Tuesday, July 3, 2012

JEFF ABBOTT: THE LAST MINUTE


DEBORAH CROMBIE: THRILLER WEEK on Jungle Red has become THRILLER FORTNIGHT, and we start it off with a bang (couldn't resist the July 4th pun) as our very good friend (and my fellow Texan) Jeff Abbott tells us about his new Sam Capra novel, THE LAST MINUTE, out today. Here's to great summer reading!

Writing a Direct Sequel: THE LAST MINUTE by Jeff Abbott

THE LAST MINUTE, the second Sam Capra novel, comes out today and it's not just a second novel in a series--it's a direct sequel. And that creates some special challenges in writing, none of which I quite anticipated when I started.

The first Sam novel, ADRENALINE, chronicles the destruction of Sam's life. His seven-months pregnant wife is kidnapped before his eyes as his CIA office in London is bombed. He is accused of treason, thrown into a CIA prison, and then used as unwilling bait for the bad guys. Desperate to find his wife and the son he’s never seen, Sam escapes the agency to find out why a mysterious criminal network has stolen his family. ADRENALINE, somewhat unusually for a series opener, ends on a cliffhanger. I think readers are more tolerant of this than they used to be: perhaps we've been conditioned to enjoy cliffhangers more, given television shows like LOST, BREAKING BAD, and THE WALKING DEAD. I got a lot of emails asking if there would be another Sam book, and out of the dozens I received I think only one was annoyed with me. (The reader still vowed to read the next book, however.)

So the challenge with THE LAST MINUTE is that there is a major plot thread -- Sam's desperate search for his son Daniel -- that carries from one book to another. Here's what I did to try to make it as impactful as I could for those who had read ADRENALINE and those who might be coming to the series fresh:

--Open with the main story: No prologues, no set up. The first scene of THE LAST MINUTE is Sam and his mysterious partner in crime, Mila, pretending to be a couple desperate to adopt a baby through illicit channels in a gamble to find out where his son is. That works because it sets up very quickly the main dramatic question of the book, while carrying the action forward from the ending of ADRENALINE. We know Sam’s child has been taken but it’s not Sam telling us all this for a full page. We learn the backstory through Sam’s action.

--Give the readers the details they need, but don't give them a lecture: No one wants a big flashback to set up the previous action, or a long-winded monologue. I added in the details as quickly and cleanly as I could, and in the rewriting of the book I pruned and weeded. Over the first few chapters I parceled out information carefully, trying to make it organic as part of what Sam, or his enemy, is doing at that moment. I gave the most background in one scene: but the focus on the scene is what the bad guys are doing to manipulate Sam, how they are using his son as a weapon to bend Sam to their will—and to force Sam to find and kill the one man who can bring the bad guys down. It's not so much about history as about moving forward with the current story.

--Embrace the unique opportunities: This was entirely unplanned, but was one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a direct sequel. I needed a major character for this book, a person to be the target that Sam is chasing. If he kills the target, he gets his son back from the bad guys. The target can destroy the bad guys, so there's an irony that this is the man Sam must kill—a man who should be Sam’s ally. So I needed a smart, capable, even sympathetic character to fill the role of the target. For a while I played around with a number of characters, but then I thought, since the book is a direct sequel, could I use a character from ADRENALINE? And so I found my solution: a character who is unnamed, who is on maybe three pages of ADRENALINE and appears to meet with misfortune. In Star Trek parlance, you'd call him a redshirt. For THE LAST MINUTE, I made it clear he hadn’t died, shaped him into a major character, which made me ask a ton of questions about how he got to be in such a bad situation in ADRENALINE. I built a whole history for him. And that was great fun, and a terrific technical challenge, to be true to the very few things we know about the character in the first book and give him a very dramatic history and a personality all his own in the second. If THE LAST MINUTE wasn't such a direct sequel, then I probably wouldn't have done this -- I would have invented a new character. This was much more fun.

Not every series needs a direct sequel among its offerings. Not every readership is patient for it. I'll probably never do it again -- but a parent's search for his child is just the kind of dramatic situation that can carry this sort of set-up.

Would you ever write a direct sequel? What do you think the challenges would be?

Jeff Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of ADRENALINE, PANIC, COLLISION, and other suspense novels. Last year ADRENALINE was the only novel to be a Summer Great Read pick by both Good Morning America and The TODAY Show. He is a three-time Edgar Award nominee and a two-time nominee for the Thriller and Anthony Awards. He lives with his family in Austin. You can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jeffabbottbooks or on Twitter at @jeffabbott.

DEBS:  Jeff, I found this fascinating, both because I have written a direct sequel, and because I'm thinking of doing it again. It does set the writer a unique set of challenges, and it really ups the ante on the "how much information to include from previous books" issue, something that is the bane of those of us who write series novels.

