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Don’t Shortchange Those Second and Third and Tenth Books

November 25, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 25, 2014

Most writers are nearly obsessive about their first novels. They spend inordinate amounts of time crafting the perfect opening line, the most captivating opening action sequence, a memorable final image.

Writers choose each word of that first effort with care and deliberation, changing and reworking until passages sing or scream or whisper with emotion—whatever it is they are supposed to do.

Writers work out intricate plot details and give characters scintillating dialogue. They know the story setting inside and out.

But by the time the writer has put together three or four mysteries featuring the same detective or has written four or five romances or the fifth story in an open-ended series, the writing can become stale. Common. Uninspired.

I’ve seen it happen more than once, this shift from the search for the perfect word or phrase to the acceptance of the ho-hum, but the practice seems more common to writers putting out books at a fast rate, perhaps in order to satisfy reader demand.

My suggestion is that you not shortchange the stories after the first one. Don’t shortchange any story or the reader, but be especially mindful not to hold back on books and manuscripts after that first one. Each novel (or short story or novella) deserves your best effort. Your best words. The full range of your skills and creativity.

Maybe writing the fifth or sixth novel won’t take as much time since you will have learned new tricks and techniques with subsequent stories. But the elements of good fiction should be found in subsequent books no less than in the first effort.

Don’t settle for clichés or even common phrases in your stories. Think about craft, about putting what you know to work for you with every writing project.

Don’t skimp on the good stuff just because you’ve got deadlines, especially if the deadlines are self-imposed.

Yes, meet your deadlines and don’t take forever between writing projects—I’m not saying that you shouldn’t meet deadlines. I am saying that if you’re going to skip anything, skip the common and the boring, not the necessary.

Common phrases—not quite clichés but phrases that could fit any story, thus not wording peculiar to your characters and plot—make stories seem familiar to readers. They make readers wonder if they’ve read the story before.

You don’t want readers thinking that your fifth novel sounds just like your fourth and, come to think of it, rather like the third as well. Instead of familiarity, you want readers feeling that each novel is new, with new revelations and adventures, even if the characters and/or setting are the same.

You definitely don’t want readers thinking that your book six sounds like the latest from Author X.

And I’m not referring to similar plot lines or characters, though those could be problems as well.

I’m talking about settling for common phrases again and again without expending the effort to come up with story-specific words.

Don’t tire of being creative. Don’t tire of writing for specific characters undergoing specific dramas and adventures in specific places and times.

Every story deserves your best effort. The readers you expect to buy your books certainly deserve your best.

Consider one of your WIPs—have you been coasting through the creation of it? Have you settled for common actions and descriptions and dialogue, content to just get the story down? Do you plan to accept it as “good enough” even though you know it isn’t your best, certainly not the quality of writing you should be producing?

Let me encourage you to push past the common, to go back to the days when you crafted a story, when you didn’t simply throw one out there. Write a work of high quality. Take your new skills and the tricks you’ve learned to not only write faster, but to write better. Write smarter.

Make your second and third and fourth stories at least as creative as the first. They should definitely be stronger in terms of the mechanics and in terms of the fiction elements.

Don’t hold back. Don’t try to get by. Don’t get tired of pushing toward perfection.

I encourage you to not sleep through the writing of your fifth or sixth or tenth books, assuming that your readers want the same old, same old. Give readers new phrasings, new imagery. Remind them of a character’s background or quirks if you’re writing a series or using recurring characters, but don’t give them the same wording again and again.

Give each adventure its own flavor and high points. Give each its own low points. Give every story a new twist or two. A new approach. A new hook.

Remind yourself that you’re not writing new chapters for the first book, but new chapters for a new book, a book that needs its own style and focus and impact.

Don’t shortchange your stories or your readers. Give each book your complete attention and all your creativity. Write great fiction, whether it’s your first or your twentieth book.

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2 Responses to “Don’t Shortchange Those Second and Third and Tenth Books”

  1. I stopped my series after the third book because I was afraid it would lose its “shine”. If you don’t stay just as excited writing it maybe you need to take a hard look and make that decision.

  2. I agree, Yvonne. And readers can tell when a writer has lost interest or the excitement of a particular series or character.

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