Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Elizabeth S. Craig: On Sequels

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
Twitter: @elizabethscraig

And for anyone wanting to see my Review of Finger Lickin' Dead, it's here! But if you want a spoiler... Her tricks WORK!


erica and christy said...

So, yesterday, I figured out that Elizabeth's blog - my go-to-guide for figuring out every writing problem I have - is also Riley's blog. Yep, totally missed it - even after reading your reviews. Thanks for helping me, Elizabeth - your links are great!!

Christine Murray said...

This was a great post, and I haven't read anything like it elsewhere. Thanks Hart and Elizabeth :)

Old Kitty said...

Very helpful NAKED stuff - thank you Elizabeth S Craig and Hart!! Take care

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Erica and Christy--I can easily see how you'd miss it! It's rough having a dual personality. :)

Christine--Thanks so much for coming by!

Old Kitty--I have a feeling that folks looking for "naked cereal" on Google may somehow find this post... ha!

Margot Kinberg said...

Elizabeth - Thanks for these useful ideas! The key really seems to be to focus on what's necessary for the story. What does the reader need to get the most out of the story. As you say, if you add little things to tell backstories, the reader doesn't need the whole first novel re-told. And for readers who start your series with the second novel, it's annoying to get too much information first one, anyway, since they'll hopefully want to read it themselves. Some details are, as you say, important. But the focus needs to be on the story at hand.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wish I'd read this before starting the sequel to my first book!
I was really paranoid of the info dump, so I inserted little tidbits throughout the whole story. Sometimes I worry I spread it too thin.

Hart Johnson said...

I think this is a great collection of things to keep in mind!

Erica-too funny! Those alter egos can be tricky, eh?

Christine-that was one of the reasons I asked--hadn't seen it! She really delivered, eh?

Jenny-thank you!

Elizabeth *snort* Naked cereal... NICE!

Margot-great way to summarize it all!

Alex-I bet you did good, but this can be a helpful guide in the edit, eh?

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Margot--To me, backstory is sort of like hearing someone talk about when they were kids...maybe it's *relevant*, but it sure isn't interesting!

Alex--I'm sure you're fine. Better thin than non-existent!

Hart--Thanks so much for hosting me today! I love visiting Confessions. :)

Laura Marcella said...

I like it when books can stand alone in the series. Those are the best kind of series, in my opinion! The Stephanie Plum series is written that way; I started out reading them completely out of order and it didn't matter. Favorite children's series like that I can think of are Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, and the Ramona books. Reading them in order could help since the characters get older with each book, but it's not really necessary.

Alison said...

WOW - really helpful post, especially for a writer like me who just finished a sequel. I am SO sending my mss to a beta reader who hasn't read the first book now, to see if the continuing action is comprehensible at all.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Since I have a series of five, I was careful to make each book stand alone. I've picked up enough books that ended up being the third in a series (and one HAD to read the first two) that I didn't want to do that to my readers.

GigglesandGuns said...

Many thanks for this post. It answered a lot of questions that I had.

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow. This is some excellent advice. Thanks, ladies!

Michael Offutt said...

At some point, including backstory though is tedious for your dedicated reader. Laurell K. Hamilton offends me on a regular basis with her books in that aspect. I've been reading Anita Black for some time but she chocks full all of her novels with backstory so that it can stand alone or be read as part of the overall series (which is huge). It gets kind of irritating.

Maryann Miller said...

Very helpful information. Thanks, Elizabeth. I think I developed a sense of the balance in how much backstory to include in series from reading so many series. After a while I noted what I enjoyed reading as a recap of a character for new readers, and what I didn't. And you are so right about one of the keys being that the protagonist has to grow over time. Had an interesting discussion with Sylvia Dickey-Smith on her Writing Strong Women radio show about that. Strong women have to evolve and change or they may not stay strong. I think that applies to any character.

Mason Canyon said...

