The Suckage of Sequels
I’m about a third of the way into writing the second book of my Lexy Cooper Videogame Mystery series. And it’s hard. Harder than I would have anticipated. Here’s why:
1. Expectations. Mine, yes, but mostly those of my readers. When I wrote the first one, I wrote it to please myself. The characters, the plot, the action were the way I wanted it. And being the first in a series I could just throw it out there in the world and say “take it or leave it.” With the second book, I’ve got readers waiting to find out what happens next. Who will compare it to the first one in every way and judge it ‘as good’ ‘better’ or ‘not as good.’ Yikes.
2. Characters. Readers are invested in my characters, sometimes it seems even more than I am. I had a reader gently berate me for something in Schooled, saying “Mike would NEVER do that.” Real people change over time, especially when they are exposed to extreme situations (like a murder investigation). But readers want characters to stay the same. To maintain all those characteristics that made them interesting in the first place. Where is the line between familiar and stale? Will readers resent a new character from Malick’s past that shows a different side of him? Will they rebel at the way the events in Schooled changed Lexy? Will they be interested to see what happens or will they throw their hands up and say “Lexy would NEVER do that.”
3. Sex. There was a lot of sex in Schooled. Or so I’ve heard. In reality there were four or five scenes of a sexual nature and they were pretty graphic but brief. I’ve taken a lot of shit for them. So far I’ve written twelve chapters of Pwned and there are no sex scenes. There are mentions and flashbacks, but no real-time in your face sex scenes. I’m not entirely sure why. Am I gun shy after the reaction of the first book? But what about the people that liked that aspect of Schooled? Will they be disappointed? Do I shoehorn some lascivious scenes in to hit a quota? That doesn’t feel right.
4. Video games. When your book promises a “videogame mystery” as mine does, how much videogame-ness does there need to be? As I outlined Schooled and worked out the pacing, one of my goals was to show snippets of life at a videogame console maker. So when the plot required an incident between two characters, I chose to set it at a gaming tournament. There are plenty of these type of scenes in Pwned, but I worry: are they enough? There’s a subplot that has nothing to do with gaming though it intersects that world. Will readers be impatient when they read these non-game parts?
5. Time. When I was writing Schooled, I had the plot happen in what for me was close to real time. When Malick and Lexy go to the movies, they saw the new Spider-Man, which was in theaters at the time. I started writing Schooled in May and finished in August. All the action in the book happens between those dates. Now, with Pwned, set just a few week later, I’m writing about the past–September and October of 2012. Lexy’s birthday happens and now she’s 29. My issue isn’t with this book it’s with the next one (and the ones to follow–I’ve pretty much concluded that this will most likely be a six-book series and not just a trilogy). Do I want Lexy to turn 30? What if I write 20 books? Will she turn forty? Does anyone want to read about a middle-aged Lexy and Malick when he’s retired from the police force? If not, I need to freeze time in subsequent books. Leave out the year and current events. Stop referring to pop culture that will date the book. If I take this course, is it a cop-out?
6. POV. At the beginning of Schooled, the reader is in the head of a Xenon security guard who discovers a body. From that point on we’re either in Lexy or Malick’s head. In Pwned, the investigation is much broader, and Malick can’t do all the work himself. So there are times when we are in Officer Yi and Roger’s POV. It’s fun to write, but I worry that their internal voices aren’t distinct enough. Does Yi sound like Lexy? Does Rogers have enough personality? The trick is to make them distinct without making them caricatures. They have to be unique, but not have over-the-top quirks that will make them phony.
7. Dialog. One of my foibles as a writer is that I write a lot of dialog. I did get one complaint on this about Schooled, but the complainant was reading on his iPhone and allowed that might be where the annoyance came from. But I write so much dialog that at times my novel resembles a screenplay. When my editor Marti McKenna and I were in the process of getting Schooled ready for public consumption she’d often leave me little notes in the Google Doc “What does it look like?” “Set the scene.” and the ever-present “What’s going on in her head?” When I’m writing, I do action and dialog. Then I go back and add the details. Personally, I hate reading long descriptive passages, so you will never see three paragraphs describing how the hydrangeas quivered in a light breeze that swept up the garden from the sea. I hate that shit.
So yeah, writing a sequel is sort of a pressure cooker. Not only do I have to contend with my own doubts and expectations, but yours too!