Getting the sequel right

I’m working on a sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat. It’s been more difficult to write than CWC. Likewise, Sarabande–the sequel to The Sun Singer–was harder to write than TSS. I don’t think my difficulties with sequels are unique to me.

On the other hand, some writers produce multi-book series with the same characters and similar plot lines, so whatever drags me down while working on a sequel must not bother them or they’d go nuts by the time they get to the third or fourth book in a series.

The books grew more complex as the characters aged and advanced through their years at Hogwarts. A large cast of characters with conflicting motivations and loyalties also kept the books fresh.
The books grew more complex as the characters aged and advanced through their years at Hogwarts. A large cast of characters with conflicting motivations and loyalties also kept the books fresh.

With a sequel, what can possibly go wrong?

  • When everything is said and done, it might lack the unique freshness the author achieved in the original book.
  • The characters don’t seem to be the same. I’m not talking about character growth, which is good; more like their being apples and oranges different than they were in the first book, ending up as different people.
  • The events, descriptions, voice, and mannerisms had to be consistent within the first book. With the sequel, there’s always a danger that the author will inadvertently change something or contradict something from the original without even noticing it.
  • Some of an author’s favorite phrases and descriptions might get into the second book to such a great extent that readers feel they’re reading the same book twice, or a hastily written sequel in which the author plagiarizes himself.

If you’re a writer, perhaps writing sequels bothers you for other reasons. If you’re a reader, you’ve probably found yourself disappointed with some of the sequels you read because they didn’t live up to the wonders of the original.

Frankly, I don’t have an easy solution for solving my concerns about sequels. But here are a few ideas.

  • The sequel can focus on a different character than the original. On the plus side, if you take a secondary character from the original and make him or her the protagonist in the sequel, you’re dealing with a lot of new ground. You’re adding information, events and experiences that weren’t mentioned or even hinted at in the original. On the minus side, try to imagine the Harry Potter books focusing on a different protagonist with each follow-up book in the series. This can anger fans, even if you’re not a major bestselling author, because they return to your work wanting to hear more about the character they grew to love (or hate) in the first book. I feel that the dangers here might outweigh the advantages  even though I used this approach when I wrote Sarabande.
  • Knowing your characters in the same way you know real people makes them more likely to seem just as believable and consistent in the sequel as they did the first time out. I have always thought there was something false about making a grid for each character in which I listed his or her traits, motivations, personality, brief history, etc. Sure, this will keep you from changing a character’s hair color by accident in the middle of a book, but I see such grids as somewhat artificial. We know and keep track of our real life friends without needing a chart showing everything about them. If you really know your protagonist, and other primary characters, then I think you can take them into new situations without having to fret about what they would do or say. When you have a real-life problem, you know (usually) in advance which of your friends to turn to for a shoulder to cry on or for practical advice. Knowing our characters in this way helps keep them from changing into totally different people in the sequel, much less doing something that’s (so to speak) out of character.
  • Jane Smiley's "Last Hundred Years Trilogy" takes a family through a century of real and fictional events as the characters age, marry, have children and pass away. New real-life events played off against the characters and helped keep the books interesting.
    Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years Trilogy” takes a family through a century of real and fictional events as the characters age, marry, have children and pass away. New real-life events played off against the characters helped keep the books interesting.

    Keep your notes from the first book. I don’t plot or outline any of my books: if you do, don’t throw those away. I do take a lot of notes as I do research. The flora and fauna living around a protagonist’s piney woods cabin probably won’t change from book one to book two. Keeping the notes reminds you what you said so that the sequel is consistent. When I have multiple characters, I sometimes make a timeline that shows when they were born, when they married, when they had children, etc. If you do this, too, then that timeline will serve you well when you write the sequel.

