Please welcome longtime Writer Unboxed community member and author Melanie Conklin to WU today! Melanie grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer for ten years before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. Her second novel for young readers, Every Missing Piece, published with Little, Brown in May, 2020. When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Learn more about her on her website, and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads!
What About Book Two?
So, you’ve written and published your first book, which is wonderful! It’s a pretty amazing experience to watch your work enter the reading world. Readers discover your story. Some love it, some hate it, but it’s all good. Once a book leaves the nest, it belongs to the readers. All that’s left for you to do is write the next story.
On its face, this is a simple task. You have written one book already. Perhaps more than one. And yet, it is a very different thing to write a book after publication.
Suddenly, your work exists in the public sphere, rather than between your two ears, or within your critique circle, or in an email chain with your editor. As a published author, your work opens a dialogue with readers. Even if you avoid reviews, you will hear feedback. You will get emails from fans and critics. Whether you take in the feedback or not is your choice, but regardless, your private bubble of writerly solitude will be compromised.
Most authors find themselves in this position during the writing of their second book for publication. Suddenly, we are writing for an audience. There are other voices in our heads. We are not alone.
And yet, the work of writing a novel is largely done alone.
It’s not unusual to feel blocked after publication, as though the public sphere has overtaken your personal space, leaving you no room to write. I felt something like this in the year following my debut’s publication. I had a story in mind for my second book, but I knew it wasn’t “done” yet, and that was a somewhat terrifying prospect. Unlike my debut, my second book would have to be delivered to my editor. There were expectations. The story wasn’t ready, but I had a deadline. So I shared it. And readers, it did not go well.
My worst nightmare was to encounter feedback which left me nowhere to turn with my story, and yet, that’s what happened. In a way, I wasn’t surprised. The story wasn’t ready yet…but surely it had some merit? My editor at the time did not think so.
Following this exchange, I entered a low period where I really questioned my abilities as a writer. It’s one thing to receive criticism, but it is another to feel cast away. After some reflection and discussion with family, agent, and friends, I decided to move forward in a new direction. I walked away from that story and that editorial partnership, because it wasn’t the right one for me. It was pretty terrifying to make the leap, but it was necessary.
I stepped back from publishing. I changed agents. I allowed myself to explore and write in a private bubble again, without any thought toward publication. I fell in love with a story again. I wrote it just for me. I didn’t show it to anyone until I knew what I had was ready.
When it was ready, when I was ready, I sent that new story into the world, and it soared.
My second book turned out to be a joy to write, once I allowed myself the time and space to do the work. I learned that no matter what my publishing status is, it is my job as a writer to find this safe space within me to create. It is my job to give myself permission to create. It is my job to risk loving a story even if publication may not come to fruition. It is my job to actively set aside my own fears and ambitions and give myself to the creative process.
This is a conscious act.
I schedule writing on the calendar. I turn off my internet and my email. I tell my family that I am unavailable. I let the dishes go unwashed. I do not answer my phone. In this way, embracing discipline gives my subconscious permission to play again, to fall in love with words, to scribble ideas down as fast as I can write. I end writing sessions exhausted but fulfilled.
I am now halfway through the draft of my third book, and the process is much easier. That doesn’t mean the work is easier, just that I know what to expect from MYSELF this time. I can rely on my process, even if the work is uncertain. There is still plenty of crying and fear, but there is great joy, too, in feeling a story come to life. There will always be uncertainty and doubt, but I guess that is the price of making art.
While writing for publication is harrowing at times, I acknowledge that I have a great deal of privilege as a straight, white, middle class woman that makes it far easier for me to do this work than it is for marginalized writers. We need to look within ourselves for the space to create, but we also need to support each other in this work. We privileged writers must support organizations like We Need Diverse Books that make it possible for marginalized writers to have the opportunity to create.
Creation is a privilege. It is a gift. We can give it to ourselves, and we can give it to others.
That is how the next story is born.
What have you learned, between books or even beyond the first draft? Have things become easier, or just different? Share your challenges and/or your adaptations and strategies in comments.