthwhile and autonomous beginning, middle, and an end.  That is to say, even the middle of a bigger story needs its own satisfying ending.  (Yes, you can leave some plot points hanging to entice the reader to return, but sheer cliffhangers are cop-outs.)

One would think that building upon an existing work would be easier, but I contend that writing sequels becomes an increasingly complex process.  Maybe over a long enough timelines, the pros and cons of developing sequels vs. starting from scratch for each standalone even out.  Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly dig into the conundrums of rewriting a novel that could end being Book 1 or Book 2.

If nothing else, it will force me to make sure both books can stand firmly on their own.

As for why fantasy and science fiction stories so often become series—from the ubiquitous trilogy to those best-selling, never-ending saga—is a topic for another day.

Perhaps a sequel to this article about sequels…

What do you like to see in a sequel (as a reader or a writer)?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

  1. Thomas Agrommus

    Read it , David.

    What can I say?

    You write well.

    But you keep writing sci-fi.

    Just like I keep writing horotica.

    Everyone has his own rut.

    When do we get out of it?

    Life is tough.

    TOM

  2. I’m worried about the same thing with my book one. This tale sets up the “stunning” unfolding of things to come but is it truly the entry point of the series? Is it just a set up for the real story? Maybe, and is that bad? I wish I knew. Book one is an adventure on its own, and it touches on the theories to be expounded the rest of the way, and if it’s good enough to garner attention then great – it has to! I intend each subsequent book to be better then the last. But the questions remain – am I doing it right? I think we are all doing things the way they are to be done for us. And in doing so we are learning our craft. Keep writing “a lot,” David. Something good will come of it.

  3. Thomas Agrommus

    Great stuff, David. Well written.

    As re. authors block:

    Best solution: Retype/edit the last three pages you wrote yesterday. Wunderbar! You’re off and running in a flash. Worked for me–I turned out approx. 150 published novels that way.

    Answer to problem: Write, dammit! Even if it’s sludge, it will keep your motor running.You CAN fix later.

  4. Pingback: The problem with invincible protagonists | One Million Words

  5. Pingback: Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel | Allied Authors

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