DEBORAH CROMBIE: Let's turn back the clock a bit, to Bouchercon 2014 in Longbeach, California. I was lucky enough to snag a galley of a debut novel called PAST CRIMES by a writer named Glen Erik Hamilton. It was one book out of many accumulated at the conference, but I was intrigued by the synopsis so I picked it up first. And, continuing our binge reading theme from yesterday, I read it as straight through as I could manage.
Then I said, "This one is going to be a winner." And now it's nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel and I am patting myself on the back!!
So of course I was thrilled to read the second book in Glen's Van Shaw series, HARD COLD WINTER, which is out today. It does NOT suffer from "sophomore slump," let me tell you. It is, if anything, more unputdownable that the first Van Shaw book, and this is now my favorite new series.Here's a bit about HARD COLD WINTER: Former Army Ranger and thief Van Shaw is thrust into a maelstrom of danger as lethal and unpredictable as the war he left behind in this emotionally powerful and gritty follow up to the acclaimed Past Crimes.
When an old crony of Van's career criminal grandfather calls in a favor, the recently-discharged veteran embarks on a dangerous journey to the Olympic Mountains, in search of a missing girl tied to Van's own felonious past. What he discovers taps into dark memories, leaving Van vulnerable when an avalanche of trouble hits. A fellow Ranger from Afghanistan appears on his doorstep, desperate for help. And as the investigation heats up, Van finds himself caught between a billionaire businessman and vicious gangsters, each with different methods of playing dirty.
And here's Glen to tell you how he tacked the challenge of the SECOND BOOK.
GLEN ERIK HAMILTON:
To the Power of Two: Writing the Second Book in Your Series
Our hosts at Jungle Red Writers are experts at navigating the choppy waters of writing a series. I’m still tapping my compass, wondering if the N on it stands for Not Yet…
Less than three years ago, I was an unpublished writer with a shiny new manuscript, having his very first conversation on the phone with the woman who might, if I were very fortunate, offer to become my literary agent.
One of her starter questions was: “Is this book the first in a series?” I assured her that it was, and I had hopes for that series to be a long one. That was partly a practical decision: Series sell better. But there’s also the creative advantages. I loved and still love the idea of gradually assembling a large cast of characters over time, and having them bounce off one another in different combinations, and with different conflicts.
That conversation was nerve-wracking (for me), encouraging (from her), and ultimately successful for both of us. We sold that manuscript as part of a two-book deal within a handful of months. My debut PAST CRIMES came out one year ago, the follow-up HARD COLD WINTER is about to hit the stands, and I’m hip-deep into writing my third.
Volumes have been written (even second volumes!) about the challenges of writing a second book. Meeting both reader and publisher expectations. Reintroducing your characters and settings economically. Going bigger, getting better. Just considering all of those hurdles can make your knees shake.
So let’s Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive and talk through a few questions. I wrestled with these demands while drafting HARD COLD WINTER. Answer them for yourself, and you’ll have some foundation blocks for your next brilliant effort.
Is this Book Two, or Act Two?
If your novel is Book Two of a long series, you have some flexibility. You can revisit themes, allow for new characters and slower character growth, and even expand on the world-building you started in Book One while your heroes and heroines are jumping through the hoops of the plot.
But if your series was conceived as having only three or four books, then you better get on with that larger story in Book Two. Big obstacles, new goals, and the classic Dark Night of the Soul for your protagonist, setting up the climax in the final entries. Acts Two are infamous for the difficulty of having no beginnings and no endings. Beat that problem. Introduce a major twist that forces characters (good and evil) to re-evaluate the game. Kill off someone your readers might have thought essential to the climax. Defy some of your own expectations.
This isn’t to say that protagonists shouldn’t undergo those trials during a longer series. Your heroine might still be recovering from the events of Book One, or realize that her corner of the world isn’t as secure as she imagined. That’s good. Force some change upon them. Which leads me to…
Will My Characters Change?
This seems like an obvious answer (Change is conflict! Conflict is good! Characters must have an arc!), until you consider how many protagonists remain largely the same during long series. Miss Marple. Spenser. Jack Reacher. The world around them might mark time, but our heroes just keep on keeping on.
That’s both limiting and freeing. I know Spenser’s not going to die. I know he’s not going to reach an age where thrombosis is a bigger danger to him than thugs. But Boston is not the same city it was in the early seventies, when that ex-heavyweight boxer first climbed into the fictional ring. The Spenser of today has a smartphone and knows his way around the internet, like any good P.I. He doesn’t change much, but he adapts.
Even if you decide to let your characters change significantly, there’s the question of the internal calendar. My own lead character, Van Shaw, is a young guy. He could have an adventure each year for twenty years, aging in real time, and still be in his forties. But while drafting the third book, I already find myself deliberately clouding the elapsed time. Ten months between the events of PAST CRIMES and HARD COLD WINTER. Maybe only six months between HCW and the third book. Bending the relationship between the pages and the years, so that Van hits the big Three-Oh when I want him to, and not before. (Wouldn’t that be a nice trick for all of us?)
To What Are Your Readers Looking Forward?
Here’s the big one. By the time you’re feverishly working on Book Two, you may already have some feedback on your Debut – from friendly readers, keen-eyed editors, and maybe even reviewers. What stuck with them? What did they love? It’s great to hear praise, but it’s also critical to listen to it. Because those bits of candy are what’s going to bring your readers back, hopefully again and again.
Note that lesson doesn’t mean robotically repeating the same action scenes or romantic flirtations (this is the tricky part, people), but building on them – adding a chocolate coating to the candy.
This also doesn’t mean serving up anything and everything your audience is clamoring for. To quote Joss Whedon – who knows a little something about an impassioned fan base -- “What they want is different from what they need.” And what readers need is to watch their heroes and heroines struggle, overcome, and struggle again. No rest for the valiant. No happy endings, at least not without many more adventures. Many more books.
Here are a couple of questions for YOU. Chime in on the comments with your input! (and Glen will give a copy of HARD COLD WINTER to a lucky commenter!)
For the JRW Hosts, and other Writers – When starting your second novels, did you already have the questions above answered? Were there other concerns that made you step back and consider the direction of the overall series?
For Readers – Do you like it when heroes and heroines change significantly over time? Or do you prefer your lead characters to be the eye in the hurricane around them?
DEBS: What a challenge, REDS and readers! Tell us what you think!
Glen Erik Hamilton's debut PAST CRIMES has been nominated for Best First Novel at the 2016 Edgar Awards. PAST CRIMES was given starred reviews by Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal, and called "an exciting heir to the classic detective novel" by Kirkus. The second book in the Van Shaw series, HARD COLD WINTER, will be published in March by William Morrow (US) and Faber & Faber (UK). A native of Seattle, Glen now lives in California but frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain. Follow his wet footprints on Facebook and on Twitter @GlenErikH. glenerikhamilton.com