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.

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