Writing Advice from Novelists: How to Start Your Second Book

To support SFWA this year, I auctioned off a writing advice article on the topic of the bidder’s choice.

The winner was Mark Tompkins whose debut novel, The Last Days of Magic, is coming out from Viking in March. Unsurprisingly, Mark has a lot of questions about novels and the business of novelling. Since I’m primarily a short story writer, I can’t answer from experience. So, instead, I gathered short responses from some excellent novelists who can answer from experience. My plan was to read all the answers from the writers I contacted and then add a few words of summation, but really, I think the answers are excellent and stand on their own.

Thanks to Mark for supporting SFWA!

Steven Gould, author of Jumper:

There is a saying in writer workshops the world over. You never learn how to write a novel; you only learn how to write this novel. There is an element of truth to this.
Here are two things to keep in mind:

 

1. Try not to repeat yourself: Don’t make the new characters just like the old, don’t use the same plots twists, do give us new settings and MacGuffins. Let your readers know you’re not a one-trick pony.

 

2. Try to repeat yourself: Do try and keep the things that worked. What were the things you did that made your characters interesting/sympathetic/flawed? What were your ways of describing setting and place that allowed your readers to be there? How did you get your protagonist(s) committed and out of the beginning and into the middle of your novel.

 

You will have themes that are conscious and thematic material that is unconscious. Don’t let it drift into propaganda or polemic. Be aware, though, that the things you really care about will emerge/inform/surface in the story. Sometimes you will see this and sometimes you won’t. It’s probably better if you didn’t see them coming.

 

No matter how your first book did, this is a new thing. Make it count. Take joy in the process.

 

And most of all, make it something you want to read.

N. K. Jemisin, author of The Inheritance Trilogy:

That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. :) I think there’s two ways to answer it — philosophical, and practical. The practical is the easy part: open new word file, start writing, same as when you start any new project. You kinda have to do it because a) your book may not sell, b) if it sells (or has sold already) it will need an editor’s notes and those will probably take weeks or months to come, c) if you’ve turned in the final, after-revisions version it’ll be a year or two AT LEAST before the book actually comes out, and d) if the book is successful, your publisher will immediately be after you for your next book, so it’s a good idea to actually *have* one.

 

The philosophical part matters too, though. Emotionally and psychologically speaking, finishing a novel is (I imagine) equivalent to having a baby: in the immediate and painful aftermath, the last thing you want to think about is doing it again. But as I said, practically speaking you need to do it, so you have to get over the “no mas” reaction. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble doing this; I’ve almost always got another project on the back burner of my mind, and finishing one gets me excited to start the next. But I know that for some people it takes more work to drag your mind back into the wordcount mines. It *is* a good idea to take a brief (put a time limit on it) breather to recover. Write a short story as a palate-cleanser. Go on a vacation, hug your family, etc. Seek inspiration in these things, to remind yourself of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. Then… butt in chair.

Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and “The Paper Menagerie:”

As with so many things in writing, there’s no single answer that works for everyone. What I say here is based on my own experience and the experiences of other writers I’ve talked to, but I don’t claim the generalizations here to be universal.

 

Ideally, when you sold your series, you also pitched an outline for the series along with the manuscript for the first book. You shouldn’t feel that you have to stick to the outline, of course, since no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, but at least you have some landmarks to strive toward. This is both a plus and a minus, as I’ll explain.

 

The biggest difference in writing the second book in a series compared to the first one is probably one of timing. You likely spent years polishing your first book, and you had the luxury of rounds of beta readers and multiple drafts. With the second book, you’re writing to a deadline, and missing the deadline will have cascading effects on the publisher’s publicity plans and hurt your sales. You have to be prepared to work much harder and faster on the second book than your first one, and you may need to limit the number of drafts you can do.

 

Somewhat surprisingly, the first book you wrote may turn out to be your biggest obstacle. The worldbuilding you did and the plot of that book will constrain your choices in the sequel. This is why it’s critical to take good notes as you write book one, tracking time lines, locations, character traits, details about the world — by the time you write the sequel, the first book will no longer be fresh in your head. Good notes will save you a lot of time and frustration and
prevent you from violating your own rules.

 

It’s also really important to maintain a sense of excitement as you work on the sequel. The fact that you’re not creating a world from scratch can drain some of your creative energy, and if you’re not excited by what you’re writing, the reader won’t, either. This is why it’s helpful to plot book two so that it upends the world of book one in some way — welcome the chance to be surprised by your own
creation.

 

Above all, have fun!

