The Beauty of the Second Novel

When studying an author’s canon, there’s always the question as to how many of his themes are run intentionally throughout his writing, and how much is the work of the subconscious.


I’m aware that my own experiences, opinions, and philosophies play a role in the conscious choices I make about how my characters will behave—or misbehave—when I’m writing.  Yet other events and personality traits that are emerging as I outline my next work in progress feel organic as I craft them, but upon reflection, I realize are also present in my first finished work.


I’ve heard it said that novel writing is like making pancakes—sometimes you have to throw the first one out (for the record, I think this metaphor works better with waffles; the pancakes at the end of batch are the ones I burn). Completing the first convinces you that you can do it, but it’s not always strong enough to publish. The second, one hopes, is stronger, and it can also be a more reliable reflection of what issues, themes, and types of conflict are important to you as a writer.


In a way, it’s like having more than one child. With my first, sometimes I can’t tell which traits are those of his temperament and which are those typical of a three-year-old. The experience of the first is invaluable, and there’s no substitute for the journey.


But with my youngest, who is about to turn a year old, I am having a much easier time telling how much of what he does is just “baby” and what is “Henry.”


Likewise, figuring out which characters and situations take the lead in a second novel can be done with more confidence than with the first, because of the experience of knowing how to craft a book-length work—and because of the knowledge of what really resonates with you as a writer.


Each time I make a new note for this novel, I’m finding there is a different kind of joy in seeing what’s common and what’s unique, what’s new and what endures as I grow—as a person, as a parent, and as a writer.


Give That Manuscript Some Flavor

It’s often difficult to describe what it is, technically, that brings a manuscript to life. In early drafts, we try to use interesting verbs and unique adverbs to describe our characters’ actions and give them personality. We make comparisons to invoke all the reader’s senses and make a setting feel real. Yet in this, it’s all too easy to fall into tired phrases and clichés that don’t stretch us as writers or make our work as compelling as it could be.

It can be tough to strike the balance between too much and not enough in terms of description. I wonder if that’s because often we don’t consider the kind of language, the category of metaphor that best applies to our projects.

My finished novel has a lot to do with food, and in later drafts, I needed to bring that out more. In order to do that, I took a pass through the full manuscript, and whenever a moment of description arose, I challenged myself to use food terms to focus the tone.

After a particularly pleasant turn of events, my protagonist is not simply happy, but she “surprised herself by feeling as buoyant and carefree as a perfectly crafted meringue.”

Again, when she meets the guy she falls for, she doesn’t feel butterflies in her stomach or a warmth radiate from her heart through to her limbs, but rather the moment “was like the first sip of a warm latte on an autumn morning, something to savor.”

In a moment of near embarrassment, her mouth is not left gaping, but, “her mouth was hanging open like Jo’s was the first time she tasted Anna’s homemade croutons.”

It’s phrases like these that have worked to make this novel more unique, more my own. The manuscript has a voice of its own, something that sets it apart—and like a steaming bowl of onion soup on a bitterly cold winter’s day, that’s something that satisfies.

Sometimes I Think I Might Be Crazy

Two little kids. Two blogs. Two novels-in-progress. And a freelance editorial business.


I am in a very busy season of life, with to-do lists coming out of my to-do lists, and another dozen things that I only remember when I can’t reach one of my lists. My kids come first, but then, depending on the week, there is a battle for second place. Sometimes, I think I might be crazy, trying to do make all these things happen. But when I consider putting one thing or the other aside for a while, I find that I can’t stay away for very long.


In the midst of all these things—when I’m changing a diaper, when I’m cooking a meal, when I’m rocking a little one to sleep—I’m often thinking about the next thing I’ll write. I’m writing, rewriting, editing all the time. I wonder, now and then, what it’s like to be inside the brain of someone who is not a writer. How are the gaps filled? What takes precedence?


For me, it is my characters. It is ways to up the ante with plot twists. It’s reflections on my role as a mother, how my faith is woven into that, and how I can express it to share with others.


The more time I spend doing these things that my particular life is made of, the more I realize that everything doesn’t have to happen at once. I might not write as many posts as I want to in a week. I might not make every self-imposed deadline. There are more important things right now, and their names are Jacob and Henry.


But when there is time, when I remember to make time, there is this other part of me that needs to breathe so that I can be the best mom, wife, daughter, in-law, sister, friend I can.


Sometimes I think I might be crazy. It’s those times when I’m sure that I’m a writer.

Okay, You Can Write, But How Well Can You Read?

Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding recently posted five writing tips in Publishers Weekly, and one in particular stuck out to me:


“It’s true, too, that your writing can only be as good as the best readings you’ve given of the best books.”


Harding makes the point that a writer need not simply read good books; he must read good books well. But how do you do that, without a discussion group always at the ready to bounce ideas off of?


A few years ago, I realized I wasn’t getting enough out of the books I read. I wasn’t retaining enough about them to have an intelligent conversation later on. The solution I found was a simple, totally free book journal.


I started a folder on my computer cleverly called, “Book Journal.” In it is a document called “Books Read,” where I list each book I’ve completed, as well as those I started but chose not to finish (these are highlighted in gray and italicized, because they only kind of count in my year-end total). I also create a document for each book, with the book’s title as the document title (again, simple), and try to write 250 words about my reading as soon as possible after I’ve turned the last page. It doesn’t require anything fancy, and really doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes for each book, if I just push on through. I don’t edit or revise my reflections; I use the act of free writing to help commit certain details and reactions to memory, and then move on.


Now, when I look through the list in order to recommend books to others, I remember a whole lot more about each book. Because I know I’m going to write about it later, I also pay more attention to the craft of storytelling while I’m reading. There can be something to learn in everything we read. How do you get the most out of what you read?