The Sequel trap

16059 BPH_The Incrementalist-Ian McKercher_COVERs.inddby Ian McKercher

It is heartening to have people rave over your first novel. But these five seconds of good cheer evaporate when the earnest fan exclaims, “When’s the sequel coming out?”

Writing, publishing and marketing a novel have all the attributes of an Ironman competition. The author stumbles across the finish line, exhausted, wishing only to sleep for 100 years. What the enthusiastic reader wants (quickly) is “more of the same, but different.”

Writing a sequel should be easy, right? You’re blooded. You’ve established a nest of characters in a familiar setting. You’ve mastered plot development and an ironic tone of voice. Ah, but reflect for a moment on your own experiences with second efforts. Second child? Second marriage? Second career? SEQUEL TRAP for GRThere were similarities, but what likely stands out in your memory are the differences.

I would go so far as to claim that any piece of art is unique and cannot be adequately defined by its position in a sequence. So, there is no such thing as a second novel. Each novel is a new first.

Backstory problem

The number one problem in sequel writing is, “How much of the first novel do you need to retell?” The sequel must be written for three groups of readers. In my case, the first to please are the ardent fans who absolutely loved The Underling, memorized every nuance and have named their first-born after their favourite character.

Next are those who enjoyed warm fuzzies on reading The Underling five years ago, but time has diminished the details. (“Was there a girl and some gold?”)

Finally comes the new reader who just returned from seven years in Antarctica studying dystopian aspects of penguin society, and has stumbled upon the second novel, The Incrementalist, as their first experience with your work.

How do you prepare a feast that will satisfy them all? Too much backstory is boring for your devotees. Too little backstory leaves the new reader confused about personalities and plot threads.

Rightly or wrongly, I opted for the “99 to 1 solution.” Ninety-nine per cent new material, one per cent brief review of the essentials. The main character Frances McFadden earns $125 a month as a secretary at the Bank of Canada, yet she lives in an apartment that rents for $170 a month? Explanation required. If Paul Roderick is her love interest and Wilbur Grace is her mentor, and Huey Foo is her business associate, well, how did a bank clerk bump into such a motley crew?

Artistic growth problem

The sequel writer has other demons to grapple with. Just as any first experience such as baking an angel food cake or changing a diaper or sharing love should provide direction for subsequent, improved experiences, a writer hopes to grow from earlier efforts. While the reader might be calling for more of the same, an internal voice is beckoning the writer to new horizons. So it becomes a balancing act that reflects the best of the old, but provides scope for untrod paths.

Readers who liked The Underling want more of Frances McFadden, the harried secretary at the Bank of Canada. They do not necessarily want more of Ian McKercher (a humbling fact). They mentioned it to me so that I can put in a word if I bump into Frances in the produce aisle at McKeen’s.

The Expectation problem

You have a delicious serving of Aunt Mabel’s peach cobbler and you want more! You anticipate that the second serving will be just as good. With my first novel, there was zero expectation that I could string three words together coherently. I had no identity as a writer of fiction. Many friends and neighbours made the “pity purchase.” The “he came to Emma’s ballet recital, I guess we have to buy his book” purchase. One acquaintance reluctantly confessed, “I read your book… and… it was….good.” (tonal subtext: “Knowing you as I do, how is that possible?”) I felt prompted to apologise for not meeting his expectations.

Now, suddenly, where there was no standard at all, the bar has been ratcheted to the eaves. Having completely dissipated all my creative verve, dug deep, emptied the cupboard, exhausted every possible cliché, now readers want new material? Better material? What if that was all there is?

Rightly or wrongly, I took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the sequel and just quietly carried on writing another 43 chapters of the same novel. Don’t tell anyone.


Photo: Courtesy of Ian McKercher

Ian McKercher is a former teacher, a history buff, Glebe resident and author of the acclaimed novels The Underling and The Incrementalist. Both are available at Octopus Books, Book Bazaar, Perfect Books and Books on Beechwood. 

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