The Third Book Hurdle: Some Notes on Drafting and Revising

Is the third novel the most difficult?  It has been for me.  My first novel, The Altarpiece, was the writing on which I learned to be a novelist rather than a poet.  That was hard enough (plot, plot, plot!).  Its sequel, City of Ladies–coming out on October 20, 2014, seemed somewhat . . . well, not easier, but at least more familiar.  I knew my character and I was clear about what she wanted–and what was stopping her from getting it.  I knew where I was going, as though the field were mine and I had walked it many times before.

Then I hit the third book.  It was like encountering a barbed wire fence where there once had been open pasture.  I sailed through a first draft, only to discover that I didn’t know how to end it . . . because I didn’t really know where I had come from.  Leaving it hanging at 85,000 words, I went back to the beginning.  Same characters, new path.  Again, I wandered into a wilderness and came up against the barrier of an ending that felt like a satisfying and inevitable ending.  Couldn’t do it.  I left it hanging at over 90,000 words this time.  Went back to the beginning.  Again, I arrived at the last fifty pages only to find that I had no idea how to get over that stickery fence and into the lovely land of conclusion.

Have I figured it out yet?  Not entirely.  But I do think I have discovered one of the problems with a continuing character or a series of any kind:  what can a writer do that’s different, interesting, even unexpected?  Too many series novels, for me, become repetitious or predictable.  How many bodies will ______ trip over in this installment?  It’s easier, I suppose, if the main character has crime-solving as a profession or an avocation, because there’s less need to explain the number of corpses piling up.  But a writer who prefers not to write that sort of series has to find other ways to drive the plots forward.

The answer lies . . . or so I think today . . . in character.  It’s tempting, with a continuing character, to let plot drive the novels on.  But I want a series that is focused on character–the character of a person who finds herself confronting political and spiritual issues that force her to make difficult choices.  I want my character to be a human being facing human problems in the human world.  Our lives may sometimes be crime stories, but they are also fictions of love, self-deception, betrayal, triumph, and grief.

And I think if I can figure out what my Catherine wants–really wants–this time, the events that unfold will take their shape from her desires.  And then I will finally jump that fence!


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