Writing The Sequel

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Thanks to several kind reviews I have been asked if I will write sequels for my first two books,  An Agent’s Demise and To the Survivors.  My third book The Persuasive Man doesn’t support a sequel for fairly obvious reasons.  If you check out my forthcoming books you will know that I am writing  a sequel to An Agent’s Demise called An Agent’s Rise.  So what’s the problem then? Well apart from the ever present risk of writers block, which this article is great about by the way, my real problem is plot.

I had never intended that either of the books would have sequels when they were written.  At one stage I was contemplating splitting To The Survivors into two books simply because it’s a big story and there was a lot to write about.  The scenario there does allow further stories about the world I have imagined either following the main characters or with new points of view, or even new locations set during the same timeline.  My problem here was not lack of potential for a sequel but the willingness to disappear for the months needed to write it.  To The Survivors was totally absorbing when I was writing it.  Even at 150,000 words I dropped several chapters and plot areas.  Now back in full time employment, my writing time is limited.  My fourth book The Observer Series – Book One – The World of Fives has been sitting resting unlooked at for weeks.  As you can tell from it’s title it has been planned from the start to be a series set in its own future time and place.  It’s a space opera and I have started to create a whole world around it with potentially a very large cast.  I hope to get some time to work on it over the winter but just now I’m back to the purpose of this article – a proper sequel.  So putting my other books aside  what is my problem with writing the sequel?

Plot

I haven’t lost it completely, but I created several problems in An Agent’s Demise and in retrospect I wish I had finished the book a couple of chapters earlier or at least left out a few components.  I tried to tidy up too much.  Consequently, even the start of An Agent’s Rise has proved difficult.  Where do I start, who do I start with?  The political context was also important.  The current timeline for An Agent’s Demise was 2005/6 with the news full of London bombings, and the ongoing rows about dodgy dossiers.  If I continue the story what is the political background;  more of the same or are there some other incidents I can use to blend in fact with my fiction.  I had several starting points and incidents before I settled on one start only to change it completely last weekend.  Now I need to follow the plot through and unlike the original when I wrote it I still do not know how it will end.

Characters

An Agent’s Demise was criticised because of it’s large cast and extensive use of aliases for the lead character.  Some of this was deliberate, the lead character accidentally creates a name, Mike, which is inadvertently shared with other Mikes, Michaels, and Micks in the story.  The large cast prompted me to include a cast list at the start of the book.  So starting the new book and wanting to introduce new characters, how do I remove others and narrow the cast to reasonable proportions? This is further complicated by the need to include back story elements.  If I kill off a character, well remove them from the story, can I legitimately bring them back.  Would the reader want a back story on that part to explain where they had been.  No Dallas shower dreams to render huge chunks of storyline irrelevant but the Bourne films managed to bring the lead back from his escape as the main story – nice technique but not one easy to replicate or amend.  Of course that process can influence.  Police procedural series always have a new case, a new killer because that is the nature of police work, some of these series have led to plenty of books featuring the lead protagonist from Poirot to Morse to Rebus.  The Jack Reacher series has several thrillers, but these heroes never seem to get older, slower and don’t forget Bond, the films change the lead character to refresh and has spawned whole new plots that Ian Fleming never envisaged.  The plot links are tenuous, suddenly old friends or past incidents that were never mentioned in the first books appear as back story in the new book.  Travel never takes time, daily routine never interferes, apartments are always immaculate or sparse, no clothes are washed.  Life doesn’t exist in these stories.  I appreciate people don’t want reality in a story but that leaves a sequel in more trouble.  At the end of every Bond film (not the Daniel Craig series interestingly), Bond is left with a girl but in the next film the girl is gone.  The only exception is the killed wife who is occasionally mentioned.  Still those sequels have had huge success as books and derived films.

Back Story and References To The First Book

How much back story should be included?  At one point it felt like I was re-writing the first book in précis form which was even more confusing due to the large cast.  I have backed off from this but it will need further revision.  I want the book to follow on, but I also want a new reader to enjoy the book on it’s own.  Is that an impossible ask?  Are my only readers going to be people who have read Demise?  Lots of authors have had to solve this problem even JKR doesn’t try to make the Harry Potter Series as stand alone books.  Neither does Tolkien with Lord of The Rings.  Some authors do, some more successfully than others, but I have also read works where the book is impossible without having read earlier parts – I just wish I knew that before I purchased the book I tried to read.  I have resorted to making some references to the previous story with a quick explanation back story sentence.  Whether this technique will be successful or not I’ll have to wait and see.