From a reader's point of view, these are great tips. I love series, especially those that you can begin reading in the middle and not feel like you're missing half the story because you haven't read the first few books. With your tips (and your series) you give readers enough background that fills in the blanks in the current book and makes them want to find out what happened in the first book. Great post.

Hart, thanks for hosting the awesome Elizabeth. I agree with you, Elizabeth is definitely the go-to resource for Social Networking and tricks and rules for mystery writing.

Thoughts in Progress
Freelance Editing By Mason

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Laura--I hadn't thought of it, but I think MOST children's series are written with a fair amount of character introduction and enough backstory to keep the story from being confusing. Maybe because children are less-tolerant of being confused and more likely to pick a book randomly from the middle of a series? I could be reverting--my tolerance level for being confused has gotten historically low. :)

Alison--Definitely the best way of checking for confusing passages! Good luck. :)

Diane--That was my thinking, too, although I do know of a few writers who take the opposite view.

GigglesandGuns--Thanks! :)

Matthew--Thanks for coming by!

Michael--Exactly--it's a really delicate balance. I think writers have to be even MORE cautious about backstory than usual--and make sure it fits into the flow of the story. I know one prominent author who has mentioned many times that she just assumes that everyone has read the first book...she makes no allowances for first time readers at all. I see her point, but I can't take her advice--I'm just worried about losing the new readers.

Maryann--That's an interesting point! I hadn't thought about it that way. But so true--if your strength only comes from past events, you're not coming from a real-time position of strength and you're not *showing* readers the strength...you're telling them about it without any demonstration.

Mason--I think it's a delicate balance, but so important to keep from alienating readers.

Thanks for the kind words! I appreciate them. :)

Hart Johnson said...

Elizabeth-you're very welcome!

Laura-see now those growing up books I really need in order. I like the context. And I LOVE a series meant to be read as a series, but not all books are that.

Alison-I think one of each is a great idea!

Diane-yeah, I've gotten sucked into series' that way, and I've decided NOT if i didn't have time for all of them.

Mary and Matthew-thank YOU!

Michael-too much drives me nuts, too--and fantasy has a lot of that. I think it bugs me MOST when they really are meant to be in order anyway.

Maryann-that's what I came away with too--a sense of balance! It's very helpful.

Mason-she's great that way, eh?

Missed Periods said...

A sequel! A series! I'm just trying to get through novel number one.

It does make sense to treat a sequel as a stand alone. I don't think readers would mind a little reminder of what happened in the previous book. There might even be a bit of delight in being in the know.

Sylvia Colette Branch said...

Love this post - great reminder - my characters follow me around all day and night- but I have to remember readers aren't as haunted.

Terry Odell said...

Since my publishers only look at one book at a time, I write all my books as stand alones, even though characters will reappear. And since as I reader, I hate knowing what's going to happen before I read about it, I try to give only broad references to what happened in the other books.

As a matter of fact, while my publisher is holding onto the third book in my Blackthorne, Inc. romantic suspense series for a 2012 release, I went ahead and indie-published the 4th book rather than wait. And I did have to consider everything you mentioned in your excellent post.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Missed Periods--It sort of gives me a smug feeling, as a reader, to nod my head when I come across backstory that I'm familiar with. :)

Sylvia--Love the way you put it! It *is* like a haunting, isn't it? But so true that readers' memories can be faulty (I know mine is...)

Terry--Occasionally I'll read a mystery where the author basically reveals the murderer in a previous book...grr! I'll know that's a book that I can cross off my list for good.

I'm glad you went ahead and put the book out, Terry!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hart and Elizabeth,

Wow! What a great post, thank you very much. As a new writer, you have given me so much information, even what may seem the easiest to you, the bible.

Hart, thanks so much for your comment. I put it on my post like I did Becky's. I appreciate your help very much.

Take care,

Kathy M.

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks for the tips, Elizabeth! I'm putting you on speed dial, btw.

Mollie Bryan said...

