How to Write your Second Novel or If You Want to Make God Laugh, Show Him Your Outline

Start out knowing how easy it will be. Derive a cocky assurance from the fact that you’ve done this once already. You know what’s involved. You even wrote an essay about it, to remind yourself of the hardships. You’ve honed your craft, picked up pointers. You will not make the same mistakes again.

For one thing, you will write an outline. That’s how real writers do it. That’s what allows them to publish a book every couple of years—which is your goal, because let’s face it, you came to publication pretty darned late in life. You’d better get cracking.

Write a loving farewell letter to the characters of The First Novel. Wish them well. Send them out into the world with the hope that they’ll represent you in a positive way, meet nice people, make good choices.

With glee, start reading about obesity, bicycling, tornadoes, body-building, piano tuning, motherless daughters, grief. Listen to old Bruce Springsteen recordings. Acquire DVD’s of all three Terminator movies and the 20th anniversary edition of Pumping Iron. Watch them multiple times. This constitutes “research.” Writing this book is going to be so much fun.

Start writing. Become aware of a small nagging voice accompanying these first efforts, a nonstop commentary saying things like “That’s trite. That’s boring.” This voice insists that you change words and retool sentences almost before you type them.

Ah! Now you get it. You’ve been heavily engaged with the Editor part of your brain during the time you spent revising Novel #1. This has to change.

Give the Editor Brain a name: Marjorie. Write her a letter. “Dear Marjorie…” Tell Marjorie how grateful you are for her help and guidance all these months, really, you couldn’t have done it without her. Because of her input, the process of revision was a breeze. You always knew just what to do and how to do. Reassure Marjorie that you will definitely need her again at some point in the future, but for now, it’s time to go. Encourage Marjorie to take some time off, vacate the premises, visit the grandkids upstate maybe, get back to her garden, read some Danielle Steele.

It works. Marjorie leaves you alone. The first chapter of The Second Novel practically writes itself. In a dream! This is just how you knew it was going to be with this book. You are on your way.

Visit your parents in Nebraska, sans kids, sans husband, to do research in the small town where you lived until you were five. Attend Sam Wymore Days with your dad. It is a good trip, a special time. Go to sleep listening to the trains. Reacquaint yourself with meadowlark song. Start receiving downloads from the characters in your dreams. Take notes, write journal entries. Become excited about the possibilities of this second book—realizing, of course, that there is still That Outline to write.

Go on the road with The First Novel. Start working on the outline, because that’s something you can do when you’re schlepping through one security line after another, from one hotel room to another, speaking about the book you finished a year ago and have already forgotten writing.

Good things happen for The First Novel. This is mildly distracting, but it makes the people in your life so very happy: your editor, your agent, your publisher, your marketing director, your friends, your family. The First Novel gets some awards; it’s nominated for a Quills; it’s featured on “The Today Show.” Even though none of this has anything to do with writing, everyone around you—especially your parents—is over the moon, bursting with pride. Soon, things will settle down again and you’ll be able to get back to work on The Second Novel.

Three weeks after “The Today Show,” suddenly, unexpectedly, your father has a stroke. When he dies three days later, you are in the room. It is a good death; he goes out listening to the final strains of “La Boheme.” Mimi!

Only later do you remember that the first chapter of The Second Novel – the one you wrote months ago, the one that came to you in a dream—begins with the sudden, unexpected death of a father.

Six weeks later—during which time you do manage to write a very detailed outline—your mother is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. When she recovers her speech after the first surgery, she says, “You wrote a book about a woman with a brain tumor . I have a brain tumor. Curious, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mom,” you agree, “It’s curious.”

From now on, The Second Novel becomes a vessel for far more than it was ever meant to bear. This is not what you wanted. You hate novels which are really memoirs in disguise. But it cannot be helped. The boundary between Reality and Fiction has been dissolved.

You read one more book about grief, “My Year of Magical Thinking,” which helps you understand why your mother was never able to donate Dad’s shoes to the Goodwill. After that, there is no need to read another.

