Monday, March 23, 2015

The Why, What, and How of a Fantasy Sequel

After my debut fantasy novel, Dreamwielder, was published, I was on the fence about whether to leave it as a stand-alone novel or write a sequel and turn it into a series. After sitting a little too long on that fence, I decided to go for it, and I penned the sequel, Souldrifter, which will be coming out from Diversion Books this summer. In some ways, the sequel was far easier to write than the first book, but it posed its own unique challenges. So for any writers contemplating writing a sequel or those who are curious about the process, here’s the why, what, and how of my experience.


The main reason I was indecisive about turning Dreamwielder into a series was because I was hesitant to commit the time and energy into writing multiple books with the same world and characters I’d already spent so much time with. Would I grow bored with them? And what about all the other book ideas I had percolating in my imagination?

I told myself I’d wait, and if the first book was successful, then I’d commit to the long haul. That was stupid. I mean, what’s the definition of “successful,” particularly with a debut novel? Leading up to Dreamwielder coming out, my biggest fear was that it would get bad reviews. Like many new novelists, I discovered that the worse fate—and more probable one—was indifference from the marketplace, resulting in the book fading into obscurity. The reviews of Dreamwielder, from critics and readers alike, were positive, but they were few and far between. Similarly, the book peaked with some solid numbers on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon fantasy rankings, but quickly sunk into mediocre sales numbers. Was that a success? I didn’t feel so. The more important question, though, was whether I’d given the book a chance to be successful.

In doing a little research and picking the brains of my agent Liz Kracht and acclaimed author and writing coach Bruce McAllister, I discovered there’s good reason why there are so many fantasy series out there, and hell series within all genres. For starters, readers enjoy spending more time with characters they’ve come to know and love. Think of how much anticipation there always is for a new Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Jack Reacher novel. For fans, a new book in the series is like spending time with dear old friends. And for authors, writing sequels is a simple numbers game: the more books you have, the better the chances are readers will discover them, and if you have a series, readers are more likely to buy several books of yours rather than just one.


Once I decided to expand Dreamwielder into a series, I needed to determine what exactly the first sequel would be. I decided to pick up the sequel with my main characters—Makarria and Caile—pretty near where we left them at the end of the first book. After all, as I discovered in the “why” process, it’s all about the characters readers have come to know and care about. From there, I needed to figure out the conflict that would drive the action, and again that stemmed from the first book; Makarria’s and Caile’s deeds fundamentally changed the world they lived in, and as with any change, new problems are bound to arise. For Makarria and Caile, that problem came in the form of the Old World Republic seeing an opportunity for expansion. Of course, figuring what I was supposed to do was much easier than actually doing it.


It’s never easy to write a book, and the process will never be the same for any two books, even within a series. Having said that, Souldrifter was much easier and quicker to write than Dreamwielder. This was partly because I’m more experienced and confident as a writer now. The other factor was most of the groundwork was already laid out with writing the first book: I knew who my characters were and I knew the history of the world they lived in. The challenge was in making sure the new book was even better than the first, and that meant upping the stakes for my characters and making the plot even more fast-paced and twisted than in Dreamwielder. In addition, as my young adult characters grew older, I wanted them to explore more complex issues.

The Scent-Hounds from the first book play an important
role in the sequel. Sketch by Patrick Williams.
So, how did it all add up? Well, the plot was driven largely by those complex issues I wanted to explore, namely gender bias when it comes to sexuality and politics, but also environmental concerns, militarization, imperialism, and ethnic diversity. Once I had those conflicts in place, I put my characters into action. I did very little outlining in this book, as compared to the first one. That meant writing the first draft was mostly getting the main plot and structure down, which was no easy chore (seeing as how I had over six different viewpoint characters spread out across the Five Kingdoms), but it was still easier than writing the first draft of Dreamwielder.

The part of the process that really kicked my butt for Souldrifter was the revision phase. Because I wanted my characters to mature and grow more complex, I had to make sure they were reacting realistically to the situations they were in. This all came into focus with their internal viewpoint, which is a layer of the narrative that was pretty thin with the first draft. It was painstaking and slow going refining each chapter so that every character had clear motivation and wasn't simply doing things because it was convenient for the plot.

In the end, the result was a story I’m proud of and one I think readers will enjoy. And this time I’m not going to make the same mistake of sitting idly by to see if the book is a success of not. Instead, I’m going to trust myself and give the books a chance to succeed by jumping right into book number three.

Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction. To learn more specific details about the process of writing process for Souldrifter, read his post "Behind the Numbers" at his personal blog, The Machine Stops.


Sue Coletta said...

Good luck with the new book, Garrett!

Peter Hogenkamp said...

I agree with you, Garrett: When I continue on with a series, it's because I have formed a sort of relationship with the characters. Best of luck with book #2 in the series. peter

Unknown said...

Thanks, Sue and Peter!