Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for December, 2009

Google analytics is a wonderful thing.  It provides statistics on how my website is used, including letting me see what search terms have led people to my site.  One browser got here after entering “Under Siege 3” and was no doubt disappointed to find that, no, Steven Seagal has not begun filming the long-awaited third chapter of the Under Siege saga.   But my favorite so far: “Beautiful full breasts.”  (Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks “full” is the best way to describe breasts.)  That search called up my third blog—“Beautiful, smiling breasts”—but apparently this browser also didn’t find what he (I’m assuming this was a guy) was looking for.  He spent zero seconds on my site.

Now just to be clear, when I wrote my third blog, I wasn’t planning on attracting guys with an interest—aesthetic, lascivious, or otherwise—in breasts.  But any writing is apt to produce unexpected consequences, which brings me to today’s topic: the curse of the second novel.  So often authors’ second novels are a let-down when compared to the first, and this is especially true regarding genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction.  I will refrain from naming names (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), but I will say that dozens of second novels have left me wondering: how did this happen?  What went wrong?

Well, now I know.  Writers can spend years (five, in my case) working on their first novel.  No one pays you, but on the other hand, there are no deadlines.  You have time, and time is wonderfully helpful when it comes to straightening out plot and developing characters.  Just to take one example, Aravind Adiga—author of one of the best books I have read in some time, The White Tiger—completed his first draft in 2005, took over a year off, then finally finished in 2007.  Time made his book great.  In my case, the first draft of Siege had only a vague resemblance to the finished version.  Some characters and plotlines were dropped, others were added.  The back stories of Longo and William—two of the main characters—changed dramatically.  The initial battle scene shrank by sixty-five pages.  Five chapters disappeared.  And all of that happened because I had time.

Then, I sold Siege.  During negotiations with the publisher, my agent asked me how long it would take me to write my second novel.  I suggested two years.  Too long, he said.  A year and a half is the maximum.  The second book needs to come out soon enough so that the paperback edition of the first novel can include advertising for the second.  In the end, I signed up to write my second novel in one year.  I was beginning to understand the curse of the second novel.

Now, one year is in fact plenty of time to write a wonderful novel.  That isn’t the problem.  The problem is that first time novelists have not yet learned how to write a wonderful novel that fast.  With their first novel, they had time to work out any kinks.  They could pick up the novel and put it down.  They could go through dozens of drafts.  With the second novel, they have to learn to write and edit much faster, and they are learning on the fly.  This is a good problem to have: I can still hardly believe that I’m getting paid to write.  And it’s a challenge that I’m having great fun tackling.  But it’s also a problem that many authors fail to solve, at least on the first attempt—hence the curse of the second novel.

Will I be able to overcome the curse?  So far, I think I’m in good shape, but there’s only one way to find out for sure: buy Eagle: Book One of the Saladin Trilogy, coming in May 2011!  Now that I’m done with that piece of shameless self-promotion, allow me to put in a plug for next week’s blog: What exactly do editors do?

Just a few minutes ago, as I was sitting at the window of my local coffee shop, a twenty-something in a Georgetown Law sweatshirt entered, complaining loudly to her friend.  “So he texts me saying that he wants to have sex with me and all that,” she says in a brassy tone that can be heard by everyone within thirty feet.  “But I knew, in my heart of hearts, that nothing would happen.  And nothing did!  He chickened out.”  Her friend nods in commiseration.  Meanwhile, the older lady sitting next to me glances at me and raises her eyebrows, as if to say: “Can you believe she’s discussing this here?”

“But my boyfriend somehow got into my email,” the law student continues, “and he lays into me!  I mean, he already cheated on me once, and now I’m the bad guy?”  She sounds truly exasperated.  Her friend mumbles something comforting.  The woman next to me shakes her head.  It’s just another day in the coffee shop.

Every day, I walk a mile across Capitol Hill to get here, stand in line behind the men and women in suits, get my cup of coffee, and sit down to write.  It’s a rare day that I don’t see one or two other writers also typing at their laptops.  And we’ve all heard stories of coffee-fueled writers like J.K. Rowling.  Go to your local coffee shop, and I’m sure you’ll see a disheveled man or woman, coffee at hand, alternately typing furiously and staring into space.  What is it with writers and coffee shops?

First of all, writers hang out in coffee shops because, well, that’s where writers write.  Everybody needs symbols and settings to reinforce their professional identity.  Doctors have hospitals, stethoscopes, and snappy white coats.  Mechanics have garages and those grease-stained shirts with their name stitched on them.  Professors have their office, books, and tweed jackets.  And writers?  They have coffee shops.  Psychologists say that for roles to be internalized, they need to be observed in public.  Coffee shops, then, play a vital role in helping writers to feel like writers.