Scenes from your life start to make their way into The Second Novel, scenes involving unexpected emotional meltdowns at inconvenient times; these include bursting into tears upon seeing a pair of high-heeled shoes at an upscale mall in Vancouver, Canada (Your mother, always such a fashion-plate, will never wear high-heels again); a surreal conversation with the University of Nebraska Athletic Department (Would Dad want you to give up those season football tickets?); a summary by your parents’ accountant of their financial holdings. (What are you supposed to do with two hundred shares of Halliburton stock?). These scenes are not contained in the outline. Do they belong there? Who knows?

Revise the outline to accommodate these new additions. Revise it again. Revise the chapter order. Over time, the folder labeled, “Outlines, Synopses, etc.” will come to contain thirty-seven documents.

Your mother dies almost a year to the day after your dad. Again, you are in the room. It is a good death. She leaves while listening to Eva Cassidy sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Why then oh why can’t I?

She dies the same week as the twelve miners in West Virginia; before she dies, you tell her about them, that they are strong men, and they are waiting to catch her in their arms. A version of those miners makes it into the book.

The book gets heavier. You get heavier. When you complain about your weight gain to a friend, she tells you about a German word, Kummerspeck, translated loosely as “grief bacon.”

Put grief bacon in the book.

Ten months after your mother dies, finish the first draft. What you do know is that it is too long, too heavy. Henceforth it will be called The 500-Pound Book. What you don’t know is that it’s terrible, but that’s okay, because everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Anne Lamott says that first drafts are supposed to be terrible.

Your editor shares her notes. She is kind. Part One is good, she says. Parts Two and Three need some work.

Send a postcard to Marjorie, letting her know that she can come back any time.

Cut the manuscript into pieces and lay it out in various configurations on hotel room floors from sea to shining sea: in Portland Oregon; Petoskey, Michigan; New York, New York.

Finish another draft. Part One is still good. Part Two is better. Part Three still needs some work. Marjorie is AWOL.

One year and four months after your mother’s death, go on a ten-day writing retreat in Illinois. You will finish the book there, it is certain. You will rewrite the ending.

Write for six, seven, eight hours a day. It goes well. Wake up one morning after a Midwestern thunderstorm, turn on your laptop and encounter The Big Blue Screen of Death. A message reads, “Physical Memory Dumped.”

Go insane. Rail, weep, despair, because this was the one time, the one and only time, that you did not save yesterday’s work to your flash drive.

Locate a Computer Forensics Specialist in Chicago. Render up your laptop to him and then stumble around the streets of Lake Forest sobbing, imploring your parents in heaven to please, please let you finish this book. Wander into Walgreen’s to buy a box of Kleenex. On the PA, Eva Cassidy is singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

Your computer’s hard-drive is saved. The Five-Hundred Pound Book is resurrected.

Marjorie is nowhere to be found, but three days before your residency ends, your dead parents come through. They suggest a missing piece for the ending, and the new final chapters which were never part of any outline fall out of your fingers so quickly that you can barely keep up.

Your editor is ecstatic.“You did it!” she says, jubilant. “You nailed it! Congratulations!” High-fiving the other residents at the retreat, you board a cab to O’Hare. You are a homecoming hero driving through a ticker tape parade.

As passengers start to board the plane, your agent calls you on your cell phone, presumably to offer up his congratulations. Unlike your editor, however, he sounds suspiciously sedate.
He begins by gently reminding you that your editor has not read the entire draft, she’s only read the new ending, which is indeed quite fine but—

And here, listen with a mounting dread as your agent proceeds to list all the story threads that are incomplete, the relationship arcs which don’t add up. He’s right, you’re thinking as the list goes on and on, at the same time wondering how this could have happened, how is this possible, because you wrote an OUTLINE for God’s sake!

Your agent concludes with the words, “It’s not good enough.” You can be mad at him if you want, that’s what he says.

You are not mad. You are deeply ashamed.

Where the hell is Marjorie? She needs to give those grandkids the boot and get back here.

