Key Points: The second published book may be mechanically easier, but emotionally harder. Your first book may not have an ending, which can teach you to start with a resolution for the second book. Your first book may fail because you are thinking too big, and need to find a story with a cohesive beginning and end. Your first book may teach you that "you can do this." To make the second book easier, learn the terms for what you are doing (e.g. POV, third person limited, character). After finishing book one, trying to write a sequel often is hard because you need a new character arc, something new for the character to learn. Coming up with a compelling new storyline after putting the galaxy in peril can be tough. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. "Stories are good because people you care about are doing things you care about." [Brandon]
[Brandon] And we have...
[Dan] Back from the grave...
[Brandon [Some bad news for you. About three weeks ago, we had John Brown on the podcast, and we joked about his cancer. He actually died. We felt really bad about that. But Dan did actually animate his corpse. I don't know if you know about Dan's...
[Dan] I took a mail correspondence course in necromancy.
[Brandon] It was about that whole palm thing, right?
[Dan] Yeah, I coated my hand in magical ink.
[Howard] We coated John Brown in magical ink.
[Brandon] We now have zombie John Brown with us. Hi, zombie.
[Brandon] Welcome back.
[Howard] You realize anybody who listens to the first five minutes of this podcast is going to be like, "What? Their friend died and they're joking? These people are horrible."
[Dan] Yeah. If this is your first Writing Excuses episode... Hi, welcome to the show.
[Brandon] Oh, boy. The second book. What do we mean by writing the second book? Well, we've talked a lot about... or at least I seem to recall and so I'm going to pretend that we have talked about it even if we haven't, the idea that your first book is generally the hardest thing you'll ever write, and generally the worst thing you will ever write. That second book... you learn so much writing your first book that the second book is a ton easier. But let's talk about that second book. What did you learn from your first book to the second book? What can we say to our listeners who are maybe starting their second book? What advice do we have for them?
[Dan] The second book is mechanically easier, but sometimes it's much harder emotionally than the first one. Especially if your first one was well received. Because then you start the second one, and you think... you get very insecure about it.
[Brandon] So you're talking about your second published book?
[Howard] See, I would argue that the second book... For the vast majority of people who finish a first book, the second book is going to be much more difficult. Because you're going to finish the first book, you're going to have a moment of validation where you were able to say, "Woo hoo. I finished a book." And nobody else cares yet. I have to start a new second book even though my agent is telling me... I don't have an agent. I'm getting rejection letters from agents.
[Brandon] Let's split this into two discussions. Let's talk about unpublished, your second novel...
[Dan] Second book ever.
[Brandon] And let's talk about releasing your second novel. We can also talk about... there's lots of different directions for this. Second book in a series, the options for that. But let's just first talk about when we... I've talked about before, I wrote 13 before I published. Dan, you wrote five before you published [inaudible]
[Dan] I wrote five, and then six got published.
[Brandon] John, what number was Servant of the Dark God? Was it your first book?
[Brandon] It was your second.
[Dan] Do you think you're better than us?
[John] No, I don't.
[Dan] I brought you back to life, I can send you back.
[Brandon] John, tell us about the process of writing your second book.
[John] It involved cows. [Laughter] it was the same. I mean, the first book took me forever because I didn't know what the crap I was doing, right? I had all sorts of stuff in there. There were some brilliant, at least I thought, lovely moments, but it was just a broken book. So going to the second book, I don't know. It was just, let's restart... but I still didn't know really... I mean I knew what I was... I knew better what I was doing, but I still didn't know what I was doing, so it took a number of drafts.
[Brandon] What did you know better? What did you learn?
[John] Well, the big thing is that my first book didn't really have an ending. It just stopped.
[Dan] Yep. That was one of my big problems.
[Brandon] That was mine, also.
[John] Yeah. So this one was, "Oh, no, I really have to have a resolution." In order to have a resolution, I gotta have one main problem that they're trying to solve... a story problem that they can solve. So that was my big thing.
[Brandon] That's amazing that we all did the same thing on our first novel.
