Thursday, 17 March 2011

SEQUELS - PITFALLS, PLEASURES AND TIPS

Settle down: it's a long one. Actually, it's so long that I'm going to divide it into two parts and give you the sequel later. Bit like the novel you're writing?

So often I hear aspiring writers saying that they are writing a novel "with potential for a sequel". But is a sequel what you should be thinking about at this stage? Shouldn't you be focusing on this novel first, and perhaps as a stand-alone? Sequels are not easy. But writing the first is different if you are planning a sequel. Will a publisher be more or less likely to take you on if you mention the S word? Publishers do like books that work in series, IF they are successful, but if the first book doesn't do as well as expected, the sequel is going to be very hard to sell. Should you hedge your bets and write the first as a stand-alone?

I have some knowledge of this, partly because of my experience with The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse, and partly because I know something of the thinking of agents and publishers when faced by the aspiring author with not one baby, but two. I'll bring you my own answers in Part Two, next week. Meanwhile, I bring you the thoughts and experiences of two writers who have just had their sequels published - Inbali Iserles and Keren David. I interviewed them both and their answers are below.

Inbali works part-time as a lawyer in London and is the author of The Tygrine Cat books and the Bloodstone Bird. The first TC book won the Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year Award 2008 and was short-listed for the Stockton Children’s Book of the Year, as well as garmering many avid fans. The sequel, Tygrine Cat On The Run, has this stunning video to give you a flavour - it was designed by a 16-year-old fan from the US.


The Tygrine Cat follows the adventures of a young cat called Mati, who seeks acceptance from a community of street cats at Cressida Lock. But Mati is no ordinary cat, and Mithos, the mysterious assassin on his trail, knows it. To defeat his enemies, Mati must learn to harness an ancient feline power – a power so deadly that it threatens to destroy not only his friends but every cat on earth… In the sequel, a great menace is unleashed by Mati’s enemies, bound for Cressida Lock. The cats must flee the safety of their homes on a perilous journey to a faraway land.

Keren David had worked as a journalist ever since she was a teenager, before starting to write teen fiction in 2008. Her first book When I was Joe was published in January 2010, followed by the sequel Almost True in September 2010. WIWJ won the North East Teenage Book Award, was Highly Commended for the Teenage Booktrust prize and has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It is on the shortlists for the Angus and Lancashire Book of the Year awards.  Both books tell the story of Ty, 14-year-old sole witness to a fatal stabbing who has to be taken into police protection and given a new identity when his life is threatened to stop him testifying. Keren’s next book, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, is published in August 2011 and she is working on a third book about Ty.

Inbali and Keren have offered a signed copy of their sequels as a giveaway. I'll pick two comments from below, at random. So, comment!

NM: When you wrote book 1, did you know there'd be a Book 2, or was that going to depend on sales of Book 1. And, assuming you did plan there to be a book 2, how did that knowledge affect Bk 1, if at all?
INBALI: While I signed a two-book deal with my publishers, the second book was an unrelated stand-alone title, The Bloodstone Bird. Very soon after The Tygrine Cat came out, my editor asked me if I had considered ideas for a sequel. As a matter of fact, I had…

The truth is that I had always seen The Tygrine Cat as a series and had developed a story arc starting from the first book and leading to a dramatic climax. I hadn’t shared these thoughts with my publishers as my agent felt it was important for the first Tygrine Cat book to be assessed on its merits. Who knew if it would sell in sufficient numbers to make a sequel feasible? It needed to be strong enough to stand alone.

