Saturday 4 May 2019

Sequelizing by Chris Pavone

If you glance quickly at any given bestseller chart, this may seem like a sure path to success: write a crime-fiction series featuring the same protagonist in one book after another, forever, then recline comfortably on your piles of money. But from inside the publishing business, it has always seemed to me that for every master like Lee Child or Janet Evanovich, there are thousands of novelists slogging out their series with flat (or worse) sales, while the novels perhaps become increasingly implausible and shoddy as the demands of the book-a-year-schedule take their toll—no time for substantive edits, no time to reconsider large choices, no time to hone themes or prose, no time for anything other than a quick pass with the broom to sweep up large pieces of obvious debris, never the thorough top-to-bottom cleaning that makes a home sparkle. I want my books to sparkle.

I’m now publishing my fourth thriller, and for each manuscript the revisions process has lasted more than a year—and that’s after the year or two I spent on first drafts. Of course there are some authors who are so adept at writing fiction that they don’t need all this revision for their books to sparkle. But how many such book-a-year prodigies truly exist? Is it a hundred people? A couple of dozen? Are you one of them?

I’m not, I know it for certain. Which is why I never wanted to be in the sequel business. So although my first novel The Expats ends with the possibility of a follow-up, I declined to write it. I didn’t want to set up my publishers’ expectations of any book-a-year plan. Nor readers’. Plus my imagination didn’t contain that next installment; I simply did not know what should happen. And I didn’t want to try to foist a second-rate follow-up onto those first-rate characters. I loved my debut novel; I didn’t want to sully it.

So my next couple of books were unrelated (mostly), and I was working on another when I found myself in Paris in the aftermath of their brutal terror attacks, reminiscent of my hometown of New York City after 9/11: a global capital besieged by terrorism, soldiers with assault weapons everywhere, everyone jumping at any loud sound, convinced that whatever was happening next was happening now. Paris in 2016 felt a lot like New York in 2001.

Out of this miasma of fear, the follow-up to The Expats presented itself to me wholesale and clearly. I put aside that other manuscript I was writing, and started afresh on a new page 1 of The Paris Diversion, and began trying to figure out how to do something I didn’t know how to do.

What did I know? That I didn’t want the new book to be a proper sequel—neither book should be a prerequisite to fully enjoying the other. I wanted this second installment to compel readers to go back to the first, not because it was necessary but because it would be fun. The same in the other direction.

How to construct this two-way street? I of course didn’t know then, and still don’t now. There might be loads of correct answers to this question; there might be none. 

But here’s what I did: I wrote my first draft, and my second, and during both I engaged separate beta readers tasked with answering only one question: does Paris provide enough recap of Expats, or too much? I eventually concluded that the new book should provide essentially no recap whatsoever; I should write this second book as if the first simply does not exist. The characters’ back stories should be just back stories—the things that readers ought to know to appreciate the contemporary action. Not because the action happened in a previous book, but because it happened in these characters’ lives.

So I deleted 90 percent of the recap I’d written; then I deleted half of what remained, down to practically nothing. I left readers asking questions, by providing some answers but withholding others.

This sequelizing was hard work; harder than I expected. I’d assumed that because I’d done so much of the world-building work for the first book, it would be easier to write the second. Not at all.

So I now have even more respect for those book-per-year authors. And even more conviction that I’m not one of them.

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone is out now (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

Kate Moore is back in a pulse-pounding thriller which takes place over the course of one nail-biting day. Kate Moore - a mother with an interesting past - is living the quiet life in another European city, or trying to. On her way to drop her children off at school in the city centre, the cafes and streets of Paris start to come alive around her. Kate's husband Dex, meanwhile, charged with finding a particular present for their son's birthday, is struggling to focus on the job in hand as a financial matter at work seems to be playing on his mind. As worrying reports begin to circulate from key locations around the city, and the sound of wailing sirens becomes increasingly hard to ignore, could their day and, indeed, their lives be about to change forever?

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