This afternoon while it was 38ºC outside, I sat at my desk and opened my current manuscript. It had been a while since I’d written and, although I’ve missed creating sentences, I’d needed the break.
I’ve been working on my second novel for most of this year. So far, I’ve made four attempts at writing it. The first attempt was back in January 2017, and that stalled at 26,000 words. The second attempt, which I started in March this year, stalled at about 21,000 words. The two most recent attempts have been more successful, both reaching 60,000 words before I ran out of steam.
Right now I’m at my computer with Scrivener open, about to make yet another attempt at this novel. I’m hoping this one will be it—the one that will make it through to the end.
Theoretically, you’d think that writing a second book would be easier than writing a first: You’ve already done it before, so you know the ropes. All you’ve got to do is replicate what you did first time around.
That’s how I thought it would be. I’d heard of ‘second novel syndrome’, that dreaded condition from which many writers suffer whereby writing another novel is nigh impossible, but I didn’t think I’d catch it.
Back in July, I heard David Malouf say that writing a second novel is the hardest thing in the world to do. I can see now that he wasn’t exaggerating.
I’ve struggled to understