Writing Sequels—Easier or Harder than the First Book?
5 April, 2012
Hey Guys! So today I am introducing you to the lovely Terri Bruce, author of soon-to-be-released, Hereafter. You can follow her on her website. Today she has written a guest post for you all about the second, and following books in a serial and what it is like from a writers perspective!
As a reader, I love series and multi-book story arcs. The more time I can spend in a world or with characters I love, the happier I am. So when the writing gods dropped an idea for a multi-book series on me, I was thrilled. The first book was as hard to write as any novel is—I started with a blank sheet of paper, a concept, a beginning (which, as usual, changed by the time I was done), an ending, and some fuzzy character concepts. In the end, however, it all worked out and I had a finished novel that I was incredibly proud of.
When I sat down to write the second book, I thought, “okay, piece of cake!” After all, I already knew the characters inside and out—I knew how they thought, how they spoke, how they acted, and how they interacted with their world and with each other—and I knew their world—how it works, how the clothes looked, how people talked, the religion, the food, the animals, the politics, and the million other details that go into world building. So easy, right?
Sequels—and all future books in a series—bring their own particular set of problems for the writer. Because I knew the characters so well—and by this point the characters knew each other—I tended to just continue the story as if everyone had read the first book and knew the characters as well as I did. Unfortunately, many series don’t become popular with readers until the second or even third book. This means the author has to ensure that new readers to the series don’t get lost. I am extremely fortunate that, entirely by circumstance and accident, my critique partners for the second book have ended up being people who have not read the first book. This has been an incredible boon because they can point out to me places where they are confused—have these two characters met before? What are they referring to in this conversation—is it something that happened in the first book? What is this character’s back story/history—he/she just sort of appeared out of nowhere.
Of course, this led to biggest problem number two in writing sequels: how to work in enough backstory to get new readers up to speed without bogging down the story. The default, of course, is to try and work in lots of backstory and flashbacks, but this never works. It just bogs down the story and the author spends more time rehashing the first book than moving the new story forward. Existing readers of the series grow tired of backstory information dumps, because they already read the first story—they know what happened. New readers to the series get tired, too, because the book doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In an attempt to get everyone up to speed, the author can risk losing all of her readers!
I’ve quickly learned that writing sequels and later books in a series require a whole new set of specialized skills. A light, deft touch is required and it can be painfully hard to learn. In some ways, it feels like being a beginner writer all over again—there are the endless rewrites, the critiques of “this is too much (backstory)” and “this is too little,” and the flailing around trying to give the plot a path through the minefield of required bits. While it can be frustrating at times, it also feels good—as an author, when you choses to hang around with established characters, in an established world, you start to wonder if, maybe, you’re being lazy or “coasting.” There’s also the fear of falling into a rut or being “typecast” as being able to write only one kind of book. You may also fear that you’re out of new ideas or maybe you don’t have the skills or strength to start something new from scratch (which is really exhausting).
However, I’m finding that the opposite is true—writing a sequel challenges the writer to be even more creative, to stretch his or her wings even further. There’s a reason each new movie in a franchise contains even bigger explosions, even wilder car chases, even more action sequences: the film maker has to show the viewers something new. The same goes for books. The writer is challenged to keep the reader’s attention and to show that more time with the characters and in the fictional world are necessary and worthwhile, and that is no easy task.
What do you think? What do you find the most challenging part of writing or reading later books in a series? Does this problem get better or worse as the series goes on?