Sunday, October 5, 2008

Everything You Never Knew You Always Wanted To Know About Writing Your SECOND Novel - With Chip MacGregor

As promised, here is part one of the two parter with Chip MacGregor, uber agent, nice guy, and all around smarty-pants (really, he's very smart).

Here's an oh-so brief bio, just in case you don't know who Chip is:

One day when he was in first grade, Chip hurried home and announced to his mother, "When I grow up, I’m going to be a book guy!" And he has been a book guy—from high school literary magazine to bestselling books, from conference speaker to an unbeatable track record of representing renowned writers. Creating MacGregor Literary was a natural step for a book guy.
Chip has a comprehensive knowledge of the industry—from book development to writing, acquisition to production, marketing to sales. He has secured more than 1,000 book deals for authors with all of the major publishers in both CBA and ABA.

You can learn all about Chip and his agency at:
The man also blogs, here: . This is a good blog, at least in part, because Chip actually manages to keep it updated on a regular basis. No, I have no idea when he sleeps.
Thanks to my loyal blog readers, I’ve assembled questions for Chip about writing the not-oft-spoken-of second novel.

The first few questions were questions many writers have about agents in general, and about Chip specifically.

Question: Laura Davis kicks it off by asking a general question about you as an agent. Laura (and, I suspect a shwack of other writers) wants to know: What do you look for when you are considering representing someone?

I suppose every agent is looking for the same three components in reviewing a proposal: A great idea, supported by great writing, from an author with a great platform. Those are the general terms an agent considers when reviewing a proposal, I suppose. But more specifically, I am always looking for a strong voice in the writing – is it fresh? Does it stand out? Is it something that makes me want to continue reading? Is there personality in the words that shines through? If I can find a manuscript with a strong voice, I’m always much more interested than reading something that feels flat or familiar.

And I guess I would also have to admit that I’m looking not only at the writing, but at the writer. I don’t represent any high-maintenance people, so I generally insist on meeting an author before agreeing to represent him or her. I want to make sure we feel comfortable with each other – I’m not a fit for everybody. Occasionally I’ll have an email exchange with an author and it will seem great, but then we meet one another and the vibe just isn’t right. So I value being eye-to-eye with an author, having a chance to visit and get to know each other a bit.

Question: Laura writes: I’ve been told by a well-known author that publishers look more for a writer’s ability to sell books (i.e. established speaker, interesting story, etc.) as opposed to how well they write. Is that true?

I think that’s an overstatement. Certainly publishers are looking at nonfiction writers more and more with an eye toward “platform” – how is he or she going to help us move some copies? Is the author an expert? Can the author get major media attention? Does the author have a following or name recognition? Does the author have connections with any sources for selling large quantities of books? Those legitimate questions to be asking an NF writer.

But with fiction, I find that’s far less true. While I think it’s fair to say publishers are now at least asking the “platform” question of novelists, they still weigh their publishing decisions on fiction based largely upon the quality of the craft .

Question: Joanna Mallory adds dimension to the question by asking: With all the talk about high concept novels and the importance of an author's platform, where is the best place for emerging writers to focus the bulk of their time? Developing excellent craft, or developing an audience?

Okay, let me admit something…. I hate the question. It suggests a writer is best served by chasing the market, and my experience is that rarely is true. (In other words, you’re standing at a writing conference and hear someone say, “Random House is looking for westerns.,” so you race out to write a western.) Look, if you really want to know about the best place to enter into publishing today, it’s probably to write a genre romance. There’s growth in that category, and there are certainly openings for new writers. But I tend to take a contrarian point of view: If you really want to get published, create great characters in a compelling story. (That may not be the most profound thing you’ll read today, but it’s the truth. Acquisitions people at every house are on the prowl for great characters in big, marketable, compelling stories.)

Question: Marvin D Wilson, When does a writer's "strong" voice have an advantage, and when (or at what point) does it become a detriment, a distraction away from the story? Does it matter more in certain genres than others in fictional novels?

I’d be hard pressed to tell you when a writer’s strong voice becomes a detriment. As I said earlier, I’m a huge fan of voice in fiction. I believe our educational system for writing (college classrooms, conferences, even many mentoring workshops) have a tendency to flatten voice in writing by making it appear as though there is one way to write a novel. I suppose one could argue there are some genres where the house doesn’t care about the author’s unique voice and merely wants a straightforward story told… but I’m not sure I really believe that. Surely not every voice fits every genre, but every editor I know falls in love with a great voice. (And a side comment on your last question: A fictional novel? Is there any other kind?)

Question: Sandy Cathcart wonders, What are the common areas of neglect you see most in that second book? Weak plot? Poor characterization? Underdeveloped? Etc.?

