Guest Post by Red Tash: Should You Write Your Second Book First?

It takes a lot of practice to write something worth publishing. Often the first book a writer releases is not the first they have written (or attempted to write).

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.

You can find her at &, and pick up a copy of This Brilliant Darkness at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

52 Replies to “Guest Post by Red Tash: Should You Write Your Second Book First?”

  1. Thanks for having me! You pretty much nailed all my fears, in your intro. I think just overcoming all that and finding acceptance was an important step for me, personally. It was necessary so I could move on and enjoy the work I’m doing now.

    And for the record, I bet your hand model story is hilarious. 🙂

  2. Great post, Tash. You’ve summed up what seems to be most beginning novelists’ fears and hangups.

    I know in my “drawer novels” it felt that I took on a different stumbling block each time: this one was a plot monster, that one kept me awake at night with its difficult characters, the third taught me about pace, etc.

    Unfortunately, I was so close to the process that it seemed as if I just couldn’t write. How could I write (or start) 3-4 novels and screw them all up? What I didn’t realize is that I was cutting my way through the jungle each time, just down a different path. I learned something each time and now writing still isn’t easy, but at least I can look at the landmarks and say, “Ah! I’ve been here before. Give me that machete and let’s get on with it.”

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. You’re so welcome. TBD was destined to be a drawer novel, but I saw all these people getting digital, I downloaded Dave’s book, and thought “What the hell? What does it hurt to take a seriously critical look at the work and see if it’s salvageable?”

      I’ve looked at the whole process as an experiment, so if it “fails,” so what? What have I lost? Even if I never sell another copy, it was part of that “jungle education,” right?

  3. It’s not just writers that tend to bite off more than they can chew at first try. *grin* I’ve dablled in all sorts of different crafts. I love to sew, knit, crochett. But what I particularly remember was my first quilt project. Did I start with a simple one block wall hanging to get the hang of the tequinique… Nope I began with a nine block six by six foot square quilt made out of old bedsheets that I tie dyed in Chemistry Lab. It took, um ten years to finish (after I had taken an official quilting class and made that one block wall hanging).

    So, I completely understand what you are saying. My first novel atempt, which I do hope to get back to, I call my Tolkien project. Yup, I was trying to create a world like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, complete with a language. No multiple points of view though. I’ve managed to keep them to around two, unless i have to explore what one of the supporting charcters or bad guys are doing, but those will never make it to the fnal book (it’d give too much away *grin*).

    And now that I’ve rambled on enough, what matters to me is that my stories are enjoyed by their readers, who ever those end up being.

    :} Cathryn

    1. You and my husband are two of a kind. Minus the quilting. He has boxes of world-building stuff. The other day we were having a write-a-thon and he ripped off a notebook page where he had jotted down how many villagers it took to support each type of medieval trade that would exist in a village with questionable relevance to the rest of his story. (Luckily, we were in a writing group together before we got married, so we can discuss these things with the gloves off–and get a laugh out of them.)

      But I do feel your pain. TBD came complete with journals, notebooks, photo albums (I spent two vacations researching locations), and pages upon pages of index cards and post-it notes. I was in love with that book and everything was somehow related to it.

      It feels fantastic to have moved past that!

      1. Ha Ha! Your hubby does indeed sound like my kind. I spent five years developing space ship designs and space travele calculations fro the science fiction novel I just wrote this novemeber. granted I was doing all that in my spare time… and really during the writing I didn’t need half of what I had. *grin*

        Wolrd building is fun though. :}

  4. Oh, yes. There is definitely a story stashed in a box (typed back before most ordinary people had PCs at home) somewhere in my parents’ house which shall never, ever see the light of day. The melodrama is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

    Or something.

    Then there’s the sweeping historical epic which turned into a sweeping epic fantasy which is now being rewritten into a post-apocalyptic paranormal urban fantasy with a twist of steampunk. Or that’s the plan anyway. It’s been “in the works” for well over 10 years.

    Kissed by Darkness, my “first book”, was not really my first book at all. It’s just the first one that I wasn’t completely embarrassed to show my critique partner. 😉

    1. The novella I wrote about the bad perm I had at summer camp? Is that the one you’re referring to? Yeah, my mother fished that one out of the trash. Fer sure. Gag me with a spoon.

