Sequel Syndrome, and How to Avoid It

It’s time.

You’ve written the first novel in a series and you’re ready to tackle the next one, but let’s face it – writing a sequel can be daunting. We all know the dreaded Sequel Syndrome – you loved the first one and the second book hits the shelves, you flip it open, you start reading – and it’s…pretty terrible. It’s sloppy, or the characters feel OUT of character, or the plot isn’t nearly as tight as it was in the first novel.

It’s horrifying, and the last thing you want is for your book to end up in the same category as Those Novels. Not only that, you want your sequel to be even better than the first! So how do you make that happen? I have a few tricks to share.

WAIT. (Anticlimactic? I know. But it’s important.) There’s nothing more harmful to your novel than finishing the first one and rushing right into the second, for several reasons.

  1. The burnout is real. Chances are high that you’ll start your second novel full of vigor and enthusiasm, only to find several chapters in that you just don’t care anymore. You don’t feel like writing, you don’t want to finish the novel, you’re tired of your characters, everything can go rot.
  2. You don’t have perspective yet. If you rush right into your second book, it means you haven’t taken the time to step back and look at your first book with a reader’s perspective. This takes time. You need to wait before you write a sequel, in order to let everything about the first novel come together in your mind. For some writers, this period is no longer than six weeks. For me, this period is generally about six months. Trust me – DO NOT finish a novel and dive right into the sequel. Take a break, write something else, watch all five seasons of a TV show. Do something else.

REREAD YOUR NOVEL. Now that you’ve waited, it’s time to re-read. My favorite way to do this is by re-reading my favorite beta reader’s comments, which she leaves embedded throughout the whole document. That way I get perspective on my own, and I get a reader’s perspective at the same time (plus, she makes me laugh). This is IMPORTANT. I know you don’t always WANT to re-ready our novel – after all, you wrote it, so don’t you know everything about it?? No. You don’t. Upon re-reading it, there will be things that make you go ‘Oh hey, I’d forgotten about that!’ or ‘What? Character X has freckles?? I don’t remember that.’ You NEED to re-read your novel for any kind of continuity and flow. You cannot skip this step.

TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT YOUR THEMES. I’m writing The Climbing of the Moon, the sequel to The Fading of the Light, and I’m an author who likes very distinct themes. Ethics, loyalty, difficult decisions, trying to do the right thing despite the odds, high stakes, interwoven relationships – these are themes running through the first novel, and in your SEQUEL you want these themes to be even stronger. You want to…

AMP UP YOUR STAKES. Anything good from the first book should be intensified in the sequel. You have high stakes in the first book? They should be higher in the second. You have tension in the first book? You should have more tension in the second book. Your first book was dark? Your second book should be darker (I balance this out by adding more humor + lighter moments).

INTRODUCE NEW CHARACTERS. At the end of the first novel, I realized I really only had two true villains. I had a bunch of gray characters – bounty hunters trying to make a living, or a cyborg Captain just trying to do his job. So in the sequel, I introduce a handful of bad guys to help even out the hefty cast of heroes – and I even turn one of the heroes into a bad guy (you can do this, too, if you like. DON’T BE AFRAID TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE as long as you have good reasons for doing it). Shake up your cast. You can kill people off, have people change drastically, add new people, have people switch sides – keep it fresh and interesting!

And most importantly,

STAY TRUE TO THE SPIRIT OF THE FIRST NOVEL. There’s nothing worse than picking up a sequel and wondering – did the author even READ the first book? Did they decide they hated it? Have all their opinions changed? WHAT’S GOING ON? Remember what your first book stood for, remember what you hoped to accomplish, remember the themes we discussed earlier. If you want to switch something up, make sure you do it comprehensively.

I hope this helps your future sequels – and if you have any of your own sequel-writing tips, let me know!

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