How to Avoid Being the Worst Among Sequels

[Thought I’d have a bit of rant every now and then to liven things up. I’d be interested to see what you think.]

We live in strange times. William Boyd’s Bond novel, “Solo”, is just about to be published, following in the footsteps of – amongst a surprising number of others – Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver. Sophie Hannah has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new Hercule Poirot novel. This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. After all, “Virginia Andrews” has churned out considerably more novels since her death than prior to it. (BTW Did you realise there were quite that many? I didn’t. Whew.) But there seems to be more of it about now than there used to be.

Here’s what’s bothering me.

I have no problem with the idea of taking an existing character or set of characters and reusing them. It’s what literature has done ever since people started telling stories to while away the hours sitting around the campfire. But the whole point of creating stories is to add value to the material – to bring in something new. And I worry that any work generated to meet the demands of a dead author’s estate is necessarily going to be limited in terms of what the new writer can bring to the party.

On the contrary, I would argue that the only truly creative way to go when writing any sort of sequel, prequel or whatever is to mark out your own territory by heading off in a completely new direction.

The initial germ of an idea for “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” (ah, here we go) was actually a creative writing consequences game in which I started playing with the idea that, a couple of years post marriage, the Darcys hadn’t had any kids yet and that Wickham might not necessarily be quite such a bad guy. Then the alien concept came along, and that immediately opened up the possibility that Wickham was a hotshot deep cover alien hunter. In this new worldview, the elopement with Lydia was actually to protect her from alien kidnap and all the concomitant probing and stuff. The entire plot of “Pride and Prejudice” was henceforth up for reinterpretation.

I’d like to think that Jane would have approved. But I’m actually not that bothered. As I’ve said, my main concern was to use her characters as a starting point, not a straitjacket.

In fact, all the best Austen spinoffs are the least reverent and most outrageous ones. I normally try not mention “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (because of all that, you know, daring to turn up in print while I was still writing mine), but it’s surely got to be more interesting proposition than “Murder at Pemberley”. Best Austen film? Got to be “Clueless”. And so on.

I realise there are copyright reasons for all of this and that, at least outside the dark and weird worlds of unpublished fan-fiction, you can’t just grab anyone’s work and do whatever you like with it. But if you can’t do that, I do wonder a little what the point is, especially when there are big-name authors involved. I hope I’m wrong, and I wish the likes of Boyd and Hannah well (although I will admit to continuing to harbour ill will towards Eoin Colfer – I mean, how could he?)

All the same, I would still love to think that one day the Fleming estate will give the nod to someone like, I dunno, Jeanette Winterson and say to her, “Go on, do what you like. It’s all yours.”

16 thoughts on “How to Avoid Being the Worst Among Sequels

  1. Sophie Hannah says:

    Hi Jonathan

    Interesting piece, and some of your concerns are very valid ones, e.g.:

    ‘I worry that any work generated to meet the demands of a dead author’s estate is necessarily going to be limited in terms of what the new writer can bring to the party.’

    I think you’re quite right to worry, though wrong about ‘necessarily’. I think a more valid worry is that it *might* be a limiting factor. Which it might: in a situation where the continuation author’s creativity had to be reined in to comply with the requirements of a famous author’s estate, that would obviously have its drawbacks. However, I think you’re wrong to proceed from that valid concern to this conclusion:

    ‘The only truly creative way to go when writing any sort of sequel, prequel or whatever is to mark out your own territory by heading off in a completely new direction.’

    I’m not sure whether you mean that if *you* were in this situation, you would find that to be the best way to be creative? In which case, that’s perfectly understandable, as everybody’s creative urges are different! However, if you mean what I think you mean – that the only truly creative way *for anyone* to approach a continuation novel is to mark out their own territory by going in a totally new direction, then I disagree, and here’s why:

    It would of course be bad for a writer’s inspiration to be hampered at every turn by another writer’s estate with a very different vision of the famous fictional character. However, there are also cases – and my own, re Poirot, is absolutely one of them – where, by lucky chance, the new author happens to be creatively excited and inspired by the prospect of writing a story that – again, by sheer chance – sounds like exactly the sort of thing the famous writer’s estate might want!

    My creative energy, in relation to a Poirot novel idea, comes from the idea of writing a twisty, unpredictable, ingenious case for Poirot to solve. This is what excites me. Coincidentally, it is also what Harper Collins and Agatha Christie’s estate want. No one has had to compromise in order to placate anyone else here – not even by a fraction of a degree. (Although it’s not such a coincidence when you consider that I’ve been a fan of Poirot and Christie since I was twelve. I know very well what a ‘proper’ Poirot story is, and that’s what I want to write.)

