Today, as soon as I finish this post, I’ll write the opening pages of Sleepwalker, which will be Book Two of my second-ever adult suspense trilogy, coming in 2012 from Avon Books. This new book’s protagonists were introduced in Nightcrawler, the manuscript that landed on my editor’s desk at HarperCollins just after Christmas.
One might assume writing a sequel is easier than writing a standalone because the groundwork has already been laid and you’re not starting from scratch. But while the Live to Tell/Scared to Death/Hell to Pay trilogy was ultimately one of the most fulfilling ventures of my career, the writing process was also more…um…well, challenging is a nice, g-rated way to say it.
This is hardly the first time I’ve written a sequel. Having published more than seventy books over the last eighteen years, I’ve created at least a half dozen different series that include varying numbers of titles and are written in various genres: middle grade, young adult, chick lit, horror, and adult romance. I also wrote a sequel to my adult suspense novel Dying Light a few years back, entitled Dead Before Dark.
No matter what I’m writing, I always make a conscious effort to meet—and exceed—my readers’ expectations. With a series, that goal is complicated, because I’m potentially dealing with two different types of reader.
Reader #1 has read the first book and come back for more, making it really important for me to not only remain true to the world I’ve already created, but to give it a fresh spin.
Reader #2 hasn’t read the first book and has no clue what went on before, so I have to provide just enough information to get Reader #2 up to speed—without bogging down the pacing for Reader #1.
If the stakes are generally higher with a series than with a single title, they’re at their peak with the second book. It can’t feel anticlimactic, and it has to have a solid resolution--but with enough cliffhanger to open the door for the third title.
Thus, you begin writing Book 2 aware that you need to sustain taut pacing and nail-biting suspense for not just four or five hundred more pages, but almost a thousand, because there’s more to come when this book ends.
And of course, you have to question every creative instinct, no matter how seemingly minor the detail is.
Hmmm….did I mention the marital status of the elderly next door neighbor in the first book? Did I give my heroine’s son’s teacher a first name, or is she simply Mrs. Foster? What, if anything, did I call the fictional local supermarket and how, short of combing the prior novel page by page, am I going to figure it out?
This is the kind of thing that often stops me in my tracks. I can’t just make it all up as I go along, because I either already did, or already may have but I’m not sure.
I suppose I could wing it and take my chances, but that wouldn’t be fair to my readers. Coming to the sequel, they will often have read the first book more recently than I did. Wait, is that confusing? What I mean to say is that there’s sometimes a bigger time lapse between books when I’m writing them than there is when readers are reading them. Things are fresher in their minds than they are in mine; they’re more likely than I am to remember what kind of car the villain drove in the first book, or the local detective’s age, or the name of the heroine’s middle school, mentioned in passing.
I’ve always been compulsive about the smallest details in my books. With a trilogy, I can lose (and have lost) hours of precious writing time combing the previous manuscript for some elusive fact I want to revisit—if in fact, I ever visited it in the first place. Sometimes, I just can’t remember what I’ve established and what I haven’t.
My earlier series books taught me the ropes, to be sure. But adult suspense novels are much trickier to write than those other genres were. Multiply the usual task to the third degree, and you’ll see why, no matter how fulfilling I find the actual creative process, some trilogy-writing days are anything but sit-down-and-fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants days…which is my usual M.O., and has been for decades.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What’s your favorite series, and how did it hook you? Was it a continuing character? A kick-ass plot? A final cliffhanger that makes you anxious to pick up the next book?