When we reach the end of a sci-fi novel we love and discover the book is part of a series, we’re thrilled. More is on the way. As readers, our biggest problem is waiting with trepidatious hope to see if the next book will be as satisfying as the first. For writers, however, Book 2 is often a gnarly, perilous, fascinating project, with built-in constraints and a backdrop of pressure from deadlines, critics, and readers. Even with solid plans for a sequel, it’s not uncommon for writers to step into Book 2 intimidated, excited, and headed in the wrong direction. Guts are mandatory.
Having an over-arching plan benefited Patrick Ness when he was working on his Chaos Walking series. “I did have the advantage that I knew before writing book one of the trilogy what book two would be like,” Ness explains. “I had general plot points before starting and over-riding themes (book one was “flight,” book two “tyranny,” and book three “war”), and I also knew that it needed to stand-alone and be about something on its own terms. So, since I had an over-arching story for the whole trilogy in place, I was able to let that take care of itself and work on turning The Ask and the Answer into its own, encapsulated plot.” He adds,“I found it kind of fun, actually. I think limitations (i.e. knowing it had to connect, while also functioning fully on its own) can be liberating in a way, and a real spark to creativity. Harrowing, but fun.”
Those limitations from the first book underpin world building, plot, and characters in the second, and all the elements that made the first book compelling need to evolve to a new depth in the second. Otherwise, a writer wouldn’t be interested enough to write it, and this natural desire to take ideas deeper is why so many second books take a psychological or political turn, or both. In Ness’s sequel, for instance, friends from the first book (The Knife of Never Letting Go, 2008), Todd and Viola, are split off into factions that fight for the domination of New Prentisstown. Loyalties shift, the helpless are tortured and murdered, and mind games advance to such a degree that one character can launch his thoughts into another’s mind to control and punish.
What carries The Ask and the Answer (2009) is Todd’s twisted survival, complete with moral failures, remorse, and courage: the sorts of intricacies that can develop in a second book. “By that point,” Ness points out, “you know the characters very well, and you don’t have to spend as much time discovering them as you write. You’re not starting from zero, so their actions can be more nuanced and complex. This lends itself, probably, to a bit of introspection as you push your characters farther and see what their limitations really are.”
Having a game plan for a sequel, however, is not always fruitful in the way a writer expects. Paolo Bacigalupi fully intended a sequel that continued the thread of Nailer and Nita’s story after Ship Breaker (2010), but ran into serious setbacks. “I think I did too good a job of bringing Nailer to rest in Ship Breaker,” Bacigalupi says. “In all the important ways, that character had come to closure, and so reopening his story felt like cruelty. I just didn’t want to put Nailer or his friends through a meat grinder again, and I wasn’t sure that I had a real purpose for doing so.”
Working on his sequel became arduous but enlightening, too. “It felt like I was writing a sequel for a sequel’s sake, rather than because there was a story that felt immediate and necessary and that required the canvas of a multi-book series,” Bacigalupi explains. “I ended up writing an entire draft of the Ship Breaker direct sequel, and then throwing it all away because it didn’t work.” An entire, discarded novel is a significant amount of work, yet he had to do it to discover the new book that mattered to him more.
Bacigalupi admits that writing The Drowned Cities (due out in May, 2012), his companion novel to Ship Breaker, was much more difficult than writing the first novel, largely because of expectations. “It seems obvious in hindsight,” Bacigalupi says, “that I was essentially trying to mimic myself, and that it wouldn’t work, but at the time, I was trying very hard to be professional and to hit my deadlines and to create something that would please my readers, and I just went down the wrong line.I delivered The Drowned Cities a year later than I wanted to because of all my wrong turns, but I feel a lot better about the story that eventually resulted. It’s something that I feel like I can point to and say that I did the best work I could.”
What I appreciate about both Ness and Bacigalupi is that they continued to push themselves and their fictional worlds to create their best next novels, regardless of what their original plans were. A writer in Book 2 is still foremost a writer, after all, laboring with the work on the page. As Ness puts it,“I find almost any book insanely difficult to write, so it’s hard to know if there was anything especially difficult about writing The Ask and the Answer.” He just had to do it.
For me, writing Book 2 in the Birthmarked series fell in between the planned and the unplanned. I didn’t know originally that I’d be writing a trilogy, so I didn’t start thinking in terms of a multi-book plot arc until I was well into revisions of the first book. Then, like Ness, I sketched out a sparse framework for the next two books which allowed me to see where the story was headed. I still had time to go back into Book 1 (Birthmarked, 2010) to change the ending and give myself some loose ends to work with in Book 2. That was definitely fun. I felt all crafty. But that was the easy part. I realized quickly for Book 2 that I’d need a departure from the first setting because Gaia, my main character, wasn’t ready to take on further challenges in her original community. Being true to her was vital to me, and I was concerned about compelling her to develop in new ways. Since I needed to create a new system that would challenge her, I invented the matriarchy of Sylum, and delved into the psychological and political intricacies of that toxic world in Prized (2011).
My Book 2 was indisputably more difficult to write than the first. Although I didn’t technically write an entirely new book like Bacigalupi did, I was still making major plot changes in my eighth draft, and my final novel bears very little resemblance to my original story. In fact, my earliest draft was such a mess that it frightened my editor, Nancy Mercado. Wisely, she didn’t tell me so at the time. She merely said in her kind way, “You might want to take a closer look at the first one hundred pages. And the last one hundred pages.”
It’s no easier writing a second book, but by the time the novel is released, it should seem effortlessly complete. Ideally, all the missteps of deleted scenes and characters, all the hair-pulling, wrestling, and fun, will show only in the conviction of the final story. Chances are the writer will take Book 2 along into the next thing he or she writes, whether that’s Book 3 or otherwise. Guts will be mandatory there, too.
Caragh M. O’Brien is a happy person whose writing keeps getting darker. Go figure. She is the author of Birthmarked and its sequel Prized, both from Roaring Brook Press.