    Similar impulses excite me when I write my thrillers that feature my own detectives – I LOVE thinking of baffling puzzles for super-genius detectives to solve. That’s my *thing* and always has been. It’s my creative fuel. That’s why I love Agatha Christie – precisely because exactly what got her going is what gets me going, creatively. I would hate to write a Zombie Poirot, or Poirot and Hastings manufacture Crystal Meth together (doubly unoriginal or what??) – that wouldn’t inspire me at all! What makes me think, ‘Ooh, how fantastic, I can’t wait!’ is the challenge of creating a typically Poirot-ish mystery for the Poirot I know and love to feature in, and solve, because that’s my favourite sort of mystery.

    Other writers might want to take a famous character in a completely new direction because *that’s* what inspires *them* – in which case, that’s the best thing for them to do as well as the genuinely creative thing to do.

    There are many different ways of being truly creative.

    You also ask: if you aren’t going to take the character in a completely new direction, what’s the point? Also a very valid question, and my answer would be:

    The point is to tell a fantastic new story inspired by an author/character you love, that will grip and entertain readers and – for anyone who thinks another Poirot/Bond story would be an exciting thing to have even if it comes from a different author – to provide that. (In the case of Bond, we can prove this. Jeremy Duns is a huge Bond fan, and he is excited about the Boyd novel. And he’s only *one* Bond fan. What if there are 500 or 5000 others who were also happy to have more Bond to read? And what if, in addition to these fans, there were 500 or 5000 William Boyd fans excited to read this new and very different Boyd novel? We’re now talking substantial numbers of happy people.)

    As someone who is doing a project of this sort, I really want to stress that, for me, this is so creatively inspiring and non-restrictive that some nights I am too excited to sleep. I hate creative restriction of any kind, but sometimes a ‘given’ (like ‘novel must include Poirot’ or ‘sonnet must contain 14 lines) is precisely what sparks off the imagination in a great and unexpected direction, rather than constraining it in any way. I have a brilliant (I hope) storyline that I quite simply would never have come up with if I hadn’t had Poirot in mind. As far as I can see, the only danger is that I won’t write a good Poirot novel, or a good novel – and yes, of course that’s a risk – but if something excites you that much, I think you have to try, and believe in the best possible outcome, and hope for the best!

  2. admin says:

    Many thanks indeed for dropping in, Sophie, and for such a thorough and gracious response. I agree that I’m basing my argument entirely on assumptions which could well be completely invalid (after all, you alone are privy to your contractual arrangements with the Christie estate!

    I think what bothers me is the idea of you writing a “proper Poirot story” when you could be writing a “proper Sophie Hannah story” instead. Although I accept that my view may be jaundiced by the fact that I am (a) older and (b) only a part-time writer, and therefore working on the assumption that I have a limited amount of writing time left to me, and consequently spending far too much of my time worrying about which projects I should be spending that time on…

    There are of course may ways in which you can be creative in using someone else characters. The BBC “Sherlock” is an excellent example of another way entirely. But if you’re too reverent, isn’t there a risk of just producing a pastiche? (I’m sure it’s a risk you’re all too aware of, but it’s not one I’d like to be taking.)

    If there are loads of Bond fans out there who are happy to read the Boyd novel (and I’m sure there are), good luck to them. Myself, I’d actually rather read an original Jeremy Duns novel. And I do know that my reaction on hearing of the Colfer Hitchhiker novel, along with every single other Adams fan I know, was “Nooooooooo!” I guess I don’t have to read it, but I still know it’s there.

    Anyway, I do hope you manage to tread that fine line between reverence and creativity and come up with that best possible outcome.

  3. admin says:

    Go on, then. Where should I start? The floor’s yours. Although I should add that the TBR pile is exceptionally high right now, so it may be a while…

  4. Sophie Hannah says:

    Yes, I too would dislike the idea of missing a chance to write a ‘proper Sophie Hannah novel’ for the sake of writing a ‘proper Poirot novel’. I’ve known from the start – without even thinking about it – that this novel I’m going to write will be both. The two are in perfect harmony. This is perhaps only possible because both Proper Me and Proper Poirot have the same central principles and priorities: puzzle, solution, surprising twists, narrative unpredictability above all else etc. I wouldn’t ever be able to write a proper Discworld or Harry Potter novel, for example.

    On the issue of being overly reverent and the danger of producing a pastiche: I would imagine there is definitely a danger of pastiche, yes, but one that’s easily avoidable. There are probably a number of ways in which one might avoid it, and the one I’ve chosen is to write in the voice of an original character I’ve created (I normally have first person narrators) who is closely involved with Poirot at a particular time. That way, the voice will be original, and I will be portraying Poirot in, I hope, a way that feels authentic, as someone who knows him well rather than as his original creator, and from the point of view of someone who knows him well. I’m sure there are other ways to avoid pastiche too – that just happens to be the one I’ve chosen.