The Writing Bug

Will this story be it or will it again lead to a new story?  A Book Three, at the moment I simply do not know as I do not have an ending.  I barely have a middle!  The other question is of course should I even write this sequel.  It’s too late for that now, I have to write it, it’s now an itch I have to scratch but it’s more than that a need that must be fulfilled, just like writing in general.  During my unemployment I wrote a lot three/four books and the starts of several others, now I’m working again I have much less time to write, but I need to, I just have to.  I don’t mean blogs or tweets I mean disappearing into an imaginary world, however close to reality, and letting characters that run around in my brain at inconvenient moments put down their thoughts onto my computer’s paper.  I was on the tube the other day and a man opposite looked around the carriage immediately my head was full of my lead character doing the same action.  Last weekend that incident transformed into a piece of counter surveillance technique on a New York Metro, thanks whoever you were.  I explained this compulsion and the characters taking over to a friend at dinner the other night, she had just flicked her hair in a particular way and I said that a little thing like that would appear as a tiny half sentence in a character and she would effectively be in the book, it is already.  The dinner was on Friday night, by Saturday afternoon that tiny inconsequential gesture was part of a character.  Nothing like my friend but the gesture was there.  Is this what psychosis is therefore do all writers suffer from schizophrenia with their multiple personalities as their characters.   When I am absorbed in writing whether a sequel or not I disappear, but when the book is finished I want to leave the characters behind, going back to some of them isn’t always like visiting old friends you haven’t seen for ages, sometimes it’s like visiting a school reunion, yes you might want to see how people turned out but do you really want to meet the school bully who made your life hell, or see that old girl/boy who you had a crush on.  Visiting my favourite characters for the sequel is a mixed blessing.  Still enough blogging more writing, there was another incident I watched that I want to write about, just a police car speeding down Marylebone Street… blue lights flashing as Mike walked by with barely a glance at the noise of the blues and twos…

Spying and Oversight

Spying and oversight from November 2013

As a relatively new author, I watched with interest the appearance of the UK’s Spy Chiefs in front of the Parliamentary Committee that is established to hold them to account. My first book published – An Agent’s Demise – had as a backdrop how the Iraqi Dossier might have been manipulated to lead the politicians to decide to go to war. I have started a sequel – An Agent’s Rise and I have another story underway another thriller about revolution. These tales are all triggered by a keen interest in what the spies might get up to, but just as importantly what the politicians and the spy’s bosses know. Plausible deniability is often used to cover tracks both by spies, their managers and the politicians.

The revelations from Edward Snowden a former American computer specialist who apparently worked as a CIA employee and NSA contractor, provided information to the press, some of which has been published, about classified operations by the USA, Israel, and the UK security services. From what little we know these mass surveillance operations have added to some of our knowledge as to what happens, but has concentrated on the technicalities of the programmes rather than what is done with the information.

The appearance of the UK’s spy chiefs in front of the Committee is a regular occurrence but this was the first with all three chiefs (Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ) in public. You can watch the proceedings from the BBC here. Not mentioned but notable by his absence was the Chief of Defence Intelligence (DI) who’s task is to act as “the main provider of strategic defence intelligence to the department (Ministry of Defence) and the Armed Forces.” Apparently the actual strategic defence of the UK is not as important so his attendance at the committee was not called for. Fighting the terrorist war on the ground in Afghanistan is a military operation which GCHQ supports, when their resources are not diverted by the NSA to help monitor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone in the interests of commercial advantage National Security.

So what did we learn from the evidence? Very little; the media made a big deal of the admission by the head of GCHQ that monitored terrorist groups had been observed/heard/monitored discussing how to change their methods of communication in the light of Snowden’s published revelations. If GCHQ bothered to notice the discussion about Internet security has been a constant trend on technical forums for at least 15 years, where methods of encryption, monitoring, obfuscation and a whole host of techniques have been freely discussed. If the UK’s enemies (terrorist or other) were not aware of the techniques then they are either more stupid than we think or perhaps it was a good line to feed the media. Admitting that we have overheard such a discussion is also telling them exactly what Snowden told them, so Sir Iain Lobban (Head of GCHQ) haven’t you just given away that little secret, perhaps your passport should be removed.