What about you, readers?  How do you feel about cliffhangers? Are you willing to wait? Jeff will be checking in today to answer your questions and comments, so please stop by and say "hi."

And Happy Pub Day, Jeff!!!


21 comments:

Lucy Burdette said...

Congratulations Jeff--on the new book and all your success! I've never left a cliffhanger the way you're describing. I remember my good pal Deborah Donnelly did this with one of her wedding planning mysteries--she got a ton of unhappy mail from readers. Maybe folks are getting more tolerant?

Like Debs, I too write series, so it's always interesting to go back and fish for characters in previous books. Fun to see characters from different series pop up in the new series too--hmmm, I'm getting ideas...

Jeff Abbott said...

Lucy: Thanks. I can only speak for my own experience--I got virtually no complaints. I believe Daniel Silva and Lee Child both had plot carryovers in recent books (or rather closures of plot lines started in earlier books) so it might be more tolerated in a thriller than a mystery. I actually had to decide if Sam would have a chance to find his child in the next book or this would be a search that would span several books, a constant element of the series.

I do think readers expect in a series that there are elements in the protagonist's personal life that carry over from book to book (think family relationships, marriage issues, friendships), and it may be Sam's search for his son was seen by readers as one of those kinds of personal story elements, and therefore okay to "carry forward."

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Happy Pub day, Jeff! My husband ADORED this book, literally, carried it around with him so I couldn't snap it up. But I am right in line to read it.

I like plot carryovers--and I think you've handled this process beautifully. Because--that's what real life is, right? Things don't wrap up nicely after a week.

Readers don't need every little thing wrapped up..but I do think they don't like--massive ambiguity. I'm at a place in the new book where i have to figure out the endings--very focused on "oh what do I do now?" my husband says why don't you do a Lady or the Tiger?

Can you imagine? That's why he's the lawyer, and I'm the story-teller.

And one more thing: Is there anything more--life-affirming--than getting a good and unexpected idea?

YAy Jeff! SO wonderful to see you here...

Jeff Abbott said...

Thanks Hank for the kind words and please give my best to your husband, glad he enjoyed the ook. I agree, ambiguity can be a real problem. . . which may be why I was able to do this in ADRENALINE without angering readers, the situation wasn't ambiguous and it seems that Sam's next step is clear.

And what you said about an inspired idea: I might never quite had so much fun fleshing out a character as I did Jack Ming, who was a no-name in the first book and a major character in THE LAST MINUTE. And you know, this job should be fun. If I'm not having fun I doubt readers will.

Jan Brogan said...

Jeff,
If you had asked me last year at this time, I probably would have said I'd be incredibly annoyed by a dangling cliffhanger.

But after getting started on the Hunger Games and finding myself buying the digital sequels at 1 in the morning on a one-click because I just had to know, I see the brilliance in the true sequel.

thanks for illuminating the challenges

Jeff Abbott said...

Hi Jan: For sure it could be annoying. But I think given the mainstream success of books like HUNGER GAMES, and George R R Martin's GAME OF THRONES series, that there may be acceptance of certain plot lines carrying forward. But in no way would I do this all the time. I might never do it again.

We all want a sense of satisfaction by the end of a book--I think you have to deliver that. You need closure, which is something HUNGER GAMES does very well at the end of the first volume, although we're dying to find out what happens next. I think a "carry forward" plot only works if you deliver satisfaction AND anticipation. It's a balancing act.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Jeff, I think a plot carryover is different from ending on a cliffhanger. In the first, the story that's the narrative drive has been completed (bomb defused, murderer found, country saved from THIS plot) but elements of the backstory, subplot, or motivation plot are unresolved. In the second, the story action of the book is unresolved and stopped at a critical point--MORE NEXT TIME.

That kind of cliffhanger justifiably upsets readers, but a plot carryover usually doesn't. I used one in my first book, and so far everyone wants to know what happens with my main character and the boy she was taking care of, but no one's angry because I resolved the murder mystery.

Sounds to me as if your first book fell into the first category, too. I'm looking forward to reading both of the Sam books. Congratulations on your new book!

Jeff Abbott said...

Linda, that is an excellent point. I think I've thought of it as a cliffhanger because that was how I thought of it when I finished writing ADRENALINE, because finding your baby is a little more urgent than other "carryovers" I've had in series fiction, such as whether a relationship will endure, a job will be kept, etc. But I do like your term better because I think it's more accurate to what I was doing, and to what other authors have done.

Julia said...

I love direct sequels, I have to confess. I try to write the the Linda Rodriquez describes: main story wrapped up, murderer found (if not apprehended) but significant elements of the non-mystery portion of the story left dangling for the next time.