Great advice. I'm finishing up the second in my series and it is TRICKY. This post could not have come at a better time for me. Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Wowzer. This is an awesome post. I'm thinking it's time I visit Elizabeth's blog once and for all. Great tips! I particularly like the bit about growth of characters from book to book. Big pet peeve of mine with a very popular romance series was what felt like an emotional/psychological stagnation.

Thanks for hosting her, Hart! :D

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy--You know, when I finish a book, I think I'm going to remember all the details *forever*! But then...it's just so much to keep track of! And there's no need, since a series bible works so well.

Alan--I'd be honored! :)

Mollie--Hope it helps!

Kimberly--Thanks! And...it's not fun having a series get stale. It happens in real life, which is one reason why we all want to read books--the escape!

Jemi Fraser said...

Terrific advice! I read a lot of series and companion type books - I enjoy revisiting worlds. So writing one seems like a possibility. Thanks for the tips :)

Johanna Garth said...

Loved this post! Bookmarked it and will keep revisiting it as I work my way through sequel WIP.

Actually LOLed at Elizabeth's comment about people talking about when they were children.

Andrew said...

By the way, I ordered Fingerlicking Dead because of your blog....
I haven't started it yet (got a couple other books ahead of it in my queue), but I'm really looking forward to it.

Thanks for tipping me off to that one, and great tips here today!

Anonymous said...

This may be the best breakdown of how to handle sequels in a series that I've seen to date.

Wonderful post!

Pamela June Kimmell said...

Great blog about sequels Elizabeth.....as you know I'm wrestling with this myself so I've saved this post for reference when I get back to my mystery writing.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Jemi--In some ways, it's easier because so much is already laid out for the writer from the first book.

Johanna--I'm sure my eyes glaze over when they start. :)

Andrew--I really hope you'll enjoy the book...thank you!

genelempp--Thanks so much! I appreciate it.

Pamela--I'm excited that you're getting back to mystery writing! :)

Hart Johnson said...

Ha!!! I knew I couldn't be the only one who needed help on this! Fabulous response to all of this! Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for being your wonderful, superstar self!

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. I'm going to tweet it. I'm wrapping up the second in a trilogy and treating it, the best I can, as a stand alone. The first fw chapters catches the reader up with what happened in the first story while at the same time setting the tone for the current book.

its a tricky thing as you do not want to bore the reader with back story. I think I've done a pretty darn good job, but I'll wait for feedback from the ARCs I send out later this month to determine how much so.

Carol Kilgore said...

Thanks so much for sharing all this. I'm bookmarking this post in my new manuscript file so I have it. I'm using Excel sheets now to keep track of things. So far it's working.

Tina said...

Thanks for the great advice! My problem is I'm writing my first novel, so sequels seem pretty far into the future. But it doesn't hurt to be prepared!
Tina @ Life is Good

Carradee said...

"it’s better to treat the second book as a standalone as opposed to treating it as a continuation"

That's my attitude, too. The only "continuation" series that really work for me are set up comparably to TV episodes (Morganville), with each book having its own conflict arc.

When book 1 of 2 stops in the middle of the conflict arc, requiring you to read book 2 to discover the resolution, it irritates me. I probably won't bother reading the book 2. (Jedi Medstar series, looking at you. And I love Jedi Barriss Offee—she's effectually ADD!)

I'm keeping that in mind while working on 2 sequels for 2 different books. One novel's sequel has a completely different narrator. The other has as a different tertiary genre focus (as in, both are YA urban fantasy; but book 1 has a drama element, and book 2 is more of a mystery).

I'm finding it fun. :)

Christina Lucas said...

Thanks so much for joining The Blog Entourage!:) You can join us on Facebook too and promote all of your blog posts on our wall!

Anonymous said...

I'm about to begin a second memoir. I've been thinking of it as a sequel because there are a few "characters" from the first memoir. This post and the comments have helped me see more clearly some of the issues involved. Thanks so much!
Ann Best, Memoir Author