Writing a first book is hard. Writing a second book is also hard but in a different way. When I wrote Shelf Life, my first novel, there were so many challenges. I had to learn all the basics of putting a book together: plot, character, dialogue, style, theme etc. etc. When I started to think about writing my second book last fall, I didn’t expect that I’d have to relearn the basics. I figured that each of those elements were tools that I already had on my writerly tool belt. I thought I had the measuring tape of character hooked on right next to the hammer of dialogue. I looked at those writing skills as static things that I could pull out whenever I needed them. In the past month, I’ve realized that the tool belt metaphor is all wrong. These basic novel-writing skills aren’t static skills that require no further attention once “learned.” Instead, they’re more like kinetic muscles that need to be warmed up and exercised before being used at full strength.
Metaphors aside, how did this affect the writing of my second book?
I had to get back to basics. I had to learn how to write a first draft again. I hadn’t written a first draft for a novel-length project in years. That sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true. I’d been busy rewriting and revising the first book since 2018. Learning to write freely again (as is needed in a messy first draft) was a huge barrier in getting the second book off the ground.
I started strong in September. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a writing retreat during that lull before the second wave of COVID-19. I stayed at Fells Meadows in Castleton, Ontario for two nights. I ended up having the whole property to myself, which was good for writing and COVID-19 safety. I stayed in a small, off-grid cabin on the top of a hill (see photo above!) and wrote at the table of an old farmhouse at the centre of the property. It felt like a very luxurious way to start writing my second book. The romantic notions surrounding the writer’s life were in full force that week. It was great. I always enjoy those feelings while they last.
I wrote about ten thousand words in my first draft during that retreat and the weeks that followed. Then I hit a bit of a wall. I had the main points of the draft planned out, so it wasn’t a problem of not knowing what to do next. Instead it was a problem of knowing how to do it. I realized the character I had written was not very likeable. Things weren’t coming together the way I had expected.
So the book was put on hold and all of my writing muscles seized up. I went through some (mostly) self-inflicted querying agony for a few months (more on this in a future post…probably) and took a break from writing. Slowly, slowly, I was drawn back to the new book. I had to put aside all my feelings surrounding the ongoing querying of Shelf Life and focus on this new project. I had to write the book simply for the joy of writing it.
Looking for some encouragement, I turned to my shelf of books on writing. I looked at “manuals” from creative writing classes I took in university and read them with new vigor. I started reading Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird, which I had dipped in and out of but never read in its entirety. It felt like a re-education. I was beginning to stretch those writing muscles again, even though I hadn’t even put fingers to keyboard yet. Feeling warmed up, I started working on book two again last week. I decided to just start fresh and use what I had done in the fall as reference only.
The writing muscles started stretching further as I forced myself to put words down on the page. The process started to be enjoyable again. I was excited to work every day, even if I still had to force myself to get started (I think all successful writers have to do that most days anyway). Writing was becoming familiar again, and my creative muscles knew the motions expected of them.
Each day the muscles get a little looser. Things get a little bit easier, and book two gets written.