5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing an Unplanned Sequel
Some urban fantasy writers plan out a whole series from the beginning, crafting series-long arcs over multiple books. I am not one of those writers. After The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse was released, I asked my publishers if they wanted a sequel, and they said yes. I'm probably a little unusual in that I typically write a book in full before signing a contract on it. Now that The Last Donut Shop of the Apocalypse is out, several people have asked me if I'll be writing a third book in the series. I haven't decided on that yet, but I thought this would be a good time to share a few tips on managing a series. So, here are the top five questions that you may want to ask yourself when writing an unplanned sequel.
#1: Where do I start?
When I started writing The Last Donut Shop of the Apocalypse, I came up with the concept first, because that's how I always start. Maybe you prefer to look at character first, but that's step two for me. Look at your synopsis, and then focus on the last few chapters of the preceding book (if you don't read the whole book again). Ask what questions would be in the reader's mind at this point, what you left unresolved, and what would be satisfying to see happen next. Revisit any outlining tools you used with the first book to see if you want to mirror those or take them further in the next book. I like to keep a list of setups and payoffs in my intention sheet, along with the goals, stakes, theme, deadlines, basic arcs, and flaw. If you're a pantser, you're probably horrified right now. Do your thing instead.
If a number of people have mentioned they would have liked to see more about a particular character, or more interaction between certain characters, you could consider that if it makes sense for you. If you had written a few more chapters of your preceding book, what would you have included? If those chapters would have been in act two, which is where you work on your protagonist's relationships with other characters, what would you have included there? It may also be a helpful exercise to summarize where you left off in the first book in one short paragraph.
#2: What's the next level for my protagonist?
My protagonist's arc in Condo Board progressed from an itinerant, work-obsessed mercenary who relies on deception, to a woman who finds purpose in working for something beyond her own selfish need for recognition. I wanted her to start coming into her own as a true leader in my sequel. To do this, she needed to get comfortable with who she really was, and if she managed to do that, then maybe she could start a real relationship (which sets up a third sequel).
In line with this, I wanted her to deal with family. The fraught relationship between the Gorgon sisters makes her doubt if she really wants this or not. In the first book, you set up the characters and the situation, but in the second book, your protagonist is likely more firmly in this world. This is the point where you can delve into and play with those relationships more. Ideally, the story situation works with the character interaction to challenge your protagonist.
#3: What are my protagonist's external and internal goals?
Do you have a completely new external goal, or are you dealing with the same antagonistic force? Kelly Driscoll's primary external goal in both books is the same: save the single-purpose angels and stop the apocalypse. In Condo Board, she also wanted to find out who was responsible for killing her family, and her internal goal was to find a sense of contentment through getting her revenge. In Donut Shop, Kelly's primary external goal was the same, but through different means.
How will your protagonist's experiences in the first book impact the actions they take in pursuit of their internal goal in the sequel? Kelly's internal goal in my sequel was to maintain her own identity and get comfortable with just being herself. This was challenged by wanting to connect with her remaining family, and to get closer to someone she had fallen for. The connections she made with the characters in the first book made her want to pursue that internal goal in the sequel.
#4: What are my stakes?
The stakes remained the same in my second book, but in a different context. The single-purpose angels keep the world running, and each has a very specific role. If they're not fulfilling that role (whether it's protecting migratory birds or fungus or teachers or a particular hour of the day), everything falls apart. So the fallen angels and the Angel of Apocalypse will always want to take out the single-purpose angels to bring about the End of Days. Ask what happens if your protagonist doesn't achieve their goal. What do they stand to lose, on an external and internal level? My protagonist would have a lot more to lose on a personal level if she failed to reach that external goal.
#5: What's the setting?
If you're Lee Child, then you have a whole new location each time. Will you be working with the same sets for the most part, or with all new sets? I was working with the same sets for my sequel, but I changed the goals. In Condo Board, I had the setting of the hell lodges, which are only accessible by a very unusual train. Kelly had to figure out how to get there by herself so she could find the Angel of the Apocalypse and rifle through his papers. I made some changes to that set in my sequel: Kelly got to the hell lodges on her own to search for the missing Cluck Snack president. Within that setting, I added the Gorgon sisters' cabins, and a bar. I also added new characters: the bartender, and the executives of the mysterious organization SSI, who disappear into a treehouse bachelor pad. If you're using a set from your previous book, have some fun with it.
Writing a sequel that you didn't plan for can be challenging, but these questions should help organize your work and add some structure to the process.
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Wow, I never really thought about all the planning that goes into writing another book in a series.In one way it's nice because you already have the characters and world established, but at the same time you have to be sure to keep everything fresh and exciting!
A huge thank you to Nina for taking the time out of her busy author's schedule to stop by Megan Likes Books. If you're a fan of zany comedy, be sure to stop by Nina's website and check out my review of The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse.