Writing the Second Novel


6a00e54ff9f2cf88340120a786bd73970b I’m torn. Having recently completed (for now?!) my first novel, I’m scrounging around for another story. I have ideas, lots of them. One is about a guy who gets kidnapped in the Amazon. I’d also like to write a heist story. Or maybe something political and environmental—like about an evil mining or petroleum company that gets their comeuppance after stepping on the little guys for too long. Perhaps another family story—like my last one—only this time instead of making about fathers and sons, it’ll be about a pair of brothers who come together after a lifetime of being at loggerheads.

I got it! The story will be about a guy who tries to free his brother, who works for an oil company, from kidnappers who are holding him to get the company to stop drilling in the rainforest, only the whole thing is a ruse to swindle a fortune in ransom money from the aforementioned multi-national by the brothers, who are in on it together with the kidnappers?

Right…so maybe I need to think about it more. But for how long? And when do I know that I’m ready? That my idea is good enough to begin writing?

For my last manuscript, I started with the following notion: A guy goes back to his hometown after a long time away and finds trouble upon his return. I didn’t have a clue, frankly, about what I needed to do to get the story to the finish line. I knew only that I wanted to write a fictional account based loosely on the town where I grew up. I had no plot and one undefined character. But I was sure this was what I wanted to write so I sat down and started writing.

The result: a mess of a first draft. I managed to come up with a plot and a cast of characters, but both were riddled with holes. I wrote a second draft and didn’t really improve the plot, only the writing. Upon confirmation of this from just about everyone who read it, I put the manuscript away for almost a year. I didn’t start it again until I had a meticulous outline that addressed the myriad flaws in the work.

This time I think I’m going to have a better sense of the story, the characters, the setting, the pacing, etc. before I begin. I’m hoping that I won’t have to write as many drafts this time (though I will, if necessary). I feel like I’m better prepared to execute my next manuscript—if I only had a more concrete idea of what it would be about. Which tempts me to proceed as I did last time, by picking an idea based on a single sentence and plowing forward to let the story find itself? It worked for me once (I hope), but I wonder if the process needs to be so arduous. I’m thinking maybe I should settle on my idea, research it like crazy, let it change and evolve in my mind and then write a hugely detailed outline before I even think about putting fingers to keyboard.

Honestly, I’m not sure. I need your help.

The question(s): What’s your process for getting from idea to execution? Do you let the story tell itself, plan every detail before you begin, or somewhere in between?


JMHammock1 John Meils is currently finishing a first novel, tentatively titled The Warring House. He has written for Elle, Men’s Health, and MyTango.com, among others. To learn more about him, visit johnmeils.com.

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  1. When I begin to write, I only have a vague idea of how I think the story should go. For me it's like a journey through the woods or something. I only go in knowing that I want to get to the very end. I discover all of the details as I go along.

  2. I'm the same as SRC. I start with anything that tickles my fancy. A first page, a single line, maybe just a thought, and then I run with it. Kind of like (because I know we've all done this) reading a bio of an author, and then thinking about what your bio will say (hopefully), how your life will be, what time you'll pick up your kids from school when all you have to do is write and not worry about working nine to five. Slowly a story of your life emerges, a clear vision of how it will be, someday. I do the same with the story. Seems to work for me, it keeps it fresh in my mind and makes it fun, because I never know what'll come out of my character's mouths next, what's going to happen next. Like reading my own book as it goes, never knowing how it's going to end, so that I'm just as surprised as everyone else when "that's the bad guy?"

  3. I need an idea that guarantees three great chapters, one of them being chapter one. Also, the idea has to be one that I love and can live with for several months. If I think an idea offers me those things I'll work out the rest, whether that be the setting, the story or even the genre.

  4. For the two decent drafts I wrote I started with the first several events plotted out and ready to go, and the end point, but I wasn't sure how I was going to get from C (after A and B) to Z.
    The one time I tried it your way I ended up with a very messy draft that was impossible to resolve in a single novel and is now becoming three related, but not a chronological series, set of novels.

  5. Differ things work for different people; some need freedom to go with it and others need piles of research to build on. Have you ever done nanowrimo? It makes a regular rough draft look like a polished diamond, but it's a great way to see ideas get sorted out, and it's really fun. It can be a good method of learning what amount of research works best for you too, because most people who do it have had both too much and not enough research at any given time by the end of it. http://www.nanowrimo.org/

  6. Any time I've had a sudden inspiration and given my writing to the moment all I end up with is a really neat snippet of life with no story. A guy is eating bread and cheese in a coffee shop when a beautiful woman walks in, the end. A boy wishes he had the courage to ask out the girl across the hall, then gives up, and the reader finds out she wished the same thing, the end. A homeless girl watching the rain as it thunders down around her finally hops a bus with her remaining change, the end. I get a scene with no story and the moment is gone.
    I find that I have to think on a story for a long time before I start writing it. Starting with a general idea, I think of where I want it to go, considering the "how" but focusing on the "why". When I have a decent understanding of a plot and the characters involved, I begin to write. The story and cast still evolve along the way, but at least I have a foundation and usually an ending to work with.
    I use outlines more to keep my thoughts straight; they come in handy for spotting plot holes and inconsistencies. I research beforehand and along the way, and I revisit scenes and chapters already under my belt to see if I still enjoy them, where plot issues are, what needs fixing, and then I tag them with a comment and move on.
    Most of all I think, think, think, about my characters, their world, the plot, the theme, and why the story should be told in the first place. Thinking about why things happen helps to keep me honest about how the story happens.

  7. I find that writing with an outline is like trying to breathe with a plastic bag tied around my head--it suffocates me.
    For me, writing has a certain obsessiveness about it, not unlike a drug binge. I once spent three sleepless days banging out the bare bones of a novel (40,000 words!) without leaving the computer except to use the bathroom and hydrate. And even when I did step away physically, mentally I was still attached to the story, feverishly anticipating that next keystroke fix. Of course, this is only enabled by my Muse who shows up in the middle of the night with a story that I "just gotta hear"--nevermind that I have work or school in the morning. And, even if I wanted to resist, I'm powerless because she'll either stay and keep me awake anyway, or leave and not return for weeks, even months at a time.
    Now, whether or not any of that writing sees the light of day is another matter entirely.

  8. I tried to write on an outline. The story felt forced and the next thing I knew I was closing my eyes and "living" the story, moment by moment. I'm a very visual writer. By the time I'd gotten to the end of my first three chapters, the story had evolved much differently (more lively), but all of the essential plot points were there. Now I plan plot/subplot in generalities and describe the characters and their motivations in great detail, but I skip the outline method.
    It's time to close my eyes and envision another age, when men and women of honor went on perilous journeys and were part of the most amazing events...


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