Writing a Second Novel (or Third or Fourth) is Notoriously Difficult

Second novel, third novel, fourth novel, the process is the same.

A client calls and says, “I have an idea, let me share it with you.”

Tell me first about the main character in your novel, I prompt.

“He’s a very ordinary man.” “She has no family, her parents are dead and she never married.” “He doesn’t have any interests, that’s the idea; by the end of the book, he’ll know what he’s interested in.” “She doesn’t have a career, that’s the point; she’s going to figure out what it is.” “I’m a serious writer, there is no plot structure.”

Tell me about the minor characters in this second novel, I suggest. It turns out there are a dozen of them. Each boasts a lengthy list of attributes of age and appearance and profession and the author tells me she can hear their accents and they’re funny.

“But they’re not really important,” the writer says. “It’s just that I can see them so clearly.”

Take a walk, I propose. Spend four days as your character. Really immerse yourself in the character profile. Pay your bills as that character. Eat lunch as that character. Exercise as that character. Write me a letter from that character. Tell me why and how that character knows all those minor characters.

It’s a miracle. Always. It turns out that those minor characters are very important to the story structure. It may turn out that one of them is actually the story’s chief character. We find that this protagonist has a rich and complex life and that the writer somehow has always known that. None of the material has been wasted. It’s just that this is how some writers work: that the main character has to remain in the shadows until the world around him solidifies.