  • While you may have had certain in jokes and events that were mentioned more than once during the course of the original, the sequel will be fresher if you don’t use the same ones over again. Referring to a few of them in the sequel is so similar to people in real life often telling the same stories many times, that it not only makes the characters real, but it also ties the sequel to the original in a positive way. However, the sequel needs to add new in jokes, set pieces and personalities for the characters to talk about rather than rehashing everything from the original. In some ways, oblique references in the sequel to often-mentioned events and attitudes in the original also adds realism because we don’t always tell the same yarns or remember-whens the same way each time we think of them.
  • While keeping the characters consistent from the first book to the second book is important, I believe it’s equally important for the protagonist to have different challenges in the sequel. Sure, some TV series pit the protagonist hero against similar kinds of bad guys in every episode. This works for a while, but then it gets stale. So, if your protagonist in the first book is, say, coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster, the second book probably shouldn’t show them coping with a new natural disaster. As authors, we need to avoid having our books sound like they all have the same plot, such as a hurricane in book one, a flood in book two, and an forest fire in book three. For every series that works that way, I think there are probably ten that fail.
  • Sequels are also helped (though this isn’t mandatory) if they take place with events, hobbies, avocations, locations, and issues the author knows well. In my case, I have focused on times and places where I lived or worked, giving me a feel for the places and what was likely to happen there.

As writers, we play “what if” with characters and situations. The thing that makes this fun for us is that after we play one kind of what if with a character, it’s boring to do that again whether it’s personal relationships, disasters, bad guys, injustice, or vacation hi-jinks. Knowing one’s characters and keeping a few notes helps us write sequels that are both consistent and fresh when compared to the original books.



Keeping those sequels consistent

At a book signing for his award-winning novel A Distant Flame, Philip Lee Williams told us that before he started worked on the manuscript, he created a timeline showing where everyone was at every moment as Union troops approached Atlanta. I told him my wife was going to hear about that because she thinks I’m overly picky about research. He said a lot of people’s eyes glazed over at the thought of such a timeline.

sequelI’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander Series” ever since the first book appeared in 1991. I’m reading Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014) now. I doubt she outlined all of the English, Scots, and American history her series has covered leading up to the current novel set during the American revolution.

But her large, 800-page books are remarkably detailed and have a large cast of characters on multiple timelines. I wonder how she keeps it all straight. I wonder if Williams would have to re-read A Distant Flame in addition to his Civil War timeline if he wrote a sequel.

sequel2Readers–like Star Trek fans–are always the first to catch inconsistencies the author and his/her editors missed. A minor character’s eyes change color between books or episodes, a battle fought one year is suddenly at a different time and place, a person who said he didn’t know the main character turns out to have met them dozens of times in earlier books.

I’m an intuitive writer. That means I never outline anything and don’t know before writing a scene how it’s going to end. I’ve had a good editor and she sees things I miss. But she can’t fix major goofs. I worried about making Sarabande consistent with The Sun Singer. And now, as I work on a sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat, I’m amazed at how often I have to go back and check things to make sure the new book isn’t out of sync with the earlier book.

This is the only time I wish I were disciplined enough to write an outline. Truth be told, I sort of cheated in English classes where we were expected to turn in both the outline and the term paper because I always wrote the outline after the paper was done. I suppose I can do now, but my eyes glaze over at the thought.

It’s strange re-reading ones own work. I come across passages that I’m surprised that I was able to write. Other passages, I wish I’d handled slightly differently. And I marvel at how my detail-oriented mind will consider the growing seasons of plants the characters see while hiking through the woods, but cannot remember who they were hiking with.

Of course, if you’re submitting to major publishers and agents, they’re going to require a synopsis. I’ve written those several times and have to confess that having them later on as reference does help keep sequels consistent. Some writers make character lists and spend a great deal of time writing little character studies about them that include height, weight, eye color, hair color, and other details. If I did that, I wouldn’t have to search through my previous books using terms like “hair” or “eyes” to see what color I chose.

It’s not that that stuff doesn’t matter. It does. It’s an important part of making the character and his/her actions seem real and valid. Nobody ever accused me of having an encyclopedic mind. I’m horrible at Scrabble, Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. I think it all goes back to a college geology course in which the teacher said, in this class we don’t memorize things for tests; instead, we talk about larger concepts because anyone with a good set of reference books can look up the details.

That was my new mantra. Never again would I consider listing all the battles of a war and memorizing the dates they happened–much less all the characters in one of my books and the colors of their eyes, hair and favorite shirts and blouses.

While, I love writing without an outline, it plays hell with keeping all the facts straight when it’s time to write a sequel. Yes, I know, I can forget writing sequels. Unfortunately, I like the characters too much and can easily think of more stories to tell about them.

If you write, how do you keep your characters straight from book to book to book. If you read novels in a series, do you catch yourself going back to earlier books because you think the author has gotten something backwards?

