Sunday, 28 April 2013

Sequels, like pregnancy, are best planned...

The quickest way to succeed as an indie author these days is to write a series in a popular genre. Failing this, write consistently in one genre. (I speak as one who hasn't done either.)

I am often asked if there will be a sequel to my novels. If readers relate to your characters, naturally they want more of them. The problem is, Remix, Replica and Ice Diaries were written as stand-alone stories, and it's hellishly difficult to write a sequel you haven't planned for. We all know JK Rowling took five years to finish the first Harry Potter, as in order to write it she needed to have a good idea of what would happen in the next six volumes. This took time to work out.

Plenty of authors, after publishing a popular book, are prevailed on by readers, agents, and publishers to write a follow-up they never intended. There's also the enticement that it's the easiest way to ensure an eager readership for your next novel. And it's almost always a mistake. Here's my incomplete and arbitrary list of disappointing because unplanned sequels to brilliant novels:

  • Catriona, sequel to Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. RLS remarked in the Dedication, It is the fate of sequels to disappoint those who have waited for them, and he was not wrong. I've read it long ago, and can remember almost nothing about it, whereas I can recall every detail of Kidnapped.
  • Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, sequel to Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding, has some good bits in it, but suffers the usual problem of unplanned sequels. Having got hero and heroine satisfactorily together in Book 1, the author is obliged to split them up in Book 2 and get them together again, leaving the reader doubting this second happy ending would last. Also, to my mind, the balance of Bridget being clever and Bridget being stupid is wrong in the second book. She's too often stupid.
  • The Starlight Barking, sequel to 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, can I put this...barking. It involves all humans falling asleep at once, dogs levitating, and a visit from an extra-terrestrial dog called Sirius to rescue Earth's dogs from the possibility of nuclear war. Weird.
  • Predator's Gold, sequel to Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. In the end, he wrote a quartet of books. Mortal Engines is a ground-breaking, absorbing and surprising read, but I'd have preferred the story to end there.
Films are no different. I only like the first Back to the Future and Planet of the Apes. The exception is Terminator 2, which I think is even better than Terminator 1. 

What do you think? Nominations?


  1. I didn't even know there was a sequel to Kidnapped! But I am aware of some other little known sequels that didn't quite work:

    Atlas Sighed (Ayn Rand)
    As I Still Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
    Colon of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
    LIfe of Pi Squared (Yann Martel)
    No Cuisine for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy)

  2. Ha! Or what about:

    Catch 23
    J'ai Trouvé le Temps Perdu!
    Gone Again Girl
    The Lord of the Nose Stud
    The Eagle Has Taken Off
    Watership Up
    The Fairly Hungry Butterfly

  3. Levi:
    I suggest you go watch Terminator again. Frame-for-frame and dollar-for-dollar, much better than any big-budget sequel. Star Wars and Empire are a great example of an original that almost never got made and a sequel that's just as good, if not better.

    Great post.

  4. Oh, both Rocky and The Hobbit were never intended to have sequels?!

  5. I so agree about Bridget Jones.

    But maybe Jane Austen could have made a success Sense and Thinking About It, or Thakeray with Egocentric Fair ...

    (Eric has started something here!)

  6. Shawn, agreed about Star Wars, though wasn't it meant from the start to be a trilogy? I haven't seen any of the Rocky films, and I'm not a Tolkien fan. I slightly prefer the Hobbit to LotR.

    Jo, I wonder if Jane Austen was plagued by readers for sequels? There seem to be an awful (probably the right word) lot of sequels to P & P around these days.

  7. "Tom Sawyer Abroad" was not a good idea. But it is tough to blame any writer who is trying to actually make a living when he/she responds to the public's interest in a character or group of characters.

  8. I don't think blame comes into it - but it must be awful to have readers saying they loved the first book, but the sequel is a disappointment. Once a book is out there, you can't unpublish it.

  9. The Empire Strikes Back is often thought of as the best of the Star Wars movies. Of the second round, the weakest release was the first with much ink spilled over Jar Jar Binks. The second Rambo novel is the one that was the breakout hit.

