Sequel Syndrome

“I can only hope it’s true enough/That every little thing I do for love/Redeems me from the moments I deem worthy of the worst things that I’ve done…”

I always have a song to go with every scene. It doesn’t have to be playing the whole time I’m writing, but generally it has to be playing when I start writing, and I have to replay it periodically while the scene is going. The tone of my environment is very important for my writing performance. Lately I’ve been working on some Les-heavy scenes, and Les tends to be a Panic at the Disco kind of guy. So, for fun, I give you today’s scene theme music before I launch into our discussion –

Things have slowly been calming down in my personal life while they’ve been ramping up in my writing life (two different lives, of course). The sequel is now at 52,000 words and climbing, and the further I go the more appreciation I have for every sequel I’ve ever read, particularly the good ones. Ask anyone who has talked to me in the last month and a half, and they will tell you that at some point I mentioned “book two” and some variation of “kicking my ass” in the same breath. Until the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from horrible writer’s block/writing anxiety and self-doubt, even as I’ve received praise from readers about Tragedy.Both the joy and the torment of writing is stretching yourself – forcing yourself to understand a new viewpoint, solve a new problem, or sharpen a new literary skill. For me, the sequel has been a challenge in ways I could not imagine.

I knew Suffering (which I am considering renaming to Sacrifice, but that’s beside the point) would be more complicated. At the end of book one the world opens up, and book two is all about the flood of information and the fallout from the climax of the previous story. In the beginning I’ve got four separate groups of people doing their own thing, which later consolidates to 2-3, depending on how you count. I thought to myself, sure, juggling that many plots/subplots is going to take a lot of mental energy, and that’s going to be hard. There’s going to be more action, which is not necessarily my forté, and also more interpersonal development; figuring out how to stay true to your characters while ensuring they have an actual arc takes a bit of a deft hand.

The problem I didn’t anticipate was the variable independent of my actual story – the problem is I’m writing a sequel, and sequels are just plain difficult. I’ve written two full novels by this point in my life, one that is published and one that never will be, but until now I’ve never written the continuation of a larger story.  Problems of writing a sequel widely include ruining something that was previously good, worrying about disappointing an audience, writing a story that is “all middle,inconsistencies, and my personal white whale, obsessively wondering why your sequel rough draft looks nothing like your beautifully polished first novel (I never claimed to have a rational muse, just an inconvenient one). One need not list the many sequels which failed to live up to their debut counterparts *ahem* but they are legion, and consumers have almost come to expect that the second installment of any story, regardless of the media form, will be somehow diminished.

Of course, there are some sequels that managed to dodge the sequel syndrome. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was actually my favorite of the series, and was pretty well-received by most readers; The Wrath of Khan is known to be one of the great classic Star Trek movies. The Two Towers is also well-regarded in the arena of sequels (and again was my favorite of that series), and nobody in the movie world should forget The Dark Knight as perhaps one of the best movie sequels to grace the screens (bias here – I adored Dark Knight). These sequels share several common traits; they stand well on their own as stories, in general, and they deepen the observer’s connection to the characters in some way. In Khan we had the heart-wrenching moment of Spock “dying” behind the glass. Dark Knight had its own fascinating arc within the Joker and his ever-escalating trail of violence. Many blogs out there in the world seem to agree that the keys to writing a good sequel are – as you might guess – the very opposite of what makes a bad sequel.

All that said, I’m doing my level best to avoid the sequel syndrome pitfalls by keeping things interesting, getting the plot moving, and throwing in a few surprises. It helps that one of my characters is unpredictable by nature, giving me a great tool to liven things up from time to time. As to the anxiety of ruining the series and the problem of trying to edit before I get words on the page, I’ve decided to forcibly restrain myself from editing as I type. The rough draft looks perhaps even rougher than it already was, but at least things are moving now. I have to remind myself that Tragedy wasn’t beautiful in its first iteration, either.

The learning curve sharpens. To you, dear reader, I leave a question: what do you think makes a good sequel?

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3 Comments

  1. Your cousin Martin Burrows asked that I tell you what I’ve recently discovered about agents. I was one of his writing teachers in college and am a long time friend. I suggest you read Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, An Editor’s Advice to Writers. She also has a blog by the same name and is herself now an agent, was formerly an editor. Hers is, I believe, the latest word in what’s going on in publishing.

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