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On Writing Your Second Book

Well, 2017 was…a year.

A year in which I remained largely publicly silent about my writing life as I privately struggled to figure out just where that life was leading me.

Writing book two has been the hardest experience of my professional life, with the possible exception of my first year of teaching. My husband, who had a bird’s eye view of both, says he thinks the second book was more taxing. Which, if you’ve ever been a first-year teacher, you know is saying something.

Oh, how I identify with this little vine, trying to find its way through a door that's tightly shut.

Here’s the thing about debut novels that many authors before me have said and I shall now say too. You spend your whole life up until your debut writing your debut. You pour everything you’ve ever learned or loved or lost or cared about into this book. I’m not sure anything I write will ever feel as personal as The Ethan I Was Before. That book is me, twenty-eight years in the making.

Then your debut goes off to copyedits, and then to pass pages, and suddenly you’re left with…well, with nothing. You’ve given everything to that first book, and now you’re just supposed to…what? Pack twenty-eight more years of learning and loving into the single year that most authors lucky enough to secure two-book deals are given to write their second book?

This, my friends, is where the going got tough for me. And I truly did not know if I would be able to be the tough that kept going.

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas for new novels. I had quite a few of them, actually. But even though they rattled around in my head, they didn’t feel mine in the way that Ethan did. I held onto each of them like I would a piece of mail slipped into my mailbox with a stranger’s name written on it. And so I struggled to write. I prodded the ideas, poked them, wrestled with them and sang them lullabies, and still, they would not budge into the right shape.

If you know me, then you know that the emotional plot of Ethan, if not the action of it, is very much inspired by things that I’ve been through. I knew Ethan’s heartache, and his journey towards hope. And there’s a reason they tell you to write what you know. Turns out it’s a whole lot easier than the other way.

So began my work of broadening my horizons. Digging deeper into corners of my self to find bits of it I hadn’t explored. Reacquainting myself with old passions and discovering new interests that might be the seed from which sprouted my next story. And finally, teaching myself to understand and empathize with characters whose experiences were nothing like my own (which is, after all, the true work of a writer).

I followed the spark of three ideas down to their smoldering ends. I wrote two novels, two half novels, and quite a bit of miscellaneous nonsense. None of it was quite right, but each attempt was closer than the last.

I had some dark days in which my doubts were overwhelming and my hope was waif-thin. On those days, I considered doing something that I haven’t done since I retired from cross country in the ninth grade: quitting.

But in those moments, I wondered: what would it even mean to quit? Back out of the book deal I have dreamed of getting my whole life? I could have done that, I suppose. But there would still be the pesky business of writing. Writing is, quite simply, who I am. There is no quitting writing. And if I was going to keep on doing it, wouldn’t it be better to do it in a way allowed my words to reach out to someone else? To tell them they aren’t alone? That someone understands them? Not to mention that it would be nice not to let down the agents and editorial teams who have invested so much faith, time and work in me.

I did not quit. Even though some days, it felt like every word I wrote was "failure." I decided I would rather fail than quit.

And then one day last spring, I found myself standing in a graveyard in Indiana when an idea for a story struck me. Something totally new.

I wrote it down. And it felt...good. Right.

Inspiration strikes...

Ultimately, I wrote a novel that features many of the same themes found in The Ethan I Was Before, but also some totally new ones. The principal conflict in the book is that the main character can’t understand why her mother doesn’t seem to love her the way she once did.

Very, very fortunately for me, this is not a problem with which I have firsthand experience (Hi, Mom! You're awesome!). But the insecurity that comes along with wondering if you’re just not good enough for someone (or to do something)? Now that’s a feeling I’ve become intimately acquainted with in the past year. And, ironically, that experience has helped me to understand my main character well enough to bring her struggle to life on the page.

It is with so much joy, pride, and relief that I can tell you that my second book, AUGUST ISLE, will be hitting shelves in early 2019. I won’t say much more about it now, besides that it’s a story of redemption and a labor of love.

One last thing before I go. It has helped me immensely to know through this last year that I was not alone. I had the unwavering support of my agents and editors, friends and family. (Thank you, thank you, a million times over.) But I also had conversations with many authors who were also struggling through their second books, or had been through that struggle in the past. And what I learned from those conversations is that my experiences are actually pretty…normal. The cost of doing what you love is constantly worrying that you won’t be able to do it well enough. That you’ll squander this amazing chance you’ve been given. That you’ll let your stories, your characters, and your readers all down. Sometimes you do, and it’s really, really hard.

And then you keep going and hope that maybe tomorrow you’ll do better. Because that’s the job. And it's the only job you ever want to do.

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