June 7, 2012

Second book syndrome

Filed under: Advice for writers,articles,ask an author,bloggery,growing up,how I write,Q&A — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 6:50 pm

Lee Weatherly asked how second book syndrome affected me:
“By ‘second book syndrome’ I’m talking about the difficulties that come with writing your first commissioned title – usually with your first book, you write it on your own time, there’s no real pressure, etc – then with the second book, suddenly you have a deadline and a publisher’s expectations. What was once just your passion is now your job, with all the stress that can entail; how do you make the shift? Also, if your first book does very well or sells for a lot of money, that can (perversely) just make the second book far harder to write.”

Rhiannon Lassiter replies:
Hex: Shadows coverWhen I was 19 I was offered a two book contract on the basis of one book part written and one yet to be decided. Second book syndrome kicked in while I was still at university and still very unsure of my own ideas. I suggested a second book in the same series, a sequel to my first, or rather the middle book of a possible trilogy. It wasn’t my aim was to push the company into contracting me for a third. Although I had a number of new ideas I also wanted to continue the story I’d started with the characters of my first novel. Ultimately what decided the issue was that the first novel was selling well and the publishing company seemed keen to continue with more. They published the whole trilogy, which continues to sell well to this day.

However, in retrospect, I made the wrong decision about that second book. If I hadn’t been working on my first degree at the time and struggling with balancing academia and creative writing; or if I’d been more commercially minded, or thought more towards future development – I would have decided differently.

Most professional writers come to writing as their second career. They have some experience in the job market already. They’ve had a different career path and made time for their writing on the side, squeezing their evenings and weekends until they had something they could sell and make enough money to afford to write part time or full time.

I started writing full time straight out of university. I was working on my trilogy and was feeling positive about more contracts ahead. But once my only job was to write and I’d locked myself into this particular idea I started to notice an artistic issue with what I was writing. I was having so many ideas for so many new novels and new ways to write but in this particular trilogy I needed to stay true to the style and concept of the original book.

By the time I started writing my fourth novel I felt I ought have been much more developed as a creative artist than I was. The novel I wrote then was at a complete and wild variance to my previous work. My ideas have always spanned a wide range of genres and as my writing career has developed I’ve had published books across a range about half as wide. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to sell YA and junior, fantasy, SF and contemporary fiction ideas. But I should have started earlier.

Several years later a friend of mine published her first novel and told me she’d been offered another contract and the option of writing a sequel to her first book. I advised her against it. I suggested she write something completely different in another genre to avoid boxing herself in too soon. That’s what she did, and after three more successful novels returned to the world of her first book from the position of being much more assured in her craft, with a established list of novels in different styles and a new perspective on the earlier work.

My friend and I have both achieved success in writing across genres and styles but if you don’t want to be stereotyped early, I’d recommend avoiding series fiction as your entry into professional writing. As a newly published author – as any kind of author – your mind will be seething with ideas; you need to allow yourself time to experiment with them.

Writing full time is not the best career for a new graduate with no experience of the rest of the working world. I was incredible fortunate in that I had the opportunity to do this. But I started with no experience in managing my finances and planning my workload. The way that writers are paid advances (on signature, delivery and publication) and royalties (twice a year after advances have earned out) means that financial forward planning is virtually impossible because it all depends on the market. Don’t take for granted sales figures that make it possible to work full time as a writer; the period in which your book is on sale in bookshops, being reviewed and noticed and marketed is fleeting.

Ultimately second book syndrome leads to third book syndrome and fourth book syndrome and so on. I know authors who have published hundreds of books; but managing publishers expectations and your own expectations of your work never ends. The lessons that you learn are to give yourself space and to be kind to yourself about your workload and rigorous when it comes to your art. Every writer has to learn that individually but I’d recommend gaining self knowledge of what kind of writer you are by stretching the boundaries of possibility as soon as you can. Whether it’s your work space (and I redesigned mine on a yearly basis until about three years ago) or the time you set aside or your style, or genre or whatever makes you individual, expand to your boundaries, learn them and break them.

