Today’s guest is Michele Young-Stone whose life’s dream was to write and publish a novel. A former English teacher, she achieved her dream and surpassed it with the release (this month) of her second novel Above Us Only Sky. Her first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, was published in 2010 and was a Target Book Club pick in 2011. Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, says, “Young-Stone is a master writer, and her deft control of this novel’s many moving pieces puts her in the highest echelon of our craft.”
Michele is here with author Heidi Durrow for a discussion about the sophomore novel. Heidi is the author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a winner of the PEN/Belwether Prize for Fiction, described by Barbara Kingsolver as “[A] breathless telling of a tale we’ve never heard before. Haunting and lovely, pitch-perfect, this book could not be more timely.”
[pullquote]“The sophomore effort—whether in novels, music, visual art or any soulful endeavor—is devastating to the ego, more so than the initial publication. You’ve already been rejected for the first book, most likely hundreds of times if you’re like me. But now, someone is counting on you, investing in you, to produce something of worth. [/pullquote]
Of today’s post, Michele says: “The sophomore effort—whether in novels, music, visual art or any soulful endeavor—is devastating to the ego, more so than the initial publication. You’ve already been rejected for the first book, most likely hundreds of times if you’re like me. But now, someone is counting on you, investing in you, to produce something of worth. It’s assumed, presumed, and hoped that you have this gift in you, that you’re not a one-book wonder. The pressure is on. The school chums are gone. It’s all you! Can you do it?”
Michele lives on the coast of North Carolina with her amazing son, supportive husband, an obsessive-compulsive cocker spaniel and sensitive bearded dragon. When Michele is not writing, she is crafting in some form and doing Zumba. You can connect with her on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Writing and Publishing that Second Book
Heidi Durrow and I met while we were both promoting our first novels, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, mine, and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, hers. We met at Word Brooklyn where we shared the stage, discussing and answering questions about writing and publishing a first novel. It seemed only fitting that we now discuss the second novel, and how it’s an entirely different beast.
Michele: For you, what’s been the most difficult thing about writing the second novel? Do you think, as I do, that there’s a stigmatism about sophomore efforts, and it makes it even more difficult? Are you terrified of failing? I realize that while I’m writing, I have to forget the business side of it in order to be creative.
Heidi: I think the hardest part about writing the second novel is that it’s really a whole different animal. I wrote my first book with all the ideas and experiences and words I’d had for my entire lifetime. Book two is mining all of that stuff, but it feels different. I really believe what one writer said about remembering that sometimes you need to grow into the person who can write the book that needs to be written. For book two it just feels like I’m growing more slowly.
And yes, the dreaded sophomore slump is a real fear. But I have felt energized lately remembering that after book 2 that will be one less fear and I can go back to writing without thinking about what the critics might think.
Like you said: it’s really important to forget the business part of publishing and just do the work, put your heart on the page, and tell the stories you need to tell.
Michele: I’m so glad that you are feeling energized. I’m always surprised at how my stories evolve and change as I’m writing. Are you doing things differently with book two, like are you writing every day or just when you feel inspired? Are you outlining? I was definitely more aware of my structural weaknesses with Above Us Only Sky, and I tried to be more cognizant of not jumping from one thing to the next. Basically, I thought about balancing “holding the readers’ hand” while also respecting the readers’ intelligence. It’s such a fine line, but the first ten or so drafts are always all about me, not so much the audience.
Heidi: Exactly! Who is it that says we write to figure out what we actually think and feel? That’s what all those drafts are for—to figure it out. The hard part is knowing that you’re most likely getting it wrong in the draft you’re writing, and the exciting part is knowing that having gone through that bad draft you have a better chance of getting it right. I am doing things differently for book two in that I keep trying to silence thoughts about “what my readers want”. It’s hard. I don’t want to disappoint or disenchant people who loved The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. But I have to remember as you said that the first drafts are for you—the writer. You can’t think about the reader until much later in the process. So you actually did it. You finished book 2 and now it’s out in the world. What does it feel like? I hope you feel pride because it’s a great book, but is there a measure of relief too?
