I very much love what John Gardner said in his On Becoming a Novelist: good fiction is “a vivid and continuous dream.” Now that I’m writing sequels to my debut novel, this quote has sparked a question: What happens when you wake from this dream, only to return to it in a later book?
As a reader, I devour the first book in a series, drool over the not-yet-published sequel, then plunge in and cross my fingers, hoping that, among the flashy new characters and plot twists, I find old friends and kindly reminders of names, family trees, and facts I might have forgotten. And sure enough, my favorite authors lull me into their stories without losing or boring me along the way. Of course, that’s easy for a reader to want. The writer is the one who has to stitch it all together.
With this in mind, I started my second novel a bit nervously. When I wrote my debut, Other, I wasn’t even thinking about a sequel being concocted. But it was, and it was called Bloodborn. More of a companion novel than a direct sequel, Bloodborn takes tertiary characters from Other and makes them primary. Since both novels are set in an alternate America where paranormal people (Others) exist publically, with a variety of cultural effects, I had some of my own worldbuilding rules to abide by.
(I could have played the, “I am the author; I am the god of this story!” card and smote all my old characters, repopulating my world with unicorns and dragons, but I have the distinct impression my editor—and readers—would flog me.)
Most importantly, though, I wanted the two books to feel the same.
If a reader loves Other, I want them to love Bloodborn, or at least feel they are returning to the dreamworld I created before. Of course, Bloodborn features a different cast of characters. There are cameo appearances from the stars of Other, and nearly all the werewolves reappear, but other than that, Brock, our protagonist, is a stranger to the reader. No, it’s trickier than that—he’s actually an antagonist in Other, so the reader should be predisposed to dislike him. Maybe hate his guts for being prejudiced and unkind. Why, Karen, would you be so masochistic? Because I relish a good challenge.
See, while Bloodborn tackles some of the same themes in Other—prejudice, finding yourself, and being able to go public with your identity—it doesn’t rehash the same plotline. Brock hates werewolves. That’s why he’s a bad guy in the first book, and an anti-hero in the second. Now that he’s been bitten, he’s become the very thing he despised. He must overcome his hatred, or the consequences will be fatal. Before, we see only hints of this brewing conflict, only the beginning of Brock’s struggles to change into a better person. Other isn’t his story. Bloodborn, however, is.
I can’t speak for my readers, and say whether Bloodborn has succeeded magnificently or not. It doesn’t come out until September 8. But I can say that as a writer, I learned this: I didn’t need to redream Other. Sure, one night you might have this fantastic dream, but trying to force it back into being the next time you’re in bed can result only in shadowy disappointment.
While you definitely want to keep the continuity of a series intact—otherwise a reader will have a rude awakening—you, as author, also have the power to explore far beyond the borders of the earlier story. A new novel in a series might star recurring characters, in the same unforgettable world, but it also should dare to tantalize and surprise the imagination with new possibilities. Don’t be afraid to move beyond the conflicts and characters of your earlier story, and delve even deeper in your world.