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Monday, April 09, 2012

You mean I’ve got to write ANOTHER one?

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[Please note: since chocolate is a well-known healer of woes in the writing community, this post is entirely illustrated with images of chocolate products. It should help.]

For most of us the problems of writing just one book can seem insuperable. First, there’s the basic idea that’s got to be knockout. Then there’s all that plotting, structure, subplots, a brilliant climax, amazing characters, voice, blah blah blah.  Oh, and then there’s the actual writing. And revising. (Rinse, repeat. Endlessly.)

Wow, you think – all I want to do is write ONE book, get a deal, and see it published! Then I’ll have absorbed all the wisdom of the publishing universe and be a success. In short, I will have Cracked It. Ie, Cracked the whole business of writing great books. Nothing will ever be as hard again, right?

Can you hear my evil chuckle?

You see, it can be every bit as hard STAYING published as it was to get published in the first place, and unless you want to be a one-book wonder you are going to have to contemplate a larger creative horizon than just that one book.  You may have put months if not years into that first book; if you write another you could be on a much tighter deadline and under contract. All of which means the stakes can suddenly feel a whole lot higher.

What do golfers feel when they’re contemplating that vital putt? Or tennis players when their opponent has three match points? We’ve all experienced it – the syndrome I’ll call The Massive Clutch-Up.

I am well acquainted with the Clutch-Up Syndrome and its effects on writers and, while no one can fully go there for you in your writing, I have a few bits of simple advice to share.

The first thing you need to know is that you’re not alone – all writers have stared in fear at the rockface known as Book 2. Self-analysis, self-doubt, anxiety, are all to be expected in the writing life. Don’t berate yourself for feeling them – embrace it and say, ‘Yeah, whatever. Get off my shoulder, you demon of self-doubt and self-denigration. I know you exist but you have nothing worthwhile to offer me.’ Then, just get on with it. It really is true that you can feel the fear but do it anyway (I know because I live that reality daily) and what do you have to lose? Over-thinking can lead to paralysis; to some extent you must just throw yourself in.

The second thing you need to know is that you are NOT an expert after writing one book. You thought you were? Sadly you were wrong. You are one tiny notch further along than you were before. You have a few more craft weapons in your armoury, but they’re still not very pointy-sharp. At least this time (especially if you went through revisions on Book 1 with an editor) you probably have more idea of what the target looks like, where it might be, even if you still don’t hit it half the time. So, try to be accepting of yourself and where you are. Yelling, ‘But you’re supposed to be able to DO this now, dummy!’ at yourself just won’t help; patient, careful work – again – is the best way.
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Thirdly, as you start to get your ducks in a row for submission of your FIRST book (and especially if your agent is getting some interest on that book), it’s a good idea to be thinking more widely about what you could write next. When I submit I want to give editors the widest-possible range of options, so I tend to say, ‘This works well as a standalone, but equally there could be a sequel(s) – and the author has a half-page outline for what that sequel could be. Alternatively, the author has other standalone ideas too.’ You don’t need to have written any of these manuscripts at this stage -and actually, having a pile of completed sequels can make things really complicated because your first book will probably undergo a lot of revision that could radically alter how any sequels would be structured.  However, having a small number (ie, 2 or 3 – not 30) of good ideas in your back pocket can be a great help – then you have something strong to fall back on when an editor says, ‘So what is she/he writing next?’ When you’re under a deadline, building on a great new outline can be a lot easier than casting about from scratch, trying to find your basic good idea.

Fourthly, as you look at your Book 2 challenge, try to find strong support from other writers in the same boat. Like I said, you are not alone. Everyone you know who is published successfully faces these same challenges, and many – even if they hide it well – will suffer from some level of anxiety about ‘what comes next’ and their capability of writing it well. Share your feelings with a small number of trusted authors who can give you the advice and gentle support you need. I’m not talking about blasting your fears all over social media; rather, drawing around you a close-knit group of fellow-feelers who have walked the same path.
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Fifthly, remember that you are out to become a writer of longevity. That means gradually learning more and more about how to shape, structure and craft a story. That learning is going to be really hard work and every time you start a new book it begins anew, with slightly different challenges. It is the same with any skill. I have learned musical instruments. I’ve started running. And now I’ve gone back to taking French lessons after many years. All these are really supersonically hard to do well. Writing is no different. You slog along, learning a bit each time, yet always despairing you will reach the level you want. Most great writers don’t think they are great – there are always new places to reach, new depths to be found, better ways of doing things. That is life, that is writing – and not even the best college course is going to give you a wholly easy road. But – when you look back you will realize that YES, you really have progressed!

Facing the Everest of Book 2? This challenge will partly be met by careful preparation – acquiring a small number of good new ideas and preparing pitches/short outlines well in advance so you have something strong on which to build when under pressure.

But the greater battle may well be fought in your own mind – the mental game of facing , standing up to and defeating your fears.  No, there isn’t something ‘silly/weak/embarrassing’ about having those fears – they are only human. Share them with your agent, build your relationships with sympathetic author buddies in a discreet environment. 

Having done that, put on your boots, string your bow and sharpen your spear. It’s time to stride out into your personal writing arena – where, gradually, you will find not only your story, but also your true self.

See you at your Book 2 launch party.  I’m bringing the champagne.

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Pix: All taken in Paris where they really do know what to do with chocolate.  1) Yes, this golf bag and ball really are entirely made from the sweet stuff.  2) Hot choc (3 different ways) on Ile St Louis. It is so sublime further description is impossible.  3) Tortoise - almost too cute to eat. Almost.

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