What Next? …or The Horror of Sequels

29 Mar

My writer friend, J Huw Evans and I talk from time to time over a coffee or a beer about future writing projects. We’ve discussed at length the folly of embarking upon sequels to novels that have yet to find a publisher (it’s high time, by the way, that something of Huw’s was published). And yet both of us have done just that. The lure of the serial… Huw has written two-and-a-half books of his fantasy-sci-fi-detective series and is considering writing the sequel to his last book as his next project. One of the WIPs that forms my current twin-pronged approach is also a sequel – only very loosely, though, set a quarter of a century later and having very few characters in common with its predecessor. It’s more of a thematic sequel, you might say. As such, I intend it to end up as a stand-alone work, that won’t require the reader to be familiar with the book that preceded it.

Sequels are common in genre fiction, as are trilogies and longer sequences. Think of Stephen Donaldson cranking out The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a fantasy sequence that eventually reached double figures. When I was very much younger, I began reading the first book. I got as far as the part where the supposed hero commits rape before I threw it across the room, never to pick it up again. Who knows, perhaps it’s still there? I read a lot of science fiction when I was growing up and novel sequences are rife in SF too. At Rayleigh public library, I stumbled upon the work of a certain Jack Vance – still alive at 96, I find – and his quartet of novels, Planet of Adventure. Each book was named after the particular alien species with which hero, Adam Reith, had to contend. Something was definitely lost in translation, though, from US to British English with the second book, entitled The Servants of the Wankh, in which subjugated humans known as wankhmen made their appearance. Ahem… Lewis and Tolkien with their fantasy sagas, Asimov with his Foundation space opera sequence – they have a lot to answer for.

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First came one, then another and another…

In crime fiction, of course, multiple volumes featuring the same grizzled detective are almost de rigeur. One has only to think of Iain Rankin, who retired Inspector Rebus in his seventeenth book only to bring him back, apparently. And then there’s Stephen King, a man who has written across many genres, throwing any number of them together in The Dark Tower series that runs in excess of 4000 pages (multiple genre fiction is a subject to which I intend to return in a future post). Although I’ve  read none of these books myself, I know that they’ve inspired devotion among millions of readers worldwide. While King’s really not my kind of writer, I can’t help but like the old boy. I’ve read a few interviews with him and he always comes across well. And there’s no doubting his storytelling skills and his imagination, a fact witnessed by the numerous diverting films that have been based upon his shorter fiction.

Sequels and sequences are less common but by no means unknown in literary fiction. After all, Hilary Mantel has just won the Mann Booker Prize for Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to her prize-winning Wolf Hall. Marcel Proust set the template for dedicating one’s writing life to a single sequence in À la recherche du temps perdu, before passing the baton onto Anthony Powell for A Dance to the Music of Time. Anthony Burgess brought back his failed and flatulent poet, Enderby four times (including from the dead for his final appearance, perfecting a Rebus-like U-turn). This was no bad thing since the poet is an inspired comic creation. Another fine game is writing the sequel to someone else’s book, such as Jean Rhys did with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea.

There’s also the temptation, to which some novelists give in, to revisit a much earlier work. In recent times, Julian Barnes did so with Love, Etc., reconvening the love triangle from Talking It Over while Dan Rhodes reprised his Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories with another collection of relationship flash fictions in Marry Me. Perhaps most famously of all, Joseph Heller re-assembled the cast from his masterwork, Catch-22, in the late novel, Closing Time. Is it a mistake, then? Certainly, there are some literary novelists who merely replicate the same book, over and over, just as crime writers turn out formulaic books revolving around the cases of their two-dimensional investigators. I can’t help but think that there’s something rather lazy on the part of the writer in supplying, and the reader in demanding, more of the same. I’m sure it’s all very comfortable but shouldn’t the novelist be trying a little harder?

