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SEQUELITISBy former Del Rey editor Ellen Key Harris
I don't edit any hugely popular authors who write book after book (or series after series) set in the same world and/or with many of the same characters. But just say the word "sequelitis" (even though it's not really a word) and I think of a very specific phenomenon--one that has a lot to do with the books and authors I do edit.
I edit a lot of first novels, and most first novelists, when it comes time to write or outline a second novel, turn to a sequel. Last year, several authors gave me drafts or outlines for sequels--books that took up where the first ones ended and told stories with many of the same characters and a few new ones. And all of these books had problems--the same problems, in fact. Most importantly, they all hinged on the same themes and problems explored in the first books. I suspected that readers of the first books would feel as if they were back on the same old ground with the sequels--and they would pretty much know how it would all turn out. New readers, on the other hand, wouldn't really get enough character-building to become fully involved in the stories; the authors were writing with the readers of their previous books in mind, and therefore skimping on the character development and world-building that had made those first books so good.
So there seems to be a sequel-writing pattern for new authors. I can see why: it's easiest for an author to keep writing about the people and places he or she developed and got comfortable with in the first book. But it's really hard, apparently, to break new ground with those old characters, even if some new ones are thrown in. So in a lot of ways, a sequel is not the best second novel to write; it seems to take some time and experience before the pitfalls of taking up right where you left off are made apparent and can be avoided.
Here's what four of those authors did: the first one sold me a completely different book instead, then gutted his sequel draft for the good bits and used them as part of a new book, set later in the same universe, that starred a different set of characters and dealt with a lot of new ideas branching off from the ideas of the first book. The second author is working on a prequel that tells the story of a minor but interesting character from the first book. The third author sold me a totally different book, which I loved, and is now working on a loose sequel to her first book, with mostly different characters. The fourth author did some massive rewriting and came up with a book that is a straight sequel in setting and characters, but focuses on different issues and themes.
So, from my recent experience, I'd suggest that authors approach their second book, if it's going to be a sequel, from a very different angle: focus on characters who weren't the main characters in the first book, let a lot of fictional time pass before the second book begins, and think hard about the underlying themes and conflicts of the first book--and then pick new ones, or give the old ones a radical new twist. Otherwise the results are uniformly less involving than the first book, even if there was no obvious reason why the first book's characters couldn't be carried on for the second book.
Sequels are comforting--both to write and to read. And it's reassuring to the author and the publisher to know that a ready-made audience is out there, waiting to find out What Happens Next. This is most of the reason why sequels, never-ending series, and multi-volume stories that don't even really have endings of their own are so popular: the authors want to write them; if they sell well, the publishers want to publish them. Agreement between author and publisher on what to write, combined with familiarity of setting, characters, and ideas, make for a swift and copious outpouring of books. And that's all to the good, for the readers who can't wait to return to the Land of Wherever, where they had such a good time last year.
But most of the thrill of science fiction for me is discovery...of new places, new cultures, new characters and relationships. In fact, to me that's the thrill of reading in general. So a sequel almost always has to take the story in a different direction for me to be as interested in it as I was in its predecessor. And, while I won't ever tell my new authors they may not write a sequel, I'll admit to a little relief when I learn that an author's second book will be independent--and I have a brand-new reading experience ahead of me.