Saturday, October 08, 2011

Writing the Sequel

When you’ve finished a novel, should you move on to pastures new or use it as a basis for the next work? ELLEN WHYTE wonders

WHEN I FINISHED my romance story Blackmail Bride, I was plunged into uncertainty about the next step. Should I move on to pastures new or continue with Lucy and Jack?

There are plenty of excellent reasons for using one work as a platform for a series.

First, after you’ve spent hours dreaming up your characters, it can be hard to put them into storage. Not only is it wasteful, but characters tend to take on a life of their own, and you can’t help but dream about what happens next. This urge is so strong that even a new author playing about with old characters isn’t a stumbling block: it makes me buy stories like Pemberley: Or Pride and Prejudice Continued by Emma Tennant and watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Second, publishers like sequels because they sell better. Not only do readers who loved the first story buy in because they want to see how your characters are developing, but new readers are more likely to plump for a book that’s part of a series than a stand-alone book. Somehow a series implies quality. The lure of the series is so strong that I still buy The Cat Who ... books by Lilian Jackson Braun on the strength of the first stories—even though the last half a dozen books have been dismally disappointing.

Third, if you’re really lucky, you can get a book deal for a series. That means advances, money in the bank, and fewer sleepless nights wondering if you’re being an idiot for following your dreams when you could be coining it as a therapist, lecturer, sales executive or whatever.

When I started Blackmail Bride, I fully intended it to be the start of a series. It makes economic sense that’s hard to refute. However, the main problem for the romance writer is that reusing main characters is tricky as you can’t have them falling in love all over again. The classic solution is to create new characters but to have your old hero and heroine making cameo appearances. So the “Welsh family saga” was born.

The thing is, I put the saga thingy on the book cover, and decided I’d worry about writing the sequel after. Getting new ideas has never been a problem, so it didn’t occur to me for a second that I might have writer’s block.

I didn’t either. The problem was that I had too many ideas of what could be done next. I wasn’t sure if I should keep the setting, or keep the characters.

I set Blackmail Bride in Scotland, in the mythical Bear’s Glen that I based on, one of my favourite places, Loch Lomond. Putting it in familiar territory meant very little research, which gave me the opportunity to practice the storytelling skills needed to keep readers entertained for 55,000 words.

In order to set myself up for potential sequels, I had the foresight to make my hero Jack a twin, so his brother Greg was all set to have his heartstrings tugged. I also introduced some minor characters like Jim, the Navajo academic turned writer, who could provide rich fodder for the future.

However, for the next book, I wanted to take advantage of my time in Sarawak. The land of the headhunters is exciting, mysterious, and I bet readers would love the idea of that exotic land. Although I lived there for a few years, introducing characters who are not of my own culture would mean more research and some careful writing.

I was hoping to keep that task manageable by building on the practical experience of writing Blackmail Bride.

I settled for moving Greg into Borneo, and leaving Jim for the next novel. Then I went to bed because that’s the place where I do my best thinking. To the casual observer it looks like I’m napping with the cats, but actually the brain is working overtime. Seriously. That occasional rusty sound is evidence that my mental gears are working, or that the cats are purry happy.

Anyway, during my inspirational lie-down, the plot for the next story unfolded without a problem. I got Greg to Borneo, and Emily, the heroine of the tale, popped into my mind practically fully formed. The minor characters, including the bomoh and the sexy bint, were born equally painlessly. I placed them all at the Red Hibiscus resort, and thereby got the title for the story: Black Magic and Mayhem at the Red Hibiscus.

And that’s where things got tricky. Suddenly I wondered if I should re-christen Greg, and turn this tale into a mystery with a romance subplot rather than a romance with a mystery subplot. I agonised over this for ages because both paths had tonnes of appeal. Worse, by the end of two days I had two outlines: one for a mystery and another for a romance.

The cats couldn’t advise me beyond a purr and an offer of a toy mousie, so I consulted my other half. He is not a writer, but he has a lovely incisive mind that’s good at weighing up the pros and cons of investment and experience.

“Build on the romance as it’s your principle investment and save the detective plot for another series,” he advised. “Finish Red Hibiscus, then start the detective. Then you’ll have two projects in hand, which will keep you fresh.”

The idea of working on two projects appeals because it has already worked for me. I have a secret completed book, Wildcat in Moscow, a rollicking romance that features Chelsea Moore, an artist by trade and eco-warrior by nature who falls in with Vladimir Voyeykov, a Russian business tycoon rumoured to be a member of the Red Mafia.

Wildcat in Moscow is far more robust than Blackmail Bride, and at 80,000 words it’s also longer. I wrote it in between edits of Blackmail Bride, and I’m dying to find a home for it. In fact, I liked Wildcat in Moscow so much, that I’m 30,000 words into the follow-up Summer in Moscow. This follow-up is also a closely guarded secret.

When I reminded my other half of the Secret Project, he wasn’t fazed. “So have three projects in hand! Once one takes off, you’ll need the others to keep readers happy. Writers can’t produce one book a year anymore, so figure on writing three or four.”

I’ve taken his advice but in moderation. For one thing, I have to balance book writing that pays poorly with commissions that buy the cat biscuits. In my free time I’m hard at work at Red Hibiscus, and plan to put that out at the end of the quarter.

I’m keeping Wildcat in Moscow back until I see how the other books are doing, but I’ve got the second half of Summer in Moscow simmering in the back of my mind and plan to continue work on that. Ideally, it will be finished at the end of this year. Then if all goes well with Blackmail Bride and Red Hibiscus, I can leverage those successes.

In my dreamtime I’m toying with a detective who can handle the mystery plot I’ve put aside. That seems to be turning into a short story, which I rather like the sound of. I could do with a project that involves just 5,000 words at a time.

In my best daydreams all these projects will take off in a big way, and I’ll be busy writing sequels for the next twenty years. The Welsh family will be at the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and everyone will know Chelsea Moore as well as they know Bella Swan and Elizabeth Bennet. Yes, it’s all pie in the sky. But a girl can dream, right?

Reproduced from the July-September 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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