Starting a Second Novel is … Different

Posted: June 4, 2019 in Writing


I wrote my first novel* by the seat of my pants.  If there is one scrap of wisdom I can claim to have learned from that experience it is this: You will revise your first chapter more than any other part of your book.  If for no other reason than it is the part of your novel you will have on paper the longest (unless you write sideways; I can’t manage that particular technique).

I revised that first chapter dozens of times. By which I mean complete revisions. In some I started with a pithy saying, in others I started with action.  I changed locations several times.  In one, the protagonist was doing homework and got in trouble for doodling in the margins, in another she lost track of her little brother and had to go hunt him down at a crowded street fair.  In some she met the eventual villain (before either of us knew he was going to become the villain), in others she didn’t. Every time I learned some new “truth” about the proper way to begin a novel or introduce a character I would tackle that first chapter so that I could improve it and improve my chances of snagging an agent.  And each and every time I revised that chapter, I was happy with the results.

Until I wasn’t.

I have a fatal flaw for a writer, one I know I will eventually have to fix: I can’t move on until I’m happy with what I have.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, and I know I’m likely to change it at some point down the road, but in the moment I have to feel like what I have is the best I can do before I’m able to keep going (this is why I suck at NaNoWriMo).  Every scene and chapter I write is built on those that came before, and if there are holes they will only grow larger the further into the story I get, regardless of how much planning I’ve done.

I didn’t really understand this when I wrote my first novel.  Just as I didn’t understand all of the ways a first chapter, a first scene, a first paragraph impact the reader. When I started my first novel, I was fearless and idealistic. Like maybe the first time one skydives or wrestles an alligator (presuming that’s something one is eager to try). Starting my first novel was easy. Because I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.

And, honestly, when I started my second novel I felt like it would be easier, because now I knew all of that stuff. I could avoid most of the abortive revisions as I groped around in the dark for understanding and clarity. Because now I know before I put the first word down what I need to do, and how to do it. I’m going to write this one by the seat of my pants; I have an outline, color coded, broken down chapter-by-chapter. I have stacks of books and articles I’ve highlighted as part of my historical research.  Unlike my first novel, I know my setting, my villain, my stakes, and how it is going to win.

What I didn’t count on was being paralyzed with indecision about that first word.

See, now that I know what doesn’t work and that I’m incapable of carry on until I’ve nailed the beginning, I’m just rejecting everything I come up with as not good enough. Because I know it isn’t. With my first novel, I wrote the first three pages in about an hour.  It was trash, but I didn’t know that. Because I had no idea what I needed to accomplish in that first chapter.  I was jumping with my eyes closed.  This time around, I know exactly what I need to do in the first chapter, and it’s quite a lot.  I know exactly where I need to be at the end of the chapter, and there are a number of very specific things I must set up before then for the rest of the novel.  I have to be brief and succinct, but I can’t rush.  I need to set up relationships and provide some backstory without too much telling. And none of the openings I came up with led me in quite the right direction or seemed interesting enough.  I’ve spent the last month throwing away a half-dozen abortive attempts at the first paragraph. Not the progress I expected, given all of the confidence and experience I gained the first time around.

This weekend, I finally settled on an approach I’m happy with.  The dialogue is flowing. The backstory is being filled in one small chunk at a time.  The voice is there, as is the relationship.  And the very first glimpse of the main character is provocative.  I’m happy with it.

Of course, before the end it will all have to go….

*My first “real” novel.  I’m not counting the fantasy novel I wrote in high school, before I learned what “plot” was.

  1. Sandra Coopersmith says:

    John, I love your dissertations about writing as they are informative AND entertaining. I bet you could get them published in Writer’s Digest, they’re that good.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s