Helene Wecker, author of The Golem and the Jinni:

First, celebrate. Turning in your novel is a huge hairy deal. Go out for a fancy dinner with a significant other or something. Give yourself permission to relax for a few days. You’ve probably been holed up for a while, so go talk to some humans. Send a few emails to friends, accept an invitation to coffee. Go for a walk outside.

 

Ok, now back to work. It’s a good idea to focus on marketing during the pre-pub months, and to that end you’ll want to prep a master Q&A about the book. My publisher sent me one with about a dozen questions (“How did the idea come to you?” “Who were your favorite characters to write?” “Describe your research process,” etc). It took forever to fill out, but it meant I didn’t have to think on the fly during interviews or readings. If your publisher doesn’t do it for you, make one yourself, with what you’d guess are the most likely questions that a reader or interviewer would ask. It might feel tedious, but you won’t regret it.

Awesome Patreon: Carmen Maria Machado

I’ve been trying to set up a new series to draw attention to cool Patreons, sort of like John Scalzi’s The Big Idea or Mary Robinette’s My Favorite Bit, but more haphazard. A couple of weeks ago, I accidentally linked to Carmen Maria Machado’s Patreon in advance of when I had everything ready. So–oops.

If you don’t know what Patreon is, it’s a website that matches creators with patrons who help directly support their art. Some patreons are set up by project–for instance, my friend Barry Deutsch receives payments whenever he finishes a new political cartoon. Carmen’s is set-up on a monthly schedule. It’s a cool way for fans to make sure their favorite creators can keep making art.

Carmen is one of my favorite new writers. She crafts beautiful, accomplished mergings of literary and horror fiction. She describes her own writing as “about sex, sexual agency, sexual violence, sexual oppression, desire, queerness, the female experience, illness & death, pop culture, hypochondria, the uncanny, the human body & its fragility, storytelling, myths, and fear.” I think she’s a strikingly original, inspiring talent. Last year’s Nebula-nominated novelette, “The Husband Stitch,” mingles immersive, psychological surrealism with campfire horror stories.

Carmen also agreed to do a short interview with me, which is below. Whether or not you decide to toss a few dollars her way, you should definitely check out her beautiful stories.

I really love your writing. One of the things I find most beautiful about it is the way it seems to wing free from traditional structures, and yet come together in this lovely, unexpected way that still feels satisfying and impactful. How do you approach structure as you write?

Every project is different. Sometimes I start off with a form in mind. Stories of mine like “Inventory,” “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU,” “We Were Never Alone in Space,” and “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” were all born with their shapes intact. I wanted to write projects with certain kinds of forms or formal constraints, and that’s what I did.

But in “The Husband Stitch,” for example, the formal elements of the story didn’t come until later drafts. “The Husband Stitch” was initially just the main narrative—the woman living her life with her husband—and the parts where I tap into other urban legends only came later because I wasn’t satisfied with what I had. I also have another recent story (I don’t want to give many details; it’s on submission now) where I started off thinking about formal constraint and tried a few different ones, but the story really resisted, and so I backed off and wrote it without one.

Insofar as a story is alive, or at the very least a discrete thing with its own Platonic self, I think the story either absorbs artificial forms or rejects them. I just try to figure out what the story needs.

Horror. A lot of us grew up on, and recapitulate, fairy tales — me, Kat Howard, etc. Another thing I’m excited about in regard to “The Husband Stitch” is that you play with more unusual, but still culturally significant, narratives. Ghost stories, urban legends. Sofia Samatar and Genevieve Valentine have done a little of that as well, and I’m very intrigued by how it plays out. What about those narratives calls to you?

I once read this really great essay by the writer Hubert Dade where he talks about being compelled to write horror because life is horror—because we live in a world where people go to schools and shoot children and people kidnap and rape and murder and that he himself has his own fears about his life and what he has and what could be taken away from him. I always assign it to my students when I’m teaching horror because I think it directly addresses a common problem students and other early-in-their-art writers sometimes have, where they’re intrigued by the trappings of horror but are less interested in what makes something actually horrifying. (Lovecraft also addressed this in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” where he separates “fear-literature,” which touches on cosmic dread, from “a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”) They have their characters run from monsters or get cut up all bloody-like or experience ghosts, but there’s no weight behind it, just splatter and gore and roaring.

I think that good horror always has a metaphorical component of some kind, where the story is touching on real human fear. What does it feel like to not be believed? What does it feel like to be up against something you can’t control or conquer? And so on. You can build any kind of narrative/world/trope over top of questions like that, and the story can be horror. (And it can be other genres, too. These are really basic human questions.)

