Guest Article : The Pros and Cons of Prequels, Sequels and Spin-Offs

 by Frank Westworth
Illustration: Bradley Wind

There is something monstrous frustrating about writing. And writing provides an essential release from the frustrations of writing. Does that read like nonsense?

I’ve been writing full-time since 1988. I write mostly non-fiction about motorcycles, with cars thrown in on occasion. Writing about a personal obsession is a dream occupation, is it not? It is; there’s nothing subtly clever in that comment. But it’s also monstrous frustrating. Editors make constant demands on authors. I know this to be true because I’ve been a full-time editor for exactly as long as I’ve been a full-time writer, and I make the same demands on myself as on the authors whose copy I buy: wordage, style, structure, syntax. I do this because The Reader demands it. Monthly magazines survive only if they appeal sufficiently to The Reader, and the magazines I’ve edited have been survivors. Mostly.

The frustration lies inside those same strictures. After a time, 3000 words becomes always either too many or too few, and editors are mean, because The Reader is mean. An awful lot of periodical writers turn to fiction for escape from their realities. So I wrote a book. It was terrible. Everyone who read it claimed to love it; that is what friends think’s best, even when it’s not. I didn’t love it, and I threw it away. Time passed, as it does. I write another, and this time I actually liked it.

But it had its own frustrations. Even 130,000 words can tell only a short segment of a life, even a fictional life, and in a novel there are whole strings of lives, some parallel and running through the entire book, others impacting and then leaving; transient. But every character worth naming, identifying has an entire life of their own. They should not be in there, in the thick of the narrative, if they have little to offer and little to say. Characters are not wallpaper.

So I decided that the novel was the first in a trilogy – it’s easy to pretend that this was always intentional. I wrote the second – even though the first isn’t actually published until September this year. And started the third. And that same problem frustration arose; as the plot developed and as the characters evolved, which they must do if there’s to be any realism at all – major events make their marks on us all – so they encountered ever more characters and situations. If an author’s central characters are sufficiently interesting for The Reader to actually want to read an unknown book by an unknown writer, then that character needs to do interesting things, and interesting things inevitably involve other interesting people. Look at your own life; you know several interesting characters. At least, I hope you do.

So there’s a jazz bar where the central character – it’s hard to describe him as a hero – hangs out and plays occasional blues. He shares the stage with a vast pianist, an unlikely guy who has hands like shovels but can coax relentless tendernesses from a piano. In the 130,000 words of the first book the piano player merits less than 500 words. This is not because he’s a dull one-dimensional incidental. He’s not. He was once a SEAL. He’s living in London, England, playing music for untraceable cash because he cannot return to the USA. Why? There’s no reason to tell his tale, his own story, in that book, and he appears in both subsequent books and is pivotal, but his appearances do not last long. But he’s a great guy! I want to know him, and so should The Reader. None of the trilogy is about him.

Enter the short story. The vast pianist is called Stretch. Why? I don’t know yet because I’ve not written all of his short story, but it must be something to do with a murky moment or two when he was living and working in and around Fort Lauderdale, and although I’m sure he played piano just as well back then I’m equally sure the US Navy did not pay him for that skill.

A short story is like a huge fat magazine feature. Because it is a feature. It’s a magazine feature about some really interesting guy, a guy whose story – if it could be told in public, which it cannot – would grace any of the populist pages which are so … well … popular. And because new books appear so infrequently, it’s possible to produce several short stories while waiting for the book’s manuscript to totter through the whole ink-on-paper performance. Which opens up several doorways and removes several inhibitions. If the novel is written third person, as mine is, then why not present a minor but entertaining character from his own perspective? Write him in the first person; his view of the book’s major characters can be wildly at variance with the author’s – which came as a surprise.

Short stories can be prequels, the lives of the infamous before they ran into the shared ground covered in the book. They can be sequels; I’ve not attempted life after death (a character’s, not my own) but am taken with the idea. They can be concurrent with the novel, either starting immediately before the episodes described in the book itself, or running on in a different direction to that taken by the novel once they’ve left its pages. It’s such a huge area of opportunity that the real surprise is that so few authors follow it.

Plainly they know something I do not. Yet.

Frank Westworth shares several characteristics with JJ Stoner: they both play mean blues guitar and
ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Unlike Stoner, Frank hasn't deliberately killed anyone. Instead, he edits RealClassic magazine; has written extensively for the UK motoring press, and is the author of the best-selling non-fiction title, The British Classic Bike Guide.

The first novel in the Killing Sisters series, ‘A Last Act of Charity’ by Frank Westworth is published in September 2014.
Key characters from that story make their debut in ‘First Contract’, the opening salvo in a the JJ Stoner series of short stories.  Available now as an ebook at Amazon - take a look by clicking here.

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