Michele: There is some measure of relief. I really love what you said about knowing, as you’re writing, that even though one draft might be bad, it’s going to get better. Or, realistically, many drafts may be bad, but I don’t realize how bad when I’m in the process, for that very reason, because I’m in the process, usually loving it, usually discovering unknown characters or their traits or their settings. I love writing. Throughout this last novel, my mantra has been, “You can’t take my joy from me,” which is also a song lyric. I love what I do. I am so grateful for this ability to tell stories.
The story of Above Us Only Sky is a very important story for me. It’s about people who are brave and stand up against oppression and endure despite the greatest odds. The mantra, “You can’t take my joy from me,” comes from that familiar feeling, as a writer, that ‘I’m not getting it right,’ ‘I don’t know what I’m doing or where this is going.’ When I doubt myself, I’m the one taking my joy away. I have to constantly remind myself, “Nope. Don’t do it, Michele. Do the work. Have fun. Don’t think about anything but this story and these characters.” Then all is “write” with the world. Oh, and it feels amazing to see Above Us Only Sky, to hold it. Just spectacular. I have two ISBN numbers!!! Wow!
Heidi: Yay! There’s nothing better than that moment you hold the published book in your hands for the first time. You must be so thrilled. So do you think you’ve learned everything you need to know to write book 3? Or will there be all new book 3 challenges to face? I have a feeling every book feels like the first book—just because it’s a new book to write—it’s got its own challenges.
Michele: Heidi, you said it. That’s the thing. With every novel I finish, and I’m talking first draft, I feel like I’ve died, like it’s the end, like a scene from Sanford and Son, or how my Nana used to say, “Please God, please take me now,” but it’s never the end. There’s always more work and more joy to be found. To all the aspiring writers out there, I say, “Love the work. Love the process. If you are not compelled with your whole being to bring people and their stories to life with words, maybe make some other kind of art.”
Heidi: Now let’s see your wonderful book take off and fly!
Michele: Thank you. I can’t wait until our next panel together, when we both have books in our hands!
With lists being all the rage these days, here are ten things I learned about writing the second novel.
- Be like Frank Sinatra: Do it your way. Don’t listen to agents, editors, and the pesky voices of MFA professors past, not for the first ten drafts. Be true to yourself.
- Have fun. Be joyful. Be experimental.
- Remember: the wheel wasn’t invented overnight. You’re not going to turn this baby out in less than a year. The creative process just doesn’t work that way.
- Just because you’ve written a first novel, you’re not James Joyce. You can’t write Ulysses. In this day and age, you don’t want to write Ulysses. Plan on revising A LOT.
- If you have readers you trust, by all means have them read and critique for you. If you don’t have a crew like this, find some people who have read books before. Even a local barfly can tell the difference between genuine craft and bullshit.
- Keep reading fiction, however slowly, while you’re writing. It’s good to be reminded that there are real people making real novels all the time.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Post inspirational notes to yourself. “Don’t be afraid. Be brilliant.” “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” –Stephen King “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” –Truman Capote “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” –Toni Morrison
- The second book (unless a sequel) isn’t going to be anything like the first book. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. Let that first book go (at least for now). Invest in your new characters. Forget what was. The future is now.
- Keep writing. Write every day. Write even on the days when you don’t feel like writing. You can always delete or crumple up pages and play basketball in your office.
- The Kicker: the second novel may not end up being your second novel. If you’re like me, you’ll have to write a third book to find your true voice, but for god’s sake, do not think about this now. Do not! Love the process. Love the writing. Write for yourself. As long as you keep going, everything will be brilliant. Go back and read numbers 1, 2, 4 and 9. That’s the most valuable advice I can offer.
Can you share some advice about writing the second novel? We’d love to hear.