Dear Story Nurse,
I’m running into a problem with starting my second novel. I completed my first novel a few months ago after about a year of work and have been brainstorming and writing scenes for future projects since then. However, I haven’t been able to commit to working on the second novel.
I have plenty of notes and a good idea of the story I want to tell. I’ve got characters, setting, a beginning, some plot—but I’m feeling very stuck. I feel like my first novel just… happened, even though I obviously remember struggling with it at times and putting in the work. A part of me feels like maybe that was it, the one story I have to tell, just a fluke that I can’t repeat. Do you have any strategies to help me get unstuck and get to work?
I realize this problem is a bit abstract. Thanks in advance for any advice you can give!
First, let me reassure you that this is really, really common and you are not alone. Second novels are sort of like second children: you think that this time around you’ll go into the project knowing everything, and then the project turns out to be so different from the first project that you’re back at square one in a lot of ways. But don’t worry! There are definitely ways to unstick yourself.
Some part of you may still be thinking about your completed book, especially if you’re in the process of revising it or discussing it with beta readers or a critique group. Working on multiple books at once is a skill that’s often developed over time, so don’t stress over it if you don’t have it now. You may need to spend more time with your other book and find closure of some kind with it before you embark on a new project. You may need to develop some kind of parting ritual that frees you to move on. You may need to work through any lingering feelings about that book and about yourself as a writer. Or you might just need more of a break. (See my post “What It Means to Be Blocked” for more kinds of writer’s block and how to address them.) Check in with yourself about whether you’re actually ready for something new right now. If you’re not, don’t push it. Your ideas and notes will be waiting for you when the time comes. Transitions are hard; be gentle with yourself.
When you’re ready to start, begin by giving this book a nickname or a label that has nothing to do with where it happens to fall in your career, something like “Do Not Taunt Happy Fun Book” or “The Book Based on That Dream I Had About Monkeys” or “Sarah Goes on an Adventure”. Choosing that name will help you identify the core concept(s) of the book, which is useful for many things. It will also move you away from enumerating your books. Many authors have lots of first books: the first one started, the first one completed, the first one published, the first one to be a bestseller, the first one with a new agent or publisher, the first one in a genre, and so on. It’s not a terribly useful construct, and it can be confining. Instead of thinking of your books as first and second, take each one on its own terms. The process of writing this particular book will be different from the process you’ve had for other projects, and that’s fine! You and the book will find your way together.
Make sure your life is structured for writing. When you finished that other project, did your writing habits atrophy a bit? Did other events and projects creep into the spaces on your schedule that used to be reserved for writing? For writing to happen, you need uninterrupted time, a comfortable working space, and the right tools. Consciously set that up for yourself.
Next, do something that feels comforting and comfortable and familiar, something that draws on the parts of writing you like the best and the skills that you feel are strongest. If you love outlining, outline (even if you already have an outline). If you love diving in, open up a blank document and start writing. Make a Pinterest board with character concepts, do historical research, plan your writing schedule… whatever makes you happiest and feels easiest. This is a confidence booster, a reminder that you do have a lot of applicable skills from your other projects and also a reminder of how much fun writing can be. You write because you love it, right? Start with the part you love the most.
Then write a love letter to your project, or write a letter to a (real or imaginary) friend talking about what you love about the project. Something in this project called to you, grabbed you, excited you! What was it? Find it again and reconnect with it.
Finally, sit down with a blank page or screen and write a scene—any scene. Pick somewhere to start, and start. Draw on that inspiration and excitement and confidence to get yourself past any anxiety about starting something new. Do your best to fall into the book, to get swept away by the book. It will be easier than you expect in some places, and harder in others. You’re writing a whole new book, a unique book, and it won’t be the same as writing any past or future book. But you’ve written a new book from scratch before, and I promise you can do it again.
When you’re good and ready and eager and excited and revved up, the words will flow. Happy writing!