Writing Sequels: The Fine Balance

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I wrote my first three novels without much of a plan.

I know that sounds crazy, and it was. I think most authors don’t start out with thoughts of where they’d like to go within the industry. We’re trying to feel our way into what we want to do.

For me, those novels were in order: The Stars Entwined, For Steam and Country, and Star Realms: Rescue Run.

I wrote all of them thinking “okay I can do sequels at any time” and left The Stars Entwined and Rescue Run with cliffhangers, while For Steam ended with major character changes and a status quo which makes it obvious there’s going to be more.

But that’s all I had at the time. My original thought was I was going to shop around novels until one hit with a publisher and just keep writing book ones until one did. Though with the reality of today’s indie business model, that wasn’t a great plan.

I’d honestly thought I’d be doing Rescue Run’s sequels first, as that book was doing pretty well and I had a loose idea of what I wanted to do for a trilogy there. But that got pulled the plug on, even though my book was the most successful the publisher had ever put out.

When that changed, I moved to put out a book quickly, which For Steam And Country was in the best shape of my other two. My intention was that The Stars Entwined would be my “main universe” and I really needed to put a lot more work into revising the book before releasing (whiich I did). For Steam was going to be a stopgap while I got on track for space opera.

And then For Steam And Country outsold The Stars Entwined by more than 5x.

My plans changed and I knew I had to focus sequels there.

I’d known a little of what I was going to do with Zaira — plans to incorporate giants, and I wanted to make more of a focus on adventuring — going to different regions of the world I’d developed where she’d encounter new strange things. The Blood Of Giants came pretty naturally and is still my favorite book of mine to date.

What made it fun to write and fun to read is it was so different than the first.

As a writer, we have to be careful on that front. For sequels, there needs to be familiar, but differences as well, otherwise we will get a little bit bored in the writing, and that will come across to the reader. It’s a tricky balance.

I went very different in the setting, and different for Zaira’s dynamic with her crew, but there was a lot of familiar there as well. I captured the exploration element that I wanted with the book… and then I had an idea.

That idea acted as the end of the book where I put in a twist that led to The Fight For Rislandia — which pulled the series back in a direction different from the exploration vibe in The Blood of Giants, in to break-neck paced war action. It was a lot darker, a lot harder on my characters and world, and a bit more difficult for me to write as a result.

But during this time I also wrote a pair of novellas and a half-dozen short stories, filling out the world, making it a little bigger and adding a lot to the series.

I kept it fresh by writing from different characters’ perspectives.

Now I’m finally getting back to writing Zaira again, about a year and a half since I last did, and I’m finding the words are flowing very easily, because of all the background set up work I did.

This time I have a plan. A full trilogy of Zaira books, along with 4 more James novellas to work between the framework.

It’s going to be different than I originally envisioned, as I’d expected to be writing a book titleed Baron von Monocle and the City of Masks right about now, but instead I’m writing The Iron Wedding.

But what I’ve done is set everything up so I’ll be exploring different facets of the character and world, to where there’s interest to me beyond just the basic plots. This is what’s needed when you get into a 7th or 8th book in a world to keep it interesting for you as a writer, and also for the readers.

But it’s also why I set up Zaira as “ordinary” in book 1. She wasn’t ready for prime time as a character, was pulled along by the plot and events, and learned. By book 3 she’s become a real leader, and in book 4 and beyond she’ll start really pushing into an epic destiny.

A lot of authors make mistakes of making their characters too bad ass in book one, saving the world, pulling the epic finish– but how does a character grow from there? They can’t, and because there’s no challenge dynamic for characters to overcome in later books, it makes the books a little stale. It’s why i’m not writing books about Zaira’s father, because it’d be too much of a “AND HE WINS AGAIN!” Zaira, by contrast, still has a lot left to her to do for growth, and you won’t believe where this next book takes her.

Those are just some of my thoughts on writing sequels: Keep it fresh, keep growing the characters, do something different but incorporate the familiar. It boils down to that, and i hope it helps and is interesting!

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