[Dan] Well, I would bet that part of the reason for that is... I would imagine that your first was an epic fantasy, John?
[Dan] Because I know mine was, and I imagine Brandon's was.
[Brandon] Yeah. Mine was.
[Dan] When you write epic fantasy and it's your very first one, you're thinking way too big. Way too big for your skills at the time. So my book, it was essentially part 1 of like a 20 book epic wonder series that I thought was going to be awesome. It didn't lead anywhere because my eyes were just way too big.
[John] Yeah, and then... all... with me... that, and if you're developing it over five years, you have all sorts of crap in there that... it's too much... for one... it's the same thing... it's too much. It's going in five different directions, and it's just too much.
[Dan] So the big lesson... one of the big lessons I learned from book one was I need to think a little smaller. I need to find a story within that world and tell that. So actually, my second book was set in the same epic fantasy universe, but it was a more cohesive storyline with a start and an end.
[Brandon] Yeah, I actually... finishing my first book made me say, "Wow, I can actually do this." That was the biggest thing I learned is it is possible. But the second biggest thing I learned was I gotta have a direction for this. Because my first book I ended up, "Oh, we should end somewhere around here, it's gotten really long. Okay let's have a battle." That's really literally what I did. The second book I said, "Okay, what is my ending going to be? What is my problem going to be?" It was really a defining moment because now, you know... I've talked about this before. I never start a book until I know the ending nowadays. It was, I think, that process...
[Howard] So you were discovery writing your way into your outlining process?
[Brandon] Yeah. I think every writer is going to be doing that. People listening to this podcast, they are going to write their... discover their process as they write.
[Howard] The word book applies differently for what I was doing. The... throughout my career as a musician, I had a difficult time refining things enough to where I felt like they were actually finished. Or taking a musical idea and exploring it in a long enough form. When I started cartooning, for whatever reason, I had grown out of that. I was able to take an idea and very quickly explore it for several weeks and then tie it up in a little bow, and then take the same characters and move on and do something else. The first time I pulled that off, I remember looking back at it and thinking, "Hey, I finished something." It was the same lesson that I think, Brandon, you had. It was the I-can-do-this. Well, okay, let's do it again. Then I grew into the process of creating larger and larger works, until these monstrosities that I'm attempting to illustrate now, which have been running for 18 month's.
[Brandon] Right. Well, I think another thing you learn is to start doing things intentionally. Our podcast has talked a lot about that concept, but it was something I kind of had to muddle through to myself. I hadn't taken any writing courses when I started writing. I hadn't read any books on writing. I muddled into it. The second book I started saying, "Oh, I intentionally need to do this. I need to have conflict resolution. I need to try to have problems for the characters. I need to actually intentionally pace it in a certain method." I think the more you write during your beginning years, the more intentionally you learn to do things.
[Howard] I didn't become conscious of most of what I was doing until I started recording this podcast with you guys. Oh, wait. No, I'm serious. Because I didn't have names for 90% of the techniques I was using. It was all... in that sort of such a situation, if something goes wrong and you don't have a term for what it is that you're going, you also lack the ability to fix it. So I think when you are writing your second book, if you are struggling with it, part of what might help is finding the names for the things that you are doing. It's simple things, like POV, third person limited, voice, character... be able to define those terms, so that what you did by reflex the first time around you can do consciously the second.
[John] After my books and after the short stories that I write and everything... this is interesting, I will... because I feel like I'm still learning. I'd like to be the Maestro, but I'm not.
[Howard] Which is amazing for a dead person.
[John] It is. Well, you know life goes on. After...
[Dan] After life? After life has not gone...
[John] After death. Whatever. That's right. I came back.
[Howard] Is that why you guys eat brains?
[John] Yes. That's exactly right.
[Howard] Okay. Good to know. Anyway...
