Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How to Write a Sequel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Sequels. When I finish a book I love and there is a sequel, it makes me so happy. Writing a sequel, however, isn’t quite as joyful.

The Pressure
I’ve never been more stressed out writing a book than when I wrote To Darkness Fled. The first book, By Darkness Hid, did rather well. It got excellent professional reviews, sold well, won several awards, and gained me fans who sent me emails saying they couldn’t wait for book two.

I could.

I sat at my computer day after day, panicked. I was so stressed out that there were moments I was near tears. How could I write a book two? I didn’t even know what was going to happen! All I knew was that I needed to get Achan and Vrell up to Ice Island. That’s all I had! How was I going to write 500 pages about that? What if my readers hated it? What if reviewers ripped it to shreds? What if I failed?

Well, I had signed a contract, so I wrote that book, all the while beating myself up with all that worry. But it worked out. Readers liked the book. I lived. And I learned a lot.

Two years ago, Robin Lee Hatcher told me that she hates every book as she’s writing it. She knows it’s the worst book she’s ever written and is certain it will be the book that ruins her career. But once it’s published and readers start reading and reviews start showing up, she is able to relax and move on. Robin has written over seventy books and she still feels insecure about the book she is writing. Hearing that helped me feel better about my own negativity. Now I’m able to recognize it and ignore it.



The Shock
When you sit down to start a sequel, it’s a little horrifying. I mean, you’ve been used to reading over a story that was practically perfect in every way, maybe tweaking a word here and there. But now you’re staring at a blank screen, and no matter what you write, it’s ugly. Starting fresh can be discouraging. But there is nothing to do but dive in and type, type, type.

Its Own Story
Any sequel, whether consecutive or not, needs to be its own story. You must hook your reader. You must have a plot for the book. You must have a character with a goal. Industry professionals and critics talk of something called “book two syndrome.” They say that second books in a trilogy are always the worst because nothing happens. They might even reference The Empire Strikes Back as an example. They'll mock that the whole book did nothing but get people to book three. And maybe it's true.

You’ve got to try and avoid that. Make book two the best it can be! Introduce new characters and plot twists. Do something to make the story shine by itself. And make sure that it has its own plot apart from the overarching series plot. Also, it’s okay to have a cliffhanger ending of sorts, but you should resolve the current book’s story. Many a series has lost readers because of cliffhangers that are a little too shocking.

A Continuing Story
A sequel should also have elements of the overarching series story. Whatever things you left dangling at the end of book one, you need to touch on in book two. Don’t forget them! It always helps me when I’m writing a  book one to brainstorm the ending for each book in the series and to also plan some reveals and conflicts and spread those out over the series. That way I’ll have a general plan of how to continue the story over the course of several books and to keep things interesting. Whether you pick up right where you left off in book one or time has gone by, the reader still needs to experience some action and clues to the overarching series story, which brings me to my next point.

The Recap
You have to give a little recap. But you don’t need much. Too much recap is a pet peeve for me. I skim it. And since I don’t want people to skim my books, I don’t write any recap when I’m writing the first draft of a sequel. I don’t even describe my characters, (a habit my line editor for Rebels got on me about). But when I’m working on the rewrite, I’ll add in things here and there when I think the reader could use a reminder. 


Another thing I’ve done is give a page or two of recap at the front of the sequel. I did that in my Mission League books in the form of one of Spencer’s reports. That way, if a reader didn’t read book three, he can still pick up book four and know what’s going on.

Make Progress
If readers are reading your sequel, it’s because they like your characters and want to see how things are going to work out. If you forget to make progress on any of your book one cliffhangers, the readers will get frustrated. You’ve got to reveal new things to your readers. You can’t expect them to read a whole book if nothing happens. They need some payoff. And you should also plant some seeds for the next book in the series so that the reader will be enticed to stay with it.

The Promise of the Premise
The “promise of the premise” is a Hollywood term from Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat. It means that the story will deliver what it promised. If book one had a lot of romance and book two has none, readers will be annoyed. If book one has no romance and book two is full of it, again, readers will be annoyed. You set the bar for yourself in your first book. Sequels need to deliver on the type of story you started with. Don’t stray too far. If you want to do something that completely different, save it for a new series.