All of which leads us back to the second side to my twin-pronged approach. As I was thinking about the project upon which I’m currently working (very brief extract here), a terrifying thought occurred to me. The book could have a sequel. But it was worse than that. It might actually prove to be the first in a series of five. I found my mind rapidly sketching out the sequence. Given the time that I’m able to give to writing, such a project could tie me up for at least the next decade. Could it become my Dark Tower? Pray to God it never comes to pass…

So is it wise or unwise? As usual in these situations, the answer is ‘it depends’. Obviously, it depends as to whether the sequel is any good and whether the original book merits revisiting. Does the book move on significantly from its predecessor? Gormenghast is the perfect sequel to Titus Groan. While Peake’s world remains consistent, Titus barely appeared in the eponymous book and the second book drives the narrative forward to its spectacular climax. For the unpublished author, though, it’s almost certainly unwise. I must listen to my own advice! Another writing acquaintance has been working on a series of science fiction novels aimed at young adults and is just beginning to find out how hard it is to get work into print, three books in… There’s a consolation, though. In the era of the prequel, if you do manage to interest a publisher in taking on a later book in a sequence, you already have your next book lined up.

I feel the writing den beckoning me… Enjoy the remainder of the holidays!

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The writing den

All text and images © PSR 2013

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8 Responses to “What Next? …or The Horror of Sequels”

  1. cariwiese April 5, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    The Writing Den looks like my imaginary place of zen for my writing! Love it! Thank you for visiting my blog.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves April 12, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Hi Cari and thanks for visiting.
    It is the ideal space – and no distractions (no TV, no Internet, etc)! I’ve just got back today and got lots done.

  3. julietmchugh April 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    As I write one tale, I find my characters ‘speak to me’ and tell me other stories about themselves that don’t fit with what I’m writing there and then. Should I ignore those ‘conversations’ or turn those into further novels? Interested in your thoughts.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves April 13, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Hi Juliet, and thanks for dropping by.

    Hmm, interesting question… I think that kind of depends on whether a new story is substantial enough to generate a novel’s worth of material and whether it would lead to your repeating yourself or not. Might they work as sub-plots, without distracting from what you’ve already written?

    For myself, I tend to chop large parts out of my finished manuscripts and consign them to the dustbin. My book ideas tend to appear to me almost fully formed so anything extraneous gets discarded. Having said that, any book ideas are worth storing away for future use, I find. I’d suggest writing them down in outline – you never know when you might use them or an aspect of them.

    Does that help? Probably not!

    • julietmchugh April 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

      Yes, they come to me fully formed, sometimes with one or two details that need to be added to move things along. But does it have to be a sequel because the same characters appear? The plot that brings them together will not recur. Does that mean they should cease to exist? I’d feel like I’d lost several friends if that were the case!

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves April 13, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    No, I don’t think that they must necessarily perish, Juliet! There’s certainly a precedent for bringing back characters in books that aren’t sequels. A famous case in point is Kurt Vonnegut who brought back the characters Kilgore Trout and Eliot Rosewater among others over a series of books that most definitely were not sequels. On the other hand, as writers, we do sometimes have to let characters go. As I’ve noted in this blog before, my last novel took me six years to complete and so I lived with a close-knit group of characters (friendship was a major theme of the book) for a long time. I’ve moved onto new writing projects now and left those characters behind. In a sense, though, they live on in the minds of the small audience that has read the novel and anyone else who might do so in the future.

  6. JHuw Evans September 19, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Having just returned to the bloggosphere I’ve just seen this. Thanks for bigging me up. You are of course correct that I should be in print if not at the top of a tightly defined bestsellers list. As of course should you be yourself.

    I found this while googling my own name to see if I was “out there”. Of course as you know I’m very “out there” and much reviled for doing finger quotes.

    Donaldson is still chucking them out. I hope the next is the last in the series. I am bound to read it but not I think to buy it new. He is the classic example of a successful author allowed to write any old shite by lazy, money-grubbing publishers.

    Your own sequel is an intriguing concept especially for being thematically sequential rather than plotly sequential. OK plotly is a new word I’ve just invented. Perhaps you’re on the verge of a sequence rather than a serial.

  7. Paul Sutton Reeves September 19, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi Huw and thanks for commenting.

    All part of the service. My writer friends are always bigged up on this site.

    You appear to be out there. Five likes on your current post – it’s taken this one six months to garner seven (all very much appreciated, though).

    Yes, I like the idea of books being indirectly connected, interweaving them in subtle ways. Coincidentally, I’ve just started looking again at the sequel-in-the-making after a very long break, working on my other project.

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