A Hard Act to Follow

24/04/19 | By Hannah Spencer

It's an all-too-common issue with writers. They write a novel, rewrite it, edit it, and get it published. Then they start on a second book. And they find themselves experiencing the condition known as 'Second Book Blues.'

The planning, structuring and writing of the new book feels a near impossible task. The characters are dull, the plotlines too weak, the twists predictable. It becomes very demoralising, especially when it didn't seem that hard the first time round. Many writers wonder if they have lost the muse, and they give up.

Apart from the psychological strain of knowing you are at the beginning of a marathon effort, there is a simple reason for Second Book Blues.

When you thought you'd finished the first draft of your first book – let's face it – it probably wasn’t that good. In fact, it was probably terrible, you just didn’t realise it. It was only after endless rounds of complete rewrites, brutal critiques, poring over writing manuals, plot revisions, addition and deletion of characters, eventually, it turned into a polished and publishable novel.

Think of all the mistakes you made in that first novel without realising it. Plot flaws, weak characters, wooden dialogue, insubstantial character arcs – had you even heard of that term when you started out? That's why it was so easy to write.

When you started the next book, with the benefit of all these hard-earned lessons, you knew not to make these mistakes again. You unconsciously set the bar much higher in terms of plotting and structure. And consequently it is so much harder to plan and write it.

It is easy to write a poor novel. And it is much easier to turn a poor novel into a good one than it is to plan and write a good novel from scratch. The second book is not difficult because you have lost something. It's because you have gained so much.

The best way to overcome Second Book Blues is to just start writing, and keep writing. It may not be perfect, but nobody ever wrote a perfect first draft. Just concentrate on getting words down. My early, rough drafts are full of “insert scene / character / dialogue” type notes. A rough draft only needs to be that.

If a scene is dull and static, gloss over it and write the next one. If a sub-plot doesn’t seem to fit with the main story, leave it and concentrate on getting the other story lines in place. It may seem wrong to deliberately leave a scene flawed, but when you have a complete draft on paper, however rough it is, you can look at the picture as a whole and will be able to see where it has gone wrong. Writing later scenes can give insights into the characters which help you to put right their earlier stories. You can go forwards and backwards from the sections where the story is flowing perfectly and figure out how to keep that momentum up.

A lot of writers think a piece has to be written in a linear fashion, as it will be read. For the early drafts it is far simpler to write as your mind takes you. Write whichever scenes are most vivid in your head and don't worry if they are out of place. When you have enough pieces, lay them out in order and you can see where the gaps are. Only the later drafts need to be worked from beginning to end to ensure the details (characters' emotional state, the weather, the day of the week) continue in a logical fashion.

Writing a novel is no different to creating any other artform. As Hilary Mantel said, a book is a collage. Different components are brought together to create something beautiful. You wouldn't create a painting by starting in the top left corner and working in a linear fashion to the bottom right. You would sketch it as a whole, fill in the major aspects, and then adjust the details later. Writing needn't be any different.

Once a complete rough draft is finished, the best way to see where problems are is to create a chart detailing each chapter, with the word-count, characters and main events as they progress. Then it's easy to see if major plot developments are too close or too far apart, if an important character has inadvertently disappeared for 10,000 words, if a minor plot-line has petered out. Marking individual characters and sub-plots in different colours is an easy way to keep track of their individual progress. Plot-lines can be juggled about until the story flows smoothly from one to another.

No matter how hopeless it feels, keep writing, and keep rewriting. Every writer goes through a stage where they feel a novel will never work out. The only way it will certainly fail is if you give up on it. A terrible draft can be turned into a good one, but only if the terrible stuff has been written down in the first place. Keep waiting for that magical moment when you read your work and think, this is perfect. Your finished novel is in your hands.

Above all, be grateful for the Blues. They are not a detriment, they are a sign of skill and experience. You know where the problems are, and that is the biggest step to putting them right.

Hannah Spencer works on a dairy sheep farm in Warwickshire where she writes her stories in her head while milking several hundred ewes a day. She has had several short stories published and her novel, The Story of Light, was published in 2014 by Moon Books. Her website is http://lightonecandle.blogspot.co.uk

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This article was first published in The Writer's Wheel Magazine, Issue 4


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