After the Debut: 3 Things I’ve Learned, with Emily Littlejohn

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by Emily Littlejohn

You’ve signed off on the final edits to your debut novel. Your agent and your editor are already hearing positive early reviews and a couple of big name authors have offered glowing blurbs. You pour a celebratory glass of champagne and kick back on the sofa. You did it. You wrote a novel and landed a two-book contract. It’s easy street from here on out, kid.

Then your eyes stray to the calendar hanging on the wall, the kind that with a single glance shows you the next twelve months. Twelve long months to write the next book. Plenty of time.

Of course, there is that two-week European vacation in the spring, not to mention the lengthy out of state work conference you’re chairing. And to be honest, between the day job, the kids, and all the shows the family is streaming, it’s hard to get much writing done during the week. You’ll write on the weekends. No problem.

Lately, though, the weekends seem to fly by.

Still, surely you can squeeze in a few hours here and there.

Suddenly twelve months seems like a very short time.


I wrote my debut novel, Inherit the Bones, over the course of three long years. It was a hobby, a lark. At the time, I was working forty-plus hours a week at a regular day job and spending most of my free time with friends and family. I’d go weeks without touching my laptop and then when the muse struck, I’d sometimes wile away entire weekends puttering around in the fictional world I had created.

Long story short, I finished Bones and signed with an amazing agent, Pamela Ahearn of The Ahearn Agency. To my complete astonishment and joy, Ahearn sold Bones in a two-book deal. Before I knew it, what had been a private hobby was suddenly very public, with deadlines and schedules. Most mind-boggling of all: I had to submit a second book, in less than a year.

Happily, not only did I meet my deadlines and complete the follow-up to my debut novel, A Season to Lie, I learned a few things along the way.

Meet Deadlines

One of the first things I learned while writing my second book is that deadlines exist for a reason. Traditionally published novels have many moving pieces to them; pitches, edits, cover design, printing, creating advance reader copies… all of these and more are steps along the way as a book marches from an author’s word document to the final version in the reader’s hands.

What does that mean for an author?

Making those deadlines is critical.

And make no mistake: writing a novel to a deadline is very, very different from tinkering around on a manuscript here and there. Life, in the form of regular employment, family obligations, and heck, even meals, has a funny way of interrupting your writing. If you haven’t already carved out dedicated time to work on your second book, it is imperative to do so now. For some, that means waking up early to get a few hours of writing in while the kids are still asleep. For others, weekend activities like movies and sporting events need to take a backseat to plotting and drafting.

[Online Course: 12 Weeks to a First Draft with Terri Valentine]

What helped me tremendously was setting a goal of about 1500 words per writing session. I knew there would be days when I simply would not be able to sit down and write; a daily word count goal, then, would have been frustrating. Instead, I promised myself that on those days when I did get to my laptop, I would write at least 1500 words. Most of the time, I found that I exceeded the goal. And page by page, my novel grew in length. As my page count increased, the deadlines didn’t seem so… deadly.

Fall in Love with Your Characters 

While meeting deadlines as you write your second novel can feel like added pressure, getting to better know your series’ recurring characters is downright fun. In my mysteries, like many others, murder and mayhem move the plot forward… but the characters are what readers return for. In A Season to Lie, I loved exploring the relationships and back stories of Detective Gemma Monroe, her loved ones, and her colleagues on the police force. For instance, things that are hinted at in Inherit the Bones between Monroe and her romantic partner, Brody Sutherland, became necessary to tease to the forefront in A Season to Lie.

[6 Tips for Creating Believable Characters That Win Over Readers]

Coincidentally, one of the greatest things about writing a series in the mystery genre is possessing the ability to kill off characters you fall out of love with… or those that you never liked to begin with. My husband is always relieved when he finishes one of my books and sees that the romantic interest is still kicking… though he knows that I’m an equal opportunist and should the story demand it, well… let’s just say I believe everyone’s a suspect and everyone’s a potential victim.

The second book of a series is truly prime real estate for character development. You’ve laid the groundwork in the first book yet you’re still early enough in the series that your characters aren’t so formed that they are unable to change. I encourage you to have fun with that, to add in bits and pieces of backstory as you move the story forward.

Publicity is the Name of the Game

Debut authors are like pizza… everyone wants a slice. As you are writing towards completion of your second novel, marketing will be ramping up for the publication of your debut novel. That translates to invitations for guest blog posts, guest articles, interviews, author events, and so on. All wonderful things that can take your attention away from finishing the second novel.

I said yes to every invitation I received, as will you. Of course you will. There are few things more exciting for an author than getting to talk about your work. A word of caution, though, especially if you are writing mysteries: keep your storylines straight. You are perfectly aware that the beloved butler introduced in the first book is brutally disposed of in the second book… but readers of your interview-blog post- Facebook status update haven’t even read the first book yet.

Spoil nothing yet provide enough intrigue to entice all. And before you know it, you’ll be working on your third novel with an eye towards your fourth.

EMILY LITTLEJOHN was born and raised in southern California and now lives in Colorado. If she’s not writing, reading, or working at the local public library, she’s enjoying the mountains with her husband and sweet old dog. She has a deep love of horror stories, butter pecan ice cream, and road trips. A Season to Lie is her second novel, following Inherit the Bones. Follow her on Facebook.

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