  5. This post made me laugh. Stephen King + J.K. Rowling. Been there, done that, too funny. My very first “masterpiece” (J.R.R. Tolkien meets Jean Auel) tip-tapped its way toward 1000 typescript pages (pre-computer) before it really sank in that I had maybe, perhaps bitten off more than I could chew.

    The way I look at it is, it’s part of the process. Maybe writers need to aim big and fall hard in order to figure out crafting fiction is harder than it looks and there’s lots to learn. I don’t see any of it as wasted.

    Excellent post, Red. David, thanks for sharing her with us.

      1. Worse than onion skin. Second sheets I got from a paper house supplier. Rather like newsprint, but only a buck a ream. Am I dating myself here?

      1. Third base!

        Actually it’s a matter of my first novel being one that has a message that I care about and my second and third novels being “just” stories. I had mostly come to the conclusion that writing the first one first would result in a bad novel. I would be very disappointed if I wrote it poorly. These others I’ll only be a little bit disappointed if I write them poorly.

  6. I’ve been editing a completed novel that was started (in one form or another) about 5 years ago. Reading the early sections was like reading a novel written by committee. I keep reading it back and going ‘No Tom, that’s an adverb/word repitition/doesn’t make sense/…’ By the end of the novel it’s like it was written by someone else entirely. It’s all good though, it means I can chart my progress through the dark art of writing, however it ends up at the end!

    1. My early drafts of my first were similar. In fact, I could often tell what I was READING during various sections, noticing constructions, speech patterns, inflections, and styles “borrowed” from Garcia Marquez, Murakami, Vonnegut, Dick, or Saramago.

  7. I actually feel really lucky. My instructors in the craft of writing taught me to boil things down to those that really mattered to the reader, not necessarily to me. Simplicity. Saying what you have to say with as few words as possible.
    I just tried to read a book for which I’d read a great review. I couldn’t manage to get past ten pages. Why? Because within those first ten pages, the author threw in, oh gosh, maybe eight or nine major characters, each with his or her own significant plot line. As a reader, I can’t deal with that. Give me a few relevant characters, give me a reason to care about those relevant characters and give the others bit parts. A walk-on role. Don’t ask me to follow multiple plot lines. I’m certainly capable of doing it, but then the author has diluted my focus, pulled me away from the main characters and their story. I lose interest rather quickly.

    1. I compeltely agree, when you end up following multiple people it gets confusing. I suspect that’s why I had a hard time with the last Pern book I read.

      Thankfully, I’ve alwyas prefered to write from one or two points of view. One is so much easier because then I don’t have to decide whose point of view I’m going to use when the two MCs are in the same scene. :}

    2. It’s not impossible. Marge Piercy had 10 or 12 viewpoint characters in “Gone To Soldiers” and that sold a gazillion copies and won the Pulitzer.

      I think there are ways to do it and ways not do it. What I’ve learned is that you have to establish some emotional connection to one viewpoint character before switching to another. I introduce all of my viewpoint characters with an opening chapter that attempts to do just this before moving on to the next. If I remember correctly, I think “Gone To Soldiers” does the same.

      Head-hopping, obviously, should be kept to a minimum. And choosing which character’s eyes to view a character through is crucial.

      It also helps if it’s a war story and you get to kill plenty of those characters along the way 🙂

      1. George RR Martin is a good example. He writes from multiple points of view and includes many complicated plot lines, but I can follow, at least that’s the case with the first three books in the Game of Thrones series. He gives me time to get invested. Introducing too many characters and story lines in the first few pages merely annoys me.

  8. I guess I was lucky. I wrote my first novel in 6 weeks, and yes, it was an epic fantasy with elves and whatnot. It was called ‘Dark Legend’ which I swear is a title I’m going to resurrect someday. And boy was it overly complicated. The lucky part was that I knew it. I finished it, edited it twice, showed it to a few people, and then abandoned it, realizing it could not be saved. I’ve raided it for some scenes for later novels but thank goodness I didn’t spend years trying to make it work.

    That would be my second novel 🙂

  9. “Actually it’s a matter of my first novel being one that has a message that I care about and my second and third novels being “just” stories.”


    What surprised me was that even years later, going back to edit TBD again, I still cared about the message. Still do care, and that’s probably why I wanted to finish it to a point where it was good enough to let go of, and not just move on. I care enough to write the sequel (and I wasn’t sure that I would, honestly, before I dove back in), as well.

