Monday, June 2

Writing a Sequel

As every writer knows, it's the small things that make our day. Coffee. A few uninterrupted hours in which to write. A 5* review from a reader. Getting paid. (note: this list is in random order and not in order of importance. You get the picture). One of the biggies is the state of Having Written. You've done it again, produced a 100,000 words that hang together into something coherent and maybe, just maybe, quite good. But for me at this moment in time, it's not just the HW. It's Having Written a Sequel. 

Now, for those of you who've never written a sequel, you'll be thinking "What's the big deal? It's just another novel and novel writing is hard. Full stop." Just what I thought. Until I started to write one and found that there is a whole weight of expectations and problems attached to writing a second novel. I have other (unpublished) novels under my belt, so it's not like I can't produce novels. Let me explain.

1. Second Novel Syndrome

As an unpublished writer, I believed the hard climbs were to 1. Get an agent (done) 2. Get a publishing deal (done). 3. Have great sales (done). Once I had achieved those three, then the rest would be easy. Nobody told me about Second Novel Syndrome. The thing that happens when a second novel isn't as good as the first. When it fails to deliver the promise of the sparkling debut. When you basically, as a writer, fall on your behind and it's clear to all that yes, you had a novel in you. But it was just the one. 

So with your second book, the game is on. You absolutely have to get it right. And weirdly, the more successful your debut, the more pressure there is for the next one to be as good and ideally, better. Oh, and other thing, said the sage advice I found online: don't try and do it with a sequel. Because writing a decent sequel is really difficult.  Problem was, my historical thriller The Fifth Knight was a #1 Bestseller on charts on different Amazon sites. It had loads of 5* and 4* reviews. And I was trying to write a sequel to it, called The Blood of The Fifth Knight. Oh, indeed.

Same Again, Please

2. Of Course I Can Do It Again. (Or, Oh, No You Can't.)

What cheered me about being an agented, published author was that I no longer had to produce the whole novel before it could go out on submission. All I needed was 30,000 words and a detailed synopsis. Easy-peasy. I always do a basic scene by scene synopsis, but not this time. No. I was going to write a beautifully constructed three-act synopsis. I was going to show detailed character development, perfect plot arcs. I was going to develop my skills in my genre of historical thrillers and make this a weighty read. I wrote said synopsis. And a tiny voice in my head whispered: "This is boring." "Hah!" I replied to the voice in my head. "It is not boring at all. See, how authentic and gritty and...historical and proper it is."

So I wrote my 30,000 words based faithfully on said synopsis. I sent both to my agent and the second I pressed send, I admitted to the voice. "Yep. it's boring." I hoped my agent wouldn't notice. I allowed my spouse the first read simultaneously. He said it was frequently boring. My agent was more tactful (Great writing, but...) But yes, it's boring. So he had noticed. Damn. But my agent was also spot on in reflecting back the bits that weren't boring at all. That worked for him as a reader. That were true to The Fifth Knight. I had to do more of that. Much more. And he wasn't sending it anywhere until I had. 

My delete button took care of 20,000 words. And I couldn't have been happier. I stopped trying to write what I thought I should write and wrote what I enjoyed. Out went a famine. In came a leopard. (Yes, really. Historical fact. I promise). And we were back on.

3. How To Make  A Rod For Your Own Back:

Most of the action in The Fifth Knight took place in December 1170/January 1171, with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and its aftermath. I added a nice epilogue from July 1174, with King Henry II doing penance on the streets of Canterbury for his murder. I had included that because a sequel hadn't been on my mind then. 

But the sequel takes up where that scene left off, with an enormous amount of political upheaval that had taken place in the preceding years. And I had characters that had to start off from this three-years-later point. And I had to incorporate a credible story line about what had happened in those intervening years as well as start a brand new premise for the new novel. It was the singularly most complex plotting exercise that I had ever done. I must have redone that plotting jigsaw dozens of times.

One jump from the dog and it would've been disaster.

If I had left that epilogue out, I would have had far more freedom to move to the next story. My turn for sage advice: leave the narrative door a bit further open for the next stage of a story. You may well be glad you did.

And I fretted and fretted over those complexities, the time shifts, the points of view. Was this now really working or was I boring everyone again? Admittedly the tiny voice in my head had gone quiet, but it might have just fallen asleep. Agent and spouse reported back, very happy, as did beta-readers. But all of that is for naught unless an editor likes it.

4. Thank You, Writing Gods.

So the e-mail from the editor comes, as it inevitably does. I don't know how you read something with your eyes screwed shut, but I did. And she said: 
"Congratulations – this is a brilliant historical thriller, I absolutely loved it and was drawn in from the first page. The action is exciting, the plot is twisty and you create a brilliant sense of the period... I really enjoyed reading it and don’t think that you need to do very much work here at all."
 Yes, not only have I managed to write a sequel to my #1 selling historical thriller The Fifth Knight, I have managed to write one that the editor really likes. Let there be dancing, happiness and above all, a colossal sigh of relief. As for not needing to do very much work on it? I think I'm best described as a front loader.
Update from April 2016: The Blood of the Fifth Knight has so far sold over 30,000 copies. Thank you indeed, Writing Gods. And thank you, readers, an awful lot more!


  1. Excellent! Congrats! I enjoyed this humorous read, too. I am preparing for a second-of-series (as soon as I get the first launched) and am holding my breath about keeping it good.

    1. Thanks Debra! What time period is your series set in?

  2. I'm having many of the same thoughts about the sequel I'm currently writing. It's a very different book than the 1st, which was full of battle/action sequences. I'm worried the pace might be too slow, concerned about weaving too much (or not enough) backstory of book 1 into the sequel, and wondering if the book can also stand on its own. It's a lot of work!

    The Fifth Knight sounds intriguing! And the second half of 12th century is the time period I'm writing, too - Third Crusade and its aftermath. I need to put your book on my to-read shelf.

  3. Thanks, Char. It's such a hugely difficult balancing act between writing something new and fresh for novel #2, but not so fresh that's it's a completely different animal from novel #1. Very best of luck!

  4. Great piece Elaine. Made me laugh as I've had similar thoughts. With my debut novel tottering on the brink of a copy-edit and book 2 waiting in the wings, this was quite appropriate!


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