• AJ Vanderhorst

Three Things I Learned from Writing a Sequel (Casey 2)

Like any self-respecting character, Sylvan Woods shows a hidden side of itself in Casey 2.

When I started writing The Mostly Invisible Boy (coming April 2020), all I had to guide me was a concept and a feeling. The concept came from my kids: Every house in our neighborhood should have its own treehouse, they said. And those hideouts should be connected, way up high, for parties and sleepovers and stuff.


“That would be so cool,” they said. And I agreed.


The feeling was a common one, that most of us have known. It was the awareness you’re being overlooked. Like there’s a quiet adversarial magic at work, making people glance at you and think, Eh, not worth the effort. Not that interesting.


Those two things were what I had to work with. After about two years of writing, Mostly Invisible Boy was what I got. But when I set out to write a sequel, my experience was very different. And no wonder: Experience in writing a sequel is something you don’t get until after you need it.


Here’s what I found out.


Characters stick up for themselves.

When I began my first Casey book, it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. There just needed to be trees and climbing gear and people good at snobbery. Beyond that, the story was a blank canvas. Book one changed all that. It made Book 2 a story that did not have boundless possibility—which was a relief.


The world had been created, but more important, something else had happened. Something that could never be undone. The characters had figured out who they were. They weren’t going to stop being themselves without a fight.


I think this is true of every sequel. The characters, who finally managed to carve out personal space, dig their heels in. No way, they say. I’m gonna keep being this person I found in the mirror. There’s a sense of never going back. They’ll fight to keep being who they want to be. Or they stop fighting—and it’s tragic.


Therefore, my characters sometimes wrote their own lines. Sometimes their lines surprised me. They pushed back on my vague ideas about their futures and fought for freedom. Not endless, arbitrary freedom to do any stupid thing, but the freedom to keep being themselves, in bigger and better ways—even when those ways were self-sacrificial. It was endearing and made me like them even more.


Big themes are inevitable.

I’m not a fan of message books. The ones that inform you, on the back cover, that the story contains important truths about A, B and C that our society desperately needs. I enjoy important truths, but not when they’re stuffed inside a story like baloney between white bread.


On the other hand, every book is a message book. Because every author has a moral code. What I discovered, writing Casey two, was that the themes emerged on their own. I didn’t sit down to write a book about courage, tenacity, and welcoming the outsider. It’s just what happened.


As authors, we don’t spill equal portions of our guts in every book. If and when we write a sequel, the themes that emerge have a kind of beautiful inevitability. Of course that’s what this book is about, you think. And I didn’t even try to put it in… The way you did put it in, but without trying—truths you deeply care about—makes it feel magical.


Outlining Helps.

Just when you thought I didn’t learn anything hands-on practical…


I’ve completed four manuscripts, but Casey 2 is the first book I outlined—and just in time. While my plot details often got stomped on (by my characters, who else?), the preordained forward motion of the story was so helpful. The pages of my notebook are frayed. The mind maps smudged. My notes on pacing starred and underlined.


Juggling the demands of my characters and Sylvan Woods—a character itself—would’ve made me crazy if I hadn’t had a big picture of where I was headed. How I was going to nail the landing.


In one fight scene, my head almost split as I tracked the actions of eight people and over a dozen unique weapons. It was a ridiculous problem I’d created for myself, and if I’d been forced to figure out where the heck the plot was headed at the same time, I think I would’ve lost my stuff.


Since I’m still sane, I now like outlines. Who’d a thunk it.

"The way to love anything is to realize

that it might be lost."

G.K. Chesterton

©2020 by AJ Vanderhorst.