Three Thoughts About Writing Sequels

Well, since I’m currently reading a sci-fi novel called “A Closed And Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers, which is the sequel to a novel called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet“, I thought that I’d talk about the topic of literary sequels and offer a few thoughts about how to write them.

1) Balancing new and regular readers: One of the most challenging things about a literary sequel is getting the balance between making it familiar enough for readers of the previous book, but also accessible enough for new readers who haven’t read the previous book. Both types of readers want completely different things. Fans of the series want to jump straight back into the story and new readers want to know what is actually going on. The classic way of solving this is to give each book in a series a fairly self-contained main story (with some background story arcs continued from the previous book), whilst also adding short plot-relevant recaps to help out new readers.

But, you can do some slightly more creative things with your sequel. Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit” offers a really good example of this – whilst it technically starts a few minutes after the ending of the previous novel, it instead focuses on a different group of characters who appeared near the end of the first book. What this means is that regular readers get a feeling of continuity, whilst the focus on a new group of main characters means that the story isn’t too confusing for new readers.

In addition to this, the novel also caters to new and familiar readers through the careful use of background details. In short, the story will mention and describe various alien species, locations, fictional languages etc.. in enough detail for new readers to get a general sense of what they are. Of course, if you’ve read the previous book, you’ll already know a lot of background details about these things – which instantly adds extra depth to the story, without the need for Chambers to re-explain literally everything again. So, it’s accessible to new readers whilst offering a bit of a bonus to readers of the previous novel.

Deciding how to balance your story for familiar and new readers depends a lot on the story you are telling (for example, a large fantasy epic split into several books should favour familiar readers, whereas something like a series of detective stories should favour new readers), but it is something that is worth thinking about carefully.

2) When to start it: Earlier, I mentioned that Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit” started a few minutes after the end of the previous novel. In that novel, this works really well for the reasons that I’ve outlined earlier. However, it is often better to set your sequel days, weeks, months or even years after the events of your first novel.

Not only does this give the story a slightly more self-contained atmosphere, whilst also allowing for recaps to appear more easily, but it also means that it is a hell of a lot easier to write a dramatic opening scene for your sequel too. After all, if you aren’t limited to what happens directly after the first book, then you can set the opening scene somewhere else or even introduce an element of mystery about what happened between the first novel and the sequel.

And, this is important. To give you an example why (with some SPOILERS), read Jonathan Maberry’s excellent zombie novel “Dead Of Night” and then read the sequel “Fall Of Night“. Whilst both novels are good, one flaw is that “Fall Of Night” begins directly after “Dead Of Night”. The first novel ends with a really gripping, fast-paced and dramatic segment where some of the main characters finally manage to get into and successfully defend a fortified building. However, the opening segments of the sequel lag quite a bit because they focus on the bleak and claustrophobic aftermath of this small victory. Yes, this adds realism and dramatic weight to the story and – as a suspenseful middle section – would be brilliant. But, as an opening, it really isn’t as fast-paced or gripping as you’d expect a typical horror/thriller novel opening to be.

So, don’t be afraid to start your sequel quite a bit of time after your first novel. Remember, just because a novel is a sequel, it doesn’t mean that the opening scene should be less dramatic than one from a stand-alone novel.

3) Cliffhangers: Cliffhanger endings should be used very, very carefully. Yes, traditional large-scale cliffhangers will make readers want to read the next book – but they can often feel like a very cheap or manipulative way of doing this. There is nothing worse than reading hundreds of pages, only to be told “Nope. You’ll have to buy the next book for your effort to be worthwhile” or to get near the end of a novel and suddenly realise “there’s no way this story can be resolved in the ten pages that are left“. It isn’t good! Don’t do it!

Your reader should have some emotional, dramatic or narrative payoff for reading each novel in your series. So, the classic way to handle this is to either restrict your cliffhangers to background sub-plots (and resolve your novel’s main plot) or vice versa. Whatever you do, your reader should feel some sense of resolution when your novel ends. If you have two plot threads in your novel, then only one of them should have a cliffhanger.

