Wednesday, December 31, 2014
The Second Book, Before and After
Revised and updated version of post from November 2013
It may well be that the flaws in an author’s first novel are among the things that motivate him or her to keep writing. The sense that it was not bad but could have been better can make a writer want to build on the strengths of the first book and try to come up with a better second one.
Think of writers who, to whatever degree, nailed it on the first try. Harper Lee, with To Kill a Mockingbird, and Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, come to mind. In her own way, and at her own level, each of them may have written the best book she was capable of, and going on with fiction writing was sure to be a disappointment.
Sometimes an author overcorrects in the second book. In trying to improve on the weaknesses of the first one, he or she can forget its strengths as well and end up with a different but lesser work. Sometimes the third one is where the author gets it right, as Fitzgerald did with The Great Gatsby.
The Mystery of The Mystery
After publishing my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, last year, I’ve been working on the second, which I hope will come out in the spring of 2014. Neither of my books is in the same league as the ones mentioned above; they’re intended as nothing more than trashy entertainment.
But even trashy entertainment has its standards and achieves varying levels of quality. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this second book lately and wondering and worrying about how good it is.
While The McHenry Inheritance received generally good reviews on Amazon and seems to have sold a bit better than the average first book by an unknown author, I felt that the characters and dialogue could have been stronger and the story, though crisp and fast-moving, could have been more complex. The second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, relies on characters and atmosphere more than it does on action. I’m trying to do something a bit different and find myself constantly wondering if I’m pulling it off. The hell of being an author is that you have to rely on your own instincts as you write, and it can take a long time after publication to get enough feedback to know if you pulled it off. That uncertainty and anxiety have driven many men and women to drink. (Postscript: Eight months after publication, the reviews, nearly all from total strangers, have been highly positive — average rating 4.7 stars.)
The Puzzle Leaps Into Place
One thing that’s happening the second time around is that the elements of the story are coming together more easily, and I’m getting more spontaneous ideas as I write the book.
Before beginning to write, I made pages and pages of notes about the plot and the characters, going into considerable detail as to what would happen and who the people in the book would be. Then, halfway through the first chapter, as one of those characters was about to appear, I had a flash about a significant new quality for that person that would alter some of the rest of the book. In another instance, a New York Times article I’d just read rattled around in my head and bounced off something my sister had mentioned when visiting recently. The result: A key clue that hadn’t been in the original outline.
What to make of those brainstorms, and other like them? The most likely explanations are a) that I’m gaining the ability to write this sort of thing; or b) that I’m losing the ability to recognize a bad idea when it pops into my head. It will probably be a few years before I know which explanation is right. That’s the hell of being an author.