Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Problem With Second Books: Advice Please!

I always heard people talk about how difficult writing the Second Book was. The first book is almost always written without any thought of publication. Dreams, maybe, but no realistic expectation that anyone is ever going to read it. That's how it was for me, anyway. The stories in The White Road and Other Stories were written over about 2 years. All the science-inspired ones, the longer ones, were written while I was doing an MA in Creative Writing, and I'd never had anything published. My only thoughts then were, Please let me have enough words to pass the MA! I just wanted to get enough stories written to make the word count. I wasn't thinking about how they might work together, it was hard enough to write one story, let alone consider questions of collections and structure. 

Now, things are very very different. Now my name is on the spine of an actual book, a book that's been read by people I'm not related to, a book that's received reviews. What a wonderful thing! But it certainly makes the writing of Book 2 a different experience. I feel watched. I have thoughts in my head of what a reviewer might say... and this is before I've really even started writing it! 

Also, it's going to be another collection of short fiction, but this time with a very strong theme or concept - inspired by biology, inspired by being in the University labs, and also as a fictional response to a classic 1917 biology book. I've never been in this situation before, having committed to writing an entire book that fits this concept, being funded to do this by the Arts Council. How do I conceive of this project in my mind? Yes, I wrote the Arts Council application and said I'd do all sorts of things that sounded so impressive - but how do I actually now carry that out?

One thing I am mulling over is whether I write all the stories and keep them to myself until the whole collection is ready, or do I send individual stories out along the way to see if any get published? This immediately throws up another question: should the stories stand alone? Now when you talk about short stories, or when I'd always talked about them, I'd always asserted that yes, any short story in a collection should stand alone. Should? Is there a should? I'd love some opinions here. 

This isn't quite the same as something like a novel-in-stories, I don't imagine the same characters cropping up. But the stories will seem different when read in the context of the concept, the fictional response to the 1917 book. Yes, I could include a quote from the book at the beginning of a particular story when I submit it to a lit mag... but increasingly I am wondering about the effectiveness of quotes at the beginnings of stories. Yes, I did it a lot in TWR, but I imagine a lot of people skipped the quote and just read the story.

Ok, I can already hear many of you shouting at me, "Don't worry about all that now! Just write and see what happens!" Yes, you're quite right. I should do that. This is me being neurotic, right? But it also feels like I should spend a little time contemplating before I embark on this, to set sail in the right direction. Or at least to set sail in a direction even if I then change course. Advice appreciated - has anyone else approached a second short story collection in a completely different way from the first? Or any second book? Also, as readers would you want each story to stand alone?


robin black said...

I relate to this - a lot. I am working on book # 2 also, after having a story collection, If I loved you,I would tell you this, come out this year. That book took me 8 years and the stories were not written as a collection, but as individual pieces. I never even thought of it as a collection until very very late in the process. Now, I am writing a novel and though at this point I feel good about progress, I have had that exact same feeling that the big difference is that I can't kid myself that no one will see it. I worry about disappointing the folks who liked the first one. I worry about whether or not I am worrying about that. I very much want to write with no thoughts of all that stuff - but I'm not sure it's possible. Or at least it takes some serious mental tricks to clear those concerns away.
So, I guess I don't have much advice - but much empathy.

Thanks as ever for being so open and articulate about your process!


Tania Hershman said...

thank you so much for being open about your process too. Yes, exactly, I can't kid myself that no-one will see it, although there is of course a very large chance that it won't get published, and actually thinking like that makes me feel much better so please no comments assuring me that I'll have no problem finding a publisher! I think we have to kid ourselves a bit. Someone once told me, or I read it somewhere, of a writer- Stephen King??- who keeps a note over his desk saying "No-one will ever read this". Maybe that's what we need.

Re disappointing folks, yes there is also that - I don't think I am writing in the same way as I did 7 years ago, I like to think I'm more experimental and would like the freedom to be even more so. I guess we really can't contemplate how what we are writing is going to be received by anybody, can we? Mental tricks, that's all that's in our arsenal. Robin -does your agent help with this or not? Not having one myself, I'm curious!

Joe Melia said...

This may not be very helpful, T, but as a reader I don't think there are any 'shoulds' or 'dos' or 'don'ts'at all. And you're a writer who ploughs fresh furrows and blazes trails, constantly, so we readers will look forward to the stories you write with real excitement and no anticipation of any formula/rule adherence! Probably not the help you're after, soz, but can't wait to see what you come up with!

Tania Hershman said...

Thanks, Joe, that is nice to know! I do know about the "shoulds", it's easy to give that advice to other people, much harder to take it myself!