The second novel is too soon for you to decide your identity.

February 29, 2012

Ask an author: How can I learn to be a novelist?

Filed under: Advice for writers,ask an author — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 7:40 am

Rhiannon (a fan) asks: I was just wondering if could give me some advice on how to start off being a novelist because I have a poem published but really want to be a writer because I have a wild imagination.

Rhiannon (the author) replies:

Dear Rhiannon (what a lovely name! ;)

Like you, I enjoy poetry and I won a poetry competition when I was 13 and it was one of the things that made me think about writing seriously. Congratulations on having your poem published!

There are lots of different ways to become a writer. The best way to get started is to read a lot and to write a lot. Let your imagination take you to extraordinary places and then work on writing them down so that they’re as real to other people as they are to you. Think about what you’re reading and what you’re writing. Think about what makes a character or a place exciting, interesting and worth discovering more about. Think about the kind of story you and your friends enjoy reading and talk to your friends about your ideas. Maybe you could join a book group or a writers group to share your ideas with other people.

I keep an ideas file (both electronically and in hard copy) where I write down my ideas for books. I also have a lot of notebooks so I can sketch out ideas and plans and notes. I often have lots of different stories in my head, on paper and in electronic text. You can refer back to your notes, keep different projects in different folders or notebooks and pick up and put down different ideas as you go. Don’t be afraid to put down an idea if it seems to go dead in your head. You’ll have lots of false starts and lots of ideas that you can’t yet see how to develop. As long as you’re enjoying writing and inventing stories, keep going, eventually you should find the seed of an idea which you can develop into a novel.

NaNoWriMo is a community project to help people write a lot of words. Novels tend to be 60,000+ words so you need to be able to sustain a story across a lot of words. But the more you write the better at it you’ll become. Once you’ve learned how to write multiple chapters you can hone your writing to ensure it’s expressing and achieving what you want it to.

Good luck with becoming a writer and with your poetry. Poetry is an art of its own and perhaps you’ll find a way to use your poetry in writing fiction.

February 8, 2012

Ask an author: an occasional feature

Filed under: ask an author,bloggery — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 7:45 pm

Got a question for an author. Ask it here!
Caution: all #askanauthor advice contains high levels of honesty and should be taken with care.

I’m thinking of quitting my job and spending a year writing a book. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Should I follow my dream?”

Rhiannon says: Don’t quit your job! 60% of professional authors don’t make enough to support themselves on their writing income alone. Start by working on your book in evenings and weekends, set aside time to write it and get a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook for lists of professional contacts and submission advice. If you get a good response from agents consider approaching your employer about going part time.
Following your dream is much more possible when your bills are paid. It’s hard to manufacture inspiration when you’re fretting about the rent cheque.

I want to write a book about a vampire family in New Orleans or a game in which teenagers compete to the death.

Rhiannon says: Let me stop you there. It’s really important to know the market. Every genre of fiction has classics and current top sellers. Make a note of them. You want to write something that appeals to the same audience as these books – but don’t end up rewriting them. Even if you came across the idea independently, if it’s like something else that already exists you need to find a radical new twist or route into that kind of story to persuade a publisher to buy a book that’s too like an existing title.

Do you think it is a good or a bad idea to take real life events and people and put them in your writing?

Rhiannon says: That depends on how you use them. I’ve drawn on real life events in my writing, for example the first time I had really bad vertigo. But events and situations that involve other people can be tricky. There are events that occur in most people’s lives from the first day of school to the first really bad breakup. Drawing on your own experience adds depth to these events but if you find yourself retelling a real life situation or putting someone you know into a book stop and consider if you want to write this kind of autobiographical fiction. It exposes you – especially if one of your characters becomes a thinly veiled authorial self-insertion. Do you want to be judged on your witty/truthful/insightful retelling or real life or on your creation of situations characters who you invent who you hope will feel real to the reader. What kind of author do you want to be?

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