Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Take Two: Challenges of Sequel Writing (and ways to overcome them)

By Stefanie Gaither, @stefaniegaither

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Writing a sequel is both fun and a little scary. It's great to spend more time in a world we love, but book two is notoriously harder than book one, with its own set of challenges. Please help me welcome Stefanie Gaither to the lecture hall today to share some of those challenges (and how to overcome them).

Stefanie has done everything from working on a chicken farm to running a small business— with a lot of really odd jobs in between— but since the release of her debut novel, Falls the Shadow, she's more or less settled on the job title of author. And between writing and trying to keep up with one very wild baby girl, she manages to keep very happily busy.

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Take it away Stefanie...

So, let’s assume that you’ve done what so many people say they’re going to, but never manage: You’ve written a book. Even better, you’ve published it in some shape or form, and people who aren’t your mom have actually read said book, and then something really awesome happens: They tell you they want more. More of the characters, the world, the story you’ve created…. And then, publishing gods willing, you actually get the contract/opportunity/etc to create that desired sequel, and everything is sunshine and rainbows and wonderfulness.

Until, perhaps, you actually start trying to tackle the darn thing.

And then you realize that writing a successful follow-up is, in many ways, a whole different beast than writing a successful “book one”.

I have a bit of experience with this. My first book, Falls the Shadow, did well enough upon release that my publisher contracted me for a sequel. That sequel releases at the end of August, and here are a few of the “unique-to-book-two” challenges that I faced (and how I got through them).

Challenge One: Preconceived Notions

There’s something to be said for being a green, newbie writer. When it’s your debut book, readers are coming into it with some expectations, sure— but not to the degree that they’ll likely be approaching your sequel with. Because once they get to that sequel, they’ve already spent time with the world and the characters you’ve created. And, hopefully, if you’ve done your job in book one, readers will have been picturing these things in their heads and thinking about them even after they closed that book—which means they have ideas about how things should go in the second installment. How they want them to go.

I know I personally received more than a few ideas from readers, after my sequel was announced, about how they’d love to see things progress. And it’s no easy thing, balancing multiple readers’ expectations along with your own vision. I still think it’s important to listen to those readers, though. As challenging as it can be to take it all in (while staying sane), reader feedback can really work in your favor if you let it. You don’t have to take all the specific ideas they might give you, but if you examine what they’re saying—really examine it—it can give you an idea of where you hit the right notes in the first book, and where you could maybe stand to step up your game in the sequel.

Challenge Two: It’s a Long Way from Book One

This challenge was especially worrisome for me, because publishing is slow enough to begin with. But in my case, book two wasn’t contracted until book one was already out, which means that my sequel isn’t going to hit shelves until almost a full two years after Falls the Shadow’s initial release. That’s a long time. The average reader will likely have read dozens of books between my two kind-of-very-connected little books. So those readers most likely aren’t going to remember all the details, characters, plotlines, etc… from the first book. That’s just the nature of publishing sometimes, and there wasn’t much I could do about it…except address it as best I could in how I crafted my sequel.

I had a bit of an advantage here, in that at the end of my first book, one of the characters (a clone) receives damage to her simulated brain that essentially wrecks her memories. That character is the main POV character in my sequel. So, she’s gradually relearning the events of the first book along with the reader to some extent. It does require a delicate hand, though—too much rehashing of events and you risk boring the readers who do remember everything, or who read book one more recently. Personally, I tried to space these book one “info drops” out as much as I could, and I kept them as organic as possible—informative but not intrusive into the new story I was trying to tell. I think that’s the key.

Challenge Three: You Can’t Go Back

Part of the beauty of books is that they are enduring, unchanging, even as years pass.

Sequels are hard because books are enduring and unchanging—including that first book in your series. Whereas in the first book you can invent things with a bit of wild abandon, with the second book you have some parameters, established by whatever rules and facts and such you created in book one. Sometimes this creates problems, or limits plot-twists that you come up with for book two, because said twists would be contradicting what already happened— and that’s a bummer.

That said, I think there is some wiggle room here. You don’t want to spend all of book two ignoring things your characters said and did in book one, no; but you can get creative, if necessary. Think about all the ways that people misunderstand things, after all. What a character interpreted one way in the first book could prove to be totally wrong, opening up the door for an amazing plot-twist in book two. Studying those “parameters” you set up in book one, and thinking of ways to further explore them or turn them on their head, can actually be a great exercise when plotting your sequel.

In some ways, the sequel was easier to write, because I already knew these characters and this world more intimately than I know most people. In other ways, it was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because for me, it was really about “can I outdo myself?” Can I evolve the original idea of the first book? Enhance it? Explore it more deeply instead of just making it more of the same? It really was, as I said earlier, a whole different sort of beast to tame—but I hope this post has shed some light on how I got it done!

About Into the Abyss

Violet has lost her memory, and her sense of self—but can she decide who she wants to be in time to save the world? Find out in this sequel to Falls the Shadow, which Kirkus Reviews called perfect “for fans of Divergent and The Hunger Games.”

Violet Benson used to know who she was: a dead girl’s clone, with a dead girl’s memories. But after Huxley’s attempt to take over the government left her memories and personality wiped, all she has left is a mission: help the CCA fight back against the rest of Huxley’s deadly clones that are still at large.

But when a group of clones infiltrate CCA headquarters, Violet is blamed. Already unsure of where her loyalties should lie, Violet finds herself running away with an unlikely ally: Seth, Jaxon’s unpredictable foster brother. With Seth at her side, Violet begins to learn about a whole new side of her city’s history—and her own.

But when she learns the shocking truth about cloning, Violet will have to make a choice—and it may be one that takes her away from everyone she ever loved.

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  1. I found myself becoming extremely insecure when writing the sequel to my first mid-grade book, The Case of Secrets. A good friend and editor gave me the best feedback, however. She said, "I'd be concerned if you weren't." She also said, "Don't compare your children." Great advice. It calmed me down and made me better appreciate each book for its own merit.

  2. As we're writing the first of (possibly) three books in a series, this post spoke to us. It's helpful to have some insight from someone who's already been there.

  3. As we're writing the first of (possibly) three books in a series, this post spoke to us. It's helpful to have some insight from someone who's already been there.

  4. Hi Stefanie, Thanks for the insightful information. My new book "The Flash Point Project" was released this year and I have been working on book 2. I have a hard time focusing on just one book at a time. Along with Flash Point book2 I am also working on "My Uncle Oliver" you see my problem. I have a hard time getting honest feed back as most of those who read my work as I'm writing it just praise me and are not critical so it doesn't help. I look forward to reading your book.
    Thanks Robert www.rariospromotions.com