Creative Writing Fiction 2020-02-20 00:00

Your First Ten Novels

Many of us daydream about seeing our first novel hit the bookstore shelves and enjoying all the fame, fortune, and artistic satisfaction that is sure to follow. But what happens when it’s time to write and publish your second book? (Not to mention all the ones that come after.) So let’s look into the future at life after your first big break.

  1. Book 1: The Debut
  2. A Quick Diversion Digging Through the Writer’s Trunk
  3. Book Two: The Author’s Crucible
  4. Book Three: Too Many Voices
  5. Book Four: Endings and New Beginnings
  6. Books Five Through Nine: The Author Ferris Wheel
  7. Book Ten: The Author Disappears

Book 1: The Debut

When my first novel, Traitor’s Blade, was released in 2014, I was incredibly fortunate that it found such a positive reception among fantasy readers. Despite the ongoing changes to the publishing landscape, there are still loads of wonderful moments: seeing your cover design for the first time, opening the box of author copies that comes to your door prior to publication, seeing your first review, receiving your first piece of fan mail. These are the kinds of moments we imagine during those long hours writing our first novel. Delightful as these experiences are, they come and go all too quickly, and I found myself utterly unprepared for what came next . . .

A Quick Diversion Digging Through the Writer’s Trunk

Unpublished Manuscripts But wait!_ _What’s all this talk of a second novel? Don’t all authors write loads of books before their first one gets published? Aren’t there two, three, or even ten manuscripts sitting on a shelf gathering dust, just waiting to be picked up and given a fresh look in the warm light of your newfound success?

While it would be nice to believe that everything you ever wrote suddenly becomes a valuable commodity once you get published, the truth is there’s usually a pretty good reason why those early efforts get relegated to a drawer. Some might well be worth revisiting, but even those usually need a substantial rewrite. More importantly, however, they rarely fit with the expectations set by your first book. So let’s focus ourselves on the stories you write after your debut.

Book Two: The Author’s Crucible

Burning Typewriter Musicians have a saying that you have your whole life to write your first album and six months to write your second. The same is true of writers. While publishers often release one book a year in a series, what many writers fail to anticipate is that many of those wonderful things I mentioned earlier that go along with the publication of your first book—interviews, blog posts, launch events, and other author activities—take up not only loads of time but a huge amount of brain share until all of a sudden it gets harder and harder to just sit back and think up stories.

Oh, and if that’s not scary enough, consider that while in the past traditional publishers wanted just one book a year from an author, nowadays increased demand from readers eager to binge-read a series creates pressure on the author to produce even faster. Many self-published authors are writing multiple books year after year.

For now, let’s go back to your sophomore book and the onslaught of imposter syndrome that comes with it. When I sat down to write my second novel, I found myself haunted by the nagging fear that maybe I’d just gotten lucky with my first book. What if I’d used up all my good ideas on Traitor’s Blade and had left none for Knight’s Shadow? That’s when I learned a hard truth: your second book is where you either repeat the first one and hope nobody notices or else you dig even deeper into the dark caverns of your own experiences and dredge up those insights and story ideas you were too scared to write the first time around. It’s unnerving and there’s a sense of vulnerability you thought being an “official published author” would protect you against.

But there’s good news to be found in writing your second book: the discovery that you’ve actually got far more depth to your imagination than you previously believed. When I finished Knight’s Shadow, I realized for the first time that I wasn’t just some fantasy fan looking to replicate the work of those authors who’d come before me. There were themes and characters that mattered to me—ones I hadn’t known existed until I watched them come to life on the pages of that second book.

Book Three: Too Many Voices

Too Many Voices By the time you’re writing your third novel for publication, chances are good your first one will already be out in the wild. People will have read it, commented on it, argued about what it means and how what they find inside those pages reflects on the author. All of this noise becomes static in the brain, blocking out your own creative voice and replacing it with the opinions and desires of others. Negative reviews, whether politely dismissive or utterly cruel, can foster self-doubt in all of us. Positive reviews—the kind lauding your talent, insight, and unparalleled creativity? Now those can be really dangerous.

When I was working on Saint’s Blood, I was surprised to find that every time I wrote a scene—or even a sentence—I’d start imagining how it might be received by fans of the series. “How dare you make poor Falcio suffer!” I could hear them saying, or worse, “The author killed off one of my favourite characters! I’ll never read their books again!”

As an aside, here’s a fun writing fact nobody tells you until it’s too late: if you’re doing your job as a writer, there’s literally no character you can kill off in a novel without someone getting angry. A well-written, emotionally meaningful death is always going to cause consternation in the audience. I’m not kidding when I say that I got in trouble with some readers after I killed off an unnamed torturer in my second book.

But that’s also what’s great about your third novel: as long as you stay true to your own creative impulses, you can enjoy the anticipation of knowing there are loads of people out there just waiting to laugh, cry, and cheer over each decision you make in your story.

Book Four: Endings and New Beginnings

Writing The End If you’re writing commercial fiction, chances are good that book four is either the conclusion of your first series or the start of your second. Fantasy used to be all about trilogies, but in recent years publishers have noticed that four books creates a better chance for the series as a whole to succeed. This has become more common in other genres as well. Either way, for the first time you’ll be faced with having to write “The End” and really mean it.

