Writing the first book is hard. Writing the next book can be equally hard, and harder still to publish. Unless of course you’re under contract to write a second book, and even then, it can be the devil to write.
Witness a few of the many one-book-wonders of the the modern world. They stand alone. Their authors never wrote, or at least never published another novel their entire life. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jay McInery’s Bright Lights Big City, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And then there was Emily Bronte, who never wrote another novel because she died a year after publishing Wuthering Heights. And Silvia Plath, who committed suicide shortly after The Bell Jar was released. OK, Emily and Silvia have death as an excuse, but what about the rest of us? Why is it so hard to write and publish the second book?
True, some people only have one book in them. That’s it, they’re done, they’ve got nothing after that. But I suspect that’s not the case for most of us. Me, I write because I’m compelled to; for me, it’s a form of expression, an adventure, a compulsion, an addiction, a way of life.
Most books billed as “first books” by the publisher are not the author’s first book. Most people don’t just decide to write a book, do it, then get it published. It generally takes years of writing, many aborted attempts, half-finished manuscripts and several completed ones before we learn the nuts and bolts of writing a full length novel or non-fiction book . My first published novel, Star-Crossed, was sixth full-length book I had ever written, counting two non-fiction guidebooks published by Pruett, a small press based in Colorado. One of my earlier novels, With a Little Luck, won the grand prize at the Maui Writers Conference in 1996, but had no luck at all finding a publisher. Same for my fictionalized memoir, Night Shift. I wrote my first novel in my twenties. I don’t remember the working title, it was never published and probably didn’t deserve to be. But it was an important step in my writing journey.
I like to think that any one of my unpublished manuscripts could still be polished and published, if I could just revitalize my relationship with the story. If only I had a Max Perkins type editor or agent to encourage and nurture me, to take me to lunch and buy me martinis while we discuss character motivation and theme. Max Perkins is dead, they’re all dead, those wonderful mentoring editors who believed in their favorite writers. These days agents don’t represent YOU the writer, they represent a particular manuscript, leaving them free to drop you (and you to drop them) afterward, if they don’t fall in love with your next book. Former editors forget you in a heartbeat if your first book sinks to mid-list or goes out of print. Twenty-first century writers have to find their own way, editors don’t have the time to groom us. Yet we can groom one another. We have to.
So how do you write the next book? If your last book was a best seller, you might already have a two book deal, so good for you, go write it. But if book number two isn’t an instant best seller you’re going to be right down in the muck with the rest of us. Because the publishing world IS that fickle. My advice is don’t try to write the book you think your agent or editor wants. Don’t try to write the book you think the readers want. Write the book you want to write; write the book only you can write. It will be just as hard as the last book you wrote, only in different ways. Each book, like each kid born of a woman, comes with its own set of problems. Write to become a better writer, not to be a best-seller. At least, that’s my philosophy.
After I had signed the contract with Knopf/Random House to publish Star-Crossed (NOT my first novel, but my first PUBLISHED novel) I had to wait almost two years until it was published. So of course I started right in, writing the sequel. Unfortunately, Knopf didn’t want a sequel. Neither did my agent, because she wouldn’t be able to sell it to another house if Random House didn’t want it. I wrote it anyway. I wrote it because I wanted to. And eventually Tom Grunder, a small publisher in Tucson, offered me a contract. He published Surgeon’s Mate; book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series. And after Star-Crossed went out of print with Knopf, I obtained a reversion of rights and Tom offered me a contract for Barbados Bound, the slightly modified version of Star-Crossed. Tom died before Barbados Bound was published, but his company Fireship Press, now headed by Michael James, published Book One of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series in 2012. I’m currently working on book three of the series, and its taking quite awhile. I put it aside for a time and worked on two other novels before coming back to it. I’m breaking new territory in this third book, am experimenting with different points of view and subject matter, it’s quite enlightening for me and the background research has been so much fun. I suppose I’ll eventually finish it, maybe even later this year, but I’m learning a lot and enjoying the process.
For me, the biggest problem at this stage is finding reliable peer review and further instruction. I belong to a writers group that meets regularly to read aloud and critique our work ensemble. I attend writers conferences to learn from other writers, to make new connections, and to be inspired. I have also been a presenter at conferences but that doesn’t mean I’m done learning how to write. Although the big draw at writers conferences these days seem to be editor consultations and agent pitch sessions, I recommend you spend more time at the workshops that teach craft, and more time writing.
My advice for writing the next book is the same as writing the first book:
Get it done. The process is messy and never linear. Trust yourself to tell the story. Write the book an hour a day, a page a day, or whatever works for you. Don’t discuss your story and don’t share your first draft because first drafts suck. Resist the temptation to edit until you have a complete first draft. Having given that advice, I’m breaking it myself now, in writing the third book in my historical novel series. Do whatever works and if you lose your momentum, try a different approach. There are no rules for writing a book, only guidelines.
Revise and revise and revise. Don’t try to publish your next book too soon. When you think it’s finished and ready to go, put it away for awhile and take a break. Or jump right into writing the next book. Your finished manuscript will profit from fresh eyes. Have someone whose opinion you trust read it and give you feedback before you send it to an agent or go rogue and publish it yourself.
Don’t worry about whether the book is “marketable” or not, just make it the best damn story it can be. But don’t edit the life out of it either. I’m not talking about grammar and spelling, I’m talking about substantive edits to the story line and word choice. Don’t let your trusted friend, your “beta reader” or your editor-for-hire change the way you write.
Connect with other serious writers. Attend workshops, take classes. Read authors whose work you admire. Join a writers group or form your own. Just because you’ve written and published a book doesn’t mean you’re at the top of your game. No one is ever an expert at writing but with experimentation and feedback we just might get a little better. Write your next book, and then write the one after that. It’s the writing that counts.
If you’re planning to write a series, consult historical novelist Barbara Kyle’s guest post published March 3 on my Sea of Words. Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Tudor-era Thornleigh Saga novels. Over 425,000 copies of her books have been sold in seven countries. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is known for her dynamic workshops for many writers organizations and writers conferences. Before becoming an author Barbara enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S. Visit www.barbarakyle.com where you can watch an excerpt from her popular series of online video workshops “Writing Fiction That Sells.”
If you decide to write a sequel, or a series, like I did, after your first book has already been published, you are in for a challenge! Yet it can be done. Surgeon’s Mate is proof of that. It’s an adventure, it’s an ongoing discovery; don’t be daunted.