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.

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

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This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).