KEREN: I started writing When I was Joe as part of a course of evening classes I took at City Univesity in Writing for Children. My friend Anna was also taking the course. She read the first draft of chapter two in which I mention that the main character Ty’s father had died in a motorcycle crash when Ty was two. Anna said I should keep Ty’s dad alive, so Ty can be reunited with him in a sequel. How I laughed...at that point I wasn’t certain I’d get to the end of chapter three. However I did resurrect Ty’s dad, and Anna had planted the idea of a sequel. This was the one and only way in which the possibility of a second book affected the first book.
When I had finished When I Was Joe and was querying agents, I had an idea of how a sequel would start and how the fourth chapter would end (literally two lines came into my head) So I started writing the sequel for my own amusement. Luckily when I found an agent, she liked the sequel and so did Frances Lincoln, the publishers who eventually offered me a two book deal. Once both books had been published  -  the second book is called Almost True - and were doing well we started talking about a third book in the series, which I am writing now for publication in 2012.
NM: With my highwayman sequel, the setting is completely different from the setting for Bk 1 - this made it easier for me to make them feel like two different books, with all new characters except the main two. Did you have something very different for your sequel?  (I've got a copy on order.)
INBALI: The Tygrine Cat On the Run picks up not long after The Tygrine Cat leaves the story. We meet the same cast of characters much where we left them but it is immediately clear that all is not well at Cressida Lock. The Tygrine Cat introduced the concept of Fiåney, the feline spirit realm – the land from which a cat’s sixth sense is drawn – and this world is explored in The Tygrine Cat On the Run. A phantom is unleashed from Fiåney, against the ancient laws of nature. A creature bent on the destruction of the Tygrine cat. Sensing danger, Mati urges the kin to leave.

The Tygrine Cat On the Run takes the shape of a journey on different levels. In the physical realm, Mati and his friends are on the move, facing great hazards through a city and fields at night as all the time the untold menace draws closer. There is also a journey of the soul for the lonely young cat, as Mati disappears into Fiåney, where he encounters three gates. The first gate takes him to a place of chaos and flame; the second to the ancient land of his ancestors; the last to the world of memory, where his fallen friends remain. Can cruelty and despair crush Mati’s will – or is there an even greater power at work?

KEREN:  Almost True follows on just a few weeks after the end of When I Was Joe. Almost immediately there’s a change of setting, as Ty has to flee from a place that’s become very dangerous. Because I knew that this book would involve Ty learning about his father, and also because there was something about his mother which I hadn’t revealed in When I Was Joe it was clear to me that the book would be as much about his hidden past as the dangers of the present. There are strong new characters, three generations of new male relatives for Ty, but I had to reunite him with some important people from the first book - I don’t think my readers would have forgiven me if he hadn’t met Claire again.