And, in some types of book series (eg: those designed to be read in any order), cliffhangers shouldn’t be used at all. I can’t remember the exact title, but I remember reading one of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels that ended with a very suspenseful cliffhanger. So, I tracked down the next book in the series and was promptly disappointed. Because this series is designed to be read in any order, the next book starts out with a totally different storyline – with the resolution of the suspenseful cliffhanger just being a small and underwhelming background detail part of the way through the book. So, if your series isn’t explicitly designed to be read in order, then don’t use cliffhangers!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

When Should You Reference Your Previous Stories?

Well, I thought that I’d talk about series fiction today. In particular, how and when you should reference previous parts of the series that you are writing. Of course, there are several ways of doing this and they need to be handled in different ways.

Let’s start with recaps. If you’re writing a series, then recaps of your previous stories tend to come in two forms – recaps for new readers and recaps for fans of the series. Either way, recaps should either be seamlessly added to the earlier parts of the story (eg: short descriptions, references etc… rather than large chunks of exposition) and/or should only appear when they are directly relevant to what is happening right now in your story.

Anyway, if you want to write a series where the stories can be read in any order, then you only need to recap the key parts of your series’ premise, characters etc… (that a new reader needs to know in order to understand the story) and you should keep references to the events of your previous novels as vague or undetailed as you can get away with. Because your reader may not have read earlier parts of the series, spoilers are an issue here. If you spoil the ending of one of your previous books, then your reader will have less reason to check it out.

For example, a detective novel containing the description: “I’d known Gary since we worked a case together back in London two years ago. He hadn’t been the same since.” tells the reader that a previous novel exists, that it is dramatic and that Gary can also be found in it. Yet, it keeps things mysterious enough to make the reader actually want to read that previous novel.

Now, compare this to something like “After we’d found out that Gary’s wife was a serial killer two years earlier, things had been strained between us.” Yes, this adds extra instant drama to the current story but it also spoils a major twist from a previous story, making it less likely that the reader will want to take a look at it. So, if you’re writing a series that doesn’t have to be read in order, make sure to avoid spoilers during your recaps.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a series that needs to be read in order, then not only can you include spoilers in your recaps but you probably need to. In continuous series, the point of recaps is to refresh the reader’s memory of the previous novel (since it might have been a few months or years since they read it). However, since your reader has already read the previous books, you don’t need to spend as much time re-introducing the characters, premise etc… since your reader will probably have at least vague memories of these things already.

If you’ve written a spin-off and/or you want to subtly advertise the previous novels in your series, then adding a brief reference to it can be a good way of doing this. However, the important thing here is that the reference should be brief and, more importantly, it should still make sense if your reader hasn’t read the story that you’re referencing. It should also fit into the context of your story and shouldn’t stand out as an obvious/obnoxious piece of “product placement” either.

To give you an example of this done well, the sci-fi/comedy/historical/thriller novel I’m reading at the moment (“An Argumentation Of Historians” by Jodi Taylor) is the ninth novel in a series and, in the middle of an eventful segment, it contains the line: “I remembered that these three had fought at the Battersea Barricades, stepped back against the wall and let them get on with it.” This sentence tells the reader that the narrator is looking at three formidable people with combat experience. It’s a quick way to show that they are not people to be messed with.

However, it is also a sneaky reference to one of the author’s spin-off short stories that will both intrigue fans of the series and remind them that these spin-off stories exist. But, due to both it’s brevity and – more importantly- the fact that the sentence is still understandable without having read “The Battersea Barricades” (which I haven’t read), it comes across as a natural part of the story rather than as obnoxious advertising or anything like that.

So, whilst references can be a good way to get your readers interested in your other books, be sure to do this in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel like they are being advertised at. Keep your references short, relevant to the main story and, most importantly, understandable to people who haven’t read the thing you are referencing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Three Reasons Why Authors Write Book Series

Well, since I recently finished reading the third novel in a trilogy and I’m currently re-reading the fifth novel in S.D.Perry’s “Resident Evil” series, I thought that I’d talk about book series today. Or, more particularly, some of the possible reasons why an author might choose to write a series instead of a stand-alone novel.