Diane Becker said...

I haven't published my first book yet (and still a way to go) but I know that as a writer, I can't think about the reader AT ALL because the thought of it stops me writing. Full stop. Being a writer has to be a self-centred experience from a creative point of view. It's your response to something you're interested in. That'll shine through in whatever you end up writing and we'll all want to buy it! Good luck with the book Tania, and don't worry xx

Tania Hershman said...

Diane, so true, it really is. I'm being neurotic, clearly. Part of my procrastination strategies! Thank you :)

robin black said...

That's funny Tania because that is something I have always told students the first time we meet: Put a note on your computer that says "No one ever has to read a word I write." I may even have a thing about that on my blog - and it sounds like I'm in good company.

I have a slightly different situation because my novel was part of a two-book deal, so I do have the great thing of not having to worry about it selling or not selling which I appreciate a lot - every day. And I have the sense of it mattering to people that I write. But it also means that I have a whole crew of people peering over my shoulder and though they are all very good about not breathing too heavily, I know they're there.

I think there's a real loss of innocence that comes with publication. So many of us write because we feel unheard or have a lifetime of observations we want to share, there's so often such a passion behind that. When it begins to feel like a job. . it's different; or anyway there are risks that it will be. I am always trying to get back to where I feel like I am writing myself into existence, writing as though my life - and NOT my career - depends on it. I think that is the distinction that matters to me. Getting back to where writing is about survival and not about reputation.

But I am just chatting on and none of that makes this easy!! I would love to hear tricks from others who have more experience!

Great post, Tania. Right on point for me, for sure!

Tania Hershman said...

Robin, hard to take our own advice, eh? That must be both wonderful to have the comfort of the 2-book deal and also nerve-wracking. Now you have something to live up to. That's hard. I like what you say about loss of innocence, it is something like that. Writing because want to be heard is different from writing for people to hear... "writing myself into existence" - now there's a quote I might put above my desk. I love that.

By the way, on another writing-related issue: I am now reading as part of your session at the Frank O'Connor fest, we will be sharing a stage! Very excited!

A. J. Ashworth said...

No advice as I'm only just getting going myself. But as a reader I feel that stories should stand alone. There's no real reasoning behind this though so am happy to be proved wrong. Is it possible they can stand alone but their meanings be deepened/enhanced by the overall theme of the book? Or is that too complicated? I think pretending nobody will ever read your work is a great bit of advice. Blocking out the reader/reviewer or whoever else is an absolute necessity or else you'll potentially be trying to please all those people (and how is that even possible?). You have to write for yourself which ultimately, if you're able to, will make for much more interesting work.

Alison Wells said...

Hello Tania,

Speaking as someone who has individual stories published, shortlisted and has just got together a short story collection (as yet unpublished!) with a loose theme 'Random Acts of Optimism'. I like you just wrote stories and then gathered them together in retrospect. Although as I say I don't have the burden of the beady eye of review I find that I am approaching a second collection with more direction (more closely related characters and a theme)but I'm trying maintain a sort of feigned nonchalence. I don't want the intent, or my expectations of myself to stymie the exhuberance of expression or to censor any experimentation. The best I would suggest is to have all your subject matter swimming in your subconscious and then follow the love/impulse.

The ideal as a reader, especially these days is that the story can stand alone but that the overall context will add another layer. I have just ordered your first book so I will be one of those breathing down your neck soon! All the best.

Claire King said...

As you know, I'm at the step before (although the second book already has a working title and a lot of momentum) so I can't help from an author point of view.
As a reader, one of the wonderful things The White Road has one the 'fil rouge' as they say in French - the thread that linked everything together, even tenuously. It put a common roof over all the stories. Like in Sarah Salway's collection, Leading the Dance, the connection is clear even though each story stands alone.
I love the concept of your new book. If you possibly can, just be bold, write from your heart, get swept up in your stories and nothing can possibly go wrong.
The time is now!

Tania Hershman said...

Andrea, I really like that idea, that they stand alone but are enhanced by being in the book. That speaks to me - I think that does tend to happen with a collection anyway, I notice it in collections by writers whose individual stories I've read the sum of its parts is greater.

Alison, love the idea of Random Acts of Optimism! Best of luck with finding a publisher. And I love what you say, "feigned nonchalence". I think I might stick that up above my desk too. And yes, I think I should let my subconscious do the work, not consciously pushing too much. As I've found from my first book, themes emerge long after you've written the stories! Thanks so much for ordering it, hope you find something in there you like!