The third book will be different again because the narrator changes. There needs to be a balance between taking the story forward and adding depth, filling gaps in what’s gone before.
NM: For the sequel, how did you manage the business of "back story"?  Does a reader need to read Bk 1 first and how did you handle the problem that some readers would and some readers wouldn't have read the first one? Tricks and tips?
INBALI: This was a real challenge. I strongly believed that each book should be capable of being read as a complete novel, without reference to the other book – although much would be gained by reading them in order. Some sequels leap in without any effort to explain the back story. That can be disorientating to readers who have not read the first book for some time, let alone those who haven’t read it at all. Yet back story is tedious for readers who are familiar with the context and can slow down the pace of a book.
While the prologue to The Tygrine Cat On the Run dives straight into the action, there is a degree of scene setting in the first chapter. There after, important characters or concepts are briefly described, often in the context of the action. I used what I hoped was a light touch so that readers would scarcely notice these affirmations, but that they would be useful signposts. For example, in this sequence from the sequel, Mati is met by an old friend, the spirit Bayo. It is Bayo’s first appearance in this book:
Mati’s ears flicked forward. The pain in his paws waned, and his body shuddered with relief. He remembered Bayo. A friend, he recalled – a good spirit: someone he could trust.
KEREN:  I found it surprisingly easy to run through the back story of When I was Joe at the beginning of Almost True. I didn’t want to do that three page info-dump in Chapter 2 that you find so often in series, so I tried to give broad-brush outline at the beginning, and then more detail as it became necessary. I hope it works as a stand-alone, although sometimes I think I’d like to stick a big label on the front of Almost True saying ‘YOU’LL ENJOY THIS MORE IF YOU READ THE FIRST BOOK FIRST’
Writing the third book, there’s even more back story to weave in. I’m trying to give the reader just what they need to understand what’s happening right away - as you do with backstory in any book.
NM: When you were writing Book 2, were there some things in Bk 1 that restricted you? Things you wished you'd done differently?
INBALI: It’s more a case that I would have liked to have set up a couple of sequences in the first book, hinted at the “three gates”, for instance (only one of the gates is expressly mentioned in the first book: the Harakar). Long-lead set up is very useful when it comes to avoiding the soap opera scenario of introducing a bit character in Act I who takes a leading role in Act II. Nice for the reader to look back and suddenly “get it”, not having seen “it” coming!
Hopefully I avoided the soap opera scenario in the sequel by embedding various concepts in the first book. This wasn’t something that I discussed with my publishers at the time, it was more a feature of bringing the world of the story to life. I think much of that was down to the fact that I had the whole story (i.e. beyond the first book) worked out in my mind in advance, and had already done most of the hard work in terms of developing that world and the laws of Fiåney. So, for instance, there are hints in the first book that the moon is powerful, that it has some role to play in the world of cats. Only in the second book does that role become clear…
KEREN: Not really, Almost True grew out of  When I Was Joe and book three will grow from them both. What’s fun is finding a little detail in book one and thinking, ‘I can build that into something bigger.’ For example in Almost True, Archie’s dad isn’t there when the family meet for Christmas. He’s only not there because I forgot about him when I was writing that chapter, and no one actually mentions that he’s not there, but now for book three, I can think up all sorts of reasons for his absence.
NM: Pitching a novel with a possible sequel is tricky - a publisher might not want to take the risk. What is your advice to unpublished writers in this position? (Ignore if you can't answer this but I thought you might have an insight.)
INBALI: I didn’t pitch The Tygrine Cat with a sequel because at the time my agent was concerned that the market was saturated by fantasy series (it was during the Lord of the Rings film hype). It’s hard to know how my publishers would have responded had we gone in with two Tygrine Cat books. They were happy to offer a two-book deal for The Tygrine Cat and The Bloodstone Bird.
If a book is part of a series, e.g. a trilogy, my sense is that it’s probably worth mentioning this to publishers – to see what they think – but to be flexible. The key thing is that the book stands alone on its merits. Whatever happens, and for at least a few months (perhaps years), that lonely first book will have to survive without kith or kin in an unforgiving market-place.
KEREN: I didn’t mention the sequel when I was pitching to agents, partly because I was just writing it for my own amusement and I didn’t know if it would grow into a book. When three agents wanted to represent me, I pulled out the chapters I’d written so far. It was part of our discussion - I wanted to know if they liked the idea of a sequel, were keen to read it, had good comments about it. One said she’d leave reading it until later in the process, the other two read it and came back with feedback right away.
The agent that I went with, Jenny Savill, didn’t pitch Almost True to publishers at first, but mentioned it when editors were interested in When I Was Joe. If I’d had a strong feeling that this had to be a trilogy, I might have been upset if they weren’t prepared to commit to all three books, but actually I didn’t have that feeling and I’m glad we waited to find out if there was likely to be a demand - I wouldn’t want to trudge on with a series that hadn’t proved itself in the marketplace.
NM: Were there any other difficulties about doing a sequel / any other tricks or tips?
INBALI: If a sequel (or further books) is on the cards, it’s wise – very wise indeed – to map out the story arc over the full series. Careful preparation will help to avoid a lot of frustration later. Fantasy writers are perhaps more likely than others to do this in any event, given the need to explore and identify the parameters of the alternative world, it’s history, mythology and so on. I think that’s what saved me!

