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Over the past few days I’ve come up with two subjects I want to blog about, but I’m determined to answer some more questions first as promised.

Mike Reynolds had five good questions, so this time let’s address those.

1. The Second Book Syndrome: How does one avoid the trend of having a disappointing second book and what do these books typically lack in comparison to the debut novel (other than time spent in development)?

Time IS a crucial element. Most first books were written over the course of many months, if not years. And then when the book is contracted, it’s likely to include an expectation for a follow-up book in several months or up to a year at the most. That creates a pressure to write that usually is counter-productive. And pressure—for most writers—hampers creativity.

The other main obstacle is that often an author’s first novel is written out of a passion that may not be present in subsequent novels. An obvious solution for serious fiction writers is to have several red-hot ideas for books going at once. Not necessarily actively writing several books at once, but at least keeping a notebook on each one, adding tidbits as necessary to keep the fire going.

Interestingly, not all authors realize that when a novel is sold, they’re entering into a career of sorts. One truly gifted novelist I acquired told me (after writing eight books for us) that when she approached me with her first novel manuscript, she had no plans for future books. She was taken aback when we asked her what her next book was about and when could it be ready?

2. What are the Ingredients of a Great Lead Character?

The top three ingredients on my list are:
• A likeability that will cause the reader to identify with the lead character.
• The usual assortment of strengths and faults
• A tad quirky, but not TOO quirky.

What I don’t like in a lead character is genericness. I may be alone in this though, because I do see generic characters in CBA novels that sell well. Even so, I find it makes for a boring book.

3. The Supporting Cast: How do I surround my lead character with compelling co-stars?

Let the star of the book choose their co-stars. Imagine them with various sorts of characters and see how they react. Recently on Facebook I mentioned that I was having an argument with a character in a book I’m thinking of writing. She is a supporting character, but she doesn’t’ seem to know that. She introduced herself to me as Dixie Matlock. I told her that “Dixie” was okay, but “Matlock” was a TV lawyer and would have to go. She didn’t like that at all and she let me know about it no uncertain terms. From our brief exchange, I can see that Dixie will be fighting with the two lead characters for on-stage time throughout the book. As much I want to dislike Dixie, I realize that she has some sassiness that will add spice to the book—and perhaps even more—she’ll provide some good turns of the plot because she is so unlike the two leads.

In short, choose characters (or rather let your leads choose characters) who will act as counterpoints to the leads. And NO stereotypes. I may face this problem with Dixie. She may yet want to trot out all the sassy-lady stereotype traits. THAT argument is one I will insist on winning.

4. Not That Again: The most hackneyed plot lines you see and how to avoid them.

To be honest, it’s not the plot lines that are hackneyed, it’s the writing. I can take a common plot and love it, if the writing is good. But even if the most unique plot will bore me if the writing is bad. So concentrate on the writing and let the plot—whatever it is—happen.

5. The Cliff: How a promising start of a novel often loses its steam.

I do see plenty of manuscripts where the story starts well, but does lose steam eventually. Fortunately, it usually happens early, so I don’t waste a lot of time on a novel that goes nowhere. I think what happens is that first the novelist loses his or her steam and that simply results in a novel losing its steam. Part of the author’s job description is to keep his or her enthusiasm at a high pitch all the way through at least the first draft. Preferably, of course, through ALL drafts. But the first draft is crucial in capturing the story’s passion. At least it is for me. Other authors may find that it works best to add the passion later. Either way, I think a novel that has lost its steam is simply revealing an author who has lost his steam for the story. And the reader will likewise lose steam and close the book.

Next time we’ll answer Dana’s question and an exercise she is proposing. Stay tuned!

It may surprise some of you to learn that of my ten published books, two are fiction. In fact, my first two published books were novels three and four in the four-volume Ann of the Prairie series, now out of print. The books actually sold well and we had a nice endorsement for the series from Janette Oke who said: “Heartwarming and heart-rending…a reminder of what life was really like.”

I was such a novice—this was twenty years ago—but I do remember at the time thinking Wow, I can do this! I can write a novel! I remember that it was important to me to make that mental note because I instinctively knew that in the future, self-doubts might crop up—as they surely did.

My next eight books were all non-fiction, but the fiction bug, along with the realization wow, I can do this! has never left me. Every so often I steel myself on the edge of the deep end of the pool and consider making the jump. Now is such a time. Partly the decision is based on the lack of movement with some non-fiction proposals I’ve prepared. (I’m astonished no publisher is begging to publish these terrific books 🙂 , but such is the case). Naturally, I’m assuming the minute I get totally absorbed in a novel, I’ll have all kinds of renewed interest in my non-fiction. Such is the writer’s life.

As I’ve been thinking about the historical novel I want to write, I’ve been a bit stuck in that I only know the ending so far. That’s unusual for me, but I’m game to try writing to an ending I already have in mind. The problem is finding out what happens on the first 250 pages of the book. I’ve tried to figure it out, but to no avail. But since I know the era and the major historical event that plays a huge part in the plot, last night I decided to begin my research even without a plot. And as I read, I realized that just allowing myself to be transported to the time and place of the story may be enough to eventually reveal the story I want to tell. It was thrilling, in a way. As I was reading, I could almost imagine my three (so far) characters in the setting. Surely that’s a good start. I know those three storyless characters are quite anxious. I can see them standing in the streets of the city in question, arms crossed, looking to me to give them their script. Sorry guys! I’m doing my best!

I’m anxious now to do some more reading and hope that the story will be hidden in the pages of the non-fiction books I’m reading. This rings true with one of my favorite Stephen King quotes about writing:

Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. . . . Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. you can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artifical and labored.

So right now, I’m digging for my story amid the ruins of history.

Comments?

Have some of you found your story during or after your research, and not before?