First books and second books

July 25, 2014 The Fire Mages, The Plains of Kallanash, Writing musings 4

Writing a book is no different from any other craft: it takes practice. Nobody is able to paint or to make model aeroplanes or to write phone apps or drive a car straight out of the box. Well, growing potatoes, maybe; stick them in the ground, then dig them up three months later and enjoy delicious new potatoes with butter and a sprig of mint. Yummy. But I digress. Everyone needs to learn and hone their skills, and (except for potatoes) that takes practice. A lot of practice. For driving a car, they say it takes one lesson for every year of your life. For writing, the received wisdom is that it takes a million words.

So the first effort is always a bit wonky. It’s like those clay models kids bring home from school – they’re always a bit lop-sided. ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is my first, wonky effort. I’m aware of some of the problems: a long, long opening phase revolving round the marriage with an abrupt switch to an adventure phase; and a heroine that everyone (including me) wants to slap at some point.

My biggest mistake was in choosing to tell the story through the views of two main characters with alternating chapters. This was incredibly restrictive. I couldn’t simply yank a dull Mia chapter because it would leave me with two consecutive Hurst chapters. Some chapters got stupidly long because I couldn’t switch point of view (the other character wasn’t there), but I couldn’t start a new chapter either. Sometimes it meant that chapter breaks came in odd places because I was jumping to the other character. And sometimes when the characters were pursuing separate story threads, the two plotlines got out of sync. So I wouldn’t do that again.

As these issues began to dawn on me, I realised I had two choices: either rewrite the whole thing from scratch or… No, forget it. It took me a year to write the first time, there was no way I was going to start again. So it was going to have to do. I’ve had the first third of it critiqued on Scribophile, which was unbelievably helpful, I’ve had some terrific beta readers and I’ve done quite a bit of editing. In particular, I’ve made some deep cuts to the final third or so, to tighten things up, and some of my writing issues (like over-long sentences and forgetting to show what the characters are feeling and – sometimes – too much info-dumping, all the usual beginner problems) I’ve been able to improve (I hope).

But eventually there comes a point where you have to let it go, send it on its way into the world, wonky or not, and move on.

But the second book – that should be better, shouldn’t it? I should have learned from the mistakes of the first book and produced something much more polished and professional right from the start. I started my second book, ‘The Fire Mages’, as soon as I’d finished Kallanash, and it took me only seven months to finish it (although it’s quite a bit shorter, too). I left it alone while I edited Kallanash, but I recently dug it out and reread it from start to finish. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it and it seemed to work very well, even in first draft form. There were a few logic errors, but I was able to fix those quite easily.

A couple of weeks ago I gave it to my First Reader (my daughter) to read, and she enjoyed it too. ‘Not that I didn’t enjoy Kallanash,’ she said, ‘but I was really into this one.’ It helps, I think, that ‘The Fire Mages’ is a much more conventional fantasy – a teenage girl discovering her powers, with magic and adventure right from the start and (thank goodness!) a heroine with a bit of backbone, if a little self-centred. OK, very self-centred. But she’s a teenager, that’s normal.

I think there are two reasons why this one works better. Firstly, the experience of writing Kallanash has taught me something about the craft of writing. The very act of writing helps to improve the output; practice makes – well, not perfect, but certainly better at a technical level (sentence structure and so on). And secondly, writing – and completing – a large-scale effort like a novel has made me far more aware of story techniques and structure, not just while I write, but also while reading. I’m constantly on the lookout for tricks and clever stratagems in books, and that helps me structure my own work. I’m still a pantser, root and branch, but I’m gradually becoming more aware of the way different elements of the story work, like the need for tension, and seeding hooks here and there to keep the pot boiling. My stories aren’t planned, but they’re not just great amorphous clouds of stuff, either.

So I think the second book is better than the first – as it should be. But the proof of the pudding and all that… I’ll shortly be starting to post chapters on Scribophile for critique, and it will be interesting to see what my crit-buddies over there make of it.

Now the third book – that’s another matter. I’ve been writing that while also revising and polishing Kallanash, and it’s been hard to hop from one to the other, and very disruptive. I suspect this one is going to be much more uneven than the others and need more revision. And a 40-year-old heroine? How’s that going to work? Sometimes I wish I could stick to a formula and produce those nice long series, all with the same characters, that so many authors have. But these characters pop up in my head and they sit there knocking on the inside of my skull until I get them out of there and tell their story.

And truly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

4 Responses to “First books and second books”

  1. Kyra Halland

    In some ways it gets easier, as you learn more about craft (especially the big mistakes not to make) and about the process that works for you. But it also depends very much on the individual project, sometimes for reasons I don’t understand at all.

    For example, I’m very much a planner and outliner (though my outlines are flexible and almost always change by the end), but the books in the series I’m revising now defied my attempts to plan more than a scene or two in advance. Other than a few set-piece scenes and a general idea of the ending, to fit into the larger series story arc, I had very little idea of how things were going to go or what the details of the plot would be. It was terrifying and fun at the same time, and the feedback from the beta readers so far is positive, but I would really rather not work that way if I can help it. Some projects are just that way, though, while others present themselves whole and complete in every detail and it’s just a matter of writing it down.

    • PaulineMRoss

      Yes, that’s what I’m finding, that every one is different, and needs a slightly different approach. And yes, it is ‘terrifying and fun’ to just let the story roll out! That’s a great description of it. For me it’s more fun than terrifying at the moment.

  2. HAnthe

    Nothing wrong with a 40-year-old heroine. Not every fantasy story needs to be wrapped around a teenager.

    (Says the writer with a story wrapped around a 17-year-old boy.)

    But anyway, write what you want to write, not to what you see as trends/typical of fantasy, because that’s what will make it feel true.

    • PaulineMRoss

      I don’t think I’m capable of writing to trends. I love writing what interests me, just following a thread of story to see where it ends up, without thinking: this isn’t going to sell.

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