David Kazzie: Five Things I Learned Writing A Sequel

The stand-alone sequel to the IMMUNE series…

Thirteen years have passed since the Medusa plague wiped out nearly 99 percent of the world’s population and pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. 

Climate change triggered by nuclear skirmishes in the last fevered days of civilization decimated agriculture and livestock, and the hardened survivors battle for what few resources remain.

Rachel Fisher is one of the lucky ones. In her small community in Nebraska, she and her family have access to food, clean water, weapons, and medical care.

And her 11-year-old son Will is the only child known to have survived infancy since the plague.

But everything changes when someone comes looking for him.

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Real quick. The Immune was about a man looking for his daughter during and in the immediate aftermath of a civilization-ending plague. The Living is the sequel, set 13 years later.

Anyway, here are the things I learned. Your mileage may vary.

It Can’t Be Book-1-in-A-Different-Location or Do You Really Need to Write a Sequel?

Writing more than one book in the same story universe requires a certain level of chutzpah. Whether it’s two books or a trilogy or seven-book-ology or a continuing mystery series, you’re telling the reader that it’s going to be worth their while to invest their free time in multiple books set in the same world with at least some of the same characters.

The Immune was inspired in part by Stephen King’s The Stand, one of the classics of post-apocalyptic fiction, and you don’t see a sequel to that sonofabitch in bookstores, do you? My favorite novel of all time is probably Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, also devoid of a sequel. Hell, even Stephen King admits that the Dark Tower books are really one long novel (and you’re not jumping into that story anywhere but with The Gunslinger).

Think of your five favorite books of all time. Are any of them sequels? Do any of them have sequels? Probably not. Be honest with yourself about whether the sequel needs to exist or if you’re just hiding from the scariness of moving onto a new fictional world. You need to be as committed to this story as you were to the first. In this case, I decided that I had a good enough story to tell, one that was not simply riding on the coattails of its predecessor, one that could stand on its own but also add some depth to the mythology laid out in the first book.

Book 2 Should Probably Stand On its Own

Books are a tough sell these days, and the last thing you want to do is limit your potential audience. I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel when I wrote the first book. When putting together the storyline for The Living, I wrestled with how dependent it would be on its predecessor. If you make it too dependent, only folks who read the first would be able to enjoy the second – that really limits your potential audience.

In the end, I wrote the story to stand alone, sprinkling in enough backstory so anyone could start with this book and not feel lost. Then I asked someone who hadn’t read The Immune to read it. When she told me she had no problems understanding the backstory, I knew I was in good shape. Now there are two doors to this fictional universe I created, and a reader can come into it however they like. For a relatively unknown writer like me, the last thing I want to do is make it harder for people to come to my books.

Now before you come at me with your sharpened pieces of avocado toast – I said Book 2 should probably stand alone. You may have a sweeping story arc that’s going to take three or seven or eight hundred books to resolve and a reader absolutely cannot start anywhere but with the first book. Great, fine, you do you.

For those interested in how the sausage was made – meaning how to do this and make sure you’ve put in just the right amount of backstory, this was a really helpful exercise: I went through the manuscript, plucked out every reference to things that happened in the first book and pasted those into a separate document. I ended up with a two-page synopsis of all the things someone would need to know from The Immune without having read it, and it showed me that I had parceled out the pieces of backstory at the best possible moment and in the right order.

Your Characters Have Changed a Lot Since Book 1

Of course, this is going to vary, depending on the story you’re telling and the time frame involved. Your sequel might pick up immediately after the conclusion of the first book or it might pick up six jillion years later. The Living is set 13 years after the events of the first book, and so my characters are all older and no longer the shell-shocked survivors who just witnessed the end of the world. They’ve moved onto living their best lives in this empty world – staying alive and trying to find meaning in a world they hadn’t prepared for.

But regardless of where your sequel falls on the timeline, your characters are not the same people they were at the beginning of the first book. Their lives have changed in fundamental – possibly terrible – ways, and you must be aware of that going into the sequel. I’m not the same person I was 13 years ago and I suspect you’re not either.

Writing a Sequel Is Harder Than You Think But It Is Also Very Comforting

You know how at Thanksgiving, at the beginning of the day, “this is gonna be great” and then by mid-afternoon, you’re like “I got left on the porch as an infant and my real mommy kills dragons and shit because no way am I related to these people” and then by nightfall everyone is full and happy and you’re all laughing over eating the rest of the Boston cream pie.

This is the best analogy I can come up with for writing a sequel. This is a familiar world, one you know really well – even if this story is set in a different corner of that world. You’re not creating characters out of whole cloth, and you have an understanding as to what makes them tick. And remember, without memorable characters, you’ve probably got a forgettable book.

That being said, it can wear on you a little. I’ve spent more than four years in the world of The Immune, and it’s been a lot of fun – mostly. And they mostly come at night. Mostly. BUT I DIGRESS. In some ways, the sequel was the harder book to write, but it was very rewarding to spend that much time with the same characters – those mother-effers are ALIVE (or you’re insane, one or the other). You find out new things about them that didn’t come up in the first book. If I’d passed on writing the sequel, I would have missed out on seeing the heroine in a whole new light, with years of experience and hardship under her belt.

Maybe This Should Have Been the Book You Wrote First and Not a Sequel At All

I’ve saved the hardest lesson for the end (and this is more directed to folks who want to sell a book to a traditional publisher, although it applies to self-publishers as well). I won’t lie, this was the most painful lesson, in part because I learned it too late. Although I’ve had decent success self-publishing, I have yet to sell a book to an American publisher. A Bulgarian publisher bought the rights to my very first book (a crime thriller) a couple years back and I have cool pictures of that book in bookstores around the Bulgarian capital. But a book in an American bookstore? It’s still on my bucket list.

My agent loved The Immune, and a number of editors had very nice things to say about it when we sent it out on submission. But in the end, it didn’t sell (I ultimately self-published it), and some of the feedback was that the as-it-happens end-of-the-world story had already been done, so there really wasn’t demand for another book in that vein.

I’ll never know, obviously, but I have a hunch that if I had written The Living first (and The Immune had never existed beyond that two-page backstory), it would have sold. I think it has enough interesting story elements that might have set it apart from other books in the genre. I’m not saying I re-invented the wheel of apocalyptic fiction here, but I do know the genre pretty well; I’m just saying that The Living might have stood out just enough to pull in an offer.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved writing The Immune, I was happy with how it turned out, and it’s sold a goodly number of copies. But the experience was also a lesson in story development. If you think of one story, there may be a better or more interesting one hiding just underneath. Perhaps I wasn’t an experienced enough writer then to think deeper than “I’ll write an apocalypse book now!” Now when I think up a story idea, I try to think of another story behind it, or even behind that one, one that might not be as readily apparent.

I am in no way trying to force you to write solely to the market or discouraging you from writing whatever your precious little heart desires. But you should also be trying to stretch yourself as a storyteller, challenge yourself, find stories that are just a little farther off the beaten path. This could be the difference between getting a book deal or not; if you’re self-publishing, this could be the difference between breaking free of the pack and your book getting lost in the shuffle.

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David lives in Virginia. The Living is his third novel. He’s also the creator of a series of short animated films, including So You Want to Write a Novel, which have been viewed nearly 3 million times on YouTube and were featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post.

David Kazzie: Website | Twitter

The Living: Amazon