You finish a novel. The characters are likeable, plot exciting, and story world intriguing. Not to mention that you've written the best cliffhanger ending in existence! People are going to eat up your story and what's even better is they are going to want more. More of your beautifully crafted prose and brilliant plot twists!
"No problem," you say as you sit down to write. "I'll just crank out the sequel and hey, maybe even a third book. Got to give the people what they want."
And then...nothing. You have nothing. Well, that's not entirely true. You've written a couple of chapters but you feel like they are crap, and then think that it's even worse to have crap than to have nothing. So what happened? You had this killer story and now everything you write after it just turns out sounding like you're writing a sub-par fan fiction based off of your own book. Where did the creativity go?
Some writers can crank out books like crazy, but that may not be you. I definitely know that's not me. As hopeless as it may seem, I do want to encourage you if you find yourself struggling to write that second book. You are not alone. Countless movies, books, and TV shows fall prey to what I call "the curse of the sequel." Some of us authors start off strong, then when it comes times to continue the story we freeze up.
I'm going to be very honest with you. I suffer greatly from the curse of the sequel. And with this blog post, I hope to help others break the curse as I attempt to find ways to help my own faltering second stories.
I first realized the curse was upon me after I finished my first novel. It was fantastic, my friends loved it and begged me for more. But when I got down to it I felt like I didn't have any more to give. Twice I tried writing the sequel and twice I stopped halfway through. My attempts were always so boring!!! My characters revealed nothing new and the plot was loose at best, all within a story world that had lost its luster.
After all these attempts, I am now forced to analyze my writing. It's time to break free before the curse takes away a novel that has a lot going for it and deserves a second book.
When I wrote my first novel, all of my characters had stakes in the story. There was no turning back for them once the plot got going and the motivation was high for them to continue on. In my second novel, I noticed that though the stakes had stayed the same, the plot might need some spicing up.
What makes your characters committed to this particular leg of the story? If the stakes are the same as in the previous novel, how can you give your story a sense of urgency or deepen your characters' commitment? What makes this second book even more climatic than the first?
In the first book, it was easy to keep my characters interesting. My readers were still being introduced to them and even within the story my characters were getting to know one another. Connections and relationships were being made and secrets were being revealed.
Then when writing my second book, I felt like my characters had lost their pizzazz. I think part of that is because the reader knows the characters by the second book and all of the major secrets had been revealed. I'm hoping that for my next step, I can make my characters exciting again.
That may mean going back to the drawing board and filling them out more. That may also mean that I need them to hold some secrets back in the first book to save for the second. I still need to find ways to make my characters grow and learn new things about themselves and each other.
Same Old Plot
Another reason I think my sequel attempts fell short is that they were merely a continuation of the first book's plot and had nothing new to add. While that first plot thread was good and can still hold over to the second book, there should be some new elements added, like more things unveiling, surprising events, and twists. The second novel should still be its own book. The reader shouldn't feel like they are just rereading the first novel with a change of scenery.
Along with making the stakes higher and plot more interesting comes the idea of the three act story (if that is the way you write). In my first novel, the three big incidents that propelled my story forward were exciting and made the characters even more committed to the plot. But in my second novel, I found that the incidents were not as motivating or were on the same level of intensity as those in the first book. I believe that to make the second book just as exciting as the first, the three major incidents need to be even more intense than the ones in the first book. As the characters get closer to the end, things need to become even more climatic.
So there you have it. I am hoping to give my sequel another try and I hope that if you have a sequel floating out there, that you give it another try too. Don't be afraid to analyze your own writing and tear things apart. Sometimes it takes a complete overhaul to get to a great sequel.
I am fully aware that it is the month of September. Soon the leaves will start to turn, the air will get chilly, and I will crawl into my sweaters in the morning instead of putting on my t-shirts and shorts. Not only am I painfully aware that winter is on its way, but I am also reminded that NaNoWriMo is coming soon in November. That leaves me only two months to come up with a novel idea! (And yes, two months is close enough to start panicking.)
For those of you who don't know, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an awesome event that writers everywhere should attempt at least once. Like the name suggests, the goal is to write a complete first draft of a novel (50,000 target word count) in only a month. Impossible you say? Yes, sometimes it is. And then again, sometimes not.
My first experience with NaNoWriMo was back during my sophomore year of college. Tons of people in my creative writing classes were talking about it and freaking out about how their word counts were not on track to finish by the end of the month. Once I found out about the challenge, I thought it was definitely something I wanted to try. So I cluelessly jumped into the chaos already a week behind everyone else. And not only that, I also changed my novel idea two weeks into the challenge. I had completely set myself up to fail at this, and yet the strangest thing happened, by the end of the month I had a complete 50,000 word novel!
How did that happen? Well, it had a lot to do with having no friends. But in all seriousness, the thing that helped the most was the word counter that the NaNoWriMo website provides. Every day you enter in your word count on the NaNoWriMo website. It keeps track of your pace and how many words you need to write per day in order to finish. Needless to say, it was quite the motivator, especially once it got down to the wire and I could see how many words short I was. It gave me that extra push to catch up and finish my novel.
Because of the rushed timing, you shouldn't expect your novel to be very good once you are done with it. It is a first draft after all, and those always need work. But the point is to get something completely finished down. Too many times, and I am so very guilty of this, writers start off strong with a story and then slowly lose motivation and inspiration. Then there is an unfinished first draft which is never going to mature into a novel. NaNoWriMo helps you get that first draft done so that you can move forward and shape up your writing into the awesome story you first imagined it to be.
I wills say, this challenge is not for the weak of heart. It is a mad rush during that month and you give up on basically everything else but your novel. For college students, Thanksgiving Break suddenly becomes a whole bunch of free time for writing, forget the turkey! But with all that said, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences, and I'm sure even better if you can find a writing group to get plugged into and go through it with together.
I have done NaNoWriMo for three years now. The first year was an unbelievable success and that last two, well, have been flops. My novels still sit unfinished despite my harried attempts to put words down and finally giving up halfway through the month. Yet, I have not been deterred. This year I will try once again to finish the challenge and I hope that you will join me and try to do the same.
Want to give yourself a head start two months out? Here's how:
1. Sign up and make a profile at nanowrimo.org. It takes hardly any time at all and gives you time to explore all of the resources you will have for the month of November.
2. Start connecting with other writers who are going to do the challenge. I have a friend who I have known for four years that I met in my first college creative writing class. Throughout the years we have met in coffee shops and encouraged one another in our writing. She does NaNoWriMo as well and it is so helpful to be able to talk to her about my frustrations and encourage one another to push through to that next word count.
3. If you're a planner like I am, start an outline. Some writers work well with outlines, others don't. But if you find that outlines help keep your writing on track then use these months to thoroughly think out your story world, develop your characters, and pay special attention to your plot. Then when the craziness begins, you're better equipped to avoid writer's block and work towards completing the challenge.
4. Get pumped! Get excited about NaNoWriMo and especially get excited about your story. Tell people about it who will be your cheerleaders and help you through that month. It's a great time so don't take things too seriously. Even if you don't finish, you've still written a large amount of your story and have connected with other writers.
I will be keeping you posted about my experience during this year's NaNoWriMo. Whether I succeed or fail, I'm hoping that it will be a fruitful month of writing. Good luck and let the prep begin!
Hi, I'm Jessica! I'm on a mission to make my writing better in hopes of becoming a published novelist. It's been a crazy journey so far as I learn the twists and turns of the publishing world, but it's been worth it. Though I'm still learning how to be the best writer I can be, I'm excited to share what I learn with you. Happy writing!