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

Stoke your creative fires

While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?

‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Albert Einstein

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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.

Defining (writing) success

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Success means different things to different writers. Perhaps you have a writer you aspire to be like, or you aim to publish in a particular way within a certain time frame, or you have technical goals about how you to ideally express yourself, or all of the above.

The question is:

  • Are your goals realistic and achievable?
  • Are they truly your goals (or some other ideal defined by people you know, writing mythology or your parents)?
  • Are you flexible enough to adjust your goals as needed?
  • Can you accept failure as part of the creative process, learn from it and continue?

Whose goals? Your goals

  • Do you dream of fame and fortune like JK Rowling enjoys? That might be nice, but her writing journey belongs to her just like yours belongs to you. Don’t rule out producing five best sellers in the next five years if that’s your aim, but remember that good writing comes from authenticity. So cast away others’ expectations, stop worrying about what the market claims it wants (which would likely be outdated by the time you produced something similar, if you could that is), forget about proving yourself to your parents or whoever, and look inside yourself to discover what writing means to you. Write for that reason and persist. Relentlessly. Be you.
  • Remember, few people are instant successes. Often, many years of learning and hard work sits behind such myths.
  • Finally, understand that one person’s success is another’s failure. This is why you must define success for yourself. At the end of the day, once the flashbulbs dim, even JK Rowling has to sit down alone and create a book she’s happy with.

Yes, but…

  • There’s always another hill to climb with writing—the next story, the next competition, a better publisher etc.. When you achieve something celebrate it.
  • To do this, monitor your progress. Break it up into bite sized achievements that you can celebrate along the way. Did you write 1k words each week for the last 8 weeks like you planned?  Tick. Did you do a course on character building and bring yours to life? Yay. Did you approach five publishers like planned even if though didn’t hear back from the first two? Brave. Did you enjoy the  writing process? Well done. Did you get lost in your love of language, or did the characters carry you away to unexpected places? Wondrous!

Learn to fail well

  • Failure is a binary concept that requires success as its polar opposite. Failure and success are thus abstract and arbitrary. We’ve already seen how definitions can vary wildly. Don’t let your beliefs about them stall or stop you. They’re only ideas, which you don’t have to be bound by. Change your thinking.
  • Writing requires failure
    • If we weren’t willing to fail, new territory wouldn’t  be traversed and creativity would cease to exist.
    • Don’t let the redrafting process make earlier drafts feel like failures. They’re not, they’re simply part of the process. Accept this and keep going.
    • Also, because many writers aspire towards perfection they’re bound to always fail. How can we ever succeed if we continually moved the goal posts further away? Even multi-published authors are often dissatisfied with their achievements. Get off the perfection treadmill.

Tenacity

  • Above all, writing and publishing are about tenacity. In this post, I discuss how persistence beats talent. It can be a long process of learning your craft before you test the market to find the best, and sometimes only means to publish your work.
  • If things don’t go to plan, don’t give up. If you expected to find a traditional publisher but that didn’t work out, consider self-publishing, research a hybrid model, put your book away or begin again until you produce something your kind of publisher wants. You might also need to lower the bar. Begin slowly but surely. Tortoise, hair – remember?
  • If you do ‘fail’ to meet your goals, make use of it. Learn from it and continue writing.
  • Remember, THE ONLY WAY TO FAIL WRITING IS TO QUIT.