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Guest Post: Kim Wright, Author of LOVE IN MID-AIR

Wright Last year, I read and reviewed Love in Mid-Air, by Kim Wright. (The book is newly out in paperback.) Kim graciously agreed to write a blog post for EDIWTB about how to write a second novel after you've had a successful debut. I find the process of writing one book incredibly daunting, and am in awe of anyone who can write one, not to mention successive novels, so I found this very interesting. Thanks, Kim, for an excellent post!

 

The Curse of the Second Novel
By Kim Wright

There are lots of myths about the publication process… and one of them is that once you’ve published your first book, you’ve got it made. 

After all, at this point you’ve cleared some of the toughest hurdles – you have an agent and an editor and presumably you’ve started the task of building a readership. You have, at least once in your lifetime, figured out the structure and pace of a full-length book and you’ve managed to control your nerves, your time, and your imagination long enough to get that puzzle on paper.  It would logically seem that the process of bringing out the second book would be, if not exactly easy, at least a little easier. 

But the woods are full of novelists whose first books were well-received and sold reasonably well… and whose second books fell to the ground with a great big thud.  Or, even worse, novelists who never managed to write the second book at all. Why is it so difficult to transfer the lessons learned in the first book to the second? And why do so many good writers fall victim to the sophomore slump?

I think there are several possible explanations.

In many cases the first book is the story you’re compelled to tell.  My friend Alison wrote her memoir as a tribute to her brother Roy, who died in a traffic accident as a teenager.  Without the memory of Roy whispering in her ear, she had to come up with a whole new set of motivations to write her second book. Writers often throw everything they have into the first book – the color of the sky that morning their granddaddy took them quail hunting, secret sexual fantasies, political opinions about offshore fishing rights.  No wonder there’s nothing left for the second one.

And then second novels are sometimes under a type of time pressure that first novels just don’t face. When you write your first book, you probably don’t have an agent or an editor. Absolutely no one is waiting for the book. So it’s not uncommon to hear of people who spent five, ten, or fifteen years getting it right. But the second time around, your agent may be saying “So what else do you have?” If you scored a multi-book deal, you even have a deadline. Which is all great, but some writers freeze under the pressure. It’s hard to produce book two in a year if book one took you ten.

And finally – and this may be the big one – the second time around you’re gun shy. You know all too well what can happen and even writers with successful first books have had moments of profound disappointment mixed in with the joy.  I’ve never met a writer, no matter how acclaimed, who can’t quote lines from his bad reviews verbatim or who doesn’t have a rueful story about the time he drove five hours to read to two people or the day his editor started to introduce him and completely blanked on his name. No one gets to be a virgin twice, and sophomore novelists rarely managed to muster up the same degree of rosy-cheeked optimism they brought to the publication of their first book.

This transition between the first book and the second is a tricky time, but if you can pull it off – or even just manage to get through it – it’s a significant watershed in your career.  Because this is the point where you move from “someone who wrote a book” to “a writer.”

Authors who are much farther down this path than I am have assured me that each book brings its own set of challenges and that it never really gets easier, only different. The blank page is the great equalizer. Writers must return to it time after time and when you’re facing that blank page, no degree of past accolades or fat royalty checks will help you.   A writing teacher I know, a grizzled veteran of the publication wars, was once asked which book was the hardest to write.  He said “Whichever one I’m working on at the time.”  There are no cheats.  There are no short cuts.  We reinvent ourselves with each new story.

And, in a weird way, that may be why we love this job so much.

Q&A

Discussion with Kim Wright, author of LOVE IN MID-AIR

I was fortunate enough to participate in a discussion last week with Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air, as part of the Manic Mommies Book Club. (Here is my review of Love in Mid-Air).

Here is writeup of the discussion.

Wright Intro: I always thought of myself as a journalist, but I had a novel in me. I got divorced 15 years ago, and all of a sudden, I was someone who was OK to talk to about marriage. People started telling me their stories. Because I had publicly failed in an inbred, small Southern town, I became the mother confessor of every unhappy woman.

Q: Were the stories in the book based on reality (yours or someone else's)?

A: 2/3 of all divorces are initiated by women. Why, I wondered, aren't these stories being written about? I did a lot of journaling to get through my own divorce. I filled many, many journals and put them into a garbage bag, and thought someday I would write non-fiction about divorce. After letting them sit for 2-3 years, though, I decided that these stories were a novel. But the real life stories were definitely the impetus.

Q: How does your ex-husband feel about the book?

A: My ex-husband and I are not Phil and Elyse. We are great friends. I offered him a chance to read the book before it came out, and he said no. But there were a few scenes that I was afraid of how he would take, so he read it. In the end, he was very supportive, and even suggested to me that I get a publicist.

