This is a challenge for any author particularly for a new one penning their first set of stories. Think about it, you’ve done well, banged out a reasonably successful first tale. Got some credit, a fan base that will hopefully pick up your sequel but you need to grow. The second book in an ideal world will sell more than the first book. More people know who you are, you have some reviews and credibility in the market and an author with two books is not a one hit wonder.
But your book is a sequel or the second in a series or like me you want to portray it as a new story using the same characters. This makes your target readership somewhat split. You will have seen it many times with authors of substantial series. One part of them wants to play to the fan base, hinting back to in-jokes or mentioning a key element of a previous story in order to remind the reader of what fun they had in the last one, perhaps demonstrating how far a character had developed since the first story. The other part for the author, especially true of new authors, you want new readers to pick this book up and when they ask, do I have to read the first one?, you can quite categorically need to say…NO.
Think of it like a football match or rugby or any other repetitive game. The same players start the game but you don’t have to have been at the previous game to enjoy the match. You can watch it and enjoy the ninety minutes without knowing that the No 7 got sent off three weeks ago, or that the striker is top scorer this season. It helps to understand the characters and the back story, but the real essential is that you start with a fresh story and that story plays out within the time period of the game, hopefully leaving a little something that will bring the punter back through the turnstiles next time.
There are some clear contradictions in managing your fans move to the new game. Assuming people enjoyed your first outing, let’s look at the pleasing the repeat fans first
· Characters – So we already know that Rachel is 35 and used to be in a folk band and had a boyfriend who betrayed her and she nearly died at the end. So the repeat fan might want you to jog their memory a little but will quickly realise that they know stuff and will start skimming through repeat detail. We would like our readers not to be skimming.
· Continuing story lines – so at the end of the previous book we left a cliff hanger, we blew up the Town Hall and we need to know who survived. So yes we need to mention the old story line and connect the two books up, but we must avoid at all costs retelling the old story. The old reader has read it already and again will start skimming.
· In jokes and character development – We want our repeat customers to feel loved, feel like they are part of the character journey. These are the things that long term successful series writers do brilliantly. Their fans want to read the whole series because the players become the story more than the game they are playing. They want the soap-opera and to feel like they were there from the beginning, so that means giving them something to chew on. If Joe and Sarah got it together in book one, we want to know how it went, we want to refer back to their first night of passion and the strains they went through.
How does this conflict with the new fan.
· Characters – The new fan doesn’t know on page 1 that Rachel is 35 and used to be in folk band and had a boyfriend who betrayed her and nearly died at the end. As some of this information may be key to your character portrayal you will need to find a way to inform your new reader without boring the old one. The key to this is remembering how dull back story can be to read. So golden rule here is tell as little as you can get away with doing. For example in this case we can easily slip in an age note and hint at the music credibility, but summarise the boyfriend story with a brief note on her bad history with men. Job done.
· Continuing story line – Very tricky to manage. This is the real element of, Do I have to have read the first one? We would like even our new readers to know there is an on-going story and to a certain extent it might be an opportunity to hint at what a great story it was and perhaps the reader should go back and read it, but not at the expense of the book they have in their hand. My suggestion is to bring it back in stages. Write the old story into the new with snippets of detail. So with the Town Hall blowing up, we don’t really need to know why but we could mention that Sarah is anxious about loud noises or that Lucy got out of prison early given she was banged to rights at the end of the last one. Back story again is boring, so only tell what you have to make the story work in the now.
· In-jokes and character development – This will probably go over the head of a new reader because they won’t be able to distinguish between something that was in the first story or just a friendly bit of detail you are adding in. That’s a good thing, but you don’t want too much going over the head of a new reader. They want to quickly feel part of your new world not feel like they are missing out on something. My advice on this is that your first instinct is to not do it. The fact that Joe and Sarah had a fun first night together is kind of good in the moment of the first story, or that Rachel hasn’t got over Alex’s death. Like sometimes with a joke…you had to be there. There are occasions, with a bit of skill, we can reference old occurrences/characters but be careful of the back story rule. Mostly put yourself in the shoes of the new reader and think Do they really need to know this? If the answer is no, then perhaps its best left in book one.
In summary, the common element for both fan bases is, back story is dull, but then you can’t deny the previous story exists. So whenever you come across a need to reference the old story, keep asking yourself the question, Do I need to have read the first book? and this will hopefully encourage you to deal with it in the best way.