I recently wrote the sequel to my first novel. I didn’t need to make a decision about it, because Book 1 was always going to be part of a series. Right from the start, I had it very solidly in my mind that Book 1 was only the first chapter in a bigger story.
If you start out that way and your first book gets good feedback, then writing the sequel(s) in a timely fashion is naturally the smart thing to do. But what about when you write a standalone book and suddenly get bitten by the sequel bug? How do you know if writing a sequel is a good idea?
Before embarking on the sequel, prequel or even a spin-off, you really need to be able to answer these four questions with a resounding YES.
1. Was your first book well-received?
Is there really any point writing a sequel if your first book wasn’t a hit? Maybe it would be better to focus on a new concept. If your first book does eventually become a hit, you can always go back and write the sequel then.
2. Is there a sense of unfinished-ness about the story?
In other words, is there room for your character to grow, change, or face more struggles? If you’re writing pure romance and you’ve given the reader a happily-ever-after, then will you be alienating your audience by presenting them with Book 2: The Divorce? Consider both your genre and your specific story when deciding if a sequel is appropriate.
3. If Book 1 has an open-to-interpretation ending, can you write a sequel without destroying the power or poetic beauty of that ending?
If not, then leave that book alone. Don’t wreck your beautiful story with a sequel. Move on, or, if you absolutely must serialize, then write a prequel.
4. Is there any clamour for a sequel?
If yes, that’s a great sign. But tread with care. Readers don’t always know what’s good for them. You should still ensure you have more of the story to tell before even asking this question.
Let’s say you’ve decided to write a sequel. What will it be like? Well, you know how when you’re writing a book, the beginning is really good fun, the middle is really hard slog, and the end is like the light at the end of the tunnel?
Writing a sequel can feel like the hard slog—but for the whole book.
I was somewhat surprised by this phenomenon recently. I thought I would love writing Book 2, and part of me did love revisiting my darling characters, giving them more depth, building their relationships, presenting them with new challenges, and expanding their horizons. But another part of me found it really hard work. There was much less freedom than when I wrote Book 1. I’m big on creating complex interconnected plots, so it wasn’t enough for me to consider this book a separate story; it was part of one bigger story. And that meant lots of referencing the past and unravelling things that weren’t unravelled in Book 1.
But the other challenge was separating the plot of Book 3, as yet unwritten, from Book 2. It was almost as though each plot element had its own history and future. And I was there holding all these threads in my writerly hands, trying to keep them in sight and avoid getting them tangled into knots.
- Re-read Book 1 before you start, and keep a copy handy at all times.
- Use a card file system or chapter log to track the plot. Make sure you can connect all plot elements with the story before (and after if there are more sequels on the cards). If an element doesn’t have a precursor, then at least it shouldn’t clash with plot elements in Book 1.
- When you’ve finished editing the sequel, re-read Book 1 to make sure you haven’t messed up any details in Book 2.
- Create character boards or files. Enter each character’s names, appearance, family, habits, hobbies, personality traits, pets, job, schedule, relationships, and anything else. This file will be an invaluable reference when you’re trying to work out how the characters will act and speak, who they will phone, what they shout at their dog, and what colour their eyes are.
- From a sales point of view, try to capture Book 1’s audience somehow, whether it’s with a Goodreads network, a social following, an email sign up, or even advertising Book 2 at the end of Book 1.
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