Q: How about your friends – were any of them upset?

A: Writers take real life, move it around, amalgamate it, and make a mosaic out of it. In a few cases, I had to be sure that the person I was writing about was OK with the book. Most stories I changed, but one I took verbatim – really hot button stuff. I decided to let that friend read the book, against the advice of my editor, and it turned out she was upset, but not about what I expected her to mind… she didn't want me to describe her as having "granite countertops", because she thought that gave her away. You have to write what you really feel. Few writers want to hurt people, but you can't pre-think about what will be upsetting to people. You can't avoid upsetting people if you want to be a writer.

Q: Do you have a favorite scene?

A: I don't write in sequences – I write scenes as they come to me and fill the rest in later. The scene in Love in Mid-Air that came to me first was Elyse falling down the church steps. I didn't know who she was or why she was falling. That scene was magic, the impetus for the book. As for the letters, I wasn't sure how they were going to play into the book. As it turned out – even married women have fantasies of romance that they can't throw away – which is why Elyse kept those letters.

Q: Do you plot the whole book out first or write organically?

A: I write organically, which can result in 500 page monstrosities that need to be cut back. When you write as it hits you, you have to walk away from it and then come back six months later to see what fits. Outlining saves time, but to me, books that are outlined feel thin and don't have the messiness of everyday life. Writing organically leads to richer scenes that are more like real life. Now I read like a writer – I can tell who plots and who writes organically. Now that I have written a book, I have been initiated into a sorority/fraternity of people who have written novels. I love talking to other people who have done it. Everyone does it a little differently. Some aspects of writing can be taught, but you have to invent your own methodology.

Q: Why did you write Love in Mid-Air in the present tense?

A: I started writing it in the past tense, but I decided to use present because Elyse is so impetuous. Her life is going out of control. The book was more believable if I used the present tense. It also created more tension – the story wasn't over, it hadn't happened yet.

Q: Tell us about Kelly.

A: Divorce affects your friendships. I wanted Elyse to have one really good friend. In the sequel to Love in Mid-Air, there's a quote that friendship affects our lives even more deeply than love. Women really need their friends. Women's lives become so intertwined. Kelly and Elyse are so close that they share fate, but is Kelly protecting Elyse, or is she jealous of her? Is she trying to save Elyse from herself?

Q: Elyse's friends seem to see everything that happens through the prisms of their own lives. Can you talk about that?

A: Each woman had a distinct view of what marriage and motherhood is. Women project on each other all the time. They see others as extensions of themselves. By getting divorced, Elyse upsets the apple cart for these women.

Q: What is your next book about?

A: My next book – Almost Perfect – takes place when Elyse and Kelly are turning 50. All of the characters are there – this book picks up Kelly's story. Her flashbacks of things that Elyse talked about in Love in Mid-Air are told through a different point of view. In this book, Tory is mad at Elyse. She is upset that her mother isn't a typical mom, and she's determined to live her own life differently.

I don't "write what I know" – I write about what I can't get right, what I can't figure out in my own life.

LOVE IN MID-AIR by Kim Wright

Wright I finished Love in Mid-Air tonight, just in time for the Manic Mommies Book Club call with author Kim Wright tomorrow night. I hope I can actually make the call, but that's a different story.

Love in Mid-Air is about Elyse, a married mother of one living in Charlotte, NC with her uncommunicative and often unfeeling husband of ten years. Elyse is unhappy with her marriage to Phil, and embarks on a long-distance affair with a man she met on an airplane. Over the course of about 9 months, her marriage deteriorates further, her affair continues, and Elyse ponders whether or not to leave her husband.

That sounds simple, but it's not. Wright uses the construct of Elyse's three closest friends – Kelly, Nancy and Belinda – as well as Lynn, a divorcee skating the edge of their social circle – to show that marriages (happy or unhappy) can take a lot of different forms. Elyse's inevitable slide into distance and fracture is one model, but her friends' marriages, which are themselves far from perfect, remain intact for their own reasons.

Ultimately, Love in Mid Air is about friendship and loneliness, and the fact that it's close to impossible to view the actions of others without seeing them through the prism of our own lives. Wright's depiction of marriage and the power struggles that go on behind closed doors, whether over sex or money or simply how partners treat each other, is insightful and at times painfully honest. Her writing is sharp and minimal, except for the last ten pages, which are almost dreamlike. I enjoyed this book from page 1, even though it was emotionally intense at times to the point of discomfort.

I am looking forward to hearing what Wright has to say about Love in Mid-Air tomorrow night – I will report back!

(HI FTC! I received a review copy of this book from Hachette as part of my participation in the Manic Mommies Book Club.)