Claire, "fil rouge", how lovely, I like that. I didn't think anything linked it all together. I think it's probably not up to me to say, which is what makes this weird, to begin with an overarching theme. But I am feigning noncholance, as I have been advised. And yes, will try and be swept up!

I have very wise blog readers, thank you all!

Rachel Fenton said...

I think - and this is only what I am discovering about my own writing process and not a comment on yours - all the connections are there, in the brain, before we start the writing process. A certain degree of relaxation has to be entered into to allow the subconscious (unconscious) brain to come to the fore and make the magic happen.

Yet, no matter what I think I am writing/have written - someone else will always read it differently - I'm only just accepting that's a blessing.

Chill out and it will be grand!

Lauri said...

You've had lots of fantastic advice already so I won't give anymore- more so that my path is a crazy one where books were already written long before the first was published so it was just a matter of handing them over.

I just wanted to say I love the idea of a story having a slightly different meaning on its own as compared to when it is in the collection. I know that might be difficult to pull off but I think it is a very interesting idea.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m sorry to say that my second novel was a dawdle. I can’t remember now but it probably never took me more than a month to write. I pottered around with it for five years after that but that was just tidying up; nothing fundamental was changed after that first draft, just lots of adding in commas and taking them out again. It was also a sequel which helped.

My third novel was the bugger. I stopped at what I thought was the halfway point and had no idea where to take the book. What I realised that I was in danger of repeating myself as a writer. So I put the book aside and wrote a load of short stories. Then, two years later, I returned to the book with a new voice, a new direction and finished it tout de suite.

As for your new book. The word you need to focus on here is ‘could’ and not ‘should’. I’ve just read a short story collection by a Pakistani writer. All the stories stand on their own but there are characters that pass between stories so it has the feel of a novel but it’s not. You could do that. My short stories, the ones I wrote during that two-year break from my novel, all have a single theme, the senses, not just the physical senses but things like a sense of humour, or a sense of justice – they all look at the means people use to make sense out of their lives. You could do something like that.

How much to plan? I got the idea for those stories on a bus. I still have the notepad on which I jotted first the five senses and then all the others that I could think of and I simply went down the list. At the start I was writing one a day. I’ve been thinking of returning to short fiction because I’m having the same problem with my fifth novel as I had with the third. This time I’ve made a list headed ‘Diptychs’ under which I’ve written pairs like ‘Adam/Eve’, ‘Black/White’, ‘Inside/Outside’ – you get the idea – the plan being to write two flash pieces to sit side by side as complements or contrasts.

Or you could just sit down and write. That’s good too.

I think if you feel you have to write a bookful of stories that might be off-putting. I never sat down to write that first novel – I sat down and wrote and when I stopped I’d written a novel – and the same with the stories – I sat down and wrote and stopped when the stories started to be crap – but in the meantime I found I’d written enough for a collection.

Now I’m off to read the last 30-odd pages of your book.

Vinita Joseph said...

I'm coming to the Short Story Festival in Charleston in September and am looking forward to seeing both Robin Black and Tania Hershman there. I'm currently doing a Creative Writing PhD and writing a set of linked narratives which I hope will each stand alone but also make a different kind of sense when read together. My critical work is on books called novels which are actually formed of discrete narratives such as Ali Smith's Hotel World or Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. David Vann's Legend of a Suicide is another good example - the stories/novella in that collection do stand alone, but become something quite weird and interesting when read as a whole. (Interesting that one was apparently marketed as a short story collection in the U.S. but as a novel in the U.K.) Incidentally David will also be at the Charleston Festival.
Realise that this is a slightly different point, but the 'is the whole more than the sum of the parts?' question in the context of a short story collection interests me.
My view is that ideally the stories should stand alone, but if put into a collection, should add up to something more/different - maybe like blue and yellow making green - although I realise that's wildly ambitious.
Vinita Joseph

virginia said...

Write,and your readers will follow.

One of my son's friends published a graphic novel (which requires more writing than you would think), and he thumb tacked each page on the wall - to edit the words, the images, and to spot flaws in the storyline. I think it would work for a collection of short stories.

About writing, and tasks other than writing - find a yoga class (believe me - I rolled my eyes when this was first suggested to me), which is easy in the US, maybe not so easy in GB. It will help you deal with the uncertainty, and the urge to procrastinate.

ps. loved your choices for Southward.

Sue Guiney said...

On the stand alone question: maybe you could think about it like it was a rock n roll concept album. It has a theme throughout, but a couple of the songs can also go on to be "singles." Maybe just 1 or 2 could be sent out for publication in a journal or a competition. Then that one becomes a teaser for the whole book. Just a thought....

