Avoiding the Sucky Sequel: Tips On Making Your Book Just As Good The Second Time Around

by Walter Rhein

Perseid Press has just released my novel, The Literate Thief, which is a sequel to my 2014 release, The Reader of Acheron. Although I’ve been writing for more than ten years, this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to do a sequel, and it has been a truly gratifying experience. Assuming you’re writing out of a sense of literary integrity and not just making a blatant cash grab (like many sequels), there are several unique challenges you face when writing a sequel. The sequel has to be an extension of the first work, but not a retread. The sequel has to reference the preceding volume, but also stand on its own merits. Your aspirations as an author are always to create a manuscript that exceeds its predecessor, but your chance of success is dependent on having an initial thematic vision larger than what can be contained in a single book.

Part of the reason that many of the sequels we’re subjected to are seen as failures is that the initial project was never conceived as anything more than a single narrative. When a book or film achieves a certain level of success, there is pressure to create a sequel even in instances where the narrative is artistically complete. Many “bad” sequels come as a result of forcing further narratives when the story doesn’t call for them. The series of “Hangover” movies fits into this category. They’re all entertaining, but, let’s face it, you’d be better off watching the first one three times than engaging parts two or three.

Some examples of “good” sequels are simply the case of a publisher breaking a large manuscript into smaller volumes to increase sales. For example, Tolkein did not conceive of The Lord of the Rings as three volumes. The manuscript he submitted was complete and the publisher added the volume breaks. Other authors such as J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin have vast outlines for further volumes in readiness upon submission of their initial manuscripts. They knew in advance where the story would go, and they probably would have written them whether or not the first volume had achieved critical or financial success.

Years ago, when I was initially planning this project, I had an interesting conversation with Janet Morris of Perseid Press. Morris is famous for having written the Thieves’ World novels, and she now dedicates herself to publishing thought-provoking manuscripts. Perseid doesn’t have the advertising budget of some publishers, but the encouragement to create intellectually stimulating narratives is, for me, of foremost importance. It’s a relief to know a discerning reader like Janet Morris will be the first to evaluate my manuscript, because I know if I become intellectually lazy the work is going right in the trash where it belongs.

In 2014, Janet gave a speech at the Library of Congress, and I had the opportunity to present her to her audience. The Reader of Acheron was in print at that point, and after her talk we chatted about where the series would go. I remember saying, “This world I’ve conceived of has more problems than I can resolve in a single volume.” Even as I said it, the phrase struck me as something of a mission statement. I remember the look of knowing satisfaction Janet flashed me in response. That moment, for me, cemented the justification for subsequent books.

In fact, in the early days of writing The Reader of Acheron, I realized the narrative was growing too large. Initially I’d planned concurrent plots involving many characters in separate locations, but a month or two in I realized I was working on two books. I cut out four chapters and set them in a folder, and those chapters became the beginning of “The Literate Thief.” Actually, the very first chapter that I wrote for “Reader” was cut only to show up in the subsequent book.

What you hope for in a sequel is to convey further detail of your concept so that you retroactively enhance the first volume. The best example I can think of that illustrates this idea is The Empire Strikes Back. It’s interesting how much of the Star Wars mythos was only introduced in the sequel. The progression of the narrative from Star Wars to Empire is also honest, truthful and reasonable to the development of the characters, but much, much bigger. There is a huge advantage to bringing your readers into a sequel. You’ve established a certain kind of narrative and trained your audience to be familiar with that narrative. Now, you can accelerate your thematic ambition. You can build upon concepts and use shorthand representation of items you had to explain in great detail in volume one. When done right, a sequel is a tremendous chance at advanced storytelling. Most of the sequels that fail, do so because they try to repeat the success of the original without making an effort to introduce anything new or expand on the existing themes.

I had a tremendous time writing The Literate Thief, and I’m happy to have conveyed some themes that were necessarily cut from The Reader of Acheron. However, the underling thematic narrative of this series still gnaws at me, and there is still a lot to say. There will certainly be a third book, but at this point I’m not entirely sure if it will continue after that. I have almost 40 pages of notes ready as I work on the last volume, and it remains to be seen if all of those ideas will make their way into the last volume, or will turn up in another series. I can guarantee this though, I care too much about my characters and my readers to subject them to a work without purpose.