This is a very long way of saying that horror calls to me because I am at times overwhelmed by life’s many terrors—death, illness, gendered violence, loneliness, well-intentioned evil, wasted time, the power of societal pressures and expectations, and so on—and I find the exploration of that (both in my reading and writing) to be a satisfying way to deal with those emotions.

The Iowa question. [Note: Carmen Maria Machado and I are both graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop.] Tell us a thing or two you learned that the rest of us should know.

I don’t think I learned any kind of magic advice at Iowa that no one else has heard of, but there was one thing I saw modeled again and again that I really respected: honoring the project, and the writer’s intentions. A good teacher—and a good workshop in general—will be helping the writer make their story the best version of itself, rather than something they themselves would write. This isn’t always simple—sometimes the writer’s intentions are not exactly clear—but trying to get a story to switch genres or attacking it on the grounds of what it’s doing compared to your own fiction’s standards, as opposed to its own standards, is useless to everyone involved. This applies in any direction, whether it’s criticizing a story for not being “genre enough” (or genre at all), or criticizing it because it contains spaceships or aliens or monsters or fairies. These elements in and of themselves mean nothing; what is the author trying to do, and is their story doing that?

This sort of loops back to the idea of the story’s Platonic self. Lorrie Moore’s “Terrific Mother” (humorous realism) and Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (liminal & metafictional fantasy) and Alice Sola Kim’s “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” (science fiction) are all perfect stories that are doing, in my opinion, exactly what they set out to do. Suggesting that they switch genres simply because you dislike or don’t understand one of those genres is ludicrous. I’ve seen this in workshops and writing groups and elsewhere and it’s always very disturbing to me. You might as well criticize a house for not being an apartment complex. Rather: is the house doing a good job of satisfying its own purpose, and if not, what can be done to make it better?

So, yeah. Ask yourself what the writer is trying to do. Respect the project.

What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received? 

“Write what you know.” It’s not that it’s the worst, precisely, just that despite its good intentions (helping young writers ground their narratives in experiences with which they’re emotionally familiar) it’s just very limiting. I think a better version would be “Start with what you know, or what interests you, and move outwards from there. Don’t be afraid.”

You get to walk into any horror story or urban legend in any role you want. Who would you be? 

Okay, I have thought about this question for, like, half an hour (seriously—I went and made myself a fresh pot of coffee and everything) and I think the answer is “none” because urban legends and horror stories never exactly turn out happy, well-adjusted, alive people at their ends. But I guess life doesn’t, either? I’ll stick to this role—my own—where I’m reasonably sure that supernatural things don’t actually exist, bring down the number of bad and sad things that can happen to me from “infinity” to “slightly less than infinity.”

Tell me about your Patreon and its goals. What projects are you working on that it will help fund?

Right now, I balance my teaching income (which, as an adjunct, is quite low) with freelancing. The freelancing is great and flexible, but time-consuming. My goal with my Patreon is to be able to replace freelancing projects to free up time for my fiction (which, at the moment, includes a few short stories and a novel project). At just over $100/month, I was recently able to drop a monthly assignment that’d been taking up about 10 hours/month. Any new contributions will build toward a second foregone assignment. And if you’re considering contributing: thank you so much! You can email me with any questions about my Patreon or other means of support at carmen dot machado at gmail dot com.

Interviewing Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. Sylvia Spruck Wrigley kindly responded to the query I circulated to some writers asking if they wanted to play along. She’s a writer currently spending a lot of her time in Wales, and was nominated for the short story Nebula award (along with me) in 2013.

By happy and unplanned coincidence, her new novella, Domnall and the Borrowed Child just came out through Tor’s new novella line. It’s her longest piece of published work to date.

Thanks again, Sylvia, for the interview!

1. The first thing that appears on your website is a quote from The Catcher in the Rye, ending with “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Why that quote?

Self-promotion is hard. There’s this whole thing about even having a home page, that I have to tell the world about myself and hope that they care. I struggled with what to say, because I have this super confusing background and if I start, then it’s going to go on a bit. I can’t even say “I’m from [country]” or something simple like that. To be honest, I wrote a lot of long intros and then I just couldn’t face it. I remembered the start of The Catcher in the Rye; I’ve always loved Holden Caulfield’s voice. And he just really encapsulated how I felt about how to tackle this problem. I figure JD Salinger probably had the same problem, how to start this novel. So I decided to steal that introduction for my own page.

 

In the meantime, I’ve ended up putting a three-sentence bio on the website after all which does manage to give a brief version of where I am from…so I guess it’s rather silly now. A legacy quote.

2. Even today when being online makes exchange a lot easier, a lot of excellent British writers are unknown in America. Have you found it difficult to pass that cultural border?

