Sink or Swim: 10 Things I Learned Writing My Second Novel
In my previous post, I talked about the trials I faced with my first novel, Falling Sky, and the lessons I learned from the process. That should have put me in a great position for the sequel, Rising Tide, which is due out October 6. I'd been through it once, I knew what to expect, I'd learned the lessons, right?
Not so much.
It's not that I didn’t learn anything, it's just that the process was a little different. Second books, especially those in the middle of a trilogy, are special animals. Which brings me to lesson the first:
1. The Second Book in a Series is a Different Animal
Even before Falling Sky came out, my editor had asked me if I had a follow-up. I said I had (I was planning on one) but that I was still working on it. The truth was that I was still trying to figure out what it was about. With Falling Sky I had leapt into the breach, writing my way through the story, finding the characters as I went. Rising Tide, the sequel, was different. I knew most of the characters who were returning. I’d just spent a year with them. I knew the world, too, and had a page of notes of things I wanted to explore in future works.
More important was how I structured the plot. It needed to be its own beast, while still building from the first book. It needed to pick up on where the main character, Ben, ended in the last book (where he completed his arc) and give him a new one. And I needed to know, going in, where the book was headed.
I also felt that the sequel was a way to address shortcomings with the first book — either things I hadn't addressed or thought to address. It was a chance to shine the spotlight on certain secondary characters. It was an opportunity to show scenes or cover topics that I hadn't been able to fit into Falling Sky. For example, the main antagonist of Rising Tide, Malik, originally appeared in Falling Sky. He got cut because he didn't really do much and wasn't integral to that story. But when I set about writing the sequel, I knew he had to have a role.
2. You Still Have to Sell It
I had been asked about the second book, but It wasn’t until August of 2014, while attending the wedding of a good friend, that I decided to hammer out a synopsis. I figured it would serve two purposes — it would help me find the shape of the novel, and it would give me something to approach my publisher with. They had only bought the one book, after all. There was no guarantee they would buy a second. Not without it being good. So, with my partner Elisabeth as a sounding board, I began to hammer out the plot of what would become Rising Tide.
I was all set to send it to my editor, Lou Anders, when I heard the rather sad news that he was stepping down as Editorial and Art Director for Pyr, my publisher. At the time it looked like Rising Tide was dead in the water.
As I was attempting to deal with the disappointment, news came that Pyr had quickly hired Rene Sears to replace Lou and I sent my synopsis for Book 2 to her. Luckily by then, I had worked a bit more on the synopsis, sharpening it. But would she go for it? She didn't have the same connection to the first book that Lou did. Luckily for me, she seemed to like it. By December we were signing a contract.
And here's where I didn't learn my lesson last time — I had a synopsis, and I had a plot, BUT I HAD NO NOVEL. I had part of a chapter at most. But the deadline for the manuscript was March so that gave me time, right?
(I was so naive)
3. Things Can (and Often Will) Go Wrong
The timelines were aggressive, but I was confident that I could meet them. I am sometimes capable of extremely productive stints of writing and with the synopsis as my road map, and using my nights and weekends to gain some extra time, I was sure I could get the manuscript done.
Then, in January and February....let's just say that life took a turn. I had multiple family emergencies, my apartment was burgled, shit, to be frank, blew up.
As March barreled toward me I started to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to get the manuscript done in time. I was going to blow my deadline. I was going to let people down.
4. Communication is Key
I think my first instinct is always to just put my head down and try to get things done. If I could get the manuscript out a few days later, hand the whole thing in, then surely that was close enough, right?
But that wasn’t going to happen and my editor was no doubt going to be wondering, perhaps anxiously, where the manuscript was, and I wasn’t sure I could deliver, even a few days late. So I told my editor and agent as soon as I could what was happening and asked if I could have a little more time. My very nice editor agreed to give me a couple more weeks to work on the manuscript, which in turn gave me some breathing room.
5. Give Your Timelines Some Wiggle Room
Granted, I went through a number of unexpected crises in a very short period of time, but I didn't have a lot of wiggle room in my schedule. I could have put that in and planned on a more aggressive schedule, or I could have pushed back on the March 1 deadline in the first place. That deadline was so that Pyr could release the 2nd book on the same schedule (a year later) as the first, but I could have worked out something else if I knew I needed it. In the end, I was being ambitious, but I would have probably been better served by giving myself a bit more wiggle room.
6. Stand Your Ground
I turned my finished manuscript in late, well past the the two weeks extra I was given. I was over a month past my deadline. But I finished it. I remember staying up that last night, medicating myself with alternating doses of coffee and alcohol, until I finally hit the end. For days afterward, I wasn't even sure what I had written, just that it made a kind of sense, and that it was the ending that I wanted.
Your editor will catch the mistakes, I thought. She'll point out the huge gaping flaws. You''ll have a last chance to fix it up.
The problem is, and this may seem like a good problem to have, she loved it. She had some comments about clarity and some corrections, of course, but generally she liked the manuscript and wanted to move it forward in the process.