    So yes, avoiding pastiche is a challenge, but every new book one writes is a challenge, whether Bond/Poirot features in it or not. And…challenge is a good thing.

    If you would rather read an original Jeremy Duns novel than Boyd’s Bond, that’s fine! But you could read both, and I would argue that both are original novels. Boyd’s is not somehow less authentic/original than Jeremy’s simply because it contains one character Boyd did not create. I mean, Jeremy’s novels contain spies, and Jeremy did not (unless he’s forgotten to mention it) did not invent the practice of spying! I know this might seem an absurd argument, but you take my point. Emily Bronte invented Heathcliff; she didn’t invent the weather in Yorkshire.

  5. Cassandra Parkin says:

    I think the really important word here is “fan”. The non-original-author sequels I’ve loved the most, in any medium, are the ones that are produced by creators who are, first and foremost, fans of the material they’re working with.

    I honestly think that, *as long as the person doing the creating is a fan*, the quality of those sequels will depend on how good the new creator is. Not on how much freedom they have – because as Sophie says, sometimes being given ludicrous constraints can be weirdly liberating. But on how much they love, and are inspired by, the source material.

    V C Andrews is a great case in point. I really liked “Flowers in the Attic” (oh come on, like we don’t all have the odd Book Of Shame in our bookshelves). However, I don’t like the new V C Andrews books. I think (I have no evidence, this is just what I think) it’s because the ghost, whoever they are, isn’t actually a fan, and therefore doesn’t really capture the outrageous trashiness that made the original books what they are. They are just a competent craftsperson, writing to a formula.

    On the other hand, there’s a Star Trek book, “Imzadi” by Peter David (yes I KNOW. I read a lot of crap, okay? Moving on) that I love, because it’s written by a good writer who also really, really loves his source material. It’s not great literature, but it’s funny and engaging and clever and works fantastically within some fairly insane constraints.

    Also, Gatiss and Moffatt’s “Sherlock” series. Mad fans. Talented writers. Work of brilliance. (I feel less ashamed of liking this one.)

    So, as a huge Agatha Christie fan, I personally can’t wait to read a new Hercule Poirot mystery by a brilliant writer who’s also a fellow Agatha Christie fan.

    Also, Jonathan, as I know you already know…I loved “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens”, and really hated “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. Because you are a Janeite who can write, and whoever-it-was-who-wrote-P&P&Z-haven’t-looked-it-up-please-God-don’t-let-them-be-on-this-thread-and-if-you-are-I’m-sorry is (I think. Again, no evidence) a competent writer who doesn’t particularly like Jane Austen.

    PS Please don’t judge me for reading so much crappy fiction.

  6. Toby Frost says:

    Of course, writing a book isn’t easy, and writing someone else’s character (I only have experience of writing within someone else’s world, rather than with their set of characters) must be very difficult. I write a fair amount of parody as it is, and would find it very difficult to continue a story or characters without somehow commenting on them, probably by spoofing them. However, I wonder whether the problem is as much for the reader.

    At the end of the day, if the reader doesn’t like Dracula Returns or what not, are they entitled to say “That sequel spoiled the original for me?” I’m not sure what the answer is, but I suspect that it must take a bit of an effort for the reader to decide “I’m just going to pretend that didn’t happen”. I suppose this is just a part of the risk that the writer takes on when dealing with a beloved existing character.

    There must be a further problem with deciding just what you’re going to give the reader. Do people want more of the same (which, although it should be safe, runs the risk of diminishing returns) or do you progress the character, possibly in ways that readers might not want? For me, Philip Marlowe is always going to be single – honourable, but a failure in relationships. But that’s only because Chandler died before he could write a book about Marlowe’s married life – which Robert Parker then completed as Poodle Springs. For me, Married Marlowe just somehow isn’t quite Marlowe.

    I’m sure Jon is right to say that the safest way to go is to approach the existing material from a tangent or through a filter: whether that’s telling the story from the perspective of a minor character (Lestrade’s Casebook, anyone?) or via a different genre – horror or SF, say.

    In the meantime, I look forward to Ms Winterson’s “Martini is not the Only Drink”.

  7. Ian Cundell says:

    Pardon me adding to you TBR pile but….

    Never really been a Bond fan, so I’ll leave that aside

    The thing is this: I have nothing against Eoin Colfer, but I have no interest whatsoever in his take on the HHGTTG universe. Douglas Adams was a towering genius and is dead. He possessed a unique capacity to prod the bits of my brain that make it physically impossible not to giggle like an idiot. I do not want that tampered with. (Dirk Maggs was very careful to adapt, not expand for the later radio shows).

    It seems to me that “continuation” (with all respect to Sophie Hannah) is the literary equivalent of a role-playing game. Or, less delicately, playing with some else’s toys.

