How to Write Sequels that Stand on Their Own

Feb 28, 2011

After a month of letting Devs sit without touching it, I'm starting to remember the things I love about it. In fact, I'm getting downright anxious to finish my last round of rewrites. It's still out with a few beta readers, though, and I want to wait until I get the rest of the feedback.

So, I started planning the sequel.

And let me tell you, I was awfully naive about sequels. No prob, I thought. I already know my characters, built my world, and know what I'm going to do with the plot. It'll be a cinch!

I'm sure those of you who have written sequels are laughing at me now. Here are a few things I've learned while starting to sketch out the sequel.

1. You still have to develop character arcs. Yes, I know my characters now. But some of them changed through the course of Devs. They're starting at a different place in the sequel, and they'll have to grow some more. I won't have to start from scratch, but I do still have to incorporate character arcs.

2. You have to deepen the world. I did a fairly extensive amount of worldbuilding with Devs, and some of the details didn't actually show up in the book. Some of the background information just wasn't necessary at that point. But it becomes necessary in the sequel-- and some of it is still a little vague. I'm going to have to work out more of the details, and show the reader the same world they saw in Devs. I just have to make it deeper, and even more real and complex.

3. Even though it's tied to the previous book, the plot must stand on its own. One of my pet peeves in sequels is when the plot feels flimsy, and doesn't have its own beginning, middle, and end. I still have to go through the process of defining the story question, subplots, and structure. I have to have a separate-- but related-- story. I can't have a flabby middle, an unsatisfying end, or a slow beginning. All the same rules of plotting apply.

4. You have to fulfill expectations-- but you still need to surprise the reader. After reading the first novel, your readers will have certain expectations about the sequel. If you don't fulfill those, they'll throw the book into a pyre and dance around it while cursing your name to the heathen gods. (Or possibly something less dramatic.) Basically, they won't be satisfied. You need to fulfill those promises you made-- but if the book unfolds exactly how the reader expected it, you also run the risk of boring them to death. And I think we'd all like to keep our readers alive. So you still need to work in twists, new characters (or change character relationship dynamics), and surprise moments that turn those expectations on their head. It's a fine line to walk between providing satisfaction and surprise.

Basically, writing a sequel is possibly harder than writing the original. I don't plan on actually writing the sequel yet (I'm still working on TUGL, and I've got some work to go on Devs itself), but I want to have the basics sketched out before I start querying Devs.

So, my friends, have you written sequels before? Have any great tips you'd be willing to share? What are some of your favorite book or movie sequels-- or least favorites-- and why?

And there's just five days left to enter for your chance to win critiques from an agent and an editor, and help five kids in Ghana get an education! Enter the raffle here.

Raffle Extended!

Feb 25, 2011

Just a quick note to say thank you to everyone's well-wishes on the last post. I'm feeling better already, and hope to jump back into things in a few days.

Also, I'm extending the raffle by one week-- until Friday March 4th. So if you haven't entered for your chance to win a critique from Sarah LaPolla and C.A. Marshall, hop to it. We're still quite a ways from our goal to pay for the children's tuition, so if you can help in any way-- entering the raffle, or just spreading the word-- your help would be greatly appreciated!

Today's Non-Blog Post Brought to You by...

Feb 23, 2011

...carpal tunnel! Woot!

Or not.

Take care of your wrists, my writerly friends. You're gonna need them. Here are some exercises to help keep you typing, complete with lovely illustrations.

As for me, I've got to rest mine for a few days so I don't get full-blown carpal tunnel.

Signing out.

How to Write (or not write) Families in a YA Novel

Feb 21, 2011

The LTUE conference is now over, and it makes me a little sad. One of my absolute favorite things about conferences is connecting with people, and I was able to connect with a lot of people! Seeing old friends and meeting new ones makes my heart happy.
Me with an old friend (David, whose blog I yoinked the picture from) and a new friend (Kate, who is an amazing teen writer).