1) Fandom and reviews: One of the things that I normally do after I’ve finished preparing a book review is to look online to see what other people thought about the book in question. And, I’ve noticed an interesting trend with online customer reviews of series novels on a popular bookselling website. Although the first book in a series may get a medium score, subsequent books in a series will usually get the same or higher. In fact, some later books in a series can get unanimous five-star reviews from ordinary readers.

Although this can sometimes be due to the writer getting better at writing with each book in the series, there is another more interesting explanation for this trend. In short, most of the people who will read the second, third etc… book in a series will do so because they really enjoyed the first one. After all, if someone doesn’t enjoy a book, then they’re hardly going to want to read the sequels to it.

So, writing a series, especially one that tells a continuous story that has to be read in order, can be a good way of building a fandom. Although the reaction to the first book may be mixed, it can serve as something of an audience filter – meaning that the only people who will read the sequels will be fans. Yes, this still means that the sequels have to be good, but they will mostly be read by people who are fans of the earlier books.

2) Publishing and tradition: In some genres, series almost seem to be an expected thing. I mean, when was the last time you read a modern stand-alone detective novel, thriller novel, urban fantasy and/or traditional fantasy novel?

Although this trend in publishing does have some problems (eg: not every story is suited to a series), there are some interesting reasons for it.

First of all, series tend to be popular in the fantasy/urban fantasy genres because readers have been led to expect epic, complex stories from these genres. J.R.R Tolkien probably started this particular trend.

But, it’s kind of telling that I can only think of a few stand-alone fantasy novels – Dave Duncan’s 1987 novel “A Rose Red City“, Tanith Lee’s 1980 novel “Kill The Dead“, Clive Barker’s 1987 novel “Weaveworld” and maybe Barker’s 1988 dark fantasy/horror novel “Cabal“. As you can see, all of these novels are from the 1980s. The only modern examples I can think of are possibly historical fantasy zombie thrillers like Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“.

Likewise, detective stories lend themselves well to series too. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probably started this trend. Not only that, detective series (and thriller series) are also attractive to publishers for the simple reason that each novel will usually tell a fairly self-contained story featuring a common main character. This side-steps one of the problems with series because the reader can usually read these novels in any order – so, if they see an interesting novel then they can buy it there and then rather than having to track down earlier books in the series first.

Of course, there are also the standard financial reasons too. Series and sequels generally tend to be more of a safe bet for publishers because, if the first book does well, then this means that there will probably be an audience for further sequels.

3) Writer’s block and focus: One reason why an author might choose to write a series is because it makes it easier to write subsequent novels. After all, if you’ve already set up the characters etc… then this means that it is easier to jump straight into the next book. This also allows an author to focus a lot more on things like characters, worldbuilding etc… because they have more time and space to do so.

Not only that, it also protects the author from writer’s block because it’s usually easier to continue a pre-existing story than to think of an entirely new one. If the characters, setting, premise etc… have already been created, then all the writer has to do is to work out what to do with them. To use a gaming metaphor, it’s like the difference between a games company building an entirely new game engine and using a pre-made one.

So, series can be a good way for writers to both add depth to their stories and to reduce the chances of getting writer’s block.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Can Themed Online Creative “Events” Increase Your Audience?

2015 Artwork Themed events article sketch

Although this is an article about themed online creative events (eg: posting stories about a similar theme every day for a week, posting a themed art series online etc..) and whether they increase your online audience, I’m probably going to have to spend a while talking about this site.

Yes, this is probably at least the twenty-fifth time that I’ve broken my “don’t blog about blogging” rule. But, there’s (sort of) a good reason why I’m rambling about this stuff, that I hope will become obvious later. Even so, if you just want some quick advice then feel free to skip to the last half of this article.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about themed events recently – mainly since an idea that I’ve had for a while popped into my mind again because I’ve been reviewing more fan-made levels for “Doom II“/ “Final Doom” than usual recently. I’d planned to hold an event on this blog called “Doom Week”, where – as you may have guessed- every article on here for a week would be a review of something “Doom”-related.