Personally, I found writing a sequel to be a walk in the park after the trials of the first book. It was with enormous excitement that I re-entered the world of cats, and without all the hair-pulling-other-world-development that I’d already addressed for The Tygrine Cat (and then again, in a very different setting, for The Bloodstone Bird). Writing the second Tygrine Cat book was all about story and character, action and pace. I loved every minute of it!
KEREN: I loved writing Almost True. I knew Ty so well as a narrator, that his voice and reactions were easy for me. It was exciting to be able to put him into different situations, find out more about his past. It was a richer, more fulfilling experience because it built on the first book, and I felt I was taking more risks.
The publishers decided to print the first chapter of Almost True at the end of When I Was Joe, and although I think that was a great idea to hook readers into buying the next book, I wonder if, for some readers, it actually detracts from the end of When I Was Joe, and makes it feel less complete than it is. I’m very happy with the narrative arc of When I Was Joe - as the title suggests it’s about the finite period of one false identity; the book ends as the identity ends, with the main character finally owning who he is and what he’s done. However, some reviewers have felt the ending is too abrupt and unfinished - I wonder if that’s because they immediately get a taster of what’s coming next. One American librarian told me she’d loved When I Was Joe, but she wouldn’t read Almost True ‘because I don’t want that boy to suffer any more.’ I took it as a compliment that she cared so much!
I wanted to end Almost True with a leap into the future - two years or so on - but my editor ruled that out, to leave the door open for further books.
I have heard that a sequel gets less attention than a stand-alone or the first in a series. It’s harder to get reviews unless someone has read and loved the first book, and I imagine it’s less likely to be listed for awards. I love Almost True better than When I Was Joe, and sometimes I feel I want to push it at people. Meet Joe’s little brother! He deserves attention too!
KEREN added (because I asked!):
My next book is called Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, it’s out in August 2011 and it’s about  a 16 year old girl who wins £8 million. My first draft ending (which I still like a lot) jumps forward seven years, so you know exactly what happens to everyone...but that ruled out any chance of a sequel, so my editor asked me to change it. So I did, and I planted something which would be useful if we decide that a sequel would be a good idea, and now I feel quite positive about the possibility of writing a sequel one day...perhaps...maybe...
Lots of insights and food for thought there - but I recommend that you don't go making any decisions about your possible sequels until you've read my sequel next week... Thanks to both Keren and Inbali for giving up their time.

13 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

Very interesting to see the responses to this. I write in two totally unrelated genres - literary fiction, where I can't really imagine a sequel to anything, and it's most definitely out of the ordinary to find a sequel on the shelves; and crime thrillers, where I can't imagine *not* having a series - whilst Harlan Coben and Simon Kernick in the very recent past have cut something of a new pathway in the standalone "everyman in peril" genre, pretty much everyone I read and love - Ian Rankin, Thomas Harris, Val McDermid, Lecc Hild, Kathy Reichs, Henning Mankell etc etc - writes series, and has had their characters in place from book 1.

I think what is most interesting to hear is how Inbali and Keren handle back story, because that's always the biggie - in a series (OK, I'm talking thrillers but I imagine it's the same elsewhere) we love the story to standalone, but we also want the characters we love to grow - we want 1. to learn new things about their past that add to their complexity, and 2. new things to happen that push them forward so we grow with them (of course with VERY long series - Sue Grafton, say - there is the whole other issue of whether a character should remain ageless or should age towards a finite point, as with the likes of Morse). This is incredibly difficult when people start with a book that's not the first.
I think the best way I've seen this handled is in Lee Child's Reacher books.

eleanorpatrick said...

I love Inbali's comment: "Nice for the reader to look back and suddenly “get it”, not having seen “it” coming!" In our dragon books we have Morris in book 2 as an older man coming in once or twice. When he says he'll "tell them about that sometime", readers who have read book 1 will know that was the story on book 1, but also start to make connections that weren't obvious at the time. Readers who haven't will lose nothing, but feel intrigued. That's how I felt about Keren's two books. They just worked. I'll go find Inbali's books now...

HelenO said...

Golly, but this is timely. Like Dan I'm writing in the crime/thriller genre, where series are common. After much (often brutal) rewriting and editing I'm almost ready to send a ms out to agents. I'm not the world's speediest writer so if there is interest, I'd like to have something else to show people - if only to prove I've got more than one book in me. I've got a sequel already in outline, and I'm strongly tempted to work on that while the first ms is doing the rounds. But what if the first book doesn't sell? Would an agent prefer to see another standalone? (I have other ideas that I could develop.) I'm keen to work on the sequel - I've done the world-building, and now I want to take these characters further. But am I being blinded by my own enthusiasm here? Should I put the sequel idea to one side and work on something else until I know I can sell the first book?

catdownunder said...