    If I were not experimenting with self-publishing, I would have written the sequel and merged the two books together as one very long first book, and then pitched it as an epic dark fantasy with a sci fi twist. But sitting with that blended genre description and realizing how challenging that sounds to market, frankly, is another factor in going the indie route with this book. I really don’t want to put a few more years into the making of one rather looooong book, in order to do the query-go-round in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

    That’s not to say there’s no message in my current project, it’s just not nearly as heavy. I think all our stories *are* messages, but not all messages come with such weight. That’s why it’s my rebound novel. I think my rebound will end up being much more marketable and much more popular than my serious meaningful first book. In the end, I really just want anything I write to be entertaining, and if it’s thought-provoking, as well, I’ve hit my target.

  10. Great comments, David, and an excellent post, Red. This one strummed a chord with me because I think it’s something to which most novelists can relate. My first attempt at a novel was based on an initial, monumental idea that could be summed up in a paragraph or two. But the first draft ended up at 120K words. I breezed through an editing pass and then abandoned it, thinking, “It’s gonna take forever to fix this mess!” and started on my second effort, which after three years of laughter and toil and revising and rewriting and editing, I just published a couple weeks ago.

    Practice never makes perfect, but it does make, well, better. Time spent = wisdom. I am now using that old, unedited draft as a template and completely rewriting that first novel, breaking down the plot to its basics and beating the SOB into shape. There’s a good story–and a good idea–in there among all those crazed words and rambling sentences. I’m shooting for 70K. When it’s published, I’ll tell folks it’s the first and third novel I ever wrote.

  11. Great post, thanks.

    The three incarnations of my first sci-fi shoot-em-up action thriller…pretty much half of my first “million words of crap.” First third were handwritten. This was before the PS2 came out (a used one of which I would eventually get to purge out the remaining two-thirds) and I don’t mean Playstation.

    And by God did it have a lot of kitchen sinks…of all kinds.

    Good times
    Writing Trip

  12. What a story about your progression as a writer, Leslea. Way to go on your Amazon sales – enjoyed reading all the positive reviews of your book.

    I’m thrilled that you are now getting to write what you love, once you got that behemoth manuscript out of your system. 🙂

  13. I loved this post! It’s a post I really needed right now! I have three drawer novels that are staying in the drawer; but, after being published by indie press and self-publishing three novels and four short stories on Kindle, I spent five years writing a complicated science fiction novel that involves quite a few characters, quantum physics, time travel, religious holograms weaponized by the U.S. military for brainwashing, and a different slant on green-skinned aliens with large black eyes. After coming very close to having a literary agent at a top New York City agency offer me a contract for this novel, I decided to self-publish it on Kindle. Writing that book wiped me out for months after the final edit, with horrible migraine headaches I thought might never go away. (I’m fine now, but I totally know what you mean about the ordeal of writing a complicated novel.) I love the new world of self-publishing that allows experimentation in novels. I read an excerpt of your novel, THIS BRILLIANT DARKNESS, and loved it – beautifully written, poetic, mysterious! I purchased it immediately, and also downloaded your free Kindle book, THE WIZARD TAKES A HOLIDAY. I wish you all the best with all your writing! And thank you for your very inspiring blog post!

    1. Thank you, Marilyn. I appreciate that very much. Your book sounds right up my dark, cluttered alley, too. Five years. You know, that’s longer than most people stay at an employer, anymore.

  14. Now I’m paranoid. LOL!

    I began writing my first novel during law school. I think the story line is solid and completed around 33k words. However, working a full time job during the day and attending law school at night left little room for reading anything other than court decisions – to say nothing of the focus I needed to complete a novel.

    Law school was over a while ago. About four years ago I began writing again and found myself with the time to read for pleasure. I considered picking up the novel I began in law school, but had another story in mind. I completed some decent shorts, started blogging, and eventually found myself penning opinion pieces for independent magazines. Then, this past year, I started the new novel.

    I don’t think it’s overly complex, but it’s not a straight, “Point A to Point B” narrative, either. It’s a southern gothic/horror twist on Faust as told from the perspective of five major characters, each having their own section, until part six with a “show down” where the story comes to a head. At any rate, it’s now off to my ad hoc group of editors (read: vivisectionists). My beta readers have by and large been quite enthusiastic about it thus far.

