What Now? Five Things I’ve Learned about Writing

832 days.

Exactly the number of days that elapsed between publication of the first book and completion of the sequel’s first full draft. That works out to 2 years and 102 days, most of spent not writing anything at all.

Anyhoodle, I wouldn’t call 832 days a long time (I mean, Anne Boleyn had a longer stint in her famously short reign as Queen of England), but it was during this period that I learned a good deal about writing, and about the kind of writer I am.

Here are five of them for a start. 

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#1. Reading is as important as writing

The best cure for writer’s block, in my opinion, is to read as many books as possible. I’ll forever be grateful to my husband for procuring me a Kindle five years ago. Back then, a Kindle was the quickest and most convenient way to access very specific titles about very niche topics, but more recently, it’s how I expose myself to multiple genres of books and styles of writing.

I never used to see reading as more than just a passionate hobby; however, since I began to take writing more seriously, and experienced those frequent moments of “feeling stuck,” books have become not just a welcome relief, but also a necessary distraction. When no ideas were coming, or the thought juices just weren’t flowing, that’s when I knew I had to take a break from my own imagination and enter into another author’s world.

It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg thing: you can’t love writing without also loving reading—for only a passion for literature will sustain you through difficult moments in writing.

#2. Sequels are twice the difficulty level

I wish somebody had told me this before I committed myself publicly to Book II. As an inexperienced, first-time author, it seemed more logical at the time to introduce Tea in Pajamas as a light novella with series potential than to hone it into a larger, more comprehensive work.

I was prepared to make my debut book a standalone title and adopt a “we’ll see” approach when it came to anything after. However, when almost everyone who read it expressed curiosity about the next instalment in my undeclared series, it became more viable to “finish what I started.”

Once I got down to it, however, one fact became immediately obvious: baggage.

The most exciting part about writing a new novel is the promise of a fresh start. Brand new characters, places and situations, and much more creative room in general for maneuvering .

Sequels, however? There is no luxury of a reset button. New characters and locations can be introduced, but only insofar as they bear relevance to the story and existing characters. You also want to be wary about not creating more characters and places than you or the reader need or can handle. How will they all tie in? Will they enhance the story or be a meaningless distraction? And then there’s the main characters: these guys need the writer’s utmost attention. Since readers already have some prior knowledge about them from the first book, they need to be fleshed out in far more detail this time. Their thoughts and motivations must by this point become so obvious to both the writer and reader that anything they say and however way they respond feels natural and true-to-character. Additionally, do they have secrets we have yet to uncover, and how will they carry the story from start to end?

I’m sure you get the idea: there’s a whole lot more thought and deliberation behind every detail and creative choice you make.

Doesn’t mean sequels are less enjoyable to write—in fact, I found the writing of Book II to be next-level exciting—they’re just so much harder to pull off.

#3. You’ll draft an elaborate roadmap, only to abandon it

This was especially true for the second book. In the first, I stuck fairly closely to an outline I had in mind, culled a few characters, and changed situations up a bit, but by and large the essence of the storyline remained intact.

This sequel was much less straightforward. Yes there was a basic premise, but everything in between was a gigantic question mark.

In my planning stages, I did a great deal of background research on Greek mythology (ooh, spoilers!) as well as real-life places I drew inspiration from. I also created mood boards on Pinterest, kept track of every character’s physical attributes (down to their hair and eye color, apparel and type of voice), and storyboarded the hell out of everything.

And then I began to write, and something strange happened. My characters had different ideas about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do—and the plot developed organically based off that.

It felt crazy and counterintuitive to veer so dramatically from the initial plan, but I also recognized that I was onto something. Because the less I bothered about what I wanted, and the more I trusted the characters and the instincts they were feeding me, the more naturally the text flowed.

As for all that prep work? I’d say only 20% was relevant enough to be used.

Am I making sense? I suppose what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to writing, it’s great to have plans, but it’s even better to go with the flow.

#4. It’s not all about you (the writer)

Wait, isn’t that why people become writers—to tell a story exactly the way they want to? Sure. Yet in order to tell a story, one first has to be in the story.

Writing is a vehicle into a specific place in a specific time in a specific part of the writer’s imagination. When writing is in full-swing, the writer enters an almost transcendent experience where he or she becomes an invisible spectator in a world where one sees all and feels all but does not interfere.

I felt this very acutely in the writing of the second book, probably because I had to really “dig deep.” So much so that when I had to take writing breaks to tend to other responsibilities, I would feel a little disoriented from the shift from subconscious to reality.

I cannot speak for other writers, but in my case, writing was not a one-sided endeavor. In order to fill the story with words, I first had to listen to and be guided by my characters. Sounds so “method,” doesn’t it? But I kid you not. A writer is less engineer and more messenger.

That’s not to say I was completely passive in the process: I was in command insofar as how I chose my phrases, structured my sentences, organized my chapters, and shaped the finished product. Plot-wise, however, controlling less and trusting more allowed me to travel down new and exciting paths I never could’ve forged through sheer imagination.

There’s no story without a writer to write it, and no story without characters to fill it. For both to exist, there can only be collaboration. So collaborate.

#5 Have faith: it will all work out

Beyond the need to trust your characters and your instincts about them, is the need to trust that all will work out eventually.

I’m talking less about a simplistic “they lived happily ever after” scenario, and more about the need to trust that seemingly irrelevant subplots, ridiculous plot twists, and annoying side characters all have a part to play in the grander scheme of things. Their purpose may not be obvious at the outset, but have faith. You put them in the story for a reason (even if that same reason eludes you). More often than not, they will present unique opportunities to enrich your plot.

Case in point: because this sequel has almost three times as many characters as the first book, I was worried that I might have to kill off a few characters that seemed a little “extra.”

However, as I told their stories, I began to really understand them and their place in the book, however small. I told myself I’d cull anyone who began to feel like deadweight and bring down the story on the whole, but none of these characters did. In fact, they did a great job of giving readers an insight into how supporting characters saw the main ones.

So, long story short, everything did work out eventually. No one died from the unnatural causes of an author’s “delete” button, and I’m glad.

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Are there more than five things I’ve learned about writing? Sure. But I will save those for a future entry, as this post has gone into #TLDR territory.

But if you’ve read up to this point, I love you.

Featured photo: rock painting of Tea in Pajamas cover by Joseph Tey

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