A writer friend of mine said something true at a reading at the Brookline Booksmith. He said that the biggest surprise he had after completing his first novel, was that he had to write a second novel.
There is often something unique about a first novel.
Usually, you have no prospects and certainly no one asking you to write a book. It's coming from some other place, a creative need or ambition, and the subject of that first novel has often been percolating and pushing up inside of you—I was going to say like the molten rock in a volcano, but maybe that's dramatic. I was just reading about volcanoes recently for a future project. Bottom line, you may not even give it that much thought when you embark on that book. It's the book you had to write.
That was the case for me when I started writing my first, The Dante Club, several years after studying Dante had caught me in his web. I wasn't done with Dante, I think I knew that deep down, though I didn't know what form it would take. That's how first novels often come to be, though “Dante” in that sentiment might be replaced with a personal trauma or triumph, an indelible experience, or any other obsession (see my post about Dante as obsession).
Where do ideas come from? That's where.
There are famous examples of novelists who wrote one novel and then never again (Harper Lee, an enormously successful one, Dow Mossman, an example of a lesser known drop-out that became the subject of the intriguing documentary The Stone Reader). Of course, consciously or not, if you're writing a novel you're probably hoping to write others. And at some point, you reach that “What next” stage.
This time it might feel very different than the first time around.
When I started a first draft of The Dante Club it was on a file called something like “test_chapter” (that computer crashed long ago, taking the original file along with it). I wrote in secret, not telling family or classmates. I wasn't sure I would ever show it to anyone, and certainly never imagined someone reading it in, say, Indonesian!
Fast forward, when I was asked what next, it wasn't just me anymore. I had a literary agent, an editor, publishing houses in other countries—not to mention, for the first time in my life, since I had been a student, a financial advisor and an accountant. These all represent different influences and pressures on this type of decision. At that point, my first novel hadn't yet come out, but later on, you can add readers to that list of constituents, maybe right at the top of it. You might also add publishing trends and patterns to the factors that can influence a writer's decision-making.
This decision calls on so many factors, rational and irrational, creative and pragmatic, imaginary and sensible. I suppose if you've started your writing career with a series, you can jump right to The Sequel. Enviable! Barring that, you may want to stretch your wings a bit in a different direction than your last book.
You also don't want to alienate readers. Plus, if your publisher has invested in marketing your authorial “brand” as X, you might throw off the plan by switching to Y or Z genre or category. Nor do you want to be pigeonholed. I remember the story that John Grisham's contracts with his publisher were written specifying, for instance, “three legal thrillers by the year” such and such. Grisham did successfully branch out, eventually, writing several literary novels as well as nonfiction.
Luckily, unless you were forced by gunpoint or blackmail into writing your debut novel, you've probably begun in an arena (I don't like the word “genre”) that is both well-suited to you and your interests. In my case, literary history is a subject of almost limitless interest to me. Though my three novels have had a definite continuity—they are all literary history thrillers—that doesn't mean I ever got bored or tempted to go on auto drive. As long as you don't subscribe to a formula, you're bound to challenge yourself in new ways every time. In my second novel, The Poe Shadow, I turned to first person instead of third person. In my latest, The Last Dickens, I constructed a bifurcated structure, switching between a time period before and after Dickens's death.
Readers may not focus on those things, but writers do.
I actually have a file called “ideas_list” (yes, all my file names usually have the same format, except once I called a file “blah”). As of today, I have close to 30 ideas listed for books, mostly fiction, some nonfiction or even scholarly, as well as about 15 short story ideas. Each one has from a few words to a few paragraphs of details. I love the idea stage. It's my favorite part of the process. I can spend all day fiddling with my idea file, and sometimes I'll try.
Another form of procrastination can be working on a short story. In the middle of novel writing, short story composition becomes instantly appealing, since the ending of a short story is almost always in sight.
Short story writing can enrich the creative process behind a novel, too. While writing The Poe Shadow, I wrote a story (see it here) that, though set in a fourth grade class in the 1980s, was a study for the novel's 19th century narrator and his tendency to fixate too eagerly on fascinating people.
It's inevitable, at least for me, that you begin a book in a flush of excitement and at some point look at your list and say to yourself, “Why aren't I writing that one instead? That would have been so much easier and more pleasant?” Though once you really are writing that other idea, you remember, oh yeah, it's not easier. It's never easier.
The stage of choosing an idea is very different from the writing stage.
If anyone ever asks what I think they should write about, whether it's for a first or fourth book, I'd say the same thing. Don't calculate, at least not more than you can help it. Pick something you're passionate about, because who is going to be passionate about the book if you're not? That doesn't mean to intentionally write something that doesn't seem viable in the marketplace.
Another way I'd answer: Pick something you love enough that you'll still like it when you hate it. Unless you can write a book every six months, you will get sick of your project at points along the way. Just a few months ago, when beginning my next novel, writing an opening scene I hated, I said to my agent, “I might have to call you soon in a panic that I have to switch books.” But I found my footing again in the project and emailed, “I've re-started and am happier with how it looks now.” My agent hadn't seemed worried. She's probably used to it.
Those of you who are writers, whether novels or short stories or poems or other projects, how do you like making the What Next choice? Those of you who are big readers, how much do you think writers should think about their readers in the decision making?