That is really, really interesting because I have found I have written several things which have inter-related characters. It was certainly not something I deliberately set out to do either. They are not sequels in the way that Keren David's are - and I agree her books should be read in sequence! - but it required more discipline to do it with inter-related characters.
Looking forward to the next part!

Helen V. said...

Thanks for this post. It's given me a lot to think about.

As a fantasy writer where trilogies are almost mandatory I've been struggling with the idea of how to present my novel for publication. It is capable of being published as a stand alone but I've a story line which follows on into the next novel and for my own satisfaction I have started to write it. Whether this is a good decision or not remains to be seen.

Elen C said...

Thanks for the insight.
I have nothing very sensible to add, but couldn't let the chance of winning two such great books go whizzing by.

HelenO said...

Ooops - looking back I can see I commented yesterday without really, er, commenting. Sorry. I've gone back and re- and re-re-read Inbali's and Keren's (fascinating) responses. Very interested to note that while Inbali followed up The Tygrine Cat with a standalone novel - even though she had the sequel planned out - Keren pushed on with a sequel 'for her own entertainment'. Yet in both cases the agents held back from pitching those sequels - even in the case of a fantasy series. (I tend to think of fantasy, like crime, as a sequel-friendly genre - but even in fantasy, it seems publishers may prefer a novel that will earn its keep as a standalone first and foremost.)

That still leaves me pondering over the question of whether to pursue a sequel or a standalone next - and maybe there's no 'right answer', though I'm dying to hear what Nicola says next! But from what I've read so far, one clear message seems to be: plan your sequel by all means, but if a novel doesn't work as a standalone it may well be disadvantaged when it goes to publishers.

Inbali Iserles said...

Thanks for all your comments, it's interesting to hear how others approach issues such as back story.

To the Helens: it's hard to call whether to mention the sequel. Publishing is based on taste, and this is, as we know, incredibly subjective. My instinct is that it's better to mention the sequel potential - perhaps even as a written passage in your synopsis for book 1, or at least verbally on meeting publishers - but to ensure that book 1 is stand-alone-dazzling. That leaves it to the publisher to decide whether they can offer a two-book deal. You lose little by mentioning it provided the first book is not reliant upon the sequel. But a good agent will be able to guide you on the likely preferences of the editor to whom you are pitching.

Helen V, I agree that it's common for fantasy to come in a sequence. Unfortunately, though, the genre on the whole has taken a bit of a battering over the last few years with the rise of horror sub-genres, particularly paranormal romance. As a result, publishers may be reluctant to hand out the glossy deals they were offering in the wake of Harry Potter. Wonderful books will shine through, of course, regardless of genre - but that's why it's all the more important for that first book to stand proudly alone. At least in the beginning... Good luck!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Very interesting to see how these two contrasting writers approach the issues of writing sequels. It is something I have shied away from, partly because of the problem of repeating the back stories and I think they have handled this very well. I've written three interconnecting books which stand alone - as a cycle - to avoid the pitfalls of repeating the stuff in the previous book. But they have taken the risk and succeeded - very well done!

Thomas Taylor said...

A fascinating double interview. It's especially interesting for me as I begin to imagine a possible sequel, and wonder if I should be seeding the first book while I still can. I have a one book deal, but a 'set-up' that cries out for another story. It's a situation to creep up on rather than jump out at, if you see what I mean.

There's a huge difference between book two of, say, a trilogy and book two of a series. Personally I dislike cliff-hanger endings, but love the chance of a second complete helping.

I found Keren's point about adding chapter one of book two to the end of book one very thought provoking. It's true that immediately reading on beyond a formal ending does spoil the effect somewhat. I just hadn't realised why until now.

Girl Friday said...

Fantastic insight into something I haven't seen discussed much elsewhere, thank you all!

Caroline Green said...

Thanks Inbali, Keren and Nicola. I hoovered this up because I will embarking on my [comissioned] sequel soon and need all the advice I can get!

Joe said...

Nice interviews!
Really interesting stuff, especially to someone who's effectively written 6 sequels.