[John] So, I do a debrief of what did I learn, what have I yet to learn... I do a debrief after every one of these projects. Like the last one I did... I just finished draft three of my second novel, I took a month. I just debriefed everything that I had learned this last year. It was... I mean, it was great. It was absolutely great. So book 3 for me is going to be even better than book 2 was in this series, because I was able to go get some more of these terms and solidify a little bit more my model of how story works.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. John, you had a Dean Koontz book you wanted to talk about?
[John] Yeah. Dean Koontz is a lot of oogly-boogly, but he wrote a series of just straight thrillers. The... one of them was Intensity or something, I can't remember. But the last one or the second one... the best one I think is called The Good Guy. Here's the setup. A guy's in a bar and a guy comes in... can I do the setup? Can I do... I have to do it.
[Howard] Go ahead.
[John] This guy comes in and he's joking around. The guy that's just come in mistakes the lead character for somebody else and at one point in the conversation, he slides this manila envelope over and says, "Here's 10,000. You'll get the other 10 when she's gone." Of course, he's stunned. The guy walks out. A few minutes later, another guy comes in, and it's the killer. And so... it's an amazing, amazing thriller. It's called The Good Guy by Dean Koontz.
[Brandon] All right. You can download a free copy by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 15 day free trial, give the book a listen, and support the podcast. Thank you
[Brandon] All right. So. Let's talk a little bit about writing the second book in a series. All right? I think that each of us here have done this in one form or another. Howard, your first book isn't technically even done yet because it's just one big thing, but you know what I mean. You have approached finishing a story...
[Dan] A new storyline.
[Brandon] How do you do this? I found, honestly, the hardest book I've ever written until the Wheel of Time book came along which was its own kind of difficulty, was the second of the Mistborn trilogy. That second book was just amazingly hard. I was surprised at how hard it was.
[Howard] Well, you had two challenges there. You had "what happens next" and you also had "act two." Writing act two can be phenomenally difficult because you want it to stand... not on its own, but you want it to at least stand up for itself and end satisfactorily. That's really difficult to shape in the trilogy format.
[Brandon] Well, one issue was... we talked a few weeks ago about character arcs. The idea that you have this book that you've done and you put these characters through these very interesting arcs. Then you sit down for book 2 and you say, "Wow, did I just do it all? Is there anything left to do?"
[Dan] Yeah. When I sat down to write my first sequel, my model actually was the movie Spiderman 2. Not because I wanted to copy its specifics, but I thought that that was a brilliant way of taking a character who in movie one had a very solid arc, beginning to end. That, it seemed closed. Yet for number 2, they found something new for that character to deal with and a new direction for him to grow in. I thought that was very well done. I sat down and re-watched it and analyzed it. I think the Dark Knight did this same thing, found a new direction for its hero to go.
[Brandon] Okay. John, have you had any... was it difficult to write the second book or was it easier than the first one?
[John] It was more difficult because this time I had a deadline. So there was a lot of deadline stress. That was the main thing that was just killing me. The... so it took... it took two major drafts me to get it right. But I think it was actually... besides that, it was actually easier for me to write because I'd done this debrief. I knew better what I was doing, I could be more intentional about it. I started the book saying I want to do... I had a list. I want to do this, this, this. Kind of like what Dan was saying. I want my... I looked at second books... I'd studied a couple of second books in series. I like this, and I like this, and I didn't like that at all, I hated that, I want to do this. Then it was just that creative process of How... what... am I going to do... what can I do to do that? I did this in the first book that I want to do a little bit different. So in that way, it was a little bit easier for me.
[Brandon] Okay. Howard? Act two?
[Brandon] Act two, I honestly think, is the hardest act. Writing your first essential sequel Schlock after you finished your first main storyline. Was it more difficult, was it easier? What?
[Howard] One of the things that was difficult for me, and it was immediately following the Resident Mad Scientist book. We finish Resident Mad Scientist and the fleet mind has gotten together and saved the galaxy. Coming up with a storyline after that, that was compelling was difficult.
[Brandon] Right. Because you just put the entire galaxy in peril and saved it. Now what?
