What I Learned About Writing a Second Novel - Writer's Digest

What I Learned About Writing a Second Novel

It seems crazy to claim "beginners luck" when you’ve been writing since your twenties and get your first novel published at 39. At the time it felt more like a grand plan unfolding; a plan that included—of course it would!—the prompt arrival of novel number two. I had a great idea, right? I’d done it once before. How hard could it be to pop out a second? Harder than I thought, as it turned out. Guest column by Summer Wood, author of the novel Wrecker (Bloomsbury, 2011). Kirkus said “Wood moves her characters gracefully through trying times, both cultural and personal.”
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It seems crazy to claim "beginners luck" when you’ve been writing since your twenties and get your first novel published at 39. At the time it felt more like a grand plan unfolding; a plan that included—of course it would!—the prompt arrival of novel number two. I had a great idea, right? I’d done it once before. How hard could it be to pop out a second? Harder than I thought, as it turned out.

Summer is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Bonnie won.)

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Guest column by Summer Wood, author of the novel
Wrecker (Bloomsbury, 2011). Kirkus said “Wood moves
her characters gracefully through trying times, both
cultural and personal.” Also the author of the novel, Arroyo,
Summer teaches writing to adults at the UNM’s Taos
Summer Writers Conference. In 2007, she was awarded
the $50,000 Literary Gift of Freedom award. She lives in
New Mexico, and serves as executive editor at Voices
from the American Land. See her website here. See the
book trailer here and Summer's signings here.

But this is a fairy tale with a happy ending. It’s the story of a little lamb wandering the wilderness who is fed and offered shelter by a band of merry strangers. The lamb gets fatter and fatter and fatter until it meets a shepherd. And the shepherd puts it on a severe diet and makes it lift weights and run laps until it ...

Let me explain. The little lamb—no, that’s not me. I’m not lamb-like at all. My second novel, Wrecker, is the lamb, which is more fitting because it’s the story of a small boy who is taken from his mother’s custody and sent to live in the wilds of Northern California’s rugged Lost Coast. (Wilderness equals—okay. We’ll leave that behind.)

But what happened is this. The good idea I had? It came from a difficult time, an unexpected turn in my life that left me bereft of some children I loved and the bearer of some complicated grief. Fiction writer that I am, that emotion poured into a story that trudged off in search of a happier ending.

It trudged. And trudged. And trudged. And my agent, a fine woman who had represented my first book and sold it to Chronicle Books, waved to it from the distance. She mouthed something like "You’re too far!," although the wind caught her words and I can’t be quite sure what she said. I was sad to see her go, but the lamb had a mind of its own, and I had to follow.

It trudged on, alone now, the years passing, the terrain more treacherous. It encountered friends and foes. It got into and out of some sticky situations. And then it came upon a lovely group of benefactors, a consolidation of women calling themselves A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO), who fed it and petted it and caused it to thrive in the most wonderful way.

And it got really big.

Watch, now—here’s the shepherd part. This shepherd, a.k.a. Dan Conaway of Writers House, gave me a call when he heard of the AROHO Foundation award I received. He wanted to see the lamb. Dan took one look and said, “I think you’ve got two books here.”

Fine, then. Forget the lamb. We’ve got instead a fat old manuscript that’s partway finished, and Dan said: Split it in half. I said, "But what about this? What about that?" And Dan said, with great kindness but absolutely no nonsense, "What is the story you really want to tell?"

Are agents allowed to do that? Push you around like that? "I’ll think about it," I told Dan, meaning: No way, buddy. I went home. I stewed. I mused. I wondered. Well, I thought, finally. What harm could there be in just fooling around with the idea? Dan’s advice, as it turned out, was the best thing that ever happened to this book. It took a massive, unwieldy, meandering tome and found the meaning at its core. I took it back to him. This, I said, is the story I want to tell.

The moral of this fairy tale? Well, it’s twofold, really. The first is this. Agents—really good agents—aren’t there just to sell your manuscript. You have to do your very best work before you approach them; but the best agents have an uncanny ability to see into the heart of a story. (I don’t know. It’s their glasses, or something.) They can ask the right questions, guide revisions, make connections, and suggest new directions. All this, and sell, too. Magic!

Dan stuck with this book through multiple revisions. His faith in it never faltered—and his expectations for it never dipped, either. We argued over plotlines and discussed favorite characters. When it was time, he took it into the world and landed a deal with an editor who has turned out to be just right. Each step of the long process, he’s been there to shepherd it past obstacles and toward the goal: to reach readers who will love it as he has.

The second moral? Don’t give up. Some stories simply require the wander. To me right now, it seems worth the wait.

Summer is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Bonnie won.)


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Writing a novel? Literary agent Oscar Collier and
successful freelance writer Frances Spatz Leighton
team up to give you How to Write & Sell Your
First Novel. You'll find 100 expert tips inside its pages.


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