Circularity and “The End”
Circularity is when you bring things full circle. I wrote a whole post about it once that you can read by clicking here. It's when you tie up all your loose ends and, hopefully, create some "Yes!" moments for your readers. If you’re writing the final book in a series, look for places you can apply circularity. Go back to your first and second book and look for the things you set up, clues you left, and make a list so that you can work them into your last book. This will help you write an ending book that satisfies your readers.

The Art of Letting Go
Should you write a sequel to an unpublished book?

If your goal is to be traditionally published, then it doesn’t make good sense to write a sequel to an unpublished or even a self-published book (unless it’s selling amazingly well). Harper Collins won’t invest in a sequel to Replication. It just didn’t sell well enough. And, sure, I could take a year to write books two and three and self-published them, but since book one didn’t sell all that well, book two would sell fewer copies, and book three, even fewer. That’s just the nature of sales for series. Book one always sells the most, and everything else is downhill.

As a writer, it’s hard to let go of the characters you love. And if you aren’t looking to be traditionally published—if you write for your own enjoyment—then write whatever you want. But if it’s your goal to get paid by a publisher for a book you wrote, then you’ve got to practice moving on. Write book one until it’s ready to pitch. Then, while you’re pitching it, write a new project.

I had a terrible time moving on with The New Recruit. It took me three-and-a-half years to finish book one and another six months to write book two. Then I finally put it down and wrote some other books—books that sold! And then, years later, I pulled that baby back out, rewrote The New Recruit yet again—even against my agent’s advice—and it sold. Even so, it’s my lowest selling book, and it’s a seven-book series. Yeeah. Should have listened to my wise agent on that one.

But I loved that series. It was my baby. And, with three books to go, I’m still suffering the consequences of my selfishness. So learn from my mistake and let it go. *grin*



How about you? Have you written a sequel? Any tips to share? Or might you be in that icky place where you need to put the series down and start writing something new?

61 comments:

  1. I"ve been thinking about writing a sequel, but I'm not sure if I want it or not. This post really helps, thanks! (And I totally get that part about hating a book when you write it. For me, the best thing is to read my stuff back and think: There's no particular reason to hate it, is there?)

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. Yea, you think a book is awful, but then a couple years later read it over and think "wow! not bad!" :)

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    2. It's just author insecurities. I mean, we spend hundreds of hours alone with the story and we start to think we must be crazy to think anyone would like it. Mostly because we haven't been able to share it with anyone yet and get feedback. That's how it is for me, anyway.

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  2. I just finished reading By Darkness Hid last night, and I've been left shocked at its awesomeness. Seriously, it's amazing. I'll buy book two as soon as possible. I'm certain it won't disappoint ;)

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    1. Aww, thank you, Julia! You put a smile on this girl's face!

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  3. When I first went about starting the project I'm on, I set it up as a 5-book series and none of the books will really work as a stand-alone. Will publishers be interested if I've got a whole set rather than just one?

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    1. If you're a new author, they will usually buy book one with the option to buy the others. And then if the first book does well, they'll buy more. If it flops, they don't buy more. So usually you would create a series book proposal that has a blurb for each other the sequels. Or at least create a series overview sheet to go with your proposal for the first book. No publisher would expect that you have written all five books already.

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    2. Patience BledsoeMay 28, 2014 at 10:25 AM

      That was really helpful for me! I was going to ask a similar question, Gemma. :)

      By a "series book proposal", Mrs. Williamson, is that a summary for each book in the series or something else? I wrote a novel for NaNo last year, and I'm currently writing the sequel (second book in the series). Turns out that it'll be a four-book series with possible additions. And I'm really praying, hoping, and working towards publication. If I wrote query letters for the first book, could I do one of those - either the series book proposal or a series overview sheet?

      Thank you so much!

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    3. The series page is usually titles Series Overview and it lists each book in the series (Ex: Book one: By Darkness Hid), then gives a blurb about it. So you would write a little one-two paragraph blurb about each book in the series. If you're only selling book one, but you could develop the book into a series, I like to add a like at the bottom of the synopsis that says: Series Potential: The Amazing Race was written as a stand-alone novel, but has the potential for sequels and spin-offs.

