Thursday, June 13, 2013
I don’t write sequels. At least, that is not my intention. Each of the four novels I have written so far (two published) is completely independent of the others. Someone asked me the other day which of the two published novels they should read first, and I explained that it made absolutely no difference. Unless perhaps, like me, the person is interested in seeing how a writer’s work develops over time. So, why do I not write sequels? And why is it that so many people do?
Consider the second question first: Why do so many people write sequels?
There are three kinds of sequels. The first is what might be called the ‘unintended sequel’. Someone writes a novel. Then, after a period of time, they write a sequel to that novel. It may be that they have recognised there is more to be told about the characters, that there are undeveloped themes, or untied loose ends. No single book, after all, can tell the whole story. And stories do not actually end. These are what might be called the ‘literary’ reasons for writing a sequel. There are other forces that have more to do with the world of marketing. If a book sells well, it may be lucrative to cash in on its success by quickly writing a sequel.
The second kind of sequel is what I will call the ‘intended sequel’. In this case, the story in the first novel is intentionally left with ends dangling and tantalising hints of a story yet to come. This is different from the ‘series’, which, from the very beginning, the reader knows will extend into several volumes. In a series, the story remains incomplete until the final volume is finished. In what I am calling the intended sequel, the story is complete, but the seeds are sown for the next story. I imagine that the motivation here is largely commercial: Hook the readers so that they want to buy the next book too.
The third category into which sequels may be placed is ‘stand alone’, or not. In the stand alone sequel, the second story can be read and fully understood without reference to the first. In other cases, the second book can only be fully appreciated when the first has also been read. No doubt there are degrees to which this is true.
I can think of at least two other reasons behind the writing of the unintended sequel. Anyone who writes knows how attached the writer becomes to the characters. It is sometimes very difficult to let them go. It is very tempting, therefore, not to let them go. The second reason is this: Creating a character is hard work. It is difficult to generate a personality, a past history, a voice. Even within a novel, it can be difficult to create characters that are sufficiently differentiated from each other. Perhaps it is tempting, then, not to even attempt to populate the next novel with a crop of entirely new characters, but to continue with the ones already at hand. In some ways this may be easier for the reader, too. If a writer tries not to do that, there is always the danger that, despite his or her best intentions, the characters in the second novel are, in fact, very like those in the first, but with different names and a different hairdo. Easier then, and perhaps more honest, just to stick with the original characters.
So why do I not write sequels? I suppose that when I start a new novel I have a very particular story to tell, and very particular ideas and themes to explore. This is probably also why my novels tend to be quite short. I don’t attempt to explore every aspect of life, the universe and everything in a single volume. I find that the story, characters and themes interact with each other, bounce off and reinforce each other. The story shapes the characters and the characters shape the story; and together they shed light on particular ideas or themes. And when I have finished a novel, I generally have a very strong sense that it is, indeed, finished. That is, the characters and I have said what needed to be said on the subject. The next novel, if there is one, will explore different themes, which will necessarily involve new characters in a new storyline.
Now, I do not entirely preclude the possibility that I will, one day, write a sequel to one of my existing novels. However, it will be a sequel only in a very loose sense; in the sense, namely, that some of the characters appear again, with a new job to do. This would be a sequel only in the sense that, say, Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, could be considered a sequel to The Colour Purple. The second novel fleshes out the story of one of the minor characters in the first, but does not really continue the story of the first.
The real challenge for me is to keep coming up with real, believable characters, who are not simply clones of my other characters. You would think, with the number of unique individuals in the world, that this would not be so very difficult. It is!