Writing Hell: The Third Novel

June 10, 2017
Legends of the Fox
January 2, 2017
Dream Come True
July 8, 2017

I am working on Novel Number 3 and at the same time, trying to sort through what made Dragon Springs Road such an agonizing writing experience and how to avoid it with NN3. It was only after the manuscript for Dragon Springs Road was complete that I finally put the question out to other authors and discovered that yes, it's common for the second novel to be a pain in the ass and other bodily regions. That's why it’s known as the Dreaded Sophomore Novel.

 

With the objectivity that only time and distance can provide, I’ve realized that a lot of my problems came out of self-doubt. What if my debut novel,Three Souls, had been a fluke? Was my story interesting enough? Did the characters seem real, were they relatable? Could I make readers believe in Fox spirits – at least for the duration of the novel? And the writing. Oh, the writing! Was the language beautiful enough or was it overwrought and too descriptive? Were the metaphors suitable or were they laughable? Less is more, but how do you know when less is too little? This was but a subset of the long list of insecurities that accompanied me throughout the writing.

For NN3 I want to know what’s in store. So I’ve been asking other, more experienced, authors: does it get any easier? Mostly I got back a grim look and an answer along the lines of ‘Every novel is its own special version of hell’. Then they’d clam up and gaze moodily into their drink.

Fortunately, historical novelists Kate Quinn and Jennifer Robson did not clam up but graciously took time away from their busy schedules to offer up some useful observations.

Kate Quinn

KATE: You'd think that every book would get easier, but I've found that each novel really is different. It's a bit like having babies: you can apply the same parenting skill to two different children, yet one is a dream baby who sleeps through the night and never cries, and one fights you kicking and screaming all the way. My duology set in the Italian Renaissance--books number 4 and 5--was an angel; two books written in 9 months flat, no major problems in drafting. The last book in my Rome saga--book number 6--was the project from hell; several drafts and re-conceptions and lots of tears. I never know what to expect, starting a new book!

Kate Quinn is the bestselling author of 12 novels. Her latest, The Alice Network, is inspired by true accounts of a World War I spy ring headed by an extraordinary woman.

Jennifer Robson

JENNIFER: It’s complicated. The actual writing part of the process does seem to be getting easier, mainly because I’ve been blessed with wonderful editors who are as much my teachers as anything else. And yet with each book I find the amount of time I’m able to carve out for writing keeps shrinking, mainly because my previous books have been successful enough to lead to lovely things like book tours and speaking engagements. I’m absolutely not complaining — if I’m wrestling with my schedule I have no one to blame but myself. Recently I’ve joined the Five A.M. Writers Club (just Google it) and that has helped a lot in terms of productivity. I dream of finding a way to balance everything out — work, family, friends, health — but no matter what I do I end up dropping a lot of balls. If I ever do figure out a way to keep them all in the air I'll let you know!

Jennifer Robson is the bestselling author of 4 novels. Her most recent, Goodnight from London, is inspired by her own grandmother, who was a wartime journalist.

Kate’s comments tell me that authors could write a book or two that makes them think ‘OK, I’ve got this process nailed’ and then get flattened by the next one. We often compare our books to babies, so her analogy of every child being different is a good one to keep in mind! Jennifer brings up something I hadn't realized about distractions – you write your first novel without the distractions of marketing and publicity. Then the following novels bring more attention (we hope!) and with that comes the challenge of managing your time, on top of everything else to do with actual research and writing.

Writing is a back-and-forth process for me. Not line-by-line but paragraph-by-paragraph, I have a tendency to re-read and re-write.

Then there`s that research thing. You can do all the research you want and inevitably your story brings you to a scene that makes you realize you don’t really know how a certain process was done in those days, or whether a certain park actually existed in 1908, or the range of opinions ordinary people might have had about a major event.

This would lead to another round of research, which takes away from that precious focus of being in the zone inside the novel, which leads to the most productive writing. Then you end up editing out a scene or a character or a location and throw out that information along with the deleted lines. Yaargh!

In Dragon Springs Road for example, because one of the families in the book owned a cotton spinning and weaving mill, I actually unearthed a 1913 economic report on the output of Shanghai cotton mills because I wanted to be accurate about how much cotton thread and cloth a family business might produce. And … you guessed it. Some dialogue got cut and I never used that information.

So this time there are a couple of things I’m going to try to avoid repeating the agonies of writing hell.

The first and most important is to turn off the infamous “inner editor” and just write the story from start to end, knowing that there will be revisions. To remember that the whole reason for revisions is to fix what you’re not happy with.

The second is to make a note wherever more research is needed and defer further research until I’m working on the first revision. I feel comfortable with this approach because most of the time this type of research is information that needs to be verified rather than big research topics.

So – write from start to finish, no cheating and going back, mark up where more research is needed, then revise, revise, revise. I’ll let you know how it works out!

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