You cannot go wrong with Fonda Lee, as has been proven time and time again. That’s true with her books, and true with her guest posts here at terribleminds. And if you require further example, she’s back — this time, talking about how you think you know how to write a sequel, ha ha ha oh no. Ohhhh no.
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STEP ONE: DELUSIONAL OPTIMISM
Congratulations! You wrote a book and now your publisher and your readers are eagerly clamoring for the sequel. No problem, you’ve got this. You spent a long time, maybe years, creating the world and developing the characters, so all the hard work is already done. Now you just have to continue the story, and you have plenty of ideas about how to do that because you cleverly left some threads untied in the first book and also scribbled some stuff on a Post-It note when your agent asked you for a summary of book two. Start by making an outline. Pat yourself on the back; it looks good. You’re a fucking professional now. Be sure to agree to an aggressive deadline. After all, the market rewards momentum and you don’t want to keep fans waiting!
STEP TWO: DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Huh. You were sailing along in your writing, humming a merry tune, but now something’s wrong. You’re doing what you’re supposed to, you’re continuing the story, but there’s a nagging suspicion growing in your gut that you’ve been following the figurative path with your eyes on your feet and now as you slowly raise your head, you realize the sun has gone down in the woods and the trail has vanished, and the glowing red eyes are beginning to circle round.
What happened, you ask yourself. You analyze your choices. The sequel you’re writing is too similar to the first book; you’re just retreading ground and not being inventive enough. Or it’s too different from the first book; you’re not delivering any of the stuff that readers will want after reading the series opener. You’re spending too much time dealing with the events of the first book. Or not spending enough. You have too many new characters. You have too few. You step back and compare what you’ve done so far with your first book. Terrible mistake. The first book—in all its edited, revised, beautifully published glory—is perfect. This is dog vomit. You decide you would like to burn the manuscript, pretend this never happened, and start on a new project about something completely different. You can’t. You’re committed not just to the sequel, but to the canon you’ve already written. Also, you’ve already spent the advance money. By writing the first book, you made a very nice, sturdy sandbox, and now you’re trapped in the damn sandbox, and no one can hear you claw at the inside surfaces with your bloody fingernails.
Dazed and at a loss, you get on the Internet hoping for panda videos. Hey, people are talking about your first book! It’s doing well, getting good reviews, being nominated for awards, going into subsequent printings! You despair; you can’t possibly deliver a sequel that will live up. Or there’s silence; the first book’s not doing as well as you’d hoped. You despair; no one is going to read your second book anyway, so all you’re struggles are for nothing. You see-saw between these two states multiple times in a single day. You call up your writer friends. Oh yeah, they say, didn’t we tell you? Writing the sequel is a bitch. No, you scream, you didn’t tell me! No one told me! This is supposed to be easier! You rend your hair and crawl under the table.
STEP THREE: UNDERSTANDING THE NATURE OF SEQUELS
Okay, you’ve calmed down with the narcotic substance of your choice and have emerged from under the table to re-evaluate your situation. Slowly, you come to the realization that sequels are a unique challenge: You’re trying to write a new story (difficult at the best of times) within the scope of a larger story. You need to stay true to the events and the characters of the first book while also bringing in new elements, raising the stakes, and going deeper into the layers of the narrative, all at the same time. All with the shadow of public expectation hovering over you.
Take heart; you haven’t become a shittier writer between your first and second book. This is hard stuff and you haven’t faced this particular set of constraints and pressures before. Take a deep breath. You can do this. There are people who believe in you: your agent, your editor, your readers—they believe in you. To start with, let go of your first book. Just a little. You need some mental distance from it and how it’s performing. Stop reading reviews of what people liked and didn’t like about it and what they want or don’t want in the sequel. Pretend someone else wrote that book and you’re picking up where they left off. You can’t lose sight of the story canon that’s been established, but this new book is its own thing. What’s the story you want to tell now?
The characters, wherever they were at the end of the first book, need new goals and story arcs and/or new layers or complications in the motivations they’ve carried forward. The plot needs to make sense in the context of what’s already happened but also go in fresh and unexpected directions. Think about some of the best movie sequels: Terminator 2 flipped expectations by making the villain of the first movie the hero of the second. The tone of The Empire Strikes Back is dramatically different from the space opera candy of A New Hope. The Godfather Part II cut back in time. Alien was an atmospheric horror story; Aliens was a rousing action flick.
Put yourself in the sequel’s shoes for a minute. Just as every villain is the hero of their own story, the sequel doesn’t think of itself as a second player. The sequel thinks of the first book as the opener, and itself as the main event. “Thanks for warming up the crowd for me, buddy, let me take over from here,” says your sequel, confidently throwing its cape over its shoulder. Sequel acknowledges what was cool about First Book, but it isn’t afraid to do its own thing. With that in mind, you stop obsessing over writing a good sequel, and focus on simply writing a good story.
STEP FOUR: ALL THE WORK AND HALF THE FUN
You recommit. You write the damn book. You rewrite it. You revise it. Many times. You probably go through more drafts than you did with the first book (but you set that fact aside, because you’ve resolved to stop comparing this manuscript to the first book, remember?) You’re under time pressure, but if you need to, you ask for an extension because it’s more important that the book is good than that it’s released on a precise schedule, no matter what they say.
At last, you’re done. It was a ton of work, and guess what? The sequel will likely less attention that the first book did, especially if the first was your debut. Odds are it will get less hype, fewer trade and reader reviews, lower sales, and have less chance of being nominated for awards. Woop-de- friggin’-do! So…why do people do this again? Why don’t we all write standalones?
Because the reward for both the author and the reader is just too good to pass up: a chance to go back to a world we’ve fallen in love with, to spend more time with characters who’ve captured our hearts, to tell a bigger story on a bigger canvas, to answer the burning question, “What happens next?” With luck, your badass sequel goes out into the world and makes your existing readers very happy, and to the new readers, it says, “Hey, you’re missing out, but you can still get in on the party. Let me introduce you to my buddy over here, First Book.”
Ahhh, you did it, you wrote a sequel! Flush with victory, you sit down to write the third book!
Don’t talk to me about the third book.
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Fonda Lee’s new young adult science fiction novel, Cross Fire, is the sequel to Exo, which was a Junior Library Guild Selection and Andre Norton Award finalist. Fonda is also the author of the YA novel Zeroboxer. Her recent adult debut, the fantasy saga Jade City, was a finalist for the Nebula and Locus Awards and named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, Syfy Wire, Den of Geek, and the Verge.
In the stunning follow-up to Exo, Earth’s century of peace as a colony of an alien race has been shattered. As the government navigates peace talks with the human terrorist group Sapience, Donovan Reyes tries to put his life back together and return to his duty as a member of the security forces. But a new order comes from the home planet: withdraw. Earth has proven too costly and unstable to maintain as a colony, so the aliens, along with a small selection of humans, begin to make plans to leave. As word of the withdrawal spreads through the galaxy, Earth suddenly becomes vulnerable to a takeover from other alien races. Invaders who do not seek to live in harmony with humans, but to ravage and destroy the planet for its resources.
As a galactic invasion threatens, Donovan realizes that Sapience holds the key that could stop the pending war. Yet in order to save Earth, all species will have to work together, and Donovan might just have to make the ultimate sacrifice to convince them. But can one person save an entire planet from total extinction?