But, apart from posting a several themed art series (and short comics) here and having a “poetry week” last year, I haven’t really done that many themed events on this site. This is mainly because of worries about both my own attention span and because I’m worried about boring and alienating everyone.

For example, I kind of have an informal rule that I won’t post “Doom” level reviews on consecutive days (hence why I’m posting this article here today, rather than another review). This is because, although “Doom II” and “Final Doom” are two of my favourite computer games, they’re kind of obscure.

So, talking about nothing but these games for a week would probably just end up boring 99% of you who are reading this. As such, I usually try to ensure that regular readers don’t have to wait more than a day to read something that isn’t “Doom”-related. So, “Doom Week” is unfortunately kind of a non-starter.

Likewise, there’s usually only so much that you can say or do about a particular topic before it starts to get stale and you need a break. For example, many of my themed art series only tend to last about a week or so at the most for the simple reason that this is usually about as long as it takes me to run out of ideas, inspiration and/or enthusiasm for a particular theme.

So, I guess that the first thing to remember about themed “events” is to keep them short. Not only does this ensure that you’ll put out your best work because you’ll stop before it starts to get stale, but it also means that people who aren’t interested in your event don’t have to wait too long for you to go back to doing what you normally do.

The other thing that I will say about themed creative “events” is that they aren’t a magic bullet. Yes, if someone likes the event, then they’re going to check your site regularly when it is running. But, unless you come up with an absolutely spectacular attention-grabbing idea, it isn’t some kind of magic bullet that will give you a sudden spike in pageviews.

In fact, if you’re just looking for a quick way to increase your views, then try reviewing something that is popular and current (eg: TV show episodes on either the day that they are shown or the day after etc…).

A few times that I’ve done this, it has resulted in a significant increase in views (eg: as many as 50-60 extra views per day) for a couple of days before my readership figures go back to normal (eg: about 100-200 views per day at the time of writing). So, even this is only a temporary short term way to get more views.

I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that you should only really do themed “events” if they’re something that interest you and something that you think that your pre-existing audience will also find interesting too. Unless your themed event revolves around something popular and current, then it won’t magically give you lots of extra views.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Should A Series Be Consistent?

2013 Artwork Consistent Series Sketch

Well, when I was looking through some old magazines recnetly, I found a copy of “Writing Magazine” from May 2011. Since there was a large picture of Lee Child on the cover, I decided to take a closer look and read the interview with him. Seriously, if you haven’t read at least one Lee Child book, then you’re missing out. Anyway, I was interested to see what he had to say about writing.

As well as lots of other interesting stuff, one part of the interview stood out to me. Just before this quote, Child talks about how he avoids developing Jack Reacher (the main character in his novels) because he feels that main characters can only develop to a particular point before the writer needs to switch to another character.

I don’t fully agree with that idea, but what he says next is especially interesting: “So I wanted Jack to be reliable and consistent in reader terms, because once someone knows what they get from a Jack Reacher story, they are more confident in investing in another one.

Yes, keeping the central parts of your fiction/comic/film/TV etc… series fairly consistent is certainly one way to keep people interested in your series. But at the same time, I think that there are some flaws in this idea. This is mainly because, if you aren’t careful, your series can end up becoming stale and repetitive.

Whilst this might not be an issue for a writer as talented and imaginative as Lee Child, I can see how this approach might cause problems for less experienced writers (such as myself).

At the same time, changing too much too quickly can also drive people away from your series. I mean, large changes in a TV series often tend to divide their audiences (I’m sure you can probably think of examples of this).

Yet, at the same time, you can probably think of a TV show which goes through regular changes and still maintains a large number of fans. If you can’t think of one, then I have two words for you – “Doctor Who”.

So, you can either take a more conservative approach and keep things consistent (at the risk of your work becoming stagnant) or you can take a gamble and change things (at the risk of alienating your fans). What should you choose? One or the other?

