Thursday, 9 August 2012

Book 2: Making progress

A writer at Harrogate
A triumph of hope over experience. Often quoted, this remark is said to be Samuel Johnson's response on hearing of an acquaintance's second marriage. It could also apply to what I'm doing now: writing a sequel to a first novel which has yet to find its audience. I've always been an optimist.

Work on this second novel, called A Stranger Coming Home, is going well. Having had no deadline (and no idea what I was letting myself in for) when I started writing No Stranger to Death, I was able to try out different creative techniques to find what suited me best. This time around I already have my modus operandi. Or so I thought.

As I’ve blogged about in the past, I discovered to my surprise that I’m a pantser, incapable of planning an entire novel before I write it. I do, though, need to know what crime it centres around, and have an ending to work towards. Book 2 being a sequel, I already have a setting and a readymade cast of characters, bar the ones killed off or otherwise rendered unavailable by events in Book 1.

At the risk of sounding a complete amateur, I admit I enjoy reading how-to-write books, though definitely not the ones promising you can write a novel in an unfeasibly short space of time if you use their foolproof system. If I get stuck (‘blocked’ would be over-stating it) I find reading a textbook prods my imagination into action. Recently I’ve been helped in this way by Jeff Gerke’s Plot versus Character.

Gerke’s premise is that there are two types of writers: those for whom plot ideas come easily, and those more adept at creating characters. I put myself firmly into the first camp, and have thus far shied away from grinding out detailed character biographies as I know many ‘plotters’ do. However, Book 2 requires someone who is only referred to in Book 1 to make an appearance, so I gave Gerke’s ‘layering’ technique for character development a go. And it worked.

From deciding which of the 16 Myers-Briggs personalities he is, to making his personal heroes Bernie Ecclestone and Jackie Stewart, and having him thrown out of agricultural college in his first term, I’ve mapped out Robbie Mackenzie. In the process, how he influences events and reacts to situations has become clear, and his part in the drama will be far bigger. He has also supplied an alternative – or possibly additional – ending to the entire novel.

I can’t promise to create every one of my characters in such detail, but now I have one more tool to use when needed. And this has been a timely reminder that in many ways, but especially as a writer, I also continue to be a work in progress.


  1. I think it's smart of you not to wait for the first novel's success to start writing the second. Of course, any edits requested by an agent or editor for the first might cascade into the second, but so what? It's better than sitting around dreaming and waiting.

    As for enjoying reading how-to-write books I think anyone calling you out for being an amateur for that better a) be very successful right now, b) never have had similar books on their shelves and c) have all the answers.

    But maybe I'm just saying that because I'm a rank amateur who enjoys such books myself. I'll have to add this Jeff Gerke book to my "To check out" list.

    1. Hi Jeff, thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your comment. I'm reassured by your enthusiasm for how-to-write books too. The Gerke book is definitely one of the best I've read.

  2. Best of luck with the novel, Janet. I'm rather addicted to how-to-write-crime books, I must admit, and have quite a collection of them now. It's always possible to learn a new way of tacking a writing problem, and one never stops learning or trying to improve.

  3. Kind of you to visit, Martin, and confirm that even established writers enjoy how-to-write books. Perhaps that could be the subject of one of your own posts? I shall pop over to your site and suggest this.