Tania Hershman said...

Rachel, thank you, I do need to chill out. This is all so new to me and comes with a certain amount of pressure, because of the grant, but I won't be able to write it at all if I am so stressed!

Lauri - but you're still writing, aren't you, so you have some kind of Second Book - or 15th book - syndrome?!

Jim, I like "could" instead of "should", something else to stick up above my desk, thank you. I do feel that I have committed to writing a collection, because that's what the grant is for, so there is that looming over me - but I imagine funding for the Arts always takes into account some measure of uncertainty as to what the artist is actually going to come out with! Who knows! And thanks for reading book 1, I think most of the pages are pretty odd! Good luck with Novel 5. I am in awe of your productivity.

Vinita, lovely to meet you and I look forward to meeting you in person in September! Interesting that you mention Hotel World, I could never see how that could ever be called a novel. I look forward to hearing you ask David Vann that question! And I like your colours analogy, very useful.

Virginia, I love that image, tacking the page to the wall. I may have to steal that! I do have a yoga class, they are everywhere in Bristol, it's a brilliant city for that, but I must actually go more regularly, thanks for nagging me! And so glad you liked my Southword picks, it was a real honour to be allowed to choose just the ones I loved, although there were more than 6 I could have chosen!

Tania Hershman said...

Sue - concept album, I love it! Thank you for your fresh perspective - all of you have so many great suggestions, this is immensely helpful!

E.P. Chiew said...

I'm with most people, Tania. Linked collections sell better, but I would probably still let the subject matter I want to write about dictate the form of the work. If characters jump back into another story, great! If not, fine.

Finding the subject matter in biology though that will sustain that deep love in your second book is where the struggle is at. Sometimes it's not a matter that there's nothing, but that there are too many interesting biological subjects. How to narrow down? Here's where I will go all mystical on you and say, pay attention to your dreams!

Alan said...

Tania - my second collection is just coming out and I worry that it will be seen as more of the same. But it's what I do so I'll have to take any flak. 12 years to write the first collection, and I didn't think about a second really until about two years ago, ten years after the first one. I turned down 'two book' deals because they wanted a novel as the second one, and I write stories. You just have to do your stuff and hope it finds readers. If you're slow like me you probably lose any readers anyway along the way. So absolutely no advice for you then, but good luck with the difficult second album thingie...

Tania Hershman said...

Alan - funny, here are several of us worrying our 2nd books will be "too different" and you have the opposite worry. Yes, you do just have to do your stuff, and it takes as long as it takes. Thanks, it helps put things in a longer-term perspective, it's easy to feel pressure to have a book then another then another...Looking forward to reading your Book 2!

Louise Halvardsson said...

I felt so much pressure writing my second novel I decided to write it in another language :) maybe not very wise ... But whatever you write it has to excite you and challenge you in some way. Happy writing ...!

Alan said...

yes a member of my writers' group said I should call it 'Bloke 2' .. Anyway hope you like it Tania - come to the launch if you can. It's in the Ikon Gallery Birmingham on Sept 30 at 6:30pm. In fact anyone who reads this blog is welcome.

Tania Hershman said...

Louise - I could try that! Thank you, hope your writing is going well.

Alan, shame, that's the same day as another friend's book launch in London, Sue Guiney, so I won't make it - but Happy Book 2!

Tania Hershman said...

Louise - I could try that! Thank you, hope your writing is going well.

Alan, shame, that's the same day as another friend's book launch in London, Sue Guiney, so I won't make it - but Happy Book 2!

swiss said...

i'm lucky in that i have many things in the pipeline any one of which could be the next thing finished.

i got collection 2 finished bar the shouting without much bother but it was a bit of an effort. so much so i took myself a break earlier this year and backed off from my normal output.

of course i've had loads of guilt about this but nevertheless regrouped and tried, reasonably successfully, to find my way back into my writing as a means of enjoyment, rather than a task.

rather than writing poetry, which i'd been doing, i got right back into prose and in doing so found i could submerse myself in a world that was entirely mine and loved it.

that plus i helped with some changes in my writers group and just had a bit of a laugh writing in styles and forms i wouldn't have normally.

in short (and recognising it ain;t always that easy) - enjoyment and laughter!

Alan said...

That's a shame (why are launches always on Thursdays?) but thanks Tania, good luck with book 2 too.


They must stand alone, absolutely. Connections/themes/threads will occur naturally and can be looked at afterwards.

I always think like the way you are thinking when I am feeling annoyed/confused with the writing world in general.

This too shall pass.