How to Start the Difficult Second Novel
This has been a significant weekend for me. Not only has Mentoring Mr Singleman embarked on a virtual book tour (Ten reviews in ten days – see the attached poster), but I’ve made a start on the sequel.
I wanted to write a few lines about how exactly that happens. How, having made your way back down from one mountain, you find the energy to strap on your crampons and head for the next one. (You might say you do it because it’s there, but that’s just the point. It isn’t.)
I finished writing Singleman this time last year, and after a few days of basking in the glow of having completed a full-length novel, and one that felt vaguely credible, I began the necessary process of approaching agents. I pursued this task for a while with moderate enthusiasm, then some non-literary stuff came along that kind of hi-jacked the rest of my year. After Christmas I took the decision to put the book on Amazon, a move I have not regretted, although I am still looking for an agent. I had planned an open-ended programme of marketing, but Covid-19 has put paid to much of that. It looks like I will have time on my hands over the coming summer, and I’m not into baking.
I didn’t write Singleman with any kind of series or even sequel in mind. I just wanted to see if I could write a novel that was, at least in part, about teaching, and that’s pretty much what I did. As I wrote it, however, I grew attached to my characters, who took on the fabled “life of their own”. Early readers of the manuscript commented that there was scope for further stories about this group of teachers, students and parents, and some reviewers were kind enough to say they wanted to know what would happen next to this or that character. It is also true that that agents and publishers, if they do like your work, want to know that there is more where it came from.
So gradually the possibility of a sequel established itself, without much conscious thought or intent on my part. I began to ponder, while out walking the dog, what shape a follow-up novel might take. I was wary of simply trying to continue Dave and Kate’s story – Singleman was built around their “will-they-won’t-they” courtship, with the added frisson of “when-will-they get-into-bed”. (I managed to stave that off until Chapter 34 – no point in shooting the fox too early). One way or another, I didn’t feel that dealing with the second term at St Petroc’s was going to carry much in the way of jeopardy.
I began to think of other characters whose stories I could explore. I liked the idea of being able to market it as a second St Petroc’s novel, but I wanted to be able to move a decent amount of the action away from the school. This threw up some interesting ideas. I found one or two new characters that might add a bit of colour, and some romantic interest to replace Dave and Kate’s courtship – although their story would continue, perhaps as more of a subplot. I kept a notebook in which I jotted ideas and observations – “what if”s, and aspects of living in Cornwall that I wanted to write about but which didn’t find a place in the first novel. Gradually, it began to feel that there might be a storyline and a focus, and enough material to flesh these out into something at least as satisfactory as Singleman.
At this point there were two routes I could take. I could sit down and do some serious plotting, detailing story-arcs and timelines, chapter by chapter. (I did this to an extent with Singleman, following a method I was taught by two generous novelists on an Arvon course, but in the end, for good or ill, lots of it just kind of unfolded as I wrote.) The other option was to try writing an opening chapter. And I’ll take writing over plotting any day.
Having said I plotted Singleman, that all came after the opening chapter of the novel, which is a description of a start of term INSET day in a secondary school. Writing that was partly a response to an exercise I had been set on the course, and partly therapy. I had very little idea of where the novel might go thereafter, other than that the two young teachers who meet for the first time in Chapter One would, in due course, fall in love. For several months Dave, Kate and their colleagues sat on my laptop, suspended on the first day of term.
I retain a fondness for Singleman’s opening chapter, but I don’t think it’s the biggest hook that’s ever been dangled in front of a reader. I like to think that people who read on will do so because they like the style of the writing as much as anything. I’ve always been aware that the opening couple of sentences in particular might have been stronger. There’s nothing wrong with them – they just don’t exactly grab you by the throat. I did try to tweak them but I couldn’t come up with anything better.
Furthermore, I was fired up my growing collection of rejection slips. Nothing focuses the mind on one’s opening few pages like the experience of sending them off to lots of agents and getting back polite formulaic no thank you’s, when at the same time readers whose judgment you respect are telling you you’ve written something worthwhile. If I was going to commit another 250 hours of my one wild and beautiful life to sitting at a screen, I was going to make damn sure that I didn’t get off on the wrong authorial foot.
Reader, clutch not thy pearls. No meteors fall to earth and no virgins of either sex are deflowered in the opening sentences that I came up with when I sat at my laptop on Friday morning. And who knows but they may, in the end, turn out not to be the opening sentences. The point, though, is this – I wrote around 1200 words that morning, which is half a chapter, and my daily target when I was writing Singleman. I felt good about those words when I re-read them the following day, and while I had told myself that I might try one or two different openings, with different characters in different settings, by Saturday lunchtime I knew that my second St Petroc’s novel was on the blocks.
Now there’s just 95000 words to go.