There have been some very clever uses of words in the USA and UK to describe the activities like PRSIM and why they are considered legal, under political scrutiny. Effectively the NSA can trawl the data on UK citizens given to it by GCHQ without a warrant and GCHQ can trawl the USA data given to it by NSA without a warrant. Both agencies may legally spy on foreigners without warrants. There is not a handover of a database. It’s the same systems in use just different access permissions. Both agencies can then report to their oversight representatives that they are operating within the law.

Then we have the testimony, not under oath by the way, that multiple terrorist operations have been prevented in the last few years. In Parliament the Head of the Secret Service said 34 operations had been disrupted but provided no evidence for this statement. In the USA General Alexander, head of the NSA, accompanied by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, stated in testimony to Congress that 54 operations had been prevented since 9th September 2011, again no details provided. He did admit that the use of the surveillance systems had not necessarily contributed to any of these operations.

So what do we know, in the UK there were the attacks of 7th July 2005. Several of the suicide bombers and their wider circle were known to the authorities – result 52 dead over 700 injured. That was four years after 9/11 and that attack was after Embassy bombings and attacks around the globe. This was followed by failed attacks two weeks later when the security authorities managed to kill an innocent Brazilian on a tube train after he had got on that tube train. I won’t list all the attacks Wikipedia has a comprehensive list, but please note the IRA ones over 30 years and yet Al-Qa’eda are considered a bigger threat?  The former head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, stated in December 2006 that

Al-Qa’eda poses a greater threat to civilian life than the Nazis did during the Second World War.

Sir Ian had clearly never researched The Blitz, which killed over 40,000 civilians in one 57-day period from September 1940. He may have been exaggerating a little but is this the mind set, or just a bad history education?

So returning to Parliament and the serious damage that Snowden is alleged to have done. It has been quoted that Snowden’s leaks are the greatest threat to UK Intelligence operations. Like Sir Ian Blair methinks they doth protest too much. They clearly have forgotten or would like us to forget about Blunt, Philby, McClean, Burgess, possibly Cairncross, often reffered to as The Cambridge Four/Five or how about the Profumo scandal when the then Minister of State for War (now the MoD) John Profumo shared a mistress with the Soviet Naval Attaché. Before our American friends get all clever about the British problem what about the Rosenburgs or John Walker.

According to reports Snowden shared access to the information he attained with nearly 1 million others, clearly this secret is not quite as secret as some might think. The fact he could leave the high security office with all this data is the security scandal and out security chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic seem hell bent on avoiding how Snowden got the information instead concentrating, as ever, on the messenger. Snowden did not hand the information to Al-Qa’eda, he may have been in China and now Russia but the security services have failed to demonstrate that the information is in the hands of the Russian or Chinese intelligence services. Stopping the partner of the journalist who was allegedly carrying a written down password to a USB stick does not mean that the stick has been accessed; in fact we are then told that the security services were unable to access the data or were they? So why mention the password at all, maybe it was his bank PIN? Maybe the current court case investigating his detention at Heathrow airport on suspicion of terrorism might shed some light?

As a would be author I have so many possible plot lines for a fictional story left by this mess I don’t know where to start. How much of the story and information that is in the public eye is disinformation or real, is impossible to guess. From what I have seen of our democratic institutions their lack of oversight, technological knowledge, and willingness to believe what the spy chiefs tell them, is not encouraging. After all Sir Malcolm Rifkind the head of the Parliamentary Committee former Foreign Secretary (responsible for the Secret Intelligence Service) has never explained why he claimed expenses for constituency flights to Scotland when his constituency is in London, all within the rules, all submitted with proper Government oversight. He was by no means the worst of the MP expenses scandal but… I haven’t commented on the lack of questions about torture, extraordinary rendition, or any of the other things that maybe we should know about being done in our name, after all the hounding of one, perhaps misguided, whistle-blower is so much better TV than asking a proper question or getting a proper answer.

  • UK spy chiefs emerge from shadows to blast Edward Snowden – Reuters (reuters.com)
  • NSA leaks: UK’s enemies are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’, says MI6 chief (theguardian.com)
  • UK spy chiefs hit out at Snowden (skynews.com.au)
  • Questioning of spy agency chiefs ‘wouldn’t have scared a puppy’ (theguardian.com)