Writing the Sequel

by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe

My newest book is an adult novel titled Frankenstein’s Monster, a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It begins immediately when hers ends, with some overlap to set the scene and to introduce other characters from the first book that remain in the second.

Shelley’s book is a classic and holds a rightful place in the pantheon of Western lit. It’s also considered the first work of science fiction—and so it even created a new genre. Its character is instantly recognizable; its themes are eerily prophetic.

It is, in short, an icon. Only someone audacious, ambitious, and possessed of diamond-hard balls would dare touch it.

This is where I stumbled in. I was clueless, as I generally am. I never once thought that I was taking on an icon. If I had, I never would have dared put fingers to keyboard. Like most writers, I just had a story to tell.

I wrote Frankenstein’s Monster the way I’ve written my other novels: I knew the beginning, which survived. I knew key incidents in the middle, only some of which survived. I knew the ending, sort of, which didn’t survive. And I absolutely knew my characters, who spent most of the book laughing at me. All the rest was a gooey black void. I call this “letting the story emerge organically.” I believe the academic term is being a pantser.

So I never consciously thought about what should go into a sequel.

Fortunately, even though I am semi-comatose, bloggers and other online reviewers are not. In their posts and reviews for Frankenstein’s Monster, they were very articulate in listing the requirements of a good sequel and thus what they were looking for when they read mine.

A good sequel—

  • Should be faithful to the language, style, and mood of the original
  • Should be true to the character and his or her situation
  • Should expand the same themes
  • Should be “necessary”; that is, should result from matters left unresolved
  • Should nonetheless deliver new insights and new surprises
  • Should, to sum it up, be a book that the original author might have written

Anything I did right, I did largely unconsciously. And I believe most of it resulted from reading Shelley over and over and over both before and while I wrote.

Should be faithful to the language, style, and mood of the original. Because our two books overlapped, I wove her language and mine tightly—using her exact sentences, editing them, twisting them, adding words, taking them back, so that I no longer know which are whose. I also used other phrases and sentences from her book in other parts of mine. Although they were obviously used in different contexts there, they worked in the new ones and helped keep the style and mood throughout.

Should be true to the character and his or her situation. Her character was a hideous creature assembled from dead body parts. I had no plans for time travel and plastic surgery and was tapping, at least I thought I was, into a Beauty and the Beast theme, I still had a hideous creature assembled from dead body parts.

Should expand the same themes. No matter what other ideas might be threaded through the book, the monster forced his own upon me: What does it take to be human? What does it mean to be human?

Should be “necessary”; that is, it should result from matters left unresolved in the original. At the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (not the movie version), the creature is still alive. What happens next? In a way, the only resolution in the book is for Frankenstein himself, who dies as a consequence of his own actions in creating the monster. But there’s been no real and certainly no satisfactory resolution for the monster himself.

In addition, I used other less obviously unresolved matters in Shelley’s book. Reading it over and over and over, I somehow absorbed remarks by her characters and pushed them back out as flaws, motives, and plot points. Key elements that seemed to arise spontaneously in the writing actually came from subconsciously using clues strewn throughout her book and coming up with conclusions.

Should nonetheless deliver new insights and new surprises. Well, “using clues and coming up with conclusions” was really more like “being shocked,” and many of the surprises surprised me too. However, the one thing I was conscious of (but not until about the fifth draft) was that the character had to change over time, that the monster had to be different at the end from what he was at the beginning. And insights for him would hopefully be insights for the reader. They were for me.

Should, to sum it up, be a book that the original author might have written just yesterday. Did I pull it off? Many reviewers were kind enough to say things like “seamless” and a “sequel worthy of the original” and “as if Mary Shelley lives on.” My favorite Amazon Vine review is “superb sequel, masterfully written…an authentic masterpiece.” (Hee, hee. Shameless self-promotion.)

I’m glad I finally have a list that shows how to write a sequel. If I write another one, then perhaps I can save myself about several drafts and countless bruises from stumbling around, semi-comatose, in the dark.

Susan Heyboer O’Keefe is the author of Frankenstein’s Monster (Random House). This is her first work for adults. She’s also published over two dozen books for children, including the best-selling One Hungry Monster, its sequel, Hungry Monster ABC, and the middle-grade comedy Death by Eggplant. Her day job is to tame semi-colons, to force subjects and verbs to agree, and to complete incomplete footnotes in other people’s manuscripts. She, her family, and her two parrots live in northern New Jersey. Please visit her at www.susanheyboerokeefe.com.