    Walter R. Brooks',once famous, Freddy the Pig series didn't really get started until the third novel, Freddy the Detective, which caused him to, after-the-fact, rename the first two novel so that "Freddy" would be in the title.

    I suspect that the sophomore jinx has some basis in statistics of reality. Let's say an author has a skill level that allows 25% of their books to be "great". They write a number of books until they get a great one. At that point, if they have a sequel, it will more likely not be "great". In the cases where, for what ever reason, an author writes a series of books, even though the first one, or two, are not thought to be "great", it is not surprising that it would be in the middle of the series that the "great" book occurs. Of the authors who write many books, how many have more than half of them being "great"?

  10. I confess I nave never come across Freddie the Pig. And I thought Jar Jar Binks so annoying I skipped the film.

    These days in legacy publishing, if a book doesn't do very well, it's hard for the author to get a sequel published. (Of course an indie can press on regardless, hoping to hit the jackpot.)

    One of my favourite authors, Mary Renault, didn't write a dud once she'd hit her stride. The early books are much less good, but back then publishers were prepared to back their hunches and support talented novice writers.

  11. I prefer to ignore the unsuccessful sequels and concentrate more on what is needed for success. Series based on families or small communities have been extraordinarily successful.

    In romance novels for example, Robyn Carr's 'Virgin River' series runs to 20 or more books, and different characters in the small community get their own story. There are also strangers passing through who find the place irresistible so stay.

    Readers like the characters from earlier books cropping up in secondary roles. I'm not sure but think the first in the series was published in 2007 which would average about 3 books a year. I doubt if the series was planned in detail at that stage.

    In SciFi Anne McCaffrey's Dragon Riders of Pern series comes to mind. I think it began in 1967 and went on until 2003 after which her son joined her in writing the books. There are more than 23 books in the series and McCaffrey was also writing other books in parallel. Pern starts as a small exploratory community

    Detective novels are naturals for long series. My all time favourite would be Dorothy Sayers with Lord Peter Wimsey but Agatha Christie and J D Robb are also on my autobuy list.

    Lexi, I reckon you could come up with a witty sexy sleuth to rival Robb's Eve Dallas. The stories would then roll as though on a conveyor belt! LOL

  12. I like the 'series based on small communities' idea. I'm just re-watching Firefly, and it's so clever the way the various threads are woven together, and how you gradually get to know the characters as you spend time with them over episodes.

    I listen to Baldi when it's on 4extra; enjoyable, but there is the usual thing that where Baldi visits, a murder occurs. One wonders that he's ever invited anywhere. Same goes for Lord Peter, Miss Marple and Poirot.

  13. LOL That's the challenge Lexi. You have to create a sleuth who is very different and streamlined for the modern world. I know that Lord Peter will solve the murder mystery but it is such a pleasure reading about how he does it. We all have an inner sleuth just wanting to burst out. Just as with a romance where I know that the H/H will have their HEA, it's the complexity of life when falling in love that makes the journey totally fascinating when written by a master.

    Sorry if I'm teaching Grandma to suck eggs here!

    Eve Dallas from Nora Roberts Death Series is totally different from Poirot and Miss Marple, being closer to the thriller genre, and doesn't get invited to places only to stumble on a murder ... though she is in the police homicide dept.

    I think you have to create a character with traits that resonate with your own inner sleuth. How about a match making sleuth or a sleuth with a special interest in fine arts or even a soccer loving sleuth ... possibilities are boundless. If you get it right it will be a sure money spinner!

  14. Not sure I want a challenge right now, Q. Undeserved riches and adulation, I'd give them a go :o)

    (And the day I write a novel about a soccer-loving sleuth is the day you know my life has been taken over by an impostor while I moulder, chained, in a dank basement, and I expect you to inform the authorities.)

  15. To quote Q:

    "Readers like the characters from earlier books cropping up in secondary roles."

    That is encouraging. The book I'm working on now has at least two characters from my first Amazon published book.

    Another book, still at the bath stage, has some of the characters surfacing yet again.

    Bath stage? That's where a lot of plotting can be done and my mind runs ahead of my ability to get it on screen.