Sam Sykes: A Blorgery Post About Escalation In Writing

Sam Sykes wrote a book. Well, he wrote several books, but one of those books escaped his head and attacked a publisher and now is on bookstore shelves and whenever you go into one of those bookstores, the booksellers stare at you with dead eyes and then those dead eyes roll out of their heads like discarded marbles and there in the darkness of the sockets is a pair of tiny Sam Sykeses, and those two little Sams sing the refrain of a familiar song: BUYYYYY MY BOOOOOK. 

Anyway, hey, look, here’s Sam now!

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Hey, fellas.

Did you know I wrote a book? It’s called The Mortal Tally. It’s a good ‘un. You can find it in your local bookstores. Please buy it. Okay, thanks.

…what? What’d you say?

MORE? Jeez, I thought I did pretty good already, but…uh…

It’s the second book in my new trilogy, Bring Down Heaven.

And to be honest, that fact gave me some pause.

I feel like the second book in a trilogy is usually met with some tension from both authors and readers, thanks to a long and storied past filled with disappointments. Authors are never quite sure how to keep the tension going between the exciting rush of the new first book and the dramatic conclusions of the third book. This occasionally translates to readers who are less than enthused to see a book that becomes the literary equivalent of treading water.

Both of these weighed heavily on me as I started in on The Mortal Tally. Fortunately, I had the advantage of this being my second second book in a trilogy, so I had learned a few lessons, which I would like to share with you today.

And I think the very first and biggest problem facing a second volume comes from the fact that both writers and readers go into one without a clear expectation of what they want.

They want the story to continue, of course, but they don’t know how. They want to get between books, but they want to feel like something has happened so their time wasn’t wasted. They want to feel like this story works on its own, but also bridges the two.

Daunting, right?

Now, far be it from me to suggest anyone need to change anything with their writing or reading (you’re perfect just the way you are, you precious little gosling), but I think we, as a reading culture, would benefit highly from setting down what we expect from a second volume.

Your answers as to what that is might differ, but I found mine early on.

Escalation.

The second volume should be when the characters realize just how in over their heads they are. It’s when the antagonist takes notice of them and stops underestimating them. It’s when the relationships that formed in volume one are put to the test. It’s when the price for victory is laid out and the question of who’s going to pay it is weighing heavily on our characters and our readers.

All storytelling is conflict. And as the first volume is presenting the conflict and the second volume is finishing it, the second volume is where the conflict is sharpened into a thousand tiny blades, turned into a meat grinder and our heroes are fed through it, one by one.

In The City Stained Red, my first book, things ended poorly: a war between two occupying forces had broken out in the civilized heart of the world, our heroes divided as their differences grew too great to keep them together, and they learned that a terrible demon was watching over their every move.

In The Mortal Tally, things get worse: the war is joined by civil unrest amongst the beleaguered population and aggravated by religious strife in its leadership, our protagonists discover that there’s a whole world of things waiting to kill them, and we start to wonder if life under a demon might really be so bad in comparison.

And this escalation all feeds nicely into the other task a second volume should accomplish.

Development.

Specifically, character development. The second volume is where things really start to come together in terms of shaping a character. When we meet a character in the first volume, we’re only really meeting an idea of them, something that gets us interested in them. The second book is where interest turns to investment, where we start looking beyond the ideas, the quips, the cool little traits and start learning the fears, the relationships, the hopes. And as we learn them, we start to see what kind of characters these guys will be by the end of it.

The first and third volumes will feature external forces as the antagonists. But the main force of opposition in a second book should be the protagonists themselves. This is where the meaningful struggle will come in and where the big questions will get answered.

Don’t believe me? Well, why not look to another story that solidified this for me?

There’s always going to be debate over it, but a lot of people consider The Empire Strikes Back to be one of, if not the best, entry in the Star Wars series. And why shouldn’t they? It was all character development.

Han was still a rogue, but started realizing there were things he cared about more than his immediate prosperity. Leia began to realize that any future she had would require her to rise up and become a leader. And Luke went from an idealistic boy to a guy who realized the terrible price he’d have to pay if he wanted to save the ones he loved.

Now this blog has already gone on long and I can hear Return of the Jedi fans and all six of The Phantom Menace fans gearing up for a rumble, so I’ll end this ramble with just a few words of wisdom.

1. Escalation, Escalation, Escalation!

2. Remember that all escalation leads to development.

3. Ewoks are kind of cool, I don’t care what anyone says.

4. Buy my book.

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Acclaimed author Sam Sykes returns with the second thrilling novel in his Bring Down Heaven series. 

The heart of civilization bleeds.

Cier’Djaal, once the crowning glory of the civilized world, has gone from a city to a battlefield and a battlefield to a graveyard. Foreign armies clash relentlessly on streets laden with the bodies of innocents caught in the crossfire. Cultists and thieves wage shadow wars, tribal armies foment outside the city’s walls, and haughty aristocrats watch the world burn from on high.

As his companions struggle to keep the city from destroying itself, Lenk travels to the Forbidden East in search of the demon who caused it all. But even as he pursues Khoth-Kapira, dark whispers plague his thoughts. Khoth-Kapira promises him a world free of war where Lenk can put down his sword at last. And Lenk finds it hard not to listen.

When gods are deaf, demons will speak.

The Mortal Tally: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

8 comments

  • Thank for this post, it’s coming at that perfect time for me. I’m about eight chapters in to book two of MY trilogy and breathed a huge sigh of relief when what you mentioned about what should happen there is already well on its way in my book. Good to know I actually know what I’m doing for a change!

    • Of course it’s a bit less structured in long series’, like say Dresden Files, but the same principles do still apply there. The character should either alter along an arc over 7 or 16 or 32 books, or not really at all, like say Drizzt (although lately he’s had to change, although it’s been more the interesting characters he meets, like the elf chick who likes pain, I think is her story (I haven’t been following the latest)). But I don’t think it should be sudden change (with no explanation given, or even implied).

  • Thank you for this! I’m in the midst of my second of a trilogy, so the timing for this post is perfect for me! I read excerpts of Sam’s new book on his Mom’s Facebook page, and have added it to my growing pile of Stuff To Read ™.

  • I meant the books sound like my cup of tea, I will definitely check out. The post was awesome as well!! Chuck knows some great people to have visit!! I enjoy every lesson they dish out.

  • April 2, 2016 at 6:27 PM // Reply

    “3. Ewoks are kind of cool, I don’t care what anyone says.”

    Dang, now I’ve got to buy some books to support a fellow Ewok fan. Yub yub

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