    An irritation I have regarding some independent authors is the constant clamoring, “How can I sell more books!” Sure, I want to sell a lot, quit my day job, and have a life where I can sit back and create worlds from words, but I my craft is paramount above all those other considerations and desires. I suppose that’s why I’m taking up far more space on David’s comment section than I should.

    My plan is to release it after the first of the year. Stephen King says that so much of good writing is letting go of fear and affectation. I like my story, love my characters, and there’s a little voice in the back of my head saying that the novel is really good. I suppose I just don’t want my name turned into some Kindle board euphemism for horrid first attempts.

    1. I get this. I think you took up just the right amount of space, for whatever that’s worth.

      In the grand scheme of things, what someone at an online message board says about any of us, and about our work, is *inevitable.* Anything you write will be torn apart by someone, even if it’s otherwise universally accepted. That’s part of the price of putting it out there.

      I have found over the course of my career that the people who scream the loudest about what they hate about what I do are typically the first ones to copy it. It’s an interesting thing to watch. I have found this to be a constant in other creative industries, as well.

      The clamor to sell more books is starting to become an unbearable din for me. It’s why I’m staying away from “author hang-outs” lately. I have enough to manage without their desperate frenetic energy creeping into my own agenda.

      Good luck with your book! 😀

      1. “The clamor to sell more books is starting to become an unbearable din for me. It’s why I’m staying away from “author hang-outs” lately. I have enough to manage without their desperate frenetic energy creeping into my own agenda.”

        Wow, I know what you mean about that “desperate frenetic energy.” This time of year, for the last two years, all I see are posts about how I have to pump more product out there, it’s almost too late, you’re missing all of these sales, OMG you’re missing out on sales, it’s too late!! 😉

      2. Thank you much, Red!

        And I agree whole-heartedly on the ruckus from some indie authors and sales. I follow a decent number of authors on Twitter – some indie, some traditional, some a mix. The indie authors who Tweet thirty times a day would perhaps sell more books if twenty-nine of those didn’t involve pitches to sell the one and only book they have available.

        Here’s a novel idea (pun intended): why don’t they write something else, other than a Tweet, and get on with it? I understand the importance of social media and of advertisement, but I for one detest this sort of hard-sell. It reeks of desperation to me.

  15. Thanks for your post Tash,

    I like the idea of not making things to complicated, Some time ago I wrote a tiny little (non-fiction) ebook. This tiny little ebook is more like a – Prototype – just to check out if there actually is ‘a Market’ for it to begin with. There actually have been several people that actually bought it, and gave me positive Readers Feedback by email.

    Also in order to get Feedback from Readers and to be able to create awareness for it I also created several Blogs that are somewhat related to it, that I also created with the intention to promote this ebook. Appears that currently I have more Fun with the Blogging and writing Comments back on the Comments I get on Blogposts than actually writing Books 🙂

    Although when I do get more people buying the ‘Simple Version’ I might consider making an upgraded (also simple) version that’s just a little more pages and possibly with also Photo’s and Illustrations in it. Possibly using some of the ideas I got from the Readers Feedback I got on both my ebook and the Feedback I got on Blogposts. I also currently ‘Try Out’ Short Stories on my – Writer’s Lifestyle – Blog. When I get Feedback on those I might bundle some of the Successful ones in an eBook.

  16. Great post. I’m a little late to this (and didn’t read all 50 comments), so forgive if I repeat. Red is awesome. Been a great pleasure getting to know her better, and this post reaffirms my belief that I would like her as much in person as in this virtual world.

    Love the lines about taking on Harry Potter and The Stand. That is quite the goal to shoot for. For me, I don’t think I bit off more than I could chew with my first book (although I had to trim considerable pages and characters, but I just considered that part of the evolution towards a better story). For me, while I have confidence in my writing abilities as demonstrated in my first book, story-wise I feel like more people will take to my second novel. Only time will tell, I guess.

    And David, I’m curious to know about the Seinfeld joke that you stretched into a dark comedy.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  17. It takes a whole lot of time to learn (the hard way) which ideas are 50,000-word ideas and which are 500,000-word ideas… because you have to write all those darned words to find out.

    Great post.

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