      Or something like that.

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    4. You wouldn't put any book proposal things in a query letter. You would just say something like: The Amazing Race is the first in a four-book series about Susan's experiences in marathons across the world.

      Or something like that. :-)

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    5. Patience BledsoeMay 31, 2014 at 8:34 AM

      Thank you, Mrs. Williamson! This was very helpful, and I really appreciate it! :)

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  4. Jill, what is your highest selling book?

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    1. By Darkness Hid, by a lot. Then To Darkness Fled. Then it's a close running between From Darkness Won and Replication. Then Captives, but it hasn't been out as long and will likely do better than Replication over time. And they all continue to sell. But By Darkness Hid continues to sell too, and it's by far the strongest seller.

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    2. That's really interesting, considering it was a smaller publisher. :)

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    3. I know, right? But I just got another royalty statement yesterday, and Captives is slowly catching up.

      I would sell better if I wrote romance novels or put more romance in my weird novels. Alas, I'm weird and insist on doing what I want. LOL

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  5. Sometimes I'm thankful I write short stories. There's really no money in that anyway, so if I want to write another story about a character or setting, I can. Nothing to lose. Lol. I write for someone to enjoy it. Even if it just ends up being me and my friends.
    Not saying I wouldn't love for short stories to get popular again, of course. Beautiful art from, there. :)

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    1. Short stories are fun, and they have their own sets of challenges. There are lots of people self-publishing short story anthologies. I don't know how popular they are, but it has a lot of potential with ebooks.

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  6. Am I the only one that actually really liked The Empire Strikes Back? O.o

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    1. No! I did. It was always my favorite one. I don't know why. But I remember being shocked the first time I heard someone mock it for being the worst. I like it. Maybe it was the AT-AT walkers. Or Yoda. Or the Han/Leia romance. Hmm...

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    2. I'm sorry, but I would venture to suggest the The Phantom Menace is the worst...I always enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back. Probably because of the Han/Leia romance. And the character growth in Luke was pretty cool to watch.

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    3. Oh, yes. I don't even count the new trilogy, Abigail. And Luke was cool to watch in Empire.

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  7. I have never written a sequel before. I wrote a short story that was supposed to be a novel and it was the first "book" in a trilogy. I had planned to write 2 more short stories to complete it but...

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  8. I am nearly done with edits on the first book in a planned triology. Not published, but hoping it would get traditionally published one day. I would have guessed it made sense to at least write rough drafts of the other two books to catch wrongs in the first book. Does that make sense or would you see it different Jill and advice to focus more on just book one?

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    1. I understand the draw of wanting to write those rough drafts. And if I have time, I try. I've been able to finish the rough draft of a book two before the publisher got book one released. So I try to write them as fast as I can so that I can still tweak the previous book.

      But to write a whole series before I sell book one... if I want to be successful, I can't do that. Or I shouldn't, at least. Because I need to continually crank out new books. And so I can't afford to waste a year writing books that might never be published. And that's what it comes down to. You don't want to think about that. But it is always a possibility that the book one won't sell. And if you've spend another year or so writing sequels, you've got to start over. But if you've spent that year writing other projects, you increase your chances of one of them connecting with a publisher. It's the idea of not putting all your eggs in one basket.

      But with self-publishing so easy now, and since I'm a hybrid author, there is always the option that I could self-publish them. But there is still the issue that I need to get paid to justify doing this job. And if I spend a year or more writing a trilogy to self publish, I loose a year's worth of potential income.

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  9. I never meant to write a second book to one of my novels. But as I started my new novel it evolved into the second book. I was using some side characters from the first one and soon it turned into a continual. Although both of them have their own plots. My family teases me that I can't let go of my characters. There is one in particular that seems to sneak his way into all of my writing. Since I have written mostly in one genre it is easy to do.

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    1. I know about those characters, Melody. They just keep coming back! LOL

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  10. Your transparency is one of my favorite things about you, friend. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom.

