How to write the second novel

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  1. New Book, New Process
    You learned how to write your first novel. Now you have to learn how to write your second. This is an old but true adage. If you want each successive book to be good or better than the last, challenge yourself to grow. Throw out the rules and remain open.

    ‘Each time you write something, part of you grows. You’re training your artistic muscles to find your voice.’
    Pen Densham

  2. New Skills
    You’ll probably need new skills if you want to be true to the new theme and characters. These might include learning how to write different characters, changing point of view, writing in another tense, changing your style or using different techniques such as alternating chapters or bending timelines, conducting deep research, visiting new places or interviewing people. Whatever your story requires.

    ‘When you combine something to say with the skill to say it properly, then you’ve got a good writer.’
    Theodore Sturgeon

  3. First Drafts Are Rubbish
    Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Remember, you probably worked on your first book for ages, editing and honing it until it was fit for publication. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how woeful your first draft was. Don’t expect that just because you’ve completed one novel, the next will come out equally polished. You’ll need to go through the same torturous, creative process of redrafting over again until your true and best story emerges. 

    ‘The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery.’ 
    Robert Cormier

  4. Abandon Fear
    Fear of failure can be debilitating. This is especially the case if you enjoyed some success with your first book. Don’t expect the same kind of story to emerge. Don’t expect success. Or failure. This story is different, so let it emerge and grow organically. Trust and believe in yourself. Authenticity will get you through. 

    ‘Don’t wait for the world to believe in you. Believe in yourself first. It’s faster and more efficient.’ 
    Milli Thornton

  5. Stick With It
    Give your new work a chance. I know so many people with abandoned second books because they didn’t meet their own or others’ demands. Ignore doubting or prescriptive voices and write for the sake of it. You’ve planted a seed, now nurture it. Get back to good writing habits. Do, don’t overthink.  

    A writer’s only responsibility is to his art.’
    William Faulkner

  6. Know You’re Not Alone
    Plenty of writers struggle with the second novel. It’s a part of the writing life. Know that others have faced this challenge and worked their way through it. You can too.

    ‘Every writer I know has trouble writing.’
    Jospeh Heller

Should you write characters based on people you know?

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Real life as inspiration

I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my  partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’

Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.

Writers are magpies

The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.

As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.

Writing about family members

That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.

Is this exploitation?

Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.

Hiding your characters’ origins

What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.

I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.

A price to pay?

I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.

Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.

Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.

An aside: On not being written about

In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.

Waiting: What should you do after submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher?

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I submitted my manuscript to two new publishers this week, dutifully complying with all their requirements before I sent it off as well as checking and rechecking my letter, author bio, synopsis, book comparison, marketing appraisal and so on.

But what to do, or not do, now?

  1. Tread the fine line between hope and lowered expectations
    Rejections can be gutting. I’ve written about this before. You need to prepare yourself in case that’s what happens. On the other hand, you want to believe in your work and be open to success. It can be torturous when you’ve invested so much time, effort and even money.  But aim for zen like detachment, understanding that you’ll be rejected until you aren’t.

  2. Start something else immediately
    If you’ve written fiction, perhaps you have an idea for a non-fiction book. If you’ve written long form, maybe it’s time to try short stories, which if published can help build your author biography. Alternatively, your short stories might make great novels. 

    When starting a new project remember two things. First, you learned how to write your last story, not necessarily others. A new story might demand other skills. Second, first drafts are often terrible. Don’t judge yourself. Just get something down and redraft, redraft, redraft…

  3. Take a break
    Is it time you did something else for a while? Doing nothing can be anything but doing nothing. You might actually be creating a masterpiece in the background. More on that here

  4. Have a Plan B
    I like to have a back up plan. Perhaps there are other publishers you haven’t tried such as overseas or independent ones. If you’ve exhausted all channels, consider other publishing options, as I’ve discussed here. For me with this manuscript my Plan B is joint publishing. But perhaps you want to consider self publishing. Then again, after some reflection, you might conclude this was your learner novel. There’s no rush.

  5. Learn patience
    Patience is not an inherited trait, it’s a learned and practiced skill. Get on with the next thing in your life, quarantining a place of hope inside you in case that positive outcome arrives. 

What not to do

  1. Don’t reread your work
    Unless you’re prepared to endlessly rewrite your manuscript, don’t reread it while you wait. You can do that later if your submissions is rejected. 

  2. Don’t make changes and resubmit to the same publisher
    Once you’ve submitted that’s it, so make sure your manuscript is ready. Some people put their work away for weeks or months before deciding whether their piece is ready. I wish I’d done that in the past. Still, everything is a process, including mistakes, or rather learning experiences

  3. Don’t harass publishers or agents
    It’s a test of patience, but if your potential agent or publisher said they usually reply in 3 or 6 months, then wait the allotted time. If they’re considerably late, inquire politely. Harassing won’t earn you a favourable reputation. 


