[GUEST POST] Craig Cormick’s 5 Lessons on The Pitfalls of Writing a Sequel


Craig Cormick in an Australian science communicator and author. He was born in Wollongong in 1961, and is known for his creative writing and social research into public attitudes towards new technologies. He has lived mainly in Canberra, but has also in Iceland (1980–81) and Finland (1984–85). He has published 15 books of fiction and non-fiction, and numerous articles in refereed journals. He has been active in the Canberra writing community, teaching and editing, was Chair of the ACT Writers Centre from 2003 to 2008 and in 2006 was Writer in Residence at the University of Science in Penang, Malaysia.

Five Lessons on The Pitfalls of Writing A Sequel

by Craig Cormick

Everyone loves a sequel, right?

Well, not necessarily. They are great for those who enjoyed a book and want to continue the enjoyment and spend more time with those characters and in that land, or fighting those aliens or demons or whatever. But they can be the devil to write (not a paranormal reference).

I’ve been trying to find a good metaphor to best explain the particular problems that writing the second book in a series presents for an author? It’s not quite like having a second child. It’s not quite like visiting an exotic city for the second time. It’s not even quite like having sex for the second time with the same partner (not a paranormal romance reference).

But in a way it’s a little bit like all of these, as there is a certain undeniable special magic that goes with the first that is lacking in the second.

Most writers spend many years on that first difficult book, wrestling with it and rewriting it and rewriting it until they feel it is as good as they can make it, putting all their creative energies and years’ worth of ideas into it. And then, when it gets published they might be given just eight months to deliver a sequel.

Fantasy and science fiction books are often bought on the basis of a first book that is delivered to the publisher fully, on condition of a two or three book deal (dictated by the economics and readers’ preferences) – for books that haven’t been seen or even written yet.

That can be quite a challenge, of course, and the creative freedom that a writer might have had with the first book can now feel more like a day job with a strict deadline.

With my book The Shadow Master (published by Angry Robot books), I had to come to an understanding fairly quickly that the writing of a sequel was clearly going to be a different journey than the first book, although I still needed to try to capture the themes and characters and magic of the text as I’d written in the first book. That was my first lesson.

And considering that for many authors it might take a few years to even get that first book picked up, it may be very hard to find that place in your head where the first book came from once again. The time between finishing book one and having to start book two for me was about two years.

Then there is the challenge of how to finish the first book. The Shadow Master is a medieval fantasy story, set in a Florence-like city, where Galileo and da Vinci create wonderful devices using magic rather than science. It is a fine balancing act to try to reach a satisfying conclusion to the premise I’d set up, that would allow the book to stand alone, but to leave enough options open for a sequel to be written. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I succeed in that.

That was lesson number two. Don’t close the story off too neatly, as any new strands can feel forced, and if too many loose ends are left it may seem unsatisfying for the reader.

I made the job even more complicated for myself in the Shadow Master by ending the book with a non-traditional twist that changed the reader’s understanding of what had happened. Several reviewers have reacted with a WTF? response, as the book does not indicate that a sequel is coming that would explain things.

Lesson three, endings with any loose ends can be unsettling enough for a reader, and it might not be the best place to engage in other unsettling things in your book.

And lesson four follows on from that. If you are planning a sequel to explain things left unanswered, then you should indicate in the end pages that a sequel is coming.

When I sat down to write the sequel to the Shadow Master, I was fortunate in that I was able to relocate it easily enough to a new location – a Venice-like city that is kept afloat by the work of eight magical Seers, but is under attack by mysterious assassins and monsters in the waters.

The new environment allowed for new characters and a whole new setting and problem. But it was a lot harder to work the mysterious central character, the Shadow Master, in to the story in a way that was not just a repeat of the first, but fitted well with the second.

I also had a preference for doing new things in this book, but that would have taken it too far from the first book, and I had to resist the temptations to visit a similar city anew, have a first child with another partner or have sex with my partner’s relative. Uh – metaphorically, of course – not an erotic fantasy reference!)

Lesson number 5. You have the free choice in what your book is going to be in the first book, but you lose much of that free choice when you commit to a sequel.

C. Robert Carghill, talking at the recent Convergence Conference in Minneapolis, has said that keeping up the tension in a sequel is a challenge, when the reader knows that the characters are more than likely going to survive to go on to other books. But he has also said that a good sequel allows you to fill out and round off issues, so a good sequel can actually make your first book better too.

I hope I got that right, but will soon find out. My sequel is just about ready to hand in to Angry Robot books, after being read by a trusted reader friend – who wisely asked for a copy of the first book again to make sure I had names and other references correct – and to test whether authors have as good memories of their own work as their readers (yes, clearly a fantasy reference).

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