Never believe anyone who only gives you two choices.

There’s always a third choice.

That third choice, is of course, to change things gradually and/or to be extra sure that any large/sudden changes are more dramatic than everything that came before them. But, at the same time, you have to make sure that any changes fit into the context of your series.

Changing things gradually has the advantage of making every change feel like it is part of the organic evolution of your series or part of a logical progression of events.

A good example of this is can be seen in the last two seasons of “The X Files”, which introduce two new main characters who take over from Mulder and Scully (since David Duchovny wanted to leave the show).

Although I haven’t seen much of season nine, most of season eight is spent introducing the two new main characters fairly gradually (with a lot more focus on one than the other). This change is supported by semi-regular appearances by regular characters from the previous seven seasons, which gradually taper off as the series continues.

Even though this change proved to be controversial and contributed the show’s eventual demise, it is fairly clear to any viewer of series eight that Chris Carter knew that this change could prove shocking to fans and took every effort to make it as gradual and organic as possible. The introduction of the new characters is done in a way which fits in perfectly with the context of the series and it never really feels contrived or tacked-on.

Not only that, the underlying premise of the show still remains the same throughout series eight too. This is probably one reason why the show survived for one more season rather than just being cancelled at the end of season eight. So, although gradual changes may not always work out , they can still keep a series going for at least a while longer regardless of whether they succeed or not.

Making large and sudden changes is a lot more complicated, but a general rule is that the change should add something to your series and make it more dramatic/interesting than it was beforehand. In other words, randomly changing major things just for the sake of it is a recipie for failure. Even so, this is probably still a somewhat risky thing to do when you’re changing your series.

Like with the previous point on this list, major changes should still fit into the context of your story (eg: moving to another location in the same fictional universe, the death of a main character in a situation where this could potentially happen etc…). Plus, remember to foreshadow any major plot twists too.

All in all, there aren’t really any clear “right” or “wrong” answers about whether you should keep your series consistent or not. But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to change things if you feel that it would work well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Introducing “Ambitus” – Episode Two: “Dexis Hold ‘Em”

"Ambitus Episode 2 Cover" By C. A. Brown

“Ambitus Episode 2 Cover” By C. A. Brown

Well, I am extremely proud to introduce episode two of โ€œAmbitusโ€ โ€“ โ€œDexis Hold โ€˜Emโ€.

In case anyone is new to it, “Ambitus” is a sci-fi comedy fiction series which I’m working on at the moment. The episodes will be about 10,000-15,000 words long (episode one was approximately 9800 words long) and they’re sequential, but mostly self-contained.

Following the events of episode one, Captain Jola has recieved a terse message from the admiralty demanding a meeting on a nearby space station.

Meanwhile Jill, Tellare, Misaki and Paul have landed on a mostly-abandoned and turbulent planet called Dexis Prime in search of supplies and a new ident chip for their transport craft before the military catches up with them againโ€ฆโ€ฆ

Anyway, Iโ€™ll post chapter one on the “Ambitus” blog in a few minutes. Other chapters will be posted daily at 22:30 GMT.

Introducing “Ambitus” – My New Fiction Series

2013 Artwork Ambitus Episode One Cover

Well, since “Liminal Rites” is nearly ending (there are about four days left), I thought that I’d give you all a treat and start my next project early!

“Ambitus” (which can be found here) is a sci-fi/comedy series which will be released in 10,000-15,000 word “episodes”. When an episode has started, new chapters will be posted daily (probably at 22:30pm GMT, like “Liminal Rites”). Think of it as a TV series, but with a really low budget.

Anyway, “Ambitus” follows a group of three passengers (and a drunken pilot) on a Unified Territories civilian transport ship on a routine journey to New Pluto.

However, following a border dispute, they suddenly find themselves firmly within the Federated Territories and it isnโ€™t long before they end up being chased by an unusually angry military captain with a score to settle.

Anyway, chapter one is now online and it can be found here.