On Finishing a Sequel

I have started lots of sequels in my life. None of them ever got to the halfway point, either because I lost interest in the characters or because it was too obviously just the same old same old story. Some of them would make decent books on their own if I went back to them, so they aren’t trunked entirely.

The sequel to Moth and Spark is a different beast. Of course the first thing everybody asked when they liked the manuscript was what I was working on next. At the time, I was not really interested in doing a sequel, because I had been living in that world for the last five years and wanted to move on, but I wasn’t going to reject the idea entirely since the book was being received with enthusiasm. I said that I would do a sequel if I came up with an idea that was more than “The Further Adventures of Corin and Tam.”

I did. I whipped out lots of words really fast and then got a good cold reality check a few months in from my agent, which led to major revisions, followed by another partial review and idea-generating conversation. That was about a year ago. Then I stalled. I could see the ending, but I couldn’t get myself there. By February I had managed to write something that looked finished, but it really wasn’t adequate. Moth and Spark came out in February, and it became very hard to concentrate on writing anything new for the first 10 weeks or so after publication. But stuff finally settled down in early May, and I got cracking.

As I write this, the book is with my agent after he sent comments back a couple weeks ago and I made more revisions. It’s definitely not perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. (I know the story so well at this point that it’s hard to see it with any objectivity on more than the sentence level.) I unearthed a few minor plot holes that need to be filled in, but they don’t get in the way of evaluating the book as a hole.

Regardless of what happens with this manuscript, I’ve learned a lot as a writer from Book 2. I had two particular writing goals to work on: first, to create a more fully-fleshed, present villain, and, second, to develop minor characters without going into their POV (which turns out to be super hard), The biggest difference between this book and Moth and Spark is that there are multiple chapters in the point of view of the villain, who is basically a magic-wielding psychopath with no empathy. He kills people when they get in his way with about the same feelings I have when I clean house. At the same time, he has a set of principles that he lives by, so he’s not completely unsympathetic.

That was a lot of fun. Part of the fun was that I got to take the story new directions in terms of setting (such as the kinds of other people he interacted with and the places he lived), magic (he is busy learning about magic himself), and storyline (a specific antagonism depicted on both sides). Some of the fun was just because everyone loves a good villain. Some was writing a character I had never written before. It was work, too: one scene is particularly icky and was hard to write. Also, since this was a completely new kind of character for me, I didn’t have stuff already in my head to fall back on the way I did with the main characters in Moth and Spark.

Working on the minor characters without going into their heads was not a challenge in terms of imagining who they were or what they were like, but it was tough in the mechanics. They had to have a past created by the memories and thoughts of the POV characters, and it’s not very interesting to have a POV character spending a lot of time thinking about someone else’s life. (Well, it could be in the right hands, but not mine now.) So I had to work it in via dialogue, some thoughts, and the main characters actually talking to each other about the minor characters.

One of the things that was really interesting in this regard was reading some of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels; her hero in the first three Lymond books (The Game of Kings, Queens Play, and The Disorderly Knights) is always seen from other people’s POV. She is basically an omniscient narrator dipping into the heads of various characters, which is a separate technique from never going into the hero’s head. I didn’t try to imitate her – I was much too far along in the manuscript when I first read the books – but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the future.

I learned a lot of other things from writing a sequel too. Often I caught myself wishing something I had just thought of could go in the already written and published book; I did make a few tweaks early on in the editing stage of Moth and Spark while I had the chance, but mostly I saw only “might have beens.” Conversely, I was bound in this book by the limits I had established in Moth and Spark. I couldn’t suddenly introduce an entirely new element no matter how cool it was. Groundwork needed to be laid if there were going to be any changes.

More interesting, however, was to work on getting established characters to keep changing and growing. Some of it was easy, because the circumstances were so changed that they had to respond differently, but mostly I had to be very thoughtful about what went into each interaction and what the characters took away from it. I was also determined to avoid the two obvious cliché’s for what comes after Happily Every After: pregnancy or an immediately failing marriage. I had characters who barely knew each other when they got married, and no matter how deeply in love they were, they had a lot to learn about each other. Writing this without their conversations deteriorating into arguments was really hard.

I’ve started work on a third book, which is a dystopian SF/alternate history/road trip novel and I hope will be different from the first two in a lot of ways besides the setting. It’s much too early to see now. But I wouldn’t have tried such a thing a few years ago; my toolbox has really expanded. And I think doing a sequel, where I was able to forego some of the work of world- and character-building to try doing different things in an established world, was really helpful in broadening my writing skills and goals. So, regardless of what happens with Book 2, I’m really glad I wrote it.