Some writers cycle through several novels before they hit on a formula that works. Others will wrestle with the same first manuscript for years and years until it’s in good enough shape to show to the world.
Most writers will have at least one novel on their hard-drive that they will never show the world (mine is a dark “comic” novel about a failed hand model).
Maybe the story worked, but the writer then realized they had simply ripped off The Lord of The Rings, Pride & Prejudice, or Transformers (or, in my case, one joke from Seinfeld stretched over 200 pages). What’s more likely is that it was a practice novel – the one where the writer cut their teeth, did all the don’ts, and failed to put all the pieces together in a satisfactory manner.
There are numerous reasons why a story may not work, but sometimes the fault lies in the overweening ambition of the author: too many characters, an over-dense plot, red herrings everywhere, clues to the reader being far too cryptic, twists that make no sense, or a story drowning in sub-plots that loses all focus.
In this guest post from Red Tash, she argues that new writers should consider keeping things simple, although, she admits it’s advice she didn’t take herself…
Should you write your second book first?
This past Writer Wednesday, I hosted David Gaughran on my blog. Since he writes about the industry and I throw out popcorn fluff on the horror lite/paranormal tip, it might not seem like the most obvious fit at first glance, but there was something he said in one of his monthly sales updates that really struck a chord with me.
I’ll paraphrase what I quoted in my interview: simply put, Dave indicated that he’d bitten off an imposingly large bite of story for his first novel, and that it had been plaguing him for years. It was a statement I related to 100%. The questions I asked him were naturally centered around that realization of “Oh, God, what have I done?” and “How do I see my original vision to its intended conclusion, now that I’ve realized this?”
I spent a couple of days trying to decide how to frame my thoughts on that process for this post, so any authors (aspiring or otherwise) reading it could glean something useful out of it for their own writing careers.
Then Bob Mayer rolled into my inbox, stealing my thunder, and with much more gravitas than this newb on the scene could dare begin to toss your way.
What’s ironic is that this isn’t the first time Bob has shot me down, unwittingly. I mean, a lesser person would develop a grudge. Damn it, Bob!
I’m going to paraphrase him, too. Why not? He owes me that much. *grumble grumble*
Bob says you should start with something simple. Save the complexities for later books, don’t shoot for the Great American Novel on your first try.
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Only, when I started writing my book, it wasn’t. At least, it wasn’t obvious to me. I just came up with this idea one day, of writing a book that was exactly the opposite of every stereotype in The Hero’s Journey. You know, the Anti-Monomyth. (Come to think of it, maybe that’d have been a better title.) No biggie, right?
I realize there are those who think the title of my debut novel refers to its subject matter, but that’s honestly not the case. I never thought “Oh, my beautiful creation, this dazzling feat of literary genius! Oh, whatever shall I entitle you? I know, how about something praising both my brilliance, and your darkness!?” No, it’s just a line from the first chapter that sounded easier to pronounce than Canticle Mirabilis, the book’s original, possibly even more pretentious, title.
This Brilliant Darkness, like A Storm Hits Valparaíso, is narrated by at least seven different characters. Since I haven’t read Valparaíso yet and I’m biased about how This Brilliant Darkness turned out, I can’t judge the effectiveness of this type of narrative in a debut novel—I can only say that in my case, it was inspired by my great love for Stephen King’s The Stand. That’s right, I set out to write my very first book in the style of what many consider to be Stephen King’s best, most epic, most complicated work. Again, no biggie!
Additionally, I know I am not the only person who read the Harry Potter series as an adult and found my love for fiction reignited. Naturally, I wanted to duplicate the magical escapism that JK Rowling created, but my twist was that my story would be for adults. If you’re keeping score, that’s 1 Stephen King masterpiece plus 1 JK Rowling-level success in world-building minus any existing fantasy tropes or shortcuts. My beautiful mind was a scary place to live, I’ll tell you that. This Brilliant Darkness evolved to include past-lives, string theory, time travel, and a Star Trek parody. Why not? You got a kitchen sink? Let’s write about that, too.
And write about it, I did. Before the pacing of the novel made itself an issue, I wrote 150,000 words into that bad boy. Say what you will about writers not being able to edit their own work, but after letting it sit for a year, I slashed roughly 100,000 words of bloat to create draft 2.0. Multiple years later, in early 2011, I started in on it again. I didn’t slash that much. I added some. I found myself surprised that the book didn’t suck, so I put it out there for the world to try. So far, so good.
But, egad, was that process heavy.
That first book was about me, as a writer. My ambition, my dreams, my goals. I was already a columnist and a blogger, but I wanted to be more. The book I’m working on now, I call my “rebound” book. It’s light and fluffy (for me) and when I work on it, I delight in the lowbrow scenery. It’s not about validating my dreams of walking arm-in-arm with my author heroes. It’s not about changing my life. It’s just about fun—and as it turns out, I like fun.
I have written the complex narrative, complete with multiple point-of-view characters—and I have had the joy of later penning the less-complicated book. I want to tell you “Start smaller, start easier, and work your way up,” but who am I to try and dissuade you?
My first project took me so long partially because I was writing for an industry that was so erratically selectively as to be Byzantine in its criteria. There was no way I knew for sure that my book would be accepted by a publisher, ever, at the time. And that mattered.
Does that matter now? What do you think?
For my part, I finished the thing. That matters, to me. I know I can finish whatever I start, and that there are readers who actually do get it and like it—a lot. I have proven myself to myself. The rest is applesauce.
Red Tash is the pen name writer/journalist Leslea Tash uses for publishing fiction. Tash is best known for her syndicated newspaper column Guerrilla Mothering, which will be published as a book in 2012.