[Howard] Exactly. Now what? I realized that when the entire galaxy was in peril, we had very few longshots where we see what's actually happening. In fact I was careful, I think, to draw none of them. We didn't have to see millions of people potentially dying. What that meant is that I was showing the peril in Resident Mad Scientist through the eyes of individual characters. I can take those same individual characters and I can put them in the same amount of peril. There's just not as much necessarily at stake for everybody else. So I just brought it back down to those characters and asked myself the question, "Where do I want these people to end up at the end of this book?" The next book was Emperor Pius Dei which did some other fascinating sorts of author's message-y sorts of things. Which I'm not going to dwell on right now. I had fun. I had a really good time with some of those characters, because I was able to step away from the big galactic crisis and say, "Well, hey, they're mercenaries. What are they going to do next? They saved the galaxy and now they're expected to still earn their keep."
[Brandon] You know... big... I want to highlight this concept. Because it seems like Hollywood has a problem with this. Which is every sequel needs to be bigger. Every sequel needs to be bigger, so Spiderman 3... Spiderman 2 was awesome, Spiderman 3, let's add two extra villains. Same thing happened with the original Batman stories. John Brown and I were talking about this earlier. This idea of bigger must be better. I think it's a problem. It's false...
[Howard] It's a falsehood.
[Brandon] It's completely false. Stories are good because people you care about are doing things you care about. It doesn't mean they have to do bigger things. It just has to have that emotional connection. Dan?
[Dan] I was just going to say, I have an example from Howard's comic. I forgot the dude's name, but in the Mall Cop story, there was the big guy who had the kind of little love story.
[Dan] That was, I think, one of the most interesting stories and had one of the coolest payoff moments, even though it was this incredibly small story about a guy who kind of falls for a girl. You don't need to put the entire galaxy at peril...
[Brandon] Every comic.
[Dan] When you can get those resonant moments and catch the reader and say, "Well, I've kind of had a thing for a girl before."
[Howard] Well, if the galaxy is always in peril, you have one of two things happening. You have everybody bored with the danger, or you have a situation that's just overly tense or overly depressing...
[Brandon] Or overly ridiculous. The test is, how often can the universe really be in peril?
[Howard] Or overly ridiculous.
[Dan] It depends. Does Buffy live there?
[John] Well, I just want to say... there are two different kinds of series. There's the series like Jim Butcher's Dresden files where it's... or you look at a lot of TV series where it's we're just going to... we love the connection with the characters, we're going to solve a different problem every week or every book. It's just different. But there are also series where it builds in... I mean, it's kind of an epic build. In those series, you better start smaller. You better not get the elephant pulling the little wagon behind. You better get the wagon first, then the elephant, because otherwise you're screwed in those. So in some of those, you do have to do it that way.
[Howard] It's the "to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street" series?
[John] [laughter] Yeah. Something like that.
[Brandon] All right. Zombie John Brown. Writing prompt.
[John] Writing prompt. You have developed some strange thing... your character has developed some strange thing on his nose. So you get three different things that you could do. Somebody comes up and says, "I think that's an alien." Or somebody comes up from the occult and says, "I think I know what that is." Or it's a love story. It develops into a love story. Not with the growth. With somebody else.
[Dan] Maybe with the growth. Don't limit them.
[John] Not with the growth, Dan.
[Howard] No, the occult one is actually a love story with the growth. The love story with somebody else is a...
[John] Three options. You have a problem [inaudible]
[Brandon] Here I thought I was safe by giving it to someone other than Dan. Who by the way has been recording this entire podcast with his microphone clipped to the front bill of his baseball cap. So...
[Dan] To be fair, it's a Star Trek baseball cap. Let's not spread nasty rumors about me.
[Howard] You just admitted to wearing a Star Trek baseball cap?
[Dan] As opposed to an actual sports-themed baseball cap. I just want to keep my cred.
[John] Ah, his nerd cred.
[Brandon] Yeah. Oh boy. Okay. I think you're out of excuses, now go write.
[Dan] I think we're out of excuses at this point in the podcast.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes, we are.