Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Some Answers: On Sequels

I want to know what the biggest challenge is working on a sequel.

Two things about this. First: one of the biggest challenges of working on a sequel, for me, is that It Will Exist In Large Quantities, IE, Will Be Published. When I wrote the first book, I wrote knowing that there were no guarantees; chances were, no one would ever read it. Now, writing the second one, I know that eventually people will read it, which means that I am constantly thinking about people reading it while I'm writing it, which makes it harder to break out of The Safe Box and explore things and fail miserably and start again, and so on, which are all integral to my writing process, especially the failing miserably.

It has been very difficult for me to turn off the "people are going to read this so it better be good!" voice that shouts at me all the time, but I've tried to develop a new way of thinking when I sit down to write, and that has helped some. I also think it just takes some getting used to.

Second: the trouble with sequels is this. In the first book, I explored some deeper themes (choice, moralism, goodness, etc.) as I was writing, not with the intention of Making A Point, but with the intention of...well, exploring. Questioning. Examining.

But with the second book, I found that I was just continuing the story I'd started in book one, which is fine, but somehow lacking. Certainly the story has to continue, but the deep exploration can't vanish, or the book is not as meaningful to me, which means it probably won't be as meaningful to the reader. It's something I wish I had kept in mind when I started, and that I am now remedying as I continue, and will keep trying to remedy as I revise.

My advice to people writing sequels is to think of the work not just as a continuation of the first book, but as a whole book in and of itself, with the same story arc, the same character arcs, and the same undercurrents of thoughtfulness that you would have in a stand-alone. Easier said than done, right?

How do you handle new ideas, when you know that the trilogy is just beginning? Do you write them down and then just plan to tackle them after all three books are complete?

What I do is: I let the idea percolate for awhile in my head--write it down, think it over, let it develop--and then I start to write whatever scenes I've got floating around. I usually get to about 30 pages before I get stuck and would normally have to do some serious thinking/exploratory writing, if I was going to commit to making it a full-length work. But instead of doing that serious thinking/exploratory writing, I just save the 30ish pages I have and put them aside. That way, if I decide to go back to that idea once the trilogy is done, I haven't forgotten anything crucial.

I know it sounds a little crazy to devote so much time and energy to a new idea, like I should just try to shove it out of my head. But if you're a writer, you know that doesn't work--the idea just pokes at you over and over again, begging you to write it. So I spend a little time on it, knowing that it will ultimately make it easier for me to re-focus on my trilogy writing.

Also, do you ever get nervous or anxious at the thought of working on the same story for so long?

Yes, definitely! But it was before I started book 2. Now that I'm almost done with the rough draft of book 2, it seems more like "well I'll just revise this, then write the next one, and that's it." (Yes, I do manage to sound extremely cavalier about putting WHOLE BOOKS together in my me, it's all talk.) I think the key is not to look too far ahead. Just take it one step at a time--one book at a time, one scene at a time. That's how I stopped feeling nervous about it.

Did you write Divergent as a stand-alone novel with series potential or just as a stand-alone? And if you wrote it with series potential, how did you leave it open ended enough that sequels can follow but not so open ended that agents reject it for a an ending that doesn't wrap up perfectly?

I wrote Divergent as a stand alone with series potential, which means that I worked very hard to find the right balance for the end: satisfying, such that the story could stop right there if it had to, but intriguing enough that people would want to read more. In my mind the world and greater story were always big enough for three books, so when I was asked how many I thought there would be, 3 was always the answer.

I don't know if I can answer the question of HOW I did that "satisfying but intriguing" thing without giving the ending away (although I will say--and I hope this doesn't sound arrogant-- that I believe I did strike that balance successfully), but I'll try. Basically, in Divergent there is The Immediate Conflict, which forms the plot of the book, and The Greater Conflict, which is essentially, how do these people get themselves out of this downward spiral (even if they just end up getting themselves into yet another downward spiral)?

It's like this: you're in a tiny, crappy boat in the middle of the ocean. And your boat springs a leak. ("CRAP! WE'RE GOING TO SINK! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE IF WE DON'T PLUG UP THIS LEAK RIGHT NOW!") You manage to plug up the leak, but once the leak is plugged, you are still in a tiny, crappy boat in the middle of the ocean, and really need to find land. ("CRAP. WE'RE STILL IN THIS BOAT!")

The plot of book 1 is like the leak. The series arc is being in the boat.

I think you try to answer the most pressing questions, like "what happens to Character X?" and "Does Character X ever reach Very Important Goal X?", etc, but leave other, not essential but still intriguing, questions unanswered. It's hard to figure out. If you have beta readers to tell you how they felt at the end, that's extremely helpful.

Awesome questions all. Thank you! Next week I'll be talking about Divergent specifically (inspiration! Writing process! Revision process! Etc.), if you want to check back again.


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