Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Joy of Sequels by Michelle Lovric

This is the first in an occasional series of guest posts from other children's writers. I'm delighted that my first guest is Michelle Lovric, whose anthology Venice, Tales of the City, I read years ago. Since she has been writing children's books, we have become friends, drawn together by a love of Italy and and a passion for words and colours.

I wrote about The Undrowned Child last year and have just read The Mourning Emporium, both published by Orion, which features some of the same characters. I thought it would be the ideal opportunity to ask this prolific and talented writer to muse a little on producing a sequel. It's something I have wrestled with myself, as the author of a "sequence" (currently five books with a sixth waiting to be written). How much do you recap and where? How many new characters do you introduce and how many carry forward? So I was fascinated to read this. Thank you, Michelle!

You’d think writing a sequel would be as comfortable as sliding into as a pair of pre-loved slippers, wouldn’t you?

You’d think – Characters created? TICK. Background established? TICK. The rules of this particular world? SORTED.

In fact, however, a sequel kicks a whole new team of problems into the writing game.

The first issue is the one that makes publishers worry about sequels. They are afraid that people will not buy the second book if they think they must also invest in the first. So you have to write a certain amount of back story in, just to make the new book comprehensible to your virgin reader.

But how much can you safely tuck in, without patronising your established fans? Where exactly do you insert it? Early on, in a lump, to get it out of the way? An indigestion of factlets threatens. Or do you drip-feed droplets of information on a need-to-know-now basis? This can sound very stagey, and could interrupt a crucial scene just when the page needs to be turned urgently.

Then you must decide which characters shall re-occur – including those you apparently destroyed – and which can be allowed to lapse.

One of the hardest things about a sequel is that you have to write its bones before you even put its predecessor to bed. So, in The Undrowned, I had to make sure that when Bajamonte Tiepolo, the Traitor, is swept away in a whirlpool, no-one actually sees him die. Nor do we know if every last Vampire Eel has perished. I planted a burden of guilt in my heroine Teo, because she cannot force herself to finish him off with a curse, despite his reign of murder and destruction in Venice. And nor has she the courage to tell anyone about her lapse.

So The Mourning Emporium starts with Teo encountering a Vampire Eel, who winks at her from under the ice that has started to strangle Venice. Instantly, she knows that Bajamonte and all his evil henchcreatures are back – and that this dreadful fact is no-one else’s fault but her own.

I raised Bajamonte from the apparently dead, but regretfully left The Grey Lady buried in the garden of the Venetian archives that this redoubtable cat used to run. But The Grey Lady’s mortality left me free to create a new feline for The Mourning Emporium. This is the equally impudent Sofonisba, the ship’s cat aboard the Scilla, a floating orphanage that will carry my characters from Venice to London and back again. I also ‘disappeared’ The Key to the Secret City, a magical book that delivers Teo into a different world in the first volume. In the sequel, she has to rely on her own wits much more, as becomes a developing character who is nearly 18 months older than she was in book one. I did not, however, get rid of my foulmouthed curry-swilling mermaids. They were the ‘hit’ of the first book, but, even more than that, I simply could not bear to be without them myself.

In planning a sequel, I’d also had to embed the potential for rendering Teo parentless yet again, thus freeing her to disguise herself as boy and join the crew of the Scilla. So, at the end of The Undrowned Child, Teo’s adopted parents are appointed the directors of a new museum of lagoon life. This means that at the beginning of The Mourning Emporium it is easy to stage their kidnapping from the island where they work all hours studying obscure ocean arthropods and their means of locomotion … all of which might make them very useful to a foreign power trying to create a new form of submarine.

It’s vital to avoid a sense of ‘more of the same’ in a sequel. So it can be very useful to move book two on geographically. So half The Mourning Emporium takes place in London – much of it in the street where I live. The change of location also gifted the story with terrifying sea journey, involving mutiny, sorcery, a Colossal Squid and near starvation. (In fact, even within my adult books I actually prefer to take two-city breaks: The Remedy takes a Venetian to London, and a Londoner to Venice. The Book of Human Skin girates between Peru and Venice.)

I wouldn’t enjoy writing for children – just as I couldn’t write for adults – unless the story gave me an issue or a theory to explore. In The Undrowned Child, the twin themes are identity and self-sacrifice. You are, I suggest, what you are prepared to die for. Teo doesn’t know at first that she’s a Venetian, but soon she’s risking her life to save the city. But then, for The Mourning Emporium, I needed a new idea for the old characters, something to test them further, something that would exploit their flaws and their talents to make a dynamic, individual storyline, one that could be lived only by them.

For me, the central idea of The Mourning Emporium is the care and feeding of children – in both the emotional and culinary senses. The book contains two characters who represent the extremes of evil and good in this department. The first is Miss Uish, a sociopathic female who seizes control of the fates of a dozen Venetian orphans, without caring if they live or die. Her counterpart is a London bulldog called Turtledove, who cherishes, adores and spoils his ‘childer’. The whole book, in a sense, builds up to the final and violent encounter between these two characters.

So will there be a sequel to the sequel? Well, there is a third book commissioned but it doesn’t follow directly on The Mourning Emporium. In fact, now I am going fifty years into the past, before some – though not all – of my original cast were born. And herein lies more joy … but that’s another story, and another blog.

Does anyone else have sequel joys or tribulations to share?

Michelle Lovric lives in Venice and London. She’s the author of four adult novels set Venice and an anthology, Venice, Tales of the City. Her third novel, The Remedy, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her fourth adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, came out with Bloomsbury in April 2010. Her first novel for 9-12-year-olds, The Undrowned Child, tells what happens when science meets baddened magic in Venice in 1899. Two brave and clever children must save the city from the vengeful spirit of the Traitor, Bajamonte Tiepolo, returned from the dead after 700 years. The Mourning Emporium, the sequel, was published on October 28 and transports us from a frozen Venice to a grieving London, where Queen Victoria lies dying, and a massacre of innocent mourners is the object of a dreadful conspiracy between Bajamonte and an unscrupulous Pretender to the British throne. All that stands between the forces of evil and their success are two Venetian children, a hundred mermaids, a talking bulldog, some pumpkin-sellers and a devastatingly handsome circus master

Michelle Lovric and over fifty other writers appear in City-pick Venice, £8.99 paperback, published by Oxygen Books on 4 November 2010.


Sue Purkiss said...

This was fascinating to read, as I've just finished The Mourning Emporium. Am a bit puzzled by the next book, though, because of the strong hook at the end of The M. E.; I would have expected it to go on, rather than back. Can't wait to see how that's going to work! The back story is woven in very effectively and very helpfully - even though it's not long since I read the first book, it was useful to have reminders about what happened in the first.

The settings you describe are wonderful - but for me it's the charcters in your book that really, really stand out. The curry-swilling mermaids are indeed fantastic. I love the way their earthy language contrasts with their delicate beauty - but they all have such distinctive voices - Alicamoussa, Turtledove, Soponisba. (And such good names...)

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, full of good points! I haven't read The Mourning Emporium yet: can't wait to find out more. And Michele, quite apart from the insides of your books, the covers are to die for!

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