And of course, I learned a ton. One of the panels in particular made me think. It was about the "orphan phenomenon" that occurs in YA-- you know, the fact that every hero/heroine either has no family or a disfunctional/disconnected one.

The basic consensus is that this happens because YA books are about teens finding themselves. If they have a supportive, functional family, they have someone to run to who helps solve their problems. And the character needs to solve their own problems for a YA novel to ring true.

There were some things in the panel that I agreed with, and some I disagreed with, but here's my basic takeaway: whether your character is an orphan or has a huge family, there MUST be a reason for it.

In the book Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (which I HIGHLY recommend), family is a huge deal-- the MC's brother has died, and much of the book is her coming to terms with it (and dealing with parents who, in their own ways, aren't coming to terms with it themselves). In The Maze Runner by James Dashner (another great book), no one has a family-- they're all amnesiac teens trapped in a gigantic, death-filled maze.

In both of these cases, the inclusion or exclusion of a family is purposeful, with a good reason that is tied to the plot. It makes sense within the story. Creating an orphan character simply so she can run off and save the world without a curfew isn't good enough.

Of course, your character is the one saving the world. They need to be the ones to solve the story problem, and have a reason not to run to their family to solve things. The family doesn't have to be gone, but there needs to be a reason your teen can't rely on them.

In my own stories, family usually plays a key role, but there are always REASONS the teen has to solve the problem on their own. In Devolutionaries, Ash's grandfather (his parental figure) is the problem-- he's been kidnapped. In The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, Gena knows her overprotective parents would flip out if they knew who she was working with to solve the problem, so she doesn't turn to them.

Whether you make your character an orphan or give them a family (dysfunctional or otherwise), you'll be facing cliches and stereotypes. To avoid them, just make sure whatever you do is purposeful. If you give reasons within your story for things to be the way they are, you can make just about anything work.

So, my friends, what are your thoughts? Do you write orphans or characters with family? Do you think YA books need more families-- or need more orphans? What books have you read (or written!) that makes either situation work or not work?

And remember, this is the last week to enter the raffle for a chance to win a critique from agent Sarah LaPolla and editor C.A. Marshall! Go enter for a chance to win-- and to help a few kids in Africa get an education!

Lessons from Writing Conferences-- Your Name Really is Your Brand

Feb 17, 2011

So, I've made a little change to the blog. Or a big change, actually. You'll notice my blog name is no longer Life, the Universe, and Writing (that's now relegated to the sad position of tagline). And for good reason.

Today was the first day of BYU's sci fi/fantasy/horror writing conference: Life, the Universe, and Everything. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and inspiring. I made a few new friends, saw a few old ones, and learned something interesting.

I met someone I've so far only known through her blog. She thought she'd been to my blog as well, but couldn't remember my name. I mentioned the name of my blog, and she said, "Oh, yeah, I remember now."

You know what my immediate thought was? BLOGGER FAIL.
My writing blog, like many of yours, is for two main purposes: to share the writing journey with other writers, and to basically market my name. If people who come to my blog don't immediately associate my name with it, I'm not reaching that second goal.

I've heard time and time again that for writers, your name is your brand. Today, that message finally hit home.

So, my friends, think about it. Are you getting your name out there the way you want?

Finding Characters in Real Life

Feb 16, 2011

The other day, I was walking down the street. My neighbor, who is the strong, silent, manly type, was cleaning his garage.

To the tune of Celine Dion.

Not exactly what I expected to hear from him. It made me smile, because I felt like that little contradiction helped me get to know him just a bit better. It made him interesting to me. It made me want to base a character on him.

Now, basing characters on real people can be iffy. Charles Dickens did it, and had several relatives who stopped speaking to him. But taking bits and pieces from the people around you helps craft believable, contradictory, fascinating characters. I've got several characters in TUGL that have aspects of friends, coworkers, and family members. It's fun to see how those traits mix with others to make my characters real.

So, my friends, have you ever based a character on someone you know? Tell us about it!