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  11. I thinking Catching Fire is a good example of a not-the-greatest sequel. I enjoyed it, but the more I think about how it should've been different so it could've been better it annoys me. :) I like my characters and have thought of writing a sequel or more, but I am afraid it would just be me forcing my characters to go on when they've told their story so...maybe one day. By Darkness Hid was really good. I like Replication a lot too, I don't know what is wrong with people for not buying it. ;)

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    1. Thanks, Naomi. You are very kind. And I'm so glad you are wise enough to know that you might be forcing your characters. That's a hard thing to notice for some authors.

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  12. This was a great post to read. I enjoyed all of your thoughts on writing sequels, but especially the part about not starting one if book 1 hasn't sold. I'm almost finished with final edits on my WIP and I had pretty much determined to start a different project while in the query stage. Now I'm sure I had made the right decision. Next problem is deciding what to write next!

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful, Jennifer! And I totally understand. So many ideas, so little time!

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  13. I have written a sequel to a book that is currently unpublished, mostly because I couldn't properly edit book 1 without knowing the details of book 2. It may have been a waste of time, but I learned more writing and polishing those two books than I have writing any other book. But I can also very much appreciate the need to only write book one, polish it, and see if it works. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Jill! Out of curiosity, did you write any books between Mission League 1 and By Darkness Hid?

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    inklinedwriters.blogspot.com.

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    1. I totally understand that, Sarah. And I will do that if I need to.

      Yes. Here is my list:
      1. The New Recruit
      2. Project Gemini
      3. Modern Anne of Green Gables Story
      4. Middle grade girly story called Seagulls are Plain (needs a new title)
      5. Replication
      6. By Darkness Hid

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  14. AWESOME post!!!
    I do have a question. What about sequels that don't continue the plot. I mean, those that aren't cliffhangers but still cover the same people. I'm thinking of writing sequels but they wouldn't be carrying on the same plot throughout the series like the ones you mentioned. Are there any different tips for that kind of sequels?

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    1. I don't have any tips for those kind. Just to make sure that the story is still interesting yet different enough that it isn't repetitive. Unless the series is for little kids, then repetitive can be a good thing.

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  15. Thanks for the post, Jill! For my part, I love The New Recruit and the other books in the series. :P Also, Replication... And you did a wonderful job with Outcasts, because I somehow like it even more than Captives!

    This advice is wonderful. I will definitely need to remember this for the future... Thank you! :)

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    1. You're welcome, Bethany! Thanks for reading my books and for liking them too! LOL :-)

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  16. Just so you know, I love the Mission League series. I own Books 1 and 2, and I'll be buying the others soon. So, even if they are your lowest-selling books, they are loved by at least a few people. :)

    Thanks for your thoughts on sequels!

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    1. Thank you, Bluebelle. You made me smile. And a girl from my youth group just came over to borrow Chokepoint since she won The New Recruit in the youth group prize cupboard. She's hooked! LOL

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    2. Well, I'm always glad to make someone smile! :)

      *laughs* That would be pretty cool, borrowing a book from its author. Hehe.

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  17. For the record, I loved To Darkness Fled. I think it was my favorite of the series (although the end of From Darkness Won was pretty awesome...wink, wink). And I liked Outcasts better than Captives, too! It seems you don't have that "second-book syndrome."

    I still haven't exactly finished the first draft of my first sequel. The last first draft I completed, I knew right away when I got the idea and started fleshing it out that I'd need a sequel for it. And so far, it's not too bad. I love finding tiny things from the first book to reference--it's almost as much fun as reading a series and finding those little mentions or refrains! Of course, I haven't written anything on the sequel in months, but...it really hasn't been as bad as I thought it'd be. I didn't have trouble starting it, or continuing on in the beginning. I just kind of got stuck a third of the way through annnnd yep...

    I also haven't started editing the former book, probably because 1) I'm writing another and 2) I want to see how the sequel's first draft turns out first, as a few people have mentioned. But what you said about not writing the sequels for books that haven't sold is good to keep in mind if the whole publishing thing turns out. :) Thank you for the advice!

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    1. You are welcome. And every writer is different. Do what you've got to do. Just don't get stuck there forever if your goal is traditional publication and you're not getting anywhere with that story. You'll still have it later. That's how Replication got published. I got an agent and had a complete book just waiting to be published.

