helaine mario

The challenges and rewards of writing a sequel

I never expected to write a sequel to The Lost Concerto. But everyone, myself included, wanted to know what happened next to Maggie, her Colonel, and Shiloh. Also, for me, I wanted to explore Maggie's past. There are no better words a writer can hear than "I did not want it to end." And so, with those seven small words, Dark Rhapsody was born.

But where to begin? The best advice for writing a sequel—or a series—was given to me by my publisher, Oceanview's Patricia Gussin. She said that readers love to get to know and care about a good character. They might not remember a specific plot, but they always will remember that character. The challenge is to keep the characters readers have come to love and expect, but add layers by making these characters more complex with each book. Not easy, but excellent advice. Daniel Silva does this beautifully in his espionage series featuring Israeli art restorer and assassin Gabriel Allon. Some nineteen books later, his character remains compelling, passionate, brilliant and haunting. These four words have become my aspiration as well.

Adding new layers to your character is an important beginning. But a sequel can be more difficult to write than the original, for several reasons. So I'll begin by sharing the challenges to creating a continuing character—and how you still can find a way to go forward.

The first, and most important, reason why I found a sequel so difficult to write is that I love classical pianist Maggie O'Shea's story, introduced in The Lost Concerto. I feel as if I poured my whole heart and soul into Maggie, her grief and her courage. You put so much of yourself 'out there,' use all your big guns. How do you top that? How do you write a story as good, or even better? I was not sure that I could, and the last thing I ever want is to let a reader down. But Maggie was insistent that the next chapter of her story be told. At the end of the day, all I could do was try to write the best story I could. And surprise! Once you start to write you will find new 'big guns' waiting in the wings that you didn't know were there. I was able to look at new themes—aging, and 'making things right.' Adding new characters and finding new inspiration and themes gave a whole different depth and heart to Dark Rhapsody.

Another challenge with writing a sequel, for me, was that I did not give myself many plot and story options for a second book. Or a third... When you don't plan on a sequel or series, you don't worry about 'setting things in place' in your first story so that they can propel you into the next one, and the one after that. But readers are savvy. They don't want to be surprised by a sudden brother, a best friend appearing out of nowhere, or a pregnancy that doesn't fit with the dates, times or places you've already set up in an earlier book. Why didn't I kill that character off? Why did I let this one live? After the initial terror of 'what do I do now?' I took a deep breath and found a way to build on what came before by introducing new characters and new issues that made sense in Maggie's world. Hint for first book writers. Better to be proactive than force your characters to be reactive. Create some minor characters or plot points you can build on in a later book. Leave a few unanswered questions in the mind of the reader to propel a new story forward. And don't kill everyone off!

A smaller issue for me—and for many writers, I'm sure—is that I love exploring how relationships begin, and how they grow. Some of my favorite chapters in The Lost Concerto center on how Maggie and her Colonel meet, and how their relationship deepens over time. The best-selling author Sandra Brown has written almost seventy books and says that all of them are 'stand alone' because she wants her story to finish. Then she can begin with brand new characters and challenges. I get that. When Dark Rhapsody opens, Maggie and her Colonel already are in a deepening relationship, and I missed that sense of budding romance. But I was able to get around it by creating at least two surprising love stories in the new book—and along the way I discovered that there is a special challenge in describing a more mature relationship and how it continues to grow.

The final—and major—difficulty for me in creating a sequel to a suspense/thriller was finding the best balance between giving background information and not spoiling all the dramatic reveals from the earlier book. In my 'best of all possible worlds,' every reader would read The Lost Concerto first and then look forward to what came next in Maggie's world. But the truth is, you always will have new readers—and of course you want new readers, as many as possible! But while every new reader is a gift, I realized that I needed to somehow 'bring them up to speed' with Maggie's life as Dark Rhapsody opens in a way that would intrigue them enough to think, I really want to know what happened to her before, in The Lost Concerto. My readers have loved the 'turn the page' suspense of Maggie's first story. I could not bear to ruin those aha moments for my new readers. All I can say is—if your genre is suspense or mystery, give just enough information to the new reader without giving away too many earlier secrets. You have to work very hard to find this balance.

When you find a way to overcome these challenges, the rewards are great. First, and most important, you get to continue a beloved character's story. Sometimes, that story will even surprise you. And take you in another direction. Which propels you to another novel. And—voila!—a series!

One secret, surely, to writing a good sequel is to keep the reader's interest by adding new characters to the mix—or by finding the opportunity to give already-written characters a chance to shine. Not only do new characters provide a source of conflict or insight for your main character, but they often allow you to introduce new themes and plots as well. In Dark Rhapsody, I welcomed back Agent Sugarman, who allowed me to continue a plot involving stolen art. But creating brand new characters for interaction with Maggie gave me the most pleasure. A cellist who lost her family in WWII, an aging pianist with a decades old secret, a charismatic, long-missing Maestro, an archbishop who questions his faith... these all are characters who introduce humor, history, great depths of emotion—and who helped me explore themes of loss and courage, and newer themes of aging and 'making things right.' I could not ask for more.

Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple. Rebecca Cantrell's Hannah Vogl, Francine Mathews's Merry Folger in Nantucket, Lee Childs' Reacher, Steve Berry's Cotton Malone, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Iris Johansen's Eve Duncan, James Lee Burke's Robicheaux... All these writers have taught me what makes a series resonate with readers. Readers want to empathize with, and look forward to, compelling characters who grow layered and more complex with each book—especially when you include snapshots of their past while propelling them forward into brand new stories.