Making Friends

Feb 15, 2011

Hello, my friends. I call you all my friends quite often in this blog, because I feel like we are. Even if we don't really talk (or comment), we read each other's blogs. We share in similar journeys. We help and encourage each other. It's something I love about the blogosphere-- it connects people in deeper ways than Twitter or Facebook.

I like my friends to get to know each other. So today, I'd like to introduce you to another one of my friends.

This is Michael Nyame. He's about 10 or 11 in this picture-- it's hard to say exactly, because birth dates are hard to pin down in rural Ghana. He's around 16 or 17 now.

Michael lives in Effutu, a small village in Ghana. For a short time, he lived at New Life International Orphanage nearby because his mother couldn't afford to feed him. When he went back to his mother to help with the farming, his brother Amos stayed.

He has a stutter when he speaks English, but not when he speaks Fante.

His favorite food is chicken and rice, though he doesn't get it very often. When I took him to town one day and bought him some, he only ate half of it. He wrapped up the rest to take home to share with his family.

Michael's father is dead. His mother, Grace (right), struggles to support her children through her farm and her relative's support. Hard work has aged her, but it has also strengthened her. Her laugh is contagious.

Michael is much like his mother. He has the same infectious smile (though his also has a goofy quality to it) and the same drive to protect his siblings. Even though he and his brother Amos don't live in the same home, the two boys were close (see picture below).

Michael missed out on school a lot to help on the farm, and he was near the bottom of his class for some time. But he's a smart kid, and a hardworking one to boot, and in the years since I first met him, he passed his high school entrance exams. He started school in September.

This boy means so much to me. When he fell dangerously ill with malaria at school one day, I helped take him home, and witnessed a miracle. Within a day, he was completely healed. You can read the full story here. Michael and I have written letters, and even had the chance to meet again when I went back to Ghana in 2008.

And more than anything, I want him to go to school. I want him to be able to gain his dream of being a bank manager. I want to work with his mother and his teachers to give him a better life than he was born into. (Michael and Grace, below, at their home in Effutu.)

I know you haven't met Michael. But I wanted you to get to know him a little, because he needs help. Please donate to keep Michael in school. If you can spare even five dollars and skip a morning coffee or fast food lunch, it can make a difference in his life.

Of course, you are my friends too. So I wanted to offer the chance to help you out as well. For every five dollars you donate, you have a chance to win a critique from an agent, and editor, and me.

If you can't spare five dollars, can I ask you to please spread the word about the Raffle for Education? Please, folks. I know I sound dangerously close to begging, but if you can let as many people know as possible-- through blogging, Twitter, Facebook, word of mouth, etc.-- it will help Michael so much.

To all of you who have donated already, I can't thank you enough. Thanks for reading, my friends.

Cover Love-- Creating your own book covers

Feb 14, 2011

I have sort of a lukewarm feeling toward Valentine's Day. I love my husband. I don't need a single day of the year to give/receive romance and appreciation. That said, it's a great excuse to find a babysitter and go out on a date. I'm never averse to a little extra romance amidst the everyday romance.

But that's not what this post is about. It's about LOVE, yes...but it's about something I LOVE about writing that, uh, has nothing to do with writing.

I love making mock covers for my books. I'm not an expert in graphic design, and I don't even have Photoshop. My covers are pretty basic; I have two steps.

1. Make a list of words that reflect your book's themes, plot points, and characters. Then do a Google image search for those.

2. I pull the images I want into a freeware program called GIMP. I do some tweaking, effects, rearranging, image combinations, and text creation for the titles.

And voila! I get a temporary face for my book. Here are some designs I've played with for my current WIPs.

This is the cover for Devolutionaries. I had a hard time coming up with a cover for this one. I think this one looks awesome, but I'm not sure it really captures the book. [image removed]

This one is for Black and Blue. While the story is currently waiting its turn because I got wrapped up in another project, I love the cover! [image removed]

And now for my favorite...the cover for The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. A few effects turned the basic picture into something that reflects the story. [image removed]

So, my friends, what fun things do you do with your WIPs that have nothing to do with the writing of it? Have you ever made your own covers, just to put a face on your book?

