This week: writing a sequel.
24 July 2013. That’s the date I started writing Ruins, book two of the Sentinel Trilogy. It was just over a month after I’d completed the final draft of Sentinel and released it on Amazon KDP. The exciting circus that was putting the book out there and seeing how it was received had died down, and it felt like the perfect time to get cracking on the second book in the series.
I had no idea how hard it would actually be. I learned many lessons during the course of writing and releasing Sentinel – character development, how much is too much in terms of description, how to build a climax, which mysteries to leave hanging for book two…. (That’s another post for another day.) People talk about the ‘difficult middle child’. Well, with Ruins, I’ve been contending with the ‘difficult middle book’.
I wanted Ruins to be a story in and of itself, but also one piece in a bigger ‘story jigsaw puzzle’ that will only be complete with the final book in the Sentinel Trilogy. That’s a tricky thing to balance.
I’m reminded of how TV writers approach seasons – there’s generally a season-spanning ‘arc’ with diverting, episodic sub-plots along the way. That’s the approach I’ve taken with Ruins. Though there are diversions away from the main arc, they all contribute to and inform the bigger picture.
Sequels are notoriously tricky (and I do count Ruins as a sequel, even though it’s part of a planned trilogy). There are probably only a handful that really stick out as genuinely matching or surpassing their predecessors. As a movie fan, titles like Aliens and Terminator 2 immediately spring to mind. That Jim Cameron knows how to build a fantastic follow-up.
So, writing a sequel. The five main problems I faced (and continue to face):
1. Too many ideas. That might sound like a good thing, but it’s actually a nightmare. How do you prioritise your story ideas and decide which ones are more important and worth telling? Which leads to number two…
2. Deciding what the story actually is. I continually ask myself: “What story do I actually want to tell?” I pretty much ask myself that every day, and every day I give myself a different answer. Infuriating.
3. Too many characters. Not only did I have a clutch of characters left over from the first novel, the story also demanded the addition of yet more characters, which means I’ve been performing an impressive (if tiring) juggling act for roughly 80,000 words.
4. Planning versus writing. I’m going to write a more in-depth post about this in the future, but the gist is: certain story elements for Ruins were planned at the start of the trilogy, but other elements developed during the writing. Finding a way to marry the planned and unplanned is a fun challenge.
5. Action vs chatting. There are loads of big explosive action scenes I want to write, but getting a balance between those with the quiet, conversational scenes is a tricky one.
If all of that sounds like a massive downer, perhaps I’m not being clear. Tackling a sequel to Sentinel has been a fantastic challenge and I’ve learnt even more about writing and storytelling along the way. I feel more confident in my ‘writing voice’ than ever before, and I’m really excited about where the characters have taken me in this dark and twisty world they inhabit.
The fact that sequels/book twos are so difficult to get right can only be a good thing. They demand respect. They demand time. And they demand that you do a good job. It’s not even been a year yet and already Ruins is in pretty good shape. The first draft is just a hair’s breadth away from being completed and I couldn’t be more excited.
When it’s done, then I’ll have a real problem on my hands – writing the trilogy-wrapping third book. Pray for me…
– Joshua Winning