Yibus know how I'm a goofy fan girl about Elizabeth, right? I started following her around like a stalker about the same time as I started blogging, and we've made great friends. She was the one who first suggested I should try my hand at Cozy Mystery (something that, until I met her, I hadn't known was a genre of its own). So she has been my go-to resource both for the Social Networking she has mastered [if there was a PhD offered in Social Networking, her picture would be on the seal] AND for the tricks and rules for writing mystery.
Well for today I selfishly begged her to share something with you that I REALLY wanted her to share with ME because I am trying to figure this out myself. I wrote a trilogy once, but I am just trying to get my first 'stand alone sequel' in order. But I figured I couldn't be the only one who wanted to know how!
So Elizabeth, WELCOME! I'm thrilled to have you here!
Tips for Writing a Sequel—by Elizabeth S. Craig
The idea of writing sequels used to make me freeze up a little. I didn’t want to bore the folks who read my first book, or confuse and frustrate new readers who didn’t know who my characters were or how they connected with each other.
What was the right balance?
I’ve heard opinions both ways…that it’s better to leave off any real explanation of the characters and their motivations in the second book, and that it’s better to make sure not to leave readers confused.
For me, though, I’ve decided it’s better to treat the second book as a standalone as opposed to treating it as a continuation. Here’s why:
It’s more likely that even most of my returning readers would need a refresher—especially considering how long it takes for a book to come out. The only reason this wouldn’t be the case is if someone bought book one and book two at the same time.
I also decided, based on my own experience as a reader, that it’s worse to be confused than it is to be (very) briefly bored by a short explanation. As a reader, I wish I had the time and patience to figure out who characters are…but I just don’t. Instead, I’m likely to choose another book in my huge stack.
None of us really write a lot of backstory anyway—that’s kind of looked down on. So the second book wouldn’t have any more backstory than the first (naturally, even the first book has a a backstory—why is Jessica scared of commitment? Why won’t Mama go out and look for another job?)
So my conclusion was that I’d write the sequel almost like a standalone, but being especially cautious (even more than usual) about including too much backstory or over-describing my characters, knowing that returning readers would have even less-tolerance for backstory than first-time readers.
Series Backstory--what do you need to explain?
If you look at a paragraph or a couple of paragraphs and you can’t understand what’s going on just through the context of that paragraph…you need to add a smidgeon of explanation. Are the character’s actions confusing? Can you discern the foundation for the way this character relates to others? Do his reactions to people or events make sense for the reader? Is it absolutely necessary for the reader to know why the character is this way? Can they just accept that she is that way?
Is it hard for you to look at the story and characters as a newcomer? Consider finding a first reader who hasn’t read your first book. They’ll be able to tell you if it’s confusing.
How do you do the explaining?
Briefly! Backstory is passive and readers want to be in the current story. What’s happening now? If your character is holding a grudge against another character, it’s a little less important what the original source of the grudge is…it’s more important that the character is holding one at all—he’s the type of person who doesn’t forgive and forget. What does that say about him? How is he holding this grudge—by not speaking to the other character? By gossiping about him? Does he have a more malicious way of expressing it? Bring the action into the present.
I think that very short tags work too…the type of tags that keep a reader from even realizing there’s a little dumping there. Karen, Tom’s older, stricter sister, plodded into the room.
One way to include series backstory: Have some of the backstory be an unexplained, small mystery to entice readers to continue reading. Just hints. Your reveal of the backstory could happen much later in the book instead of the usual chapter one dump. That way, the source of the character’s avoidance of another character, or their reaction to a particular challenge is just a small question that readers will want to read on to have answered. Returning readers will recognize this backstory anyway and won’t wonder over it. When you finally reveal the backstory motivation/foundation, you need to keep it really brief for those returning readers.
Other ways to reveal helpful series backstory (backstory that actually helps move the plot forward or helps readers understand, relate to, and emphasize with our protagonist): believable, unstilted dialogue, a character’s thoughts or memories (be careful here), or flashbacks (be really careful here). Otherwise, you could just figure out a way to bring your backstory into the present—work it into a current conflict with a character in your story, etc.
Character descriptions and identifiers:
It’s helpful to find the descriptions in your first book and reword them. But it’s nice to also reveal one, additional small trait or feature of these characters for the returning readers so that they get some fresh, new information.
Avoid continuity errors in the sequel by maintaining a series bible.
My series bible helps me keep track of character ages, traits, habits, hobbies; setting details; and any details of recurring subplots. I know a couple of writers who keep track of these things on an Excel sheet, but I use Word. I type out each character’s name, how old they are, where they live in the town, what they look like, where they’re originally from, etc.
How do you make your sequel interesting for returning readers as well as your newcomers?
Character development and subplots that are continued through the books. Your first time readers won’t realize the overall pattern or extent of the growth, but if it’s hinted at then they’ll want to find your first book to see how it all started. And your returning readers will love to see how the protagonist is steadily growing…whatever your storyline is. Is your protagonist someone who’s slowly stepping out of her shell over time? Learning magical powers (like Harry Potter?) Developing a romantic interest in a recurring secondary character?
Make some elements different—This won’t matter to new readers, but returning readers will notice and appreciate the new situations, new settings, and the new characters and conflicts you introduce.
Sequels and series are tricky, and I’d love to hear how you make yours work. Got any additional tips for writing a sequel or what you like to see when you read a sequel? And—thanks so much to Hart for hosting me today! I love visiting here. :)
Bio: Elizabeth’s latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead , released June 7th. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers
And for anyone wanting to see my Review of Finger Lickin' Dead, it's here! But if you want a spoiler... Her tricks WORK!