And don't forget, you can enter to win a critique from agent Sarah LaPolla and editor C.A. Marshall-- and help five kids in Africa get an education!

What if (gulp) you don't get published?

Feb 10, 2011

I have loved writing stories since childhood. I finished my first "novel" (which was more of a novella) when I was about 13, and I proudly bound it with a three-hole-punch and some yarn and presented it to my father. He praised it lavishly, got misty-eyed when he saw it was "dedicated" to him, and told me one day I would be a published author.

Since that day, I was determined I would be. I wrote and wrote and majored in English and creative writing in college. But I didn't really get serious about publication until the last year. I took an incredible writing class, found a critique group, began learning about the publishing world, and got more consistent in my writing. My third novel is now with beta readers, awaiting some final revisions.

My husband has been incredibly supportive through the whole process. But he's a practical guy, and the other day he asked me a question I hadn't even considered.

"What will you do if you don't get published?"

It made me sit back. I honestly hadn't considered it, but I knew it was something I should. It's something every writer should, I think. Because, let's face it, the odds of getting an agent, selling your book, and getting great sales are pretty long.

There are thousands and thousands of people in the United States alone attempting to write novels. There are thousands of writing blogs where some of those people are attempting to get their name out. Agents receive hundreds to thousands of queries a year and take on maybe one or two clients from those. Some of the books they take on make the rounds of publishers and never see the light of day. Some of the ones that do get overlooked by readers.

So I knew I had to really think about what my husband had said-- what if I'm one of those thousands who never get published? The first thought I had: keep writing.

I can't imagine a future where I'm not writing, published or not. I love it. Once I get a story in my head, I can't stop squirming inside until it's on the page. Yes, I do want to share those stories with people. Yes, it'd be nice to make a little money after all the work I've put in. But there are lots of different roads to publication, so if one road dead ends, I've still got options.

And in the end, when I look at my current novel, I can acknowledge proudly that I have written a good book. Maybe not a great book; definitely a flawed book as it stands now. But it's the best thing I've written so far. I loved writing it, and I enjoy reading it. My writing improved through it. It might not be the book that gets me published. But I'm not planning on giving up-- I've got my whole life to pursue my dream of sharing the books I write with the world.

I'm putting in the work. I'm studying the craft, I'm making connections, I'm getting my work torn apart to make it better. And I love it enough to stick with it through the tough and discouraging times. I can reach my dream, but it was encouraging to honestly ask myself what I would do if I didn't reach it.

So, my friends, think about it. What will you do if you don't get your current dream of publication? Keep writing and keep trying? Pursue a slightly different dream-- publication with a small press, or self-publication? Decide that you love writing just for itself and won't pursue publication after all? There are no right or wrong answers-- just the answer that resonates with you.

And once you know the answer, you just might find a little more confidence in yourself.

And now for something completely different...

Don't forget, you can win a critique from agent Sarah LaPolla and editor C.A. Marshall, and help five kids in Ghana get an education! This is Daniel. He wants to be a doctor, and is in charge of the first aid kit at New Life International Orphanage (with some help from the caretakers, of course). Please help Daniel reach his dream! Even if you can't donate, spreading the word can help these children immensely.

How to Write Gripping Opening Scenes that Make Readers Care

Feb 7, 2011

Over at Brenda Drake's blog, she's holding a first line blogfest. The first line of Devolutionaries is "Grandad lied to me a lot."

Now, this wasn't always the first line. In fact, my whole first scene was completely different. It was actually a version of what's currently my second chapter. Originally, I started right in the middle of an exciting and pivotal moment of the story-- a big hook.

So why change it? Well, because it started immediately into the action. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't work for my book. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say it doesn't work for a lot of books. Because we don't care what happens to people we don't know much about.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that you start with backstory. I actually did try that for a period with Devs, and it didn't work either. B-O-R-I-N-G. I eventually found a balance that introduced the character and relationships that were necessary for people to care about the big action, but still (hopefully) catches the reader's attention. Here's what I discovered can help:

Start with your character involved in some kind of defining action-- just not the inciting event.

