Monday, 17 February 2014

Things they don’t tell you about being an author ...

... Number 1: Writing a sequel isn’t easy

The River Tweed on a summer's day
When I started to write No Stranger to Death, I had no intention of it being anything other than a standalone novel. Bad things would happen in the Scottish Borders village of Westerlea, my heroine Zoe Moreland would save the day, and that would be that. But when I got to the end of the first draft, Zoe’s story was far from over. Of course, I had the power to change this, but I didn’t want to. So, instead of editing out situations which couldn’t be resolved or creating over-neat outcomes, I decided to write a sequel.

What bliss, I thought, to be able to pick up where I left off. I could use the same settings, and those characters I already know well would be waiting for me to prod them back into action. Also, what better way to build a following than have readers put down No Stranger to Death so desperate to find out what happens next that they rush to buy its follow-up?

Silly me! I’m now faced with decisions to make and challenges to meet that might not be necessary if I was creating a fictional world from scratch. And I’m not just talking about remembering the colour of a character’s eyes.

Does Book 2 work on its own?
This is the big one: a sequel must not rely on the first book to be enjoyable. In that respect, all books are standalones, especially as readers don’t necessarily consume them in the order in which they’re published. Knowledge of what went before can increase the reader’s pleasure, but a story which relies on this to entertain is a cop-out. To that end, Book 2 will involve Zoe getting caught up in entirely new and very different crimes to those in No Stranger to Death.

How much back-story to tell?
Back-story is a tricky thing to get right at the best of times. Too much can slow up the action and risks spoiling the enjoyment of readers who then move on to the first novel. But too little could raise questions which distract from the narrative, even in a crime novel aiming to intrigue the reader. I’ve found this testing from the very first page, when Zoe is visited by the police asking for help in identifying the body of a young man found dead on the banks of the River Tweed. She reveals something about herself that anyone who has read No Stranger to Death will find significant but which readers who are encountering Zoe for the first time will simply take at face value. Should I fill in the gaps about what has happened during the intervening six months and give away some of the secrets of the first book?
Shhh ... it's a secret
Which characters will make it into Book 2?
Any character who features in Book 2 is patently neither killer nor victim in the first book. Sadly, this means I can’t re-use some perfectly good characters, as their presence would spoil things for readers who come to Book 2 first. In this respect, police procedurals have an advantage over books like No Stranger to Death because readers expect police officers to stay roughly the same in subsequent books but to investigate different members of the public. Look at Midsommer Murders on TV: most episodes focus on different villages for exactly this reason.

How to be different while staying the same?
I look upon writing in a specific genre as a promise to the reader that you’ll give them a book which broadly (and it can be very broadly) meets their expectations. Put simplistically, readers expect a crime novel to start with a crime, proceed with some sort of investigation, and end with a solution. Writing a sequel makes another promise: ‘If you enjoyed the first one, you’ll enjoy this one too although it’s different enough to be worth reading’. Keeping these promises while at the same time coming up with a novel which isn’t a rerun of what has gone before is going to be a challenge. I’ve already scrapped my plan for what happens immediately after Zoe is taken to see the body because I realised it followed too closely the chain of events in the first part of No Stranger to Death.

Poor Martin
Does all this matter? Am I worrying unnecessarily? The makers of The Bridge II, the latest Scandi-crime shown on BBC4, were faced with similar challenges. They chose to ignore the possibility that viewers would watch the series out of order, and fully incorporated the revelations and outcomes of the first series into the action of the second. Although I enjoyed Series II as much as Series I, and it was a far richer story by examining Martin’s response to his family’s tragedy, I can’t help thinking that decision will deter viewers who came in at Series II from watching what went before. Or will it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter, especially as readers. I would also be interested to hear how other writers tackle the challenges of writing sequels and series novels. Do leave a comment below or email me via the contact form on this blog, tweet me (I’m @JanetOkane) or post on my Facebook author page.

('Shhh' pic courtesy of

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Catching up

Three months ago, I released my first crime novel, No Stranger to Death, as an ebook. Shortly afterwards, I brought it out as a paperback too. Not only does this mean more people can buy it, but my book will soon be available in libraries throughout the Scottish Borders. It has received some great reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and continues to feature regularly in the Kindle Top 100 Scottish Crime Fiction chart.

Other writers and bloggers have helped me spread the word about my book, offering me guest spots on their own blogs and websites. I will always be immensely grateful to them for this support and encouragement. Soon, writing these guest blogs will be finished and I can concentrate on regularly posting on this site. In the meantime, here is a further list of where you can read about me and my book.

  • The brilliantly named Scottish crime-fiction blog, ‘There’s Been a Murder’ asked me some very challenging questions.
  • The inspirational ‘Fab after Fifty’ website included a piece in their Fabwomen blog on the ‘bucket list’ I wrote when I hit 50. Naturally this included publishing a novel but you may be interested in some of the other tasks I set myself.
  • A fellow crime-writer, Jane Isaac, invited me onto her blog 'Caffeine's not a Crime' to reveal how Scottish Borders settings influence my writing.
  • Mel Sherratt is a chart-topping crime-writer on both sides of the Atlantic who kick-started her career by self-publishing. I leapt at the chance to appear in her ‘Murder They Wrote’ slot when she invited me.

Mel and I at Harrogate 2013

Finally, for those of you who have read and enjoyed No Stranger to Death, I’m happy to say that I've started in earnest on its sequel. It will be out in the summer of 2015.