Monday, 17 February 2014

Things they don’t tell you about being an author ...

... Number 1: Writing a sequel isn’t easy

The River Tweed on a summer's day
When I started to write No Stranger to Death, I had no intention of it being anything other than a standalone novel. Bad things would happen in the Scottish Borders village of Westerlea, my heroine Zoe Moreland would save the day, and that would be that. But when I got to the end of the first draft, Zoe’s story was far from over. Of course, I had the power to change this, but I didn’t want to. So, instead of editing out situations which couldn’t be resolved or creating over-neat outcomes, I decided to write a sequel.

What bliss, I thought, to be able to pick up where I left off. I could use the same settings, and those characters I already know well would be waiting for me to prod them back into action. Also, what better way to build a following than have readers put down No Stranger to Death so desperate to find out what happens next that they rush to buy its follow-up?

Silly me! I’m now faced with decisions to make and challenges to meet that might not be necessary if I was creating a fictional world from scratch. And I’m not just talking about remembering the colour of a character’s eyes.

Does Book 2 work on its own?
This is the big one: a sequel must not rely on the first book to be enjoyable. In that respect, all books are standalones, especially as readers don’t necessarily consume them in the order in which they’re published. Knowledge of what went before can increase the reader’s pleasure, but a story which relies on this to entertain is a cop-out. To that end, Book 2 will involve Zoe getting caught up in entirely new and very different crimes to those in No Stranger to Death.

How much back-story to tell?
Back-story is a tricky thing to get right at the best of times. Too much can slow up the action and risks spoiling the enjoyment of readers who then move on to the first novel. But too little could raise questions which distract from the narrative, even in a crime novel aiming to intrigue the reader. I’ve found this testing from the very first page, when Zoe is visited by the police asking for help in identifying the body of a young man found dead on the banks of the River Tweed. She reveals something about herself that anyone who has read No Stranger to Death will find significant but which readers who are encountering Zoe for the first time will simply take at face value. Should I fill in the gaps about what has happened during the intervening six months and give away some of the secrets of the first book?
Shhh ... it's a secret
Which characters will make it into Book 2?
Any character who features in Book 2 is patently neither killer nor victim in the first book. Sadly, this means I can’t re-use some perfectly good characters, as their presence would spoil things for readers who come to Book 2 first. In this respect, police procedurals have an advantage over books like No Stranger to Death because readers expect police officers to stay roughly the same in subsequent books but to investigate different members of the public. Look at Midsommer Murders on TV: most episodes focus on different villages for exactly this reason.

How to be different while staying the same?
I look upon writing in a specific genre as a promise to the reader that you’ll give them a book which broadly (and it can be very broadly) meets their expectations. Put simplistically, readers expect a crime novel to start with a crime, proceed with some sort of investigation, and end with a solution. Writing a sequel makes another promise: ‘If you enjoyed the first one, you’ll enjoy this one too although it’s different enough to be worth reading’. Keeping these promises while at the same time coming up with a novel which isn’t a rerun of what has gone before is going to be a challenge. I’ve already scrapped my plan for what happens immediately after Zoe is taken to see the body because I realised it followed too closely the chain of events in the first part of No Stranger to Death.

Poor Martin
Does all this matter? Am I worrying unnecessarily? The makers of The Bridge II, the latest Scandi-crime shown on BBC4, were faced with similar challenges. They chose to ignore the possibility that viewers would watch the series out of order, and fully incorporated the revelations and outcomes of the first series into the action of the second. Although I enjoyed Series II as much as Series I, and it was a far richer story by examining Martin’s response to his family’s tragedy, I can’t help thinking that decision will deter viewers who came in at Series II from watching what went before. Or will it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter, especially as readers. I would also be interested to hear how other writers tackle the challenges of writing sequels and series novels. Do leave a comment below or email me via the contact form on this blog, tweet me (I’m @JanetOkane) or post on my Facebook author page.

('Shhh' pic courtesy of


  1. I've only done the sequel thing once and found it really, really hard. With every sentence you're having to remember, will this need explaining to the reader in case they read this one first? Even things like the subtlties of relationships between two characters. A few people read my sequel before the first one and said it worked find (not people I know!!!), but I was worried about it and found it not only hard, but also a bit restricting. I'm going to write another to my current WIP simply because the story is too long for one book, but it's not something I'd do often. Could you not just make it a series, rather than a sequel? I mean, like the George Gently or the Morse novels! Best of luck, anyway!

    1. Hi Terry, thanks for visiting and commenting. I don't want to get locked into a series as I have so many ideas for other books which wouldn't suit having a GP as a main character. But never say never!

  2. It is tricky, not that I would know as a non fiction writer, but I assume the author Lizzie Speller had the same difficulty with her books The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate Kitty Easton, featuring several characters from the first in the second. I have recently read the second after enjoying the first last year. I felt they worked as stand alone books but I've read a number of reviews that criticised her for not including the full back stories in the second. When there is a series it's often difficult for readers to know which came first and it can be problematical if the first becomes hard to get hold of!

    1. Hi Jayne, you make a good point about how readers know which book comes first. I've been frustrated myself, trying to work this out from publication dates. That's one of the advantages of self-publishing: when book 2 comes out I can add a subtitle to book 1 to link them together and reflect their chronology. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment and good luck with your own writing.