How to Write the Second Book
Mitigating the Stress and Anticipation and Inertia of Writing No Longer Because You Want To, but Because Now You Have a Contract That Says You Have To.
What to Do With The Empty Spaces, as You Wait For Important Emails
Once upon a time, dear children, I wrote a book that didn’t sell. It would never sell. It never could sell. This was not its destiny. Because I was unaware of this destiny, I did what any hopeful, would-be writer would do. I queried the spit out of that thing. I wrote a query letter, so muscly and sinuous and ruddy with life that it practically had its own birth certificate and school report card, and then sent it to, I’m pretty sure, every agent in existence. A very good many wanted to see the book. Literally everyone said no.
During this time – this time of the query-writing and the email-sending and the inevitable hearing of the universal no – I did one thing that was useless and one thing that was useful. I share them both with you so that you may dispatch with the useless thing as quickly as possible and commence with the thing that will help. The thing that you will need. And to do so as soon as possible.
The useless thing I did was this: I waited. I watched. I obsessed. I stared at the “Recent Deals” section on Publisher’s Lunch. I read the blogs of the few blogging agents that I knew about, and tried to ascertain whether they might – at this very moment – be reading my book. I tried to see this in the empty spaces between word and word, reading this the way aged aunts read tea leaves and tell you with utter certainty the name of the man that you will one day marry. (Bruce, in case you were wondering. His name is supposed to be Bruce. Don’t tell my husband, Ted. He doesn’t know.) I checked my email maybe sixty times a day. And it was worse than you were thinking, because I didn’t have a cell phone back then. I checked my ancient, crappy computer. And because we are cheap bastards, we were the last holdout for dial-up. Dial-up. My obsessions may be mundane, but at least they are thorough, and are undeterred by annoying obstacles. During this time, I did not write. Not at all. And it sucked.
After a couple months of this – maybe more than a couple – I was at a party and talked to a friend who is a visual artist by vocation and a graphic designer by trade. And he asked me how things were going, and I told him about my near-constant return to the computer so I could check my stupid email (“Everyone’s gotta have a shame-machine,” he said jovially), and he said something to me that completely changed how I approached the waiting time. “The Universe,” he said, “loves formation and hates stagnation. That’s how inertia works. If you want to be in motion, creatively, you need to be in motion. Make art. Get moving.”
And so I did. I wrote a book that I had no intention of showing to anyone. It’s called The Final Exile of the Insect King. And I haven’t really – showed it, I mean. I got good feedback from a couple beta readers really early on, but my agent has never seen it, and no editor either. And it has green gods and man-eating bugs and sinister uncles and tough mothers and foul-mouthed teenagers and corpses animated by a wacky magical mold. I loved writing it. I loved every second of it. And while I was writing it, I wasn’t obsessing and I wasn’t worrying and I wasn’t pinned in place. I was a thing in motion. And it was glorious.
After it became clear to me that my very first book wasn’t going to sell (its destiny, I realized, was to teach me how to structure a novel, how to follow an idea through narrative arc and revision, through the point-counterpoint harmonics of story structure), and since I had some good momentum from writing Insect King, and since I had an idea that I thought was pretty good, I sat down and started writing The Mostly True Story of Jack. I finished it, wrote my queries (only ten this time, not eleventy million), got my offers, and the rest is history.
Except this: there is so much waiting in this business. You wait for query responses. You wait for revision notes. You wait for feedback. You wait to hear about sales. You wait for contracts. You wait for the dreaded Editorial Letter. You wait for publication dates. You wait for reviews. You wait and wait and wait and wait. And there is, I think a natural inclination to respond to the waiting with a sort of forced stillness. A fly frozen in amber. A butterfly pinned to a board with a needle through its throat. A mammoth stuck in the mud pit. None of these are good outcomes for the animal in question, nor is it a good outcome for the writer.
So here is my advice:
While away the hours with a book that’s just for you. A book that delights only you. A book that lets you get the kinks out, lets you explore, lets you play. Forget waiting, forget queries, forget agents, forget editors. Just write a effing book.
And I have done this multiple times. While waiting for notes for my second book Iron Hearted Violet, I wrote a novel about disappearing grandmas and shapeshifting dog-men and giant nerds and math camp and a terrifying men’s cross-country team and enigmatic janitors and a high school that bends both space and time called Firebirds of Lake Erie. No one will see this book. It’s just for me.
In the time between Iron Hearted Violet and The Witch’s Boy I wrote a family drama about a family splintering apart and coming back together again after the death of a baby called Love You Till The Seas Run Dry. No one will ever see that book either. It’s just for me. These books are important because they teach me things. These books are important because they keep me in motion. These books are important because the universe hates stagnation.
Look. I get it. This work is hard. It is. We have to access deep and painful moments of our lives. We have to make ourselves vulnerable on the page. In order to commune fully and honestly with our characters we have to be willing to break our own hearts, again and again and again. All art is an act of radical empathy, and all art making is an act of courage. And sometimes it’s hard to be courageous and sometimes fear wins out. In order to make art we need to make art. In order to write we need to write. Formation sparks formation sparks formation.
Make art. Get moving. And write that effing book.