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.

Caught looking for the best bits

Bring in the critics
Bring in the critics

It is surprising, when you say you are writing, who is interested in seeing the manuscript and who is not. Some people are (understandably) afraid your work will be terrible and they will have to damn it with faint praise. Others are genuinely not interested.

In my writing course I have got used to sharing extracts from my book and hearing feedback. It’s been a helpful and positive experience. It’s also been stimulating to listen to other people’s work in progress, as much to get a sense of what’s going on behind good writing as to learn more about the common pitfalls.

The other day, in advance of my next reading slot coming up in the writing course, I was with my writing buddy in the most unfashionable café in county Dublin, scanning my chapters trying to pick out the right excerpt to share.

What to choose? I interrupt my writing buddy for the fifteenth time that hour and hope that look does not mean he is rethinking our weekly arrangement of writing together. Well, he says, are you sifting through your novel looking for the best passages? Cue guilty smile. And what if I am?

The problem with writing a novel, I have realised, is that every page has to work and that requires great persistence and attention to detail. Nobody will wade through the clunky bits to get to a gem they don’t even know is there.

And the other thing about the best bits – they’re probably not that great after all. I think Samuel Johnson may have hit the nail on the head in the 18th century.

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Switching the novel to sustainable energy

(M1energysolutions.com)
(M1energysolutions.com)
You know that feeling when you just make it to a socket at the last moment before your laptop dies? That’s how I felt crossing the threshold of the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday. It’s going to be OK.

This novel that provided its own fuel for the first year has been draining me since then and needs to be switched to sustainable energy. What better source than the positive energy of fellow writers? I want to get the manuscript into the best possible shape and send it on its way to make room for the next book. This course is the boost I’ve been looking for.

Somewhat dishevelled from the blustery walk up O’Connell Street, I held my paper cup of tea and looked around in excitement and wonder. These people, I realised, are just like me and finally we have come out of the woodwork. We’ve been squirrelling away words for months or years, storing up the stories we want to tell. Now is our chance.

I had the experience of reading out the opening of the book to a group for the first time and it went well. My relationship to the work is different now that it’s been exposed a little. That feeling of working in a vacuum is gone and I can see more clearly now what needs to be done. The feedback was encouraging and useful, under the kind and expert guidance of Conor Kostick.

Even though I didn’t have to use my one-line pitch last night, here is what I have come with. I realise I have two lines here but surely the concept is not that literal? It’s also possible that I have veered towards writing the blurb rather than the pitch. Do they necessarily have to differ?

Set in boom-time Ireland, this is a story about people, what they bring to our lives and what they take away. Haunted by the disappearance of her brother years before, when Laura is caught up in an emotional and professional disaster, she has to find new faith in family, friendship and love.

I may have to go back to the drawing board on this one.