They also help writers to write.  Home is where I read, eat, and sleep; it’s a hard place to work.  Coffee shops, on the other hand, are perfect.  Of course, there’s the coffee (i.e. writing fuel).  It tastes good, it keeps you awake, and a fresh cup of coffee is a great reward after a completed chapter.  There are also the other customers.  They watch me (or at least occasionally glance my way), which prevents me from spending too much time staring off into space or play hearts on my computer.  They also give me a chance to talk—not something I get to do a lot as a writer—even if it’s only to say “is this chair taken?” or “a grande coffee, please.”  But the best thing about working in a coffee shop is the daily drama, of which the exasperated young lady today is a perfect example.

How often do you get asked “how was work today”?  For most people, this is not a difficult question.  They can talk about office politics, interminable meetings, the latest project, etc.  But what can you say about writing?  “I wrote some more today” is not a great conversation starter.  That’s where coffee shop drama comes in: it gives me something interesting to talk about when I get home.

Coffee shops are the ultimate public stage for the “human comedy.”  Tourists and professionals, the homeless and the wealthy, the young and the old: they all come to coffee shops.  I’ve witnessed bitter breakups, complete with thrown coffee.  I saw two people meet for the first time after a long cyber-romance, only for the girl to storm out when she learned that her cyber-beau was significantly older than he had let on.  I’ve listened to bleary-eyed college students discuss the raging party they had last night, while at the next table over, wrinkled old ladies complained loudly that people these days “just don’t see the glory of Jesus!”  I’ve watched a congressman hold forth about farming in Egypt (a great place to grow cotton, apparently), and I’ve seen political consultants trying to sell politicians on the glories of “robo-calling.”  And all the time, I sit in my corner and write, occasionally making odd faces to test whether it’s possible to “smile cruelly” or “glare ominously”… and no doubt providing other people with their own coffee shop stories.

So now you know: writers flock to coffee shops for the drama even more than the coffee.  Come back next week to learn about why second novels are so often worse than the first one, or the curse of the second novel.

I am frequently asked—especially by other, as of yet agent-less writers—how I got my agent.  And, as a young writer living in Los Angeles and working on screenplays, I remember being somewhat befuddled when it came to the subject of literary agents.  Even after I worked for one, I was still not quite sure what he did (other than talk on the phone a lot and drink vast quantities of Diet Coke).  Who, then, are these mysterious figures?  Do writers really need them?  And, the greatest mystery of all, how does an author go about getting an agent to represent him or her?

Well, first of all: yes, you do need an agent.  Can you sell your novel without one?  Sure, it’s possible, but much less likely.  Agents help in several ways.  In my case, my agent started by working with me to make my novel as good as possible.  Then, he identified the publishers who would be interested in my novel and got them to read it—no small task, as any author who has submitted a manuscript to a publisher knows.  He sold the novel to the publisher he thought would do the best job—something that I had no clue about.  And, he also sold the rights in German—something that I would not have even thought to do.  All in all, that’s well worth 15%.

How, then, to acquire the valuable services of an agent?  Start by writing a gripping novel.  Then, follow these six easy steps for how to get an agent… or, at least, how I got my agent:

Step 1:  Finish your novel.  And by that, I don’t just mean that you’ve typed “the end” on the first draft.  Cut it down to size, polish it, and make it as good as you possibly can.  Then, when you’re feeling truly great about it, start looking for an agent.  I went through seven drafts before I sent SIEGE to an agent.  Little did I know at the time that I’d be going through seven more!

Step 2:  Research.  Don’t just send your novel to anybody.  Think of some of the authors you admire in your genre and find out who represents them.  Those are the people you should want for your agent.

Step 3:  Write a query letter and make it very, very good.  This is not easy, but persevere.  This will be the agent’s first introduction to your writing, so if it’s not well-written, you won’t get a second glance.  Your letter should: 1) give an exciting one-paragraph summary of your novel (not an easy thing to do); 2) tell the agent who you are and what kind of career you envision for yourself; and 3) give some indication of why you think the agent would be a good fit for you.  For more on query letters, and all aspects of agent hunting, check out the Guide to Literary Agents.  It worked for me.
You can check out one of my query letters here…

Step 4:  The synopsis.  If the agent replies (yay!), then he or she will most likely not ask you to send your novel along right away.  The agent will instead ask for either: a) a synopsis (one, three, or maybe ten pages); or b) the first fifty pages of your novel.  This means more hard work for you!  On the bright side, being forced to condense all the brilliance of your novel into ten exciting, well-written pages is a great way to get a handle on what is and is not important in your book.  When I did this, I quickly realized that I could cut a hundred pages without missing anything vital.

Step 5:  Send the manuscript.  If the agent likes what he or she has seen so far, then they will ask for the entire manuscript.  Take a deep breath, perform your good-luck ritual of choice, and press “send”!

Step 6:  Meet your potential agent.  This last bit is optional, but probably a good idea.  I went to the London Book Fair (I was living in Paris at the time), where I met two potential agents.  It’s a good way for you to get a read on your agent, and for them to get a feel for you.  And, it’s a good idea, since your agent will be holding your future—or at least the future of your book—in his or her hands.

So now the veil has been lifted, and the mysterious agent proven to be not so mysterious after all.  Check in next week for the answer to another of life’s great mysteries: Why do writers work in coffee shops?



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