      And thank you, Amanda. You guys are so supportive! *hugs all around!* Yeah! I think I have first book syndrome. That doesn't seem like a very good syndrome to have. I think the problem, though, is that it takes me a whole book to really get to know my characters, and by then there is no time to go back and fix them to make them more like themselves.



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    2. Yeah, that happens with me, too. By the time I get that first draft done, I'm a good bit of the way towards understanding them and all, but...I learned so much about my characters editing. Aaah!

      Also, this post raised a question later...when do you submit books to the agent/publisher/whomever? After two drafts? A certain time limit only?

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    3. There is no rule there, Amanda. It's when you feel the book is done. For me, that's as many times as I can get through it. And for my first book, it was about 12 rewrites. For my recent books, sometimes it's only one or two rewrites, though I've wished I had more time on some of those.

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  18. Book two in the Makilien Trilogy was by far the best one! Hmm...it seems like a lot of "second" books are the best.

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  19. My first series I ever wrote, I thought that I had maybe three books at best. They were only a hundred pages or so. I ended with six books that were two hundred pages each. You never know how far your books will go.

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  20. I am writing a sequel and practically everything you said applied! I wrote four chapters before scrapping it and starting over before because it was too much like the first one and even now I'm struggling every time I write it, worrying I'll let everyone down who liked the first one (family and people who've purchased it). I've given myself a three week break to work on other things and stop stressing out about it. The pressure is definitely on to make it be a 'bigger' and 'better' book than the first one but I want to push that out of my mind when I'm writing.

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    1. You can do it, Anna! Push that out of your mind and get the words done!

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  21. I forgot to write it on my last post but I liked Replication :)

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  22. Thanks so much for this post! I am planning on writing a sequel and a bit nervous to tell the truth. I'm glad I'm not the only one with these feelings :)
    - Katie

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  23. excellent post! My biggest issue is that when I finished my latest piece, basically everyone important died...soooo oops. hahaha But it definitely feels like it should have some kind of sequel so I'm playing around with a "spin off" of sorts. Me thinks prequel? Any thoughts on those kind of novels or novels you feel are good examples of that I should check out?

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  24. Do you consider series and sequels to be the same thing? I'm an unpublished author and I've written one book with a main character and his sidekick. The second book rotates the sidekick into the MC spotlight and the previous MC into the secondary character role while introducing new characters into the story. The intention is for the books to be stand-alone with a quick summary of the former MC's story so the reader can keep up with references without having read the first book. Right now, I write for fun, but would love to be published one day.

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  25. Hi, so I am a new writer. I have written two novels in a six book series. My sequel ended up being 402 pages after a year and two months. I am currently half way through book 3. My question is for Jill, how did you feel after your first book was avaliable to purchase and my second question is if you were devastated when you reached the series finale of your first book series? Did it feel like you lost a friend, because as weird as it is after three books in I feel really close to my main characters. And I don't want anything to happen to them. However something happening to them is inevitable because it's a murder mystery series.

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  26. Thanks for the advice, Ms.Williamson. I learned a lot

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  27. pretty useful stuff in that i can really keep that in mind.

    i am currently writing a story called sticky situations, which is a sequel to my story why me? and it's set several years later, so there's a lot of new, but some of the old will still linger too. i agree that elements from my first story, in this case, drama and romance should be present still, or else dissapoint readers who have read the first story!

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  28. I've been struggling hard core to write a sequel and this was immensely helpful. I think I already knew most of this, but what was a comfort was that I wasn't the only one who hates everything he's writing. I think this post was just what I needed to hear, so thank you.

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  29. Hi, I'm writing a book and I've been working on the plot for 3 years. There's been a lot of writing and rewriting but I finally got the first one done.... Plot wise at least (I'm only 1/2 way done writing it) I was wondering, should I pick up where the first one left off if I end up writing a sequel or should I skip ahead a little bit and just explain how something from the original was resolved later on?

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  30. Quick question. I was reading over the part about how the first book may have romance and the sequel may not; intern readers get annoyed by the sudden dissapearing theme. What if the main characters spouse dies in the first book, and he/she is still recovering in the 2nd. Does that make the change of romance from the 2 books acceptable?

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