    F’rinstance: I have in my head a very clear image of what happened in the weeks following the Battle of Hogwarts, including a very dark pay-off for a favourite baddie. But even if JK fell of her perch tomorrow, it is still only pub-fodder and, to my mind, it really shouldn’t be possible for it to be anything more (I am delighted at the control-freakery she shows over her universe. I hope her last will and testament is very clear on continuing this!).

    If you want to take inspiration from an existing character that’s fine: Jon and I both know that the original working title for Toby Frost’s Space Captain Smith series was “Space Biggles”. But once past the inspiration Toby took it off in his own bonkers direction, with his own sense of logic. Well, I say “logic”…

    It could be worse, of course. I was once told that it is an iron rule of Star Trek spin-off novels that, no matter what happens, at the end there must be a reset to the TV (and film?) canon. Dunno if it’s true, but very sad if so.

  8. Ian Cundell says:

    By the way, I think you’ll find it will be Jeanette Winterson’s Jane Bond…

  9. Kate Allan says:

    The problem is that great characters have a life of their own beyond the limitations of the originator’s imagination and perhaps we all feel entitled somehow because of our personal relationship with them as readers. The ones I would like to take on are the ones I’m a great fan of, so I completely agree with that argument. However, literary estates usually award these dream jobs to plum writers and us lesser types are limited to being allowed to play with characters out of copyright from writers dead 70+ years e.g. Austen.

  10. admin says:

    Gosh. Loads of interesting stuff there. I was about to try to respond to each one in turn when Kate’s comment arrived and I had to start again, so maybe it’s simpler if I just keep it brief and make a few random observations.

    1) Yes, you do have to be a fan to some extent to write even a half-decent parody. One of the best parodies I’ve ever seen was a short YouTube clip that completely nailed every single tic of Adam Curtis’ documentary style. But what was also clear was that the person who’d done it was a big fan as well. It was done with love.

    2) Seriously looking forward to “Me and My Bookshelf, with Booker-Shortlisted Cassandra Parkin.” This will happen.

    3) Toby, that is a killer title. How do we make this happen?

    4) Ian, that is my exact problem with the HHGTTG continuation.

    5) I’ve never read any of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books, but they seem to be the exact kind of thing that should perhaps be done with an existing character: focus on what made him/her interesting and then chuck them into a new milieu.

    6) Kate, that hasn’t always been the case. Some of the early Bond continuations were written by relative unknowns. Although this does seem to be changing.

    7) Having said all that, I do genuinely wish you well, Sophie. You certainly do seem to be fully aware of the pitfalls as well as the opportunities. I still don’t quite understand why you’re doing it, but I hope it works out well.

  11. Ian Cundell says:

    Couple of points re Kate’s post:

    1. *Feeling* entitled and *being* entitled are not the same thing; Many fans have A Raging Sense of Entitlement (that’s ARSE)…

    2. With that in mind, fans are probably the worst possible people to do continuations. Admirers on the other hand, maybe… (although Rosencrantz ans Guildenstern might disagree…)

    3. Moffat/ Gatiss’s reboot of Sherlock works not because they are fanboys, but because they are scrupulously respectful of the source material; Magg’s HHGTTG likewise (and the tweak to the end clearly done out of love of the man – Adams – rather than the work).

    But wouldn’t it be really great if people made new stuff?

  12. tu says:

    Interesting discussion, wish I hadn’t come so late. As a reader I have mixed feelings about work that deviates from ‘an original’. Spoofs and crazy spin-offs are fun, and a good parody compliments the original (and makes good reading on its own), while legends and lore will always be enjoyed in various forms… But commissioning new authors to extend an established series (in the same form)? Surely, the people who most want a series to continue are likely to be the ones to spot differences with new authors? I suppose books are routinely reworked for film and TV, so it’s just another evolution.
    ‘Fan fiction’ is a term that always sounds deeply dodgy, though; like a stalker who wears the same clothes and says ‘I love you’.

  13. admin says:

    Thanks for dropping in, Tracey. Love that description of fan fiction! I agree with your point that the ones who most want a series to continue are the ones who are going to be playing “spot the difference” – which must make it horribly difficult for the new author!

    Having said that, I’m coming round to the idea that Bond continuations at least are becoming (or perhaps are already) sufficient of a tradition, because so many have been done, that it’s not quite the same as merely continuing in the same style.

    Incidentally, I’ve been told that since a new writer took over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (no, me neither), the quality of writing has drastically improved. So there can be upsides 🙂

    None of this, however, excuses Sebastian Faulks’ imminent assault on the legacy of P.G.Wodehouse. Nothing good can come of that, surely?

  14. tu says:

    Well, I agree, but right now I can’t talk about Bond, not since the M incident. (Sniffs.) Judi Dench made it for me. (Wails, somewhat sulkily.) I’ll get over it.
    Faulks on Wodehouse? I’ll be wondering, now, about how that turns out.

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