You want something that will 1. draw a reader in, 2. help them start to care about the character, and 3. get the plot moving. But it doesn't have to be the inciting event. Devs starts with Ash, the MC, getting cheated. It's a conflict, it shows a bit of his personality (and even a bit of the world), and it helps readers identify with him-- we all know the anger and betrayal of someone trying to cheat us.

Now, of course where you start will depend entirely on your own story. In The Maze Runner, for example, the book DOES start with the inciting event: Thomas wakes up with no memory in an elevator. But this works, because we immediately have sympathy for someone who can't remember who they are. The main point I'm trying to make is that starting with ACTION without CHARACTER can do your story a disservice.

So take a look at your opening scene and sentence. How can you make your readers care more while still hooking them into your book?

And now for something completely different:

Don't forget you can win a critique from agent Sarah LaPolla and editor C.A. Marshall, and help African kids get an education! Here's a brief glimpse of what Michael, one of the students, wants from life: "I would wish for money because I can help people who are poor. After that, I would wish for love because when people do a bad thing I can forgive them." Please help Michael and his friends get their wishes! (Image: Michael [left] helps care for the smaller children at the orphanage)

The African Education Raffle-- Promote Education and Win Agent/Editor Critiques!

Feb 4, 2011

Okay, folks, the day of awesomeness has arrived! This awesomeness involves five kids in Ghana, their education, and some prizes from an agent and an editor to help YOU in your writing career!

When I was twenty, I volunteered for four months at New Life International Orphanage in Ghana, West Africa. One boy in particular, Michael, became my special friend after a minor miracle. Well, now Michael and his friends Joseph, Grace, Abraham, and Daniel have the chance to go to high school. High school is neither free nor compulsory in Ghana, but it's one of the few ways these children have to lift themselves from poverty. (You can read more about the children here. The picture below is Michael and Grace on their first day or high school last September.)

School fees, which include room and board for the entire semester, total about $2,500 for all five kids. If everyone who follows this blog donated just TEN DOLLARS, we would nearly be able to fund all five children for their next semester at school. Any extra money we make will go to fund additional semesters. And, because you are just awesome, any donations you make will enter you in the raffle to win a critique for your writing!


An initial donation of $5 gets you one entry in the raffle. Make a secure, tax-deductible donation to Literacy for Life here. (PLEASE PUT "Reach for the Stars" in the message line so your donation goes to the right project.)

Every additional $5 you donate gets you another entry (so if you donated $20, you would get 4 entries).

After an initial $5 donation, blogging about the raffle will get you 1 additional entry. Tweeting/Facebooking about the raffle will get you 1 additional entry (1 total, not one for each).

Fill out the form below so I can tally your raffle entries. The raffle ends Friday, March 4th.


THREE winners will be chosen by to receive one of the following prizes.

#1: A 10 page manuscript critique OR synopsis critique from freelance editor C.A. Marshall!

C.A. Marshall is a freelance editor, lit agent intern, YA writer, and loves to play with her dog Mollie. She dreams of one day owning a small house near the water, preferably in England, with a shelf full of books she has written and has helped others to write. She can be found in Emmett, MI.

#2: A critique of the first chapter of your manuscript from literary agent Sarah LaPolla at Curtis Brown!

Sarah LaPolla began at Curtis Brown in 2008, working with Dave Barbor and Peter Ginsberg. Sarah is interested in literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, science fiction, literary horror, and young adult fiction. She loves complex characters, coming-of-age stories, and strong narrators. Sarah graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Writing and English, and went on to receive her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.

#3: A critique of the first chapter of your manuscript from me! And since I'm not nearly as cool as the other prizes, I'm throwing in a copy of the incredible book They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan.

You have a chance to help five kids gain an education to beat poverty-- AND to get some amazing critiques to help you in your own work! Thanks in advance for all your help!

