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!!!