Start to cry. Hope no one notices. On the plane, sit sandwiched between two chatty twenty-something IT guys (quite possibly they are Forensic Computer Specialists) bound for the same conference. Hunker down behind your sunglasses and continue to weep. Get very drunk on cheap chardonnay and watch the in-flight movie, “Casino Royale,” mildly comforted by the sight of Daniel Craig in swim trunks.

The next night, cry through your 15th wedding anniversary.

Three days later, cry through your birthday.

For the next two months, continue to cry as you sit in your darkened living room through the early days of a beautiful Seattle spring, knitting and watching “Law & Order” marathons on TNT.
Eventually, slowly, make your way back to your office, back to The Second Novel. Begin again. There is nothing easy about this. The only thing you can think to do is to start going for early morning walks, carrying a notepad and pencil in your pocket.


Revise again.

And again.

And again. You should never have let Marjorie go.

Cut, trim, re-frame, discuss. The high-heeled shoes and Halliburton stock are out; the football tickets and grief bacon are in.

Finish The Second Novel three years and eleven months after you began. It took twice as long as you’d hoped, half as long as Novel #1. Perhaps this is progress, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Wake up the morning after you’ve signed off on the book and sent it to the printers with the writer’s version of “Empty Nest Syndrome:” your characters are no longer filling up the landscape of your brain, clamoring for attention. They’re gone. For at least a year you’ve been saying “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” to this book, to these people. You wanted this, and yet…

Immediately seek to fill the void by saying yes to every request that comes your way: “Yes, of course I’ll read the first thirty-seven pages of your memoir of the years you spent as a tour guide in Dachau. Yes, I’d happy to critique your query letter, your synopsis. Yes, I’d love to be a Hedgebrook ambassador. Yes, I’ll offer myself as an auction item, for three different auctions. Yes, I’ll write a piece on the closure of the Sunset Bowling Alley, an essay for an online parenting magazine. Of course I’ll teach three writing classes at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference, even though I’ve never taught a writing class in my life and am vastly unqualified. Of course I’ll be delighted to deliver a FORTY-FIVE MINUTE keynote speech on Bainbridge Island.”

On every calendar you posses, turn to the month of May and write JUST SAY NO.

Yes, you wrote an outline.

No, it didn’t help.

Will all this angst, all this tortured effort result in a good book? Possibly not.

Accept this. Take comfort in the knowledge that you did you best, and that you paid for this book—as editor and writing teacher Gordon Lish says all writers must—“through the nose.” Stand in that. Carry that with you if the reviews are bad and the sales are disappointing, if the people who read and loved The First Novel make comparisons, as they are sure to do. Custom dictates that all Second Novels are doomed and perhaps yours will be no exception.

It is time to start again, to move on, but how?

Peruse your library of books on writing. There are so many good ones. But perhaps the best writing advice came from this one, the very first writing book you ever bought, years ago at Bailey Coy apparently, since the bookmark is still in there. You lived in Capitol Hill then, off Broadway. You were still an actor in public, a writer in the closet, your husband and children characters in an unimagined future, The First Novel not even an idea yet.
Locate the underlined parts of this book, called On Becoming a Writer. Written by Dorothea Brande, it was published in the year 1934, when your father was seven, your mother was three. Its advice is simple and clear:

“…rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can—and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before—begin to write…Throughout your writing life, whenever you are in danger of the spiritual drought that comes to the most facile writer from time to time, put the pencil and paper back on your bedside table, and wake to write in the morning.”

Here then is the lesson learned from writing The Second Novel: the best writing comes not from the part of you that writes an outline. The best writing comes from the part of you that feels, grieves, fails, flails, yearns, despairs, flounders, and prays. The best writing comes from the place where you dream.

So, tonight before you go to sleep, put your journal next to the table by your bed. Maybe you’ll have visitors. There are no guarantees.

But whatever happens, tomorrow, when you wake up, reach for your pen.

And then, maybe, in time, you’ll be able to compose your next essay: HOW TO WRITE YOUR THIRD NOVEL.