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April 7, 2010

Raffi Yessayan on the Challenges of Writing a Sequel

When I sold my first novel, Eight in the Box, I was excited for about five minutes before I realized I had just signed a two book deal, which meant I had to write a second novel. Between work, marriage, homeownership and life in general, the first book had taken me eight years to write. That was before edits.
There was no pressure when I wrote Eight in the Box. I wrote chapters as they came to me and fit them into my story. I always knew how the book would begin and how it would end, but I pretty much learned the rest of the story along the way. In essence, I moved at my own leisurely pace.

I didn’t have the same luxury of time in writing Two in the Hat. I had an agent and an editor in New York asking me for updates and looking for the finished product. A finished product they had paid me to write. As the deadline approached, I hadn’t written a single scene yet; I had notes (pages and pages of notes) written on yellow legal paper, sticky notes in my car, napkins, the back side of my business cards, whatever I had handy when I got an idea for book two. But they were just notes. Even with established characters, there was no chance of making that one year deadline.

And I was right.

If I was going to make my extended deadline (six extra months!), I needed to be more efficient in my writing. Some time earlier, I had seen Lee Child and Joseph Finder at the New England Crime Bake writers’ conference arguing the issue: to outline or not to outline. I had also heard Andrew Gross advocate for the importance of outlining in writing his novels. I was desperate, so I decided to give outlining a try.

I started writing Two in the Hat with a chapter-by-chapter outline, plotting out the whole novel. First I mapped out the beginning and the ending (which, just as for book one, I already knew). Then I started filling in the rest of the story. Within a few weeks I had more than a hundred chapters mapped out, the entire novel from beginning to end.

Yet, even with an outline, I ran into a larger problem. I learned that the biggest issue with writing a sequel is in striking the proper balance between the interests of new readers as opposed to those of loyal readers who have come back for more. I didn’t want to bore return readers by reintroducing every character (the ones who were still alive anyway) or by rehashing every event that had occurred in Eight in the Box. On the other hand, I didn’t want new readers to be confused about certain characters’ motivations that were shaped by past events.

This, I was to discover, was a recurring problem throughout the process of writing a sequel. Ultimately, I decided to write Two in the Hat as if it were a stand-alone novel. I would simply assume that the reader knew everything that had happened in Eight in the Box. Then, during the editing process, my agent, editor and writers’ group read the book with an eye toward any place where information needed to be added to prevent confusion for new readers. It turned out that very little needed to be added. The story flowed nicely.

I learned the value of outlining and that every novel, even a sequel or a book in a series, needs to stand on its own. If the book is well-written, with strong characters and a good story, then it will hopefully entertain every reader.

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