Five lessons to bring to your second novel

Winter talk © Karen Ramseier
Winter talk © Karen Ramseier

I’m not going to go into all the mistakes I made and then had to spend untold hours fixing on my first novel. I have covered all that at length on this blog over the past year, probably best summed up in this post: Breaking every rule in the book.

Now with my second novel under way and the first one in flight, I can sit back and see what I am doing differently this time. There are probably sub-conscious things too, but here are the lessons I am consciously applying to manuscript number two.

1. What’s the big idea?
Before the novel, comes the idea, and the stronger the idea, the better chance you have to write a good story. Victoria M. Johnson explains this succinctly in this excerpt from her book The Last Techniques I Learned Before Selling Fiction.

Johnson says you have to start with an interesting, unique and universal idea. Something that will carry you, and the story to the finish line. It has to be something that will resonate with a lot of people, tap into the readers’ instincts and emotions.

2. Where are you going with this?
Once you have your idea and have allowed it to incubate in your mind long enough, it’s time to invest in some concrete planning. On my first book I meandered so much I ended up with ox-bow lakes. Yes, I got there in the end but it would have been helpful to have a clearer idea of the destination from the start.

You can take it as a warning sign if you are not easily able to answer the question: What’s the book about? You can be hit with THE QUESTION anywhere, so it is worth taking the trouble to figure out the answer, preferably very early on in the writing process, or you’ll end up like me last year .

You can take this approach even further, as I discovered when I stumbled across a post on Twitter recently about the Snowflake method, developed by ‘America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing’, Randy Ingermanson. He’s also written a book about this and the gist of it is managing your creativity and getting it organized into a well-structured novel.

Ingermanson suggests that you take an hour to write a one-sentence summary of your novel – before you begin writing. Then write a one-paragraph summary, one-page summary, and so on, until the plot is all sketched out and ready to be written scene by scene. I wouldn’t be able to work in such a regimented way but it’s interesting to think about.

3. Think technical
Tense and point-of-view cannot be left to chance. The first piece of advice I received from Conor Kostick at the novel writing course I attended in the Irish Writers’ Centre was that the first person narrator was ideal for a debut writer as it covers a multitude of sins. “If there’s any way you can possibly switch your novel to the first person, do it,” he said.

4. Less is more
Dickens invented enough characters to populate a small town. This is not a feat that needs to be repeated. The better we know our main characters, the more we care about what happens to them, so concentrate on spending that time with them and making their struggle matter. The same goes for the sub plots. If the reader loses sight of the main storyline, it’s time for some trimming.

5. Be prepared for the long haul
I attended a talk by the Irish short story writer Claire Keegan last year in which she revealed that she writes up to thirty drafts before she is satisfied with her work. Gasp. Good writing does not spill out onto the page, it has to be crafted with skill and patience. Writing is rewriting, I now realise.

Keegan doesn’t show her work to anyone because she is so sure of her own writing barometer, and rightly so in her case. For most people input from the right readers is goldworth, to mimic a German word. But it is important not to be too easily swayed others’ opinions. Show the manuscript to the right people at the right time with the right expectations.

Just to add a little insight from another language culture about the secret ingredient publishers – and readers – are searching for. I read an interview today in my local Swiss paper with editor Daniela Koch of the Rotpunktverlag in Zurich. Only one in a hundred submitted manuscripts gets picked up by her company.

What keeps her reading a new submission? Emotion. “But it’s usually not the story itself that moves me, but something in the language. The way someone tells the story, how the atmosphere is created.”

For a first novel to work, she told the Freiburger Nachrichten newspaper, writers need more than linguistic prowess, they also need to have a feeling for what’s doable.

“The authors must have a sense for which themes they can handle and which ones they can’t.”

Some of this blog’s followers are on their second or subsequent novels. Others are avid readers. I’d love to hear what lessons you have picked up along the way.

14 thoughts on “Five lessons to bring to your second novel

  1. Great post and so many so true. I learned you don’t have to know everything about the characters on the first word. You carve them out with each draft you revisit. I’m still learning on the fourth draft.

    1. Thanks Lansi, and thanks for following. I’ve heard of some people doing detailed questionnaires with their characters to tease out a full profile but I can’t see myself doing that. A bit like you, I get to know them as I go along.

  2. I love that Randy Ingermanson idea – so simple, yet I’m sure, so effective in reining in the focus. I’m on my second novel too, as you know and I do think Claire Keegan hits the nail on the head – there is no other way but rewriting and improving – I’m doing this with 2 or 3 short stories at the moment, and refusing to rush the process (difficult for me since my writing time is so limited) and I can see it’s essential. First person makes it easier to get the ’emotion’ into a piece of writing, so I think the advice you got last year for first time novelists is very wise! Do I have the heart to change 70,000+ words from third to first? Mmm … I think I’ll concentrate on the second novel instead, which is a little bit of both! Probably a disaster waiting to happen, but we’ll see … Another great post, Clare and very timely for me – thanks! Sx

    1. Lovely to get your feedback Safia. I did actually change 70,000 words into the first person after getting this advice, and I was still finding rogue ‘shes’ dotted through the text months later. Also changed it from past to present and back again. Exhausting. But the most difficult changes by far were the plot changes. Now it’s reached the point where I can’t make any more changes, unless it’s for a very good reason – like publication.
      No wonder spending time on the second novel is so appealing!

  3. Thanks for the encouraging post, Clare, and good to see how you’re taking your learning from the first novel to the next. But I would add, based on what i’ve picked up from writers much more experienced than i am, that, just because you’ve done it once, doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easier the second time, we’ll just discover other blindspots. It’s a crazy old process!

    1. You’re right Anne. Actually the headline of that Swiss article I mentioned was: ‘The second novel is more difficult’. She seemed to think that what made it more difficult was the response the writer got to the first one, ie. it’s just as hard to follow a commercial hit as a flop. But even without publication the point still stands. I’ll see how I feel further down the line.
      I really enjoyed your recent post on the publisher’s edits on your novel and your review of Daniel Kehlmann’s book ‘F’. Looking forward to reading both novels!

  4. Totally agree with all this! I made mistakes in the first two I published, with too much back story and plot meandering. They had plenty of good reviews, but I would have got more, and gained more regular readers if I’d not made those mistakes, I imagine. Ditto the proper proofread! I’d written a few novels before I saw fit to publish (something I’d advise anyone to do, as your first novel is often not publishable), but it takes feedback from strangers en masse to see where your problems lie. I now think of an idea and, as you said, play with it in my head for a while before even writing the notes to see if it’s going to make the grade. And I spend longer on the rewrites than I do on the first draft. I’ve read a few novels lately that meander from the plot, badly. I think that comes partly from not thinking it all through properly in the first place (because all threads have to tie into the end), and thinking the reader has to be constantly entertained with new zap pow action.

    1. Hi Terry, glad to find that you agree with me, with so many novels under your belt. It’s true a proper proofread is vital, not only for plot problems but also to find out your language sins. I overused filler words like ‘so’ and ‘well’ and ‘actually’ all the time in dialogue. Not a pretty sight once it’s pointed out to you!

  5. Interesting post. Thanks for the insights, Clare. I think I’d agree that if you have a reader who is exactly on your wavelength then listen to what they have to say about your writing. Otherwise, the scatter gun approach to random beta readers is just going to confuse you.

  6. My second novel is waiting for me to get working on it again. I’m deep into it but dissatisfied. While it marinates, I’m working on marketing my first novel.

    I particularly like what Victoria M. Johnson has to say about starting with “an interesting, unique and universal idea.” Thank you for sharing some great ideas.

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