Remember, publishers want commercially viable books.
If you don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean you can’t write
or that your work is rubbish. 

 

How to know when your book is cooked

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Is your book cooked when:

  • You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
  • The story works well, including the ending
  • You’ve found an agent or publisher
  • You know you’ve done your absolute best
  • You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
  • You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
  • Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
  • You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
  • You’ve simply got nothing left
  • Another book beckons
  • You just know this is it
  • The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
  • Never?

I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.

Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.

With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.

Should you join a writing group?

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I’ve been a member of my current writing group for 4 1/2 years now. I say current because I tried another couple of groups that didn’t work out. I’ve almost pulled out of this group too, but now I believe that sticking with it is one of the best things I’ve done for my writing.

Which group is right for you?

There are many kinds of writing groups and you’ll need to consider which one suits you best. Are you looking for a group:

  • that critiques, providing constructive feedback for existing work
  • that takes you through writing exercises aimed at improving your craft
  • that cheers you on, offering mutual encouragement
  • is in-person, online or offers both options
  • where you share a space with other writers and work on your own pieces simultaneously
  • that’s casual or requires consistent attendance?

I’ve joined the first kind of group through my local writers’ centre because I wanted to improve my manuscript. Members are serious about getting published—and some of us have been. We meet weekly with each person reading out 2k words for which we receive feedback. Many of us find the act of reading out loud a good starting point because we often hear our own mistakes first. People seem to have their strengths and together we make a formidable team even though our genres are diverse, including historical fiction, chick lit, crime and science fiction. One person tends to comment on structure, another grammar and voice, another character development or story line and so on.

What are the benefits of joining a writing group?

  1. Critique and/or support – When you find a good group you get free critiquing or support that would otherwise cost 3 cents per word and upwards. It’s not quite like having your own editor, but it’s the next best thing. In some ways it’s better because of the diversity of opinion you receive.
  2. Motivation – Some members in my group find the weekly commitment of 2k words a strong motivator, saying they might otherwise struggle to commit writing time.
  3. Support – A couple of times I’ve reached out to members when I’ve hit lows. They’ve reminded me that my story is strong, important and worth the effort. Recently they told me enough finessing, it’s time to finish my manuscript and put it out there. In short, they’ve bolstered me and given me perspective when I’ve most needed it.
  4. Being with fellow writers – As much as your friends or family might think it’s great (or not) that you write, no one can understand your writing glories and struggles like fellow writers. Writing is an otherwise solitary act so it’s great to share.
  5. Brainstorming – Sometimes members get stuck and we brainstorm ideas. The ending of my book wasn’t quite right, but now it’s formidable thanks to one member’s suggestion. Others have changed point of view or added in magical realism elements to overcome challenges. More heads can be better than one.

What are any negatives of joining a writing group?

  1. Lack of safety – In one group I joined, a member turned vicious if she didn’t like your work. Unfortunately, others copied her negative tone. I was once lampooned an entire season for having a prologue. This kind of experience is destructive. Avoid. Writing is exposition of your deepest self. The critiquing environment must be safe and encourage constructive, dissuading destructive participation. There are always positives.
  2. Poor organisation and leadership – There must be agreed and enforced rules for writing groups to be effective and rewarding. For example, for long prose groups, a quorum who attend regularly is critical. Other questions to ask are does your organiser take into account others’ views on potential new members? Are they a good time manager keeping members within their allotment? And are they willing to reign people in if they step out of bounds or remove members who don’t fit in?
  3. Wrong genre – Are you a short story writer but you’re in a long story group? Do you need a group of fellow biographers but you’re in a fiction group? Do you write science fiction but you’re in a romance group and they don’t get concepts such as world building? Make sure you know what you need and search for the appropriate group or you’ll risk feeling alienated and disheartened.
  4. Group mentality – Even in the best of groups, people can get carried away. I recall my group telling me they didn’t care about my main character. Whoa! I got the point, which was valid and important, but I didn’t need to have it repeated for half an hour. You may need to firmly but gently steer your fellow writers back towards their more diplomatic, positive selves.

How to find the right group for you

There are many options, including:

  • Online groups where you trade feedback. These can be genre specific
  • Writer’s centres in your area or state that offer many kinds of groups
  • MeetUp
  • Start your own group, perhaps finding members through your local library, your existing network, at writers’ festivals or even Gumtree.

Trust your judgement. If a group doesn’t feel right, then it’s not for you.

Above all, be open, but also listen to yourself.