Since I write magical realism, fantasy and paranormal stories, I’m ready for any reader who finds any inconsistency. “Hey, Dude, it’s magic.”


SarabandeCover2015Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Sarabande,” a contemporary fantasy coming out in a new edition from Thomas-Jacob Publishing on November 1. You can pre-order the Kindle edition now.

Revisiting ‘The Sun Singer’

The most recent edition of my hero’s journey mountain adventure novel The Sun Singer came out in March 2010 in paperback and Kindle formats. I have been revisiting the novel during the last few months to make sure my Sarabande sequel is consistent with the large cast of characters and mysterious plot.

Many of my favorite characters from The Sun Singer are returning in Sarabande. I must be careful not to accidentally change the color of anyone’s hair, mix up who did what, or forget who the traitors and heroes were in the original story.

I Need a Sun Singer Encyclopedia!

I’m using the search feature in Microsoft Word a lot these days. When Gem or Dohver or Robert show up in Sarabande, I search for them in The Sun Singer. I’ve done the same thing for every character because I’m just not organized enough to have a “master notebook” with an alphabetized list of characters, traits, nastiness level, date of birth and eye color.

Searching for such details in The Sun Singer reminds me of bits and pieces of the story that I haven’t thought about for a long time. It’s been fun–as well as distracting. Here’s a scene I came across tonight in which young Robert Adams (aka Sonny Trout) meets Gem and her daughter Cinnabar on a mountain trail:

Gem and Cinnabar

Voices. Voices ahead of him on the trail, as yet indistinct. He crouched down and waited. If it were a search party, he’d just have to hang his head, like Arnold’s puppy when it was caught on the couch, and admit that he was wrong to hike alone and stay out so late. Yet, if he did step through a door into another world, what then? He hid his pack in the underbrush and crawled forward.

He found every dry twig in the forest, and every one of them cracked in two as though he were chopping firewood in front of a microphone. Where was brother owl’s hoooo hoo-oooo, hoo hoo and the wind and the rain when he needed some covering noise? The earth was cold to the touch.

An arm wrapped around his neck, choked him, and pulled him over onto his back. That dream! He knew what was next. The boot slammed into his stomach and the dirty rag shoved in his mouth blocked his weak protest. His hands and feet were bound with a heavy rope.

“Over here. Gem.” A woman’s voice—the word in his dream notebook was a name?—and obviously no one from the hotel out to rescue him.

“Gem, I’ve caught us a lousy spy.”

Sonny saw nothing. His captor had the eyes of a cat. Or, with the ability to operate so efficiently in the darkness, was a cat.

The night moved in front of him and four hands pulled him up on his feet, then hoisted him into a mid-air prone position. They carried him down the trail in the direction he had been heading. After taking a few steps, they were breathing heavily.

A spy? Spies were always stabbed at night or shot at dawn. Robert Adams said he heard a blue dove calling through a doorway. Yeah, for the hapless Sonny Trout.

In ten minutes, the night gave way to a small campfire. They set him down roughly, several feet away from it, and the heat felt good. The light transformed his captors from gasping apparitions into flesh and blood women. One wore a brown, leather dress. Her hair was black and twisted into long braids. The other was shorter, younger, and wore dark green trousers and a flannel shirt. She perspired heavily. Her shoulder-length hair was fiery red, tangled and matted to the sides of her face. She paced in front of the fire, catching her breath. Finally, she stooped down in front of Sonny, turning up her nose in disgust as though she were looking at a helpless bug lying on its back. Then she laughed.

“In the Guardian’s name. Gem, we’ve robbed the cradle with this one. He’s a mere child. Justine must be desperate.”

“Quiet, Cinnabar,” rasped Gem, “the forest can hear. There may be others.”

“If there are others,” said Cinnabar, “they’ll meet the same fate as this one.” She leered at Sonny. “There are numerous ways to die, little boy.”

Okay, I Better Get Back to Work

In the manuscript for my sequel, Robert Adams is talking to Sarabande some 1,600 miles away from the Lake Josephine Valley in Glacier National Park where this scene from The Sun Singer occurred. I found myself reading it to remind myself what Robert’s firrst reaction to a stressful situation was like. He’s in one right this minute in Sarabande, and I better get back to it before I forget the details I just read.

Malcolm R. Campbell is also the author of “Garden of Heaven” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”