This continues my September series as I share my top five writing experiences (so far) in the hope of helping and inspiring others as we head into autumn. Given each experience built upon the preceding, they’re presented in chronological order. Thus far, there’s been:
- My September Motivation Series (The Introduction)
- Post 1 – Short Story Explosion (2015)
- Post 2 – Character Connection (2017)
This week I’m looking at my first ever experience with the opening to a sequel. The novel in question is A River in Each Hand, which was drafted in 2016, but the draft was such a mess I put off editing for almost two years. As mentioned last week, when I drafted Riparia’s Bk2 I was ill so the novel’s quality was uneven. Too, I’d never drafted the sequel to anything. Seven novels since 2000 had produced a lot of awful until Trust in the Forgotten in April of 2016.
The dreaded sequel. At least, that was how I thought about it. The reason is that, as a reader, I’d abandoned series because of extensive, needless recapping (among other problems) of the preceding book. I love a good series and, in my mind, each book in a series should stand on its own, not retell the one before it.
What exactly did I want to avoid? A sequel that struggles to drag itself to the first plot point because it breaks away from the sequel’s story at every available turn to go on at length about the first book.
The infamous info dump has (mostly) disappeared. Instead, I too often run into protagonists continually reminded of irrelevant Bk1 moments. It isn’t clever. Other times, a returning character enters the story followed by extensive biography. If the excessive summarizing is done via dialogue it reads like, as you know, Bob. My least favorite is when the protagonist’s positive arc has inexplicably suffered a setback that necessitates repeating the first book’s plot with a few new tweaks.
I’m not naming names here (and won’t), but as a reader I find it annoying. If you excessively summarized the past in Chapter One of Bk1 readers would put it down. So, why’s it okay to recap Bk1 in the sequel? I’ll admit that I noticed this less before I began writing, but I did notice.
I didn’t want any of those issues in my books. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did. All of Bk2’s other issues aside, the opening was packed with Bk1 recollections. It was painful.
If you’ve read the other installments in this series then you’ve noticed a pattern. My top experiences often follow on the heels of disaster, a reminder to everyone to keep trying. My first step was acknowledging that making a sequel’s opening feel natural—is hard. For any who’ve missed the mark, who’ve struggled with writing one, I feel for you. That said, my motto was: Not in my book.
Thus began my fevered and frustrating efforts to make the opening to Bk2 all that I wanted. Abandoning my normal approach, which was to make a pass through the entire novel, I focused on the opening chapters. I rewrote them and rewrote them and rewrote them again, and still it was telling, telling, telling. It was as if I was dancing around the solution, each time coming up with a different version of the wrong answer.
At the moment all seemed lost, my mind traveled back to a piece of advice that I took to heart when writing Bk1. When writing a novel, sprinkle in the backstory, sharing only what the reader needs to know. The moment was a slow dawning, my lips parting, my eyes growing larger. Meanwhile, inside, my thoughts were racing.
The next thought was a charging bison. The instant I switched to Bk2, Bk1 became backstory.
My world was rocked. About an 8.4 on the Richter scale. That was followed by the laughter of disbelief. Was that simple little perspective change all there was to it? Not exactly, but mostly. It was still hard, because my brain was fighting me, but I knew it was possible. I had a vision of the result.
I wouldn’t withhold information from Bk1, but neither would I overshare. If someone was that interested in every little detail in the first book they could read it. My attitude towards Bk2 would be exactly the same as Bk1. The reader would learn everything they needed to that’d make the experience enjoyable. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Altering my approach to make it feel more manageable, I separated out the opening chapters in Sprawn and treated them like a short story. It worked.
Like any good story, A River in Each Hand provides what the reader needs to know to understand the world. It hints at past events, giving them an air of mystery, explanations provided as the story progresses. When a character appears their mini biography doesn’t follow for pages. Most important, the opening jumps right into the story.
Meanwhile, the events in Sprawn are critical to the novel, and the series. Riparia’s arc picks up where it left off in Bk1, but with new growth needed to overcome new challenges. Likewise, the opening to Bk3 was a challenge, but I knew right away what I had to do to fix it.
For some, maybe this isn’t a big deal. It is for me. I want that each novel in a series, if taken alone, will stand on its own and not be bogged down in the past. I treated Bk1 like backstory because—that’s what it was.