Well, for writers starting out, I think a real issue is that writers who are not in the US miss out on a lot of events. The amount of education and business that happens at cons, or through introductions that happened at a con, is really a bit frightening. I don’t think you have to show up to break through but my own experience is that it does make things a lot easier, especially when it comes to making connections and finding out about invite-only anthologies. And you get this great support network of other writers — I always feel super motivated after attending a con. I know a few people who attend a couple of cons a year and then work off that energy.

 

This is why I feel really strongly that Worldcon should be held outside of the US every three years. Honestly, I think for something with “World” in the name, it’s not unreasonable to ask that the US limit itself to hosting 66% of the cons. I know not everyone can attend if it is held abroad. But when you compare that to the number of interesting authors who have *never* attended because it quite frankly is never local to them, it doesn’t seem that much to ask that the hosting locations are spread out a bit more.

 

As of right now, 7 of the 74 WorldCons have been held outside North America. So I’m really excited about Helsinki and hopeful for Dublin the year after that.

3. Your recent Nebula Award-nominated story “Alive, Alive Oh” is about home and displacement, a theme I also saw in Matthew Kressel’s nominated story from the same year, “The Sounds of Old Earth.” What about those themes appeals to you? Do you think they have particular traction at this moment in western culture?

I believe there’s a lot more movement between countries (and cultures) than there was even 50 years ago. And really, it comes down to a lot more travel and emigration in the West than there was. It’s not so rare any more to know someone who ended up moving to South America or Thailand or India. When I was a kid, it was this huge big thing that I went to school in two countries. Immigration involved people moving to the US, middle-class white Americans didn’t leave, or at least not more than a summer. As a result, home, displacement and belonging have become important themes that people are exploring. My son holds German and American passports but has never lived in either country, has never had that sense of belonging to a place (or even of a place belonging to him). I think when I was a kid in a similar situation, everyone in both countries was kind of amazed by it. Now, it’s not such a big deal.

4. What is the most irritating mistake about Wales and/or the Welsh that you see in American media?

Confusing Wales with England. I know that sounds silly but I get it all the time. Seriously, like I’ll say “I live in Wales,” and people will ask me what it’s like living in England, and whether I like it there. There’s this total disconnect.

 

I do like England, as it happens, but Wales is very different. Not just the accent, in attitude and economics and a million small things. There’s a lot that I love, like Welsh women are much more likely to say “You are being an idiot” to a man who is being an idiot than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. There doesn’t seem to be this deep-rooted belief that women have to be nicer than men when it comes to idiots.

5. What work of yours should readers be looking for, and what do you have coming up?

My most recent publication is a reprint, Space Travel Loses Its Allure When You’ve Lost Your Moon Cup in the current issue of Flash Fiction Online. I love this story because menstruation in space is just really not a well-covered subject in science fiction. But this publication of it is super special because includes a rap song, which I commissioned off of Fiverr late one night after too much wine. Rsonic had an ad on Fiverr, saying he’d write a rap song about any subject. The guy was this black, good-looking American Marine combat veteran and I thought he was going to tell me to go to hell when I showed him the story. He totally rose to the challenge and wrote a rap song without flinching. Best five dollars I’ve ever spent.

 

I’m also super excited about what’s coming up. Domnall and the Borrowed Child is a traditional fairy tale based in Scotland coming out on the 10th of November as a part of Tor.com’s new novella imprint. This is my first longer publication and it’s part of a story I’ve been working on for ten years. The audio version is amazing – Tor have chosen a narrator with a great mid-atlantic accent. He grew up in Ireland and England but spent his adult life in the US, so I spent my first listen wondering where’s he from? before finally realising that he probably sounds a lot like me. He calls it hybrid, which sounds a lot nicer than “all over the place”.

Short Story and Novelette Recommendations, 2014

Over at Apex Magazine, I did a quick round-up of some short stories and novelettes I really enjoyed in 2014. Yes, it’s a while ago now, but I never managed to make my 2014 recommendation posts for short stories and novelettes, so it’s nice to be able to get to recommend some excellent material now.

You can read my post with links to stories by Octavia Butler, Aliette deBodard, Chris East, Maria Dahvana Headley, N. K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Derek Kunsken, Will McIntosh Sarah Pinsker, Cat Rambo, Veronica Schanoes, Emily Skaftun, Genevieve Valentine, and Isabel Yap. Of the sixteen stories, ten are available online.

My usual proviso–I didn’t read nearly as many stories as I’d have liked to, can’t recommend everything I enjoy, and even the stories I’ve recommended here get short shrift from these brief reviews. Still, again, I hope you enjoy them!

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