Love this question. I tell authors all the time that your second novel will be your most important. You’ve spent years getting the first one completed and published, so it is no doubt polished. Then the publisher asks you to write another in four months, you race through it, and it comes out a disappointment. That can be a career killer when you’re trying to get started.
The biggest pitfalls on second novels?

-A small idea. The story of your first novel was big; your second novel was hurried and not thought through as well, so it’s not nearly as big.
-Small characters. Your first novel contained characters you knew intimately. Your second novel contains people you haven’t thought about as much.
-Less place. Your first novel was a place you had spent considerable time exploring and describing. Your second novel is just a place.
-Less passion. Your first novel grew out of a story you simply HAD to tell. Your second novel is simply the next idea.

**These next questions focus on writing that second book. Generally, if you are writing your second novel you are doing one of two things: You're writing a sequel to your first book, or, you're writing a whole new book that isn't related to your debut novel. This next set of questions are about second books that are sequels to the debut novel.

Question: Many writers, like Lorraine O’Donnell Williams, want to know if they should be thinking “sequel” when they write the first novel? Has this become the industry norm?

Whether it’s the norm depends on the house. Some publishers seem to love sequels; others prefer not to sequence the books. I would say the possibility for a sequel rests in your characters, not your story. Each novel needs a complete story (and aren’t we all sick to death of reading a novel that seems like nothing more than a long advertisement for the next book?) Let each novel have a complete story – that’s where the best novels come from. But if you have interesting characters that can continue, then you’ve got the possibility of crafting a good sequel. (And don’t believe the hype-meisters that are always preaching “have a sequel.” The fact is, most second books in a series sell fewer copies than the first book in the series. So the idea that a sequel will automatically help you get established is a myth.)

Question: Thom Robinson If the second novel is about the same characters as the first, how much description of them needs to occur for new readers and not frustrate repeat readers?

Good question. My answer is probably, “enough so that a reader will appreciate the character in the current book.” Take a look at some great detective fiction (which I use because there are so many excellent examples of continuing characters). You can pick up any Adam Dalgliesh novel and feel you get to know the character. You can pick up any Philip St Ives novel and feel you get to know the character. Too much description can make for a dull, wordy novel anyway.

Question: Valerie Coulman adds this dimension to the question: What practical room is there for the writer to explore new territory?
I think the author has answered her own question: If there is room for a character to explore NEW territory, then there’s the possibility of a sequel. If not…

Question: Benjamin T. Collier wonders: How far can you stray from the expectations set by the first novel, before the reader feels betrayed?

Not very far. It’s why many serial writers have eventually felt trapped by their characters. You can’t have the God-fearing pastor sleuth with a good sense of humor become a cross-dressing evil genius. Readers won’t stand for it. If you start a character, you have to live with the character you created.

Question: Sara Davidson has an interesting twist on the question of sequels: Is it acceptable to have a sequel that is written in the same style but would fall into another category (genre)?

I don’t see how this would work in the marketplace. Retailers would hate it. And readers generally are loyal to their categories. Doing a great chick-lit novel, then suddenly moving your character into a thriller, sounds like a recipe for disaster.

*****I don't know about you, but my brain is full. And there's more to come. Jump back her on Wednesday as Chip MacGregor brings us part two of your questions about writing your second novel. The questions in that blog will focus on writing a second book that is not a sequel to the debut, as well as some interesting - and somewhat more technical questions about publishing contracts. Don't miss it!

I bid you good writing.


vjc said...

Great information, Bonnie. And thank you Chip. But my question wasn't about a second novel in a series, it was about writing a sequel that was NOT in series. (I know it had to be shortened for space issues but it lost the context of my question.) Does market reality mean that a writer should expect a second novel to be a continuation of the first, or is there enough freedom to strike into new territory for subsequent books?

lynnrush said...

Ohhhh, great questions and answers!! I visit Chip's blog daily (almost) and it's so very helpful. I appreciate his "bluntness."

Yeah, I wonder when he sleeps as well! HOLY MOLY!

Thanks again, I'll be back :-)

Bonnie Grove said...

Hey VJC,

Be sure to check back on the blog on Wednesday. That's when Chip will cover questions of the second book that is NOT part of a series.

(and your question is found there - hang tight!)

Thanks for your comments! :)

Lynn: Thanks for dropping by! Blunt? Chip? : )

Joanna Mallory said...

Bonnie and Chip, thanks for this Q&A. And I'm glad the answer to my question was to write well rather than to chase market trends. Sometimes one can feel a tad cynical, so it's good to be reassured that characters and story still the place to focus.

The Koala Bear Writer said...

Sounds to me like we as writers are still called to write the best story we possibly can, and then find the publisher for it--because the publishers are looking for good stories. Good advice. Thanks Bonnie and Chip!