Not really. The problem was that I wasn't satisfied with the manuscript. This was only my second saleable novel and I was only just realizing how the process worked for me. My first drafts tend to be all about finding the plot, about putting my characters in the right places with the right conflicts and seeing what happens. But because of that, everything is on the surface. The characters all tell each other exactly what’s on their minds, and almost everyone gets along great. There’s no obfuscation, no hidden motivations, nothing held back. Because I need to get everything out on the page before I can whittle it back. To do that, and to polish up the dialogue (which this novel had an abundance of), I needed another pass. And my publisher, thinking that it was working already, wanted to keep it the way that it was.
For a couple of extremely stressful days, I considered letting them publish what I had turned in. I had already blown through my deadline, they were already behind. They had already paid me part of my advance. I agonized over it. I thrashed about both metaphorically and literally. I worried that if I pushed back, they might just kill the book entirely.
Ultimately, though, reason prevailed and three points in particular:
1) The book was going to end up on bookstore shelves and on people’s tablets and Kindles and it was going to have my name on it. This was only my second published novel. This was going to represent me as a writer and possibly define my future chances in the industry. Could I really let something that I wasn’t happy with go out to the public?
2) I knew I could fix it. I knew what was wrong with it and what I had to do. I needed to polish the dialogue and hold more back. I needed to raise the tension, even in scenes that were just two people talking, and I needed to give certain characters more to do. But I also knew that I could do it.
3) I wanted other eyes on the book. I was almost inured to the novel's flaws at this point. I couldn't read it with fresh eyes. As I mentioned in my last post, I have access to amazing readers in both my writing group, Altered Fluid, and my former Clarion West classmates. I wanted at least some high level feedback on the manuscript.
So, I pushed back. I insisted on taking some more time and bought myself another month and a half. I decided to work on the manuscript for the better part of the month, then take two weeks off during which a small group of very generous volunteers would read the manuscript and give me feedback. I know I was putting my editor and my publisher in a difficult position, and I still feel bad about that, but I knew that it would be better for them in the long run as well. As time went on, I became more sure of that.
7. Get Feedback from Trusted Readers
This feedback from my second readers turned out to invaluable. In fact pretty much everyone gave me at least one unique thing that I could apply to the novel to make it stronger. Special props go to Jim Stewart for single-handedly elevating the entire thing. What I turned in was so much stronger for everyone's involvement, and going forward, I will always build in time so that I can get feedback from people. Just remember to keep it small and focused. You don’t’ want to have to sift through 30 people's feedback. Pick people you trust, and people who are interested in helping you. Really helping you. Not just telling you everything is great, but really looking at what isn't working. But ultimately, choose the feedback that resonates with you the most. Some people aren’t going to get the feel you’re going for, some are going to try to make your book into something else. Know what you’re trying to accomplish and keep that in mind when analyzing feedback.
8. Give Your Eyes (and Brain) a Rest
As I mentioned, I took a couple of weeks off from working on the book while my second readers read it. It didn't seem worth changing things from the version I sent them, and it gave me an even better advantage. When I finished the manuscript and even into the extra revision time, I couldn’t really see the manuscript with fresh eyes. The words, the passages, the plot, the characters….they were all too familiar to me. When I returned to the manuscript, after the feedback had come back, I realized I’d been able to get a little distance. I could review it with a more critical eye. And errors and inconsistencies were easier to spot.
9. Be Aware of the Whole Schedule
I pushed back the delivery date of the manuscript, and I don't regret that at all. However, that meant that everything else got shortened. Pyr wanted to keep the release date the same so that meant less time for copyedits, less time for proofs, and ultimately less time to get the ARCs printed and out to reviewers. At the time, I didn't realize all of this. Would I have done anything different if I had? Probably not, but maybe I would have found a way to shorten things by a week or two. In the end, I was able to turnaround the copyedits and proofs in the appropriate time, but it was rough. For a week or so I went from my day job straight into copyedits and right to sleep afterward. Again, the short period meant that I didn’t have the distance from the manuscript I needed, so maybe I could have done a better job. Thankfully, I had a really excellent copyeditor who helped tremendously.
10. It’s Your Book
Please don’t get me wrong with this post — I am grateful for my publisher and for all the work and time and money that was put into getting my book to print. I value that and I depend on it. I love having an editor and a publicist and a copyeditor and all the other numerous people who contributed to getting the book together.
I also feel a responsibility, in writing a sequel, to all those people who read and liked the first book. I want to give them a book that they can enjoy, a book in the same vein as the first one, one at least as good if not better than Falling Sky. I want an Empire Strikes Back, not a Grease 2.
And yet, at the end of the day, it’s my book. It has my name on it. It represents me. I own the words on the pages and the characters and the world. And it should ultimately be what I want it to be. Should I take the suggestions and feedback of trusted friends and colleagues? Of course. Should I consider diverging from my original vision if there’s a good reason? Definitely. But I am the ultimate arbiter. And you should be, too. Don’t be a dick (good advice all around) but stay true to your vision. Think very hard about when and where you’re willing to compromise. (But also stay open enough to accept good advice when it’s offered).
Will it pay off? I guess we’ll see come October 6 and thereafter, when Rising Tide gets released. In the meantime, I'm already working on the next one...
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