Monday, November 12, 2018

Sequel Jitters

A post by Mary Fan
Last month, I put the finishing touches on WAYWARD STARS, the sequel to my YA sci-fi novel STARSWEPT, and sent advance copies off to bloggers and reviewers. And I’ve been spinning like a top ever since. One might think that sending out a sequel would be less nervousness-inducing, since the people who requested it presumably read and liked the first book (enough to want to find out what happens next, at least), and they’re already familiar with the world and the characters. So you’re basically giving your book to a crowd that’s already primed to like it.

On the other hand, the ghost of expectations is a terrifying thing. When I sent out the first book, it was a whole new thing for readers to discover, and though I was somewhat jittery, it felt different. It was “will they like this new thing I created?” With the sequel, on the other hand, I felt like I owed the people who’d stuck with me. And the nervousness became, “Is this good enough compared to the first book?”

A big part of the nervousness was due to the fact that WAYWARD STARS has a dramatically different tone from STARSWEPT. I like to think of it as being similar to how the bright optimism of the first STAR WARS movie, A NEW HOPE, gave way to the somber contemplation of its sequel, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But of course, EMPIRE is legendary for a reason—not every sequel can pull it off. And I’ve been disappointed by enough crappy sequels to know how when they go wrong, they go REALLY wrong. Not only are they bad continuations, but they can actually ruin the first installment in one’s mind.

I didn’t mean to take my sequel in a more somber direction. Actually, when I conceived it, I was determined not to do that. When it comes to YA speculative fiction, the tone and general directions of series tend to follow a certain trajectory. Book 1: Clueless main character in a fascinating new world, discovering its (often dark, terrible) secrets alongside the reader, gets some fluffy, fun scenes but is slowly disillusioned. Book 2: Deal with the fallout from said (dark, terrible) secrets. No more fluffy fun. Book 3: Rise up and win the day, usually at great cost.

This isn’t a formula; this is basic story structure at play. It’s what we, at least in the Western storytelling culture, are primed to expect.

As a reader, I’m sometimes bummed out by Book 2 because I miss the fluffy fun of Book 1. So I was hoping, with WAYWARD STARS, to keep the fluff of STARSWEPT—with a focus on the competitive performing arts school stuff, as opposed to the sci-fi dystopia stuff. I had this whole concept for how I was going to do that, how I was going to spare my characters the gloom of a somber sequel. And… it didn’t work. Not at all. Not even a little bit. Because the fact is, this was a sci-fi dystopia against the backdrop of a performing arts school, not the other way around.

I had a lot of trouble writing WAYWARD STARS—so much that I wound up pantsing the entire second half because every time I tried to outline it, things just didn’t come together. I think it was because I kept trying to force it in one direction when the story wanted to go in another, and by pantsing, I was just going with the flow instead of trying to plan out contrived storylines.

Would readers accept the direction this sequel went in? Or would they be disappointed that it’s so different from the first book? Jitter, jitter, jitter.
It probably didn’t help that WAYWARD STARS is only the second Book 2 I’ve written, and, in a way, the first true continuation (with my Jane Colt space adventure trilogy, the books are more episodic). Though come to think of it, with the second Jane Colt book, I had a similar problem where I tried to force the sequel in one direction (even getting 30k words into 2 separate drafts) before realizing that the real story started in what was Chapter 15 or so in the outline. Maybe the lesson here is that I’ve got to stop trying to force my sequels.

Anyway, I’m happy with the version of WAYWARD STARS that eventually emerged, even though it wasn’t the book I originally imagined. And that’s good enough for me.

Have you written a sequel? Was it a continuation, or an episode? And were you jittery about it, or did it feel easier because it wasn't completely new?


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I remember being very nervous about releasing a sequel. I worried about readers enjoying it as much. I totally get it. I don't think the feeling dissipates for any author. It's just par for the course.

Mary Fan said...

*sigh* and here I was hoping maybe it would go away after another book or so... but I guess being jittery about reader reactions is just part of the writer’s life!

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