There’s tremendous pressure on the final book of a series. Publishers, reviewers, and readers all expect you to pull off some giant, impossible-yet-inevitable conclusion that ties together every single plot thread in one mind-boggling puzzle the likes of which no previous series ever achieved. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be convinced that unless you throw in a thousand explosions, each one bigger than the last, you’re letting somebody down. The problem is that if you follow that impulse you’re incredibly likely to let yourself down and, in so doing, almost certainly disappoint your readers.

When I wrote Tyrant’s Throne, the final book in the Greatcoats Quartet, I discovered I’d given myself a terrible problem: in Saint’s Blood, my third book, I’d had my characters facing off against a god. I loved that book and what it said about people, faith, and idealism, but how was I going to top that? It wasn’t until I had a conversation with David Gerrold, the award-winning science fiction author (who wrote, among other things, “The Trouble With Tribbles” which just happens to be one of the most famous Star Trek episodes of all time). David told me that you end a series by giving your characters the final say—by exploring with them the very things for which you’d created them in the first place. That advice led me to move beyond such simplistic notions as “making things bigger” or “upping the stakes” and to deal with the very essence of why I’d chosen to write about swashbuckling judges. As a result, Tyrant’s Throne fulfilled both my needs a storyteller and those of my readers.

Oh, and that moment when you put the final book up on the shelf next to the others and realize you’ve written an entire series? I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so proud. Of course, then it’s time to write something new...

Books Five Through Nine: The Author Ferris Wheel

Ferris Wheel “What’s it like to be a published author?”

Get used to being asked that question. I’m not sure I have the best answer, but to me being an author feels like you’re taking a ride on a very strange ferris wheel. As the wheel turns and you rise up ever higher, more and more beautiful sights appear in the distance. Maybe your personal ferris wheel is facing Paris, so first you see the Eiffel Tower. You rise up a little higher and now you can make out the Arc de Triomphe and then the lights of the Champs-Élysées. But then you crest the top, and discover that on the other side of the wheel is a truly depressing dumpster fire. With creeping dread, you watch as it gets closer and closer as you descend. Soon you realize that no matter how lucky you’ve been as an author, that wheel is going to turn until you go from watching the lights of Paris to staring at the flames of that dumpster. Your only hope is to keep writing better and better books and handing them to the ticket-taker in hopes they let you ride the ferris wheel one more time.

Five books in and writing process starts to become either a boon to your creativity or an anchor dragging you down. Terms like “plotter” and “pantser” that sounded oh-so-insightful earlier in your career turn out to be less than useless as you wrestle with far more difficult questions of how to create something new that neither repeats your old work nor alienates your existing readers. That favourite question of interviewers that you used to laugh off so casually—“where do you get your ideas from?”—suddenly plays on endless loop in your mind.

The problem isn’t just coming up with new stories but also that—much to your surprise and consternation—you’ve become a “brand”. Publishers and readers have this notion in their heads of the kinds of books you write. They associate your work with a style and even a feeling. Meanwhile, you’ve grown as a writer, and the old adage “write the book you most want to read” has become harder and harder to follow because you’re no longer sure if the book you want to read has been replaced in your head by the one others think they want to read.

The cure for this, oddly enough, comes from the pressure of deadlines. The second series I sold was a young adult fantasy saga called Spellslinger. My publishers wanted six books, each one hitting store shelves six months apart. Not only that, but the series was coming out in more than a dozen languages. There was so much expectation for Spellslinger to succeed that I found myself imploding with every book, with every problem I experienced in my first four books coming back to me all at once only now with tighter deadlines.

That kind of pressure can be difficult to endure, but it can also be tremendously liberating. There’s only so long you can beat yourself up when people are waiting on your book. Eventually you have no choice but to trust your instincts and write the book that your creative mind gives you whether you think it’s going to be popular or not. There’s a glorious moment when you discover that your best stories are also your most honest ones, and that your job as a fiction writer is to find what feels true to you and put it down on the page.

Book Ten: The Author Disappears

![Ten Novels on Bookshelf]( Novels.jpg) So much of the author journey seems to be about feeling like an imposter. It’s as if no matter how many books we put out, no matter how many people buy them and tell us they enjoyed them, something deep in the writer’s psyche just keeps whispering, “You’re not a real author. You got lucky a few times, that’s all. Someone’s going to figure it out . . .”

The good news is that eventually—for me it was my tenth book but it might be your first or your fiftieth—something changes. You put your next book up on the shelf with all the others you’ve written and you realize it doesn’t matter at all whether you’re a “real author” or not. The books are real. The books are good. People will send you letters and emails telling you just how important those stories have been to them, how they made a tough time in their lives easier, or brought unexpected joy on a rainy afternoon, all the while knowing nothing about you, your ego, or what you think about your own writing.

Sometime around your tenth book, you may find yourself feeling strangely happy at the fact that once the book is finished, you disappear from the process entirely and all that’s left is the book and the reader. They find each other, somehow, and the joy in knowing that keeps happening is one that never fades.

Time to write number eleven.

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