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  • Writer's pictureDavid L. Thompson

Smoke Over Baghdad - The Challenges Posed by Writing a Sequel

Writing my first novel (Dark Harvest) was a challenge, but one that I really enjoyed taking on. I loved the experience of creating characters who had to deal with the many problems I kept throwing in their way. When Dark Harvest was completed, those characters all went into some kind of lost dimension where they wandered around doing whatever it is that characters do when they are no longer gainfully employed.

Once I decided to write the sequel, I had to conjure those characters back up from the nether-world and give them new tasks to tackle and new threats to overcome. Not a problem. I had lots of things in mind. BUT, I then began wondering what the readers of Dark Harvest would expect from those characters. This quickly became a major concern for me since I didn't want to let the reader down. Afterall, they would be paying money to buy the book and would be investing their time in reading it. I wanted to give them something that made both investments worthwhile! That meant doing whatever I could to make Smoke Over Baghdad deliver what the reader was expecting. Not so easy, since I really didn't know what those expectations were. The answer? Ask the reader - which I did, but only after the first draft of the book had been written. The result? The book (which took 12 months to write before asking for feedback) took 6 months to edit in order to bring it into better alignment with what I learned the reader was expecting.

So, what didn't I get right and what other kinds of challenges did I have to face in trying to meet reader expectations? Well... here's an abbreviated list:

Problem #1: Getting the 'voice' of each character, along with their relationships to the other characters right. It was much more of a struggle than I thought it would be. For example, I wanted Bradley and Mustafa to have a 'friendly' relationship - one forged out of mutual respect following Mustafa's survival at the end of Dark Harvest. Wrong. I received clear feedback from beta readers that this was NOT what they expected. Mustafa was still Mustafa, and Bradley was still Bradley. Their relationship in Dark Harvest was adversarial - it needed to continue to be adversarial in the sequel. Ooops! Rewrite...

Problem #2: I wanted Smoke Over Baghdad to be about the challenges Mustafa had to face in holding onto the caliphate he forged in Dark Harvest. I wanted to explore what that would look like, who would be threatening him and how would he deal with those threats? But when I attended a book club and talked about the sequel that I had written, one of the people in the room mentioned that she expected me to deal with the 50 vials of smallpox Mustafa took from the mausoleum at the end of Dark Harvest i.e. the book should still be about counterterrorism. Ooops! Rewrite...

Problem #3: I also received feedback that I should include more women, and they should be strong women, women in non-traditional roles. I'm a writer early in my writing career and I haven't really thought about writing from a woman's perspective. This was a very scary situation for me, but, that's why I love writing. It's full of challenges. So - the readers will get to know much more about Bradley's wife Liz in this sequel. In addition, they will get to meet multiple other impressive women including Alexandra Anevskaya. I really loved writing this character. Since I didn't know if I had hit or missed the mark, I asked several women to read the book and let me know if I had written believable female characters, or if I had just written male characters dressed up like women. The feedback was really positive - looks like I may have gotten these characters right. Yeah! No rewrite needed!!

Problem #4: The last problem I'll describe in this blog has to do with the cover. When I wrote Dark Harvest, I was pretty certain that my audience would be men between the ages of 18 and 65 - an audience which I thought would find the Dark Harvest cover interesting. But based on book reviews posted on Goodreads and Amazon (which introduces its own biase I know), the split in readership heavily favored women. I actually had a female audience! But if women didn't like the cover, why were they buying the book? Realistically, the women buying the book were mainly family, friends or members in one of the local book clubs who wanted to support a local author. The issue of the cover was one that they had highlighted, and one that I needed to address if I wanted to reach a broader female audience. For that reason, I needed the sequel to have a cover that was more appealing to women. I searched the commercial databases for months looking for images that might work and in the end I test-marketed three to members of both genders. The choice of image for the cover was unanimous - so hopefully women that I do not know will feel comfortable picking up this book and giving it a chance.

So, these are just a few of the 'Lessons Learned' from writing a sequel. Now, as I sit down and start putting pen to paper (okay, its really fingers to keyboard) on the third and final book of the Caliphate Trilogy, I hope that the writing process will go much smoother. What I know for certain is that Bradley, Liz and all of the other characters the readers of both Dark Harvest and Smoke Over Baghdad have come to know will be facing many new and difficult challenges, and (to paraphrase Robert Frost) have miles to go before they sleep, and miles to go before they sleep...

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