I've been influenced by the way Dickens wrote many of his novels - for serial publication in monthly magazines. It's an amazing high-wire act, when you think about it. Every installment has to leave the reader hanging on the edge, wanting more. No go-backs or do-overs. The only modern novelist I know who has had the guts to do it like Dickens is Laura Lippmann, who published THE GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT serially in the NEW YORK TIMES Magazine.

I sometimes wonder if the rise of online writing - especially fanfiction, which in long form is almost always serialized - is creating an audience of readers who, like those in Dickens' day, are completely comfortable with serialized fiction.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Julia, that's something I hadn't thought of. I, too, am a fan of the Dickens serialized novel. I think you're doing something a little similar where you post chunks of your WIP on your reader website. Gutsy!

Dickens is my great influence, and one thing I learned from him is to try to end each chapter or even scene with a mini-carryover/cliffhanger so the reader will keep turning the page. He had to do that to keep people wanting to read the next installment. Think of TV series, say Downton Abbey. How they keep us on our toes wanting to know what will happen to those characters next time.

Jeff Abbott said...

Julia: that's so true. I think of people lined up on the docks of New York, awaiting the boats with the magazines that would tell them the fate of Little Nell.

I love Dickens, and think he's required reading for anyone writing commercial fiction. (or really anyone).

Rhys Bowen said...

Wow Jeff, I'm out of breath just thinking about this. It sounds fabulous! They always say that the thriller must raise the stakes and I can't imagine you could raise them any higher.
And the audacity to leave the book before with a cliff hanger.I've left unanswered questions at the end of a book, but never having readers screaming "You can't do this to me!"
Great move.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I remember the last semester of high school--senior year--and we'd already all been accepted to college and were just counting the days.
My English teacher assigned Nicholas Nickelby.

We were--outraged. We refused, no way, not a chance we're reading this million-page novel, you can't make us.

We read it.
We loved it.

Hallie Ephron said...

Writing it all down -- I think your approach works for ANY of the novels we all write. Get into the story and get on with it.

Congrats on the book, Jeff. Jonathan is a discerning reader - I always follow his lead.

Jeff Abbott said...

Julia: I may not have mentioned this before, but Sam Capra, the hero in this series, might be one of the few action heroes who is notably Episcopalian. His parents are relief workers and he had a globetrotting childhood.

Hank: Nicholas Nickleby is one of my favorites, too. Such great character names: Wackford Squeers, Fanny Squeers, and of course that much-loved youngish star of the stage, The Infant Phenomenon.

Jack Getze said...

More of a mystery series guy, I've only recently gotten into thrillers with Lee Child and Harlan Coben. Yours sound very interesting, Jeff. Tell me you're related to Patricia and Megan, and I'll buy both!

Susan Litman said...

I loved ADRENALINE, and love that the new book picks up at the beginning. That's a huge issue I have with my own authors - opening the story (sequel or not, frankly) in the right place. I can't wait to dive back into Sam's story!

You referenced some great shows re; cliffhangers - yet lately to me it seems that audiences are in fact less tolerant. Consider the outcry over the end of Seasons 1 and 2 of THE KILLING. The former was a true cliffhanger, and the latter had a huge twist that certainly satisfied this thriller lover, but had a lot of people outraged because "they didn't see it coming." Personally, I think people have become too accustomed to procedurals i.e. CSI that solve the case in 45 minutes, or resolve the story and don't continue into the next book, as you've done here. Any thoughts on that?

Jeff Abbott said...

Jack: sorry, I am not related to Megan and Patricia. But I am having a beer with Megan when she comes through Austin on her book tour next month.

Jeff Abbott said...

Hi Susan: Thanks for your kind words. I think so much of it is audience expectation. I didn't watch THE KILLING but I heard the outcry about it. It's clear that audience do not want the central dramatic question, especially in a procedural, drawn out too long.

It reminds me a bit of TWIN PEAKS, a show I loved, but one that went off the rails. I've just started watching it again. It's hard to remember but back in 91 this country was briefly obsessed with who killed Laura Palmer. And when the first season ended, not with her murderer revealed but with another mystery piled on, people began to lose patience. David Lynch is a genius, but he said once he NEVER wanted to reveal who killed Laura, and he thought doing so ruined the show. NOT doing so sooner is what hurt the show in a way that it never recovered from. (I feel the show would have had a long run if that season finale had revealed Laura's killer, and THEN had the twist in the aftermath. Satisfaction plus a new drama to draw you in.)

I think a show that is very good at this is BREAKING BAD. The season finales have had huge payoffs in terms of wrapping up story, but they do it in a way that opens up new and exciting dramatic possibilities.

So I think part of the challenge in doing this is timing, giving the audience satisfaction while opening up a new story to keep them coming back.

Jack Getze said...

Ok, so I'll only buy the first.

Jeff Abbott said...

Thanks for having me be part of your conversations here at the blog. Happy 4th everyone.