Gratitude, Dreams, and the Approach of Awesomeness

Feb 3, 2011

FIRST, thank you to all you lovely friends who commented on yesterday's post. Thanks for your encouragement and commiseration. It's comforting to know that we're all in the same boat, and sometimes struggle with doubts, depression, and lack of confidence. For me, today is already better than yesterday-- which I suppose is what we're all going for, right?

ALSO, I dreamed last night that I asked my local librarian to be my agent. He was thrilled to death. Then he locked me in an ornate vault in the library basement and said I couldn't come out until I finished all my revisions. HA! I'm still chuckling about it.

PLUS, tomorrow is the day of awesomeness on this blog, full of things you will covet dearly. At least, I think you will. I covet them dearly, and I think you will as well.

So, my friends, any crazy writing dreams lately? Any awesomeness you would like to share as well?

On Being Enough-- Facing Writer's Depression

Feb 2, 2011

Today has been one of those days. Gooser is teething, which makes him whiny and clingy. The dishes have piled up so high they're spilling over the edge of the sink. There are bits of day-old food on the floor, unfolded laundry piled up in the bedroom, and toys scattered across the living room. My query letter is a mess and I'm starting to wonder if my book is even worth querying.

It's too much, and I'm feeling not enough. There's a voice inside us that whispers that to us a lot. You are not enough.

It's an affliction we face often as writers, I think. There are millions of voices on the internet, at conferences, and in books that tell us how to be enough. If we don't reach those goals, we just aren't enough.

You don't write everyday. You are not enough.
You don't blog three times a week. You are not enough.
You haven't been writing since you were three. You are not enough.
You can't afford to go to a conference this year. You are not enough.
Your plot is weak, your characters are flat, your beginning isn't gripping, your idea isn't high concept. You are not enough.

Some days, like today, the voices are louder. With Gooser finally quiet while he munched on cheese, I fought back my depression by tackling the dishes. My husband came home from school, gave me a hug, and thanked me for doing the dishes. And I nearly cried, because it was only dishes, but he told me what I needed.

You don't have to do it all to be enough.

You are trying. That's enough.

So, my friends, today I pass that on to you. You are trying. You are enough.

Strengthen your Story: The Art of Lingering

Feb 1, 2011

I've got several awesome beta readers dutifully plugging away at Devolutionaries. I've even gotten feedback from a few already. And it's amazing to me how incredibly helpful it is to have readers who have never seen the story give their thoughts.

Two of those awesome readers (hi Hannah! Hi Teralyn!) mentioned something that got me thinking quite a bit. They said to take some more time on certain moments. Let the character experience that twist, feel the emotion-- because the reader will too. I thought back to a blog post I read ages ago (I wish I could find it again!) about letting moments linger.

There are certain points in your story that need to linger so the reader can feel their full power. Moments of great change or emotional impact. If those moments are passed by too quickly, they lose their impact.

Movies often do this by slowing the cinematography-- literally letting a moment linger by putting it in slow motion, or just letting the camera linger. Like in the newest Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy is striding across the misty field toward Elizabeth. The camera focuses on him for longer than a normal shot, allowing the audience to take in this moment where he's coming back to Elizabeth. It is thoroughly swoon-worthy (I'm getting fluttery just thinking about Matthew McFadyen in the mist with that billowing coat and open shirt). And the swoon is stronger because the camera lingered, letting the audience soak in that moment.

Lingering is useful not just to heighten the impact of a moment, but to deepen your character. Lingering on your characters thoughts, feelings, and reactions shows your reader what kind of person he/she is. It's also a moment for your reader to connect to your character through their own emotional reaction. I like to think of lingering as the action/reaction (or scene/sequel) sequence on a smaller scale.

So I'm putting that on my list of further revisions for Devs: let it linger. And I'm all kinds of excited about the possibilities.

So, my friends, what can you do to let it linger in your stories? What are some of your favorite lingering moments, either of your own or in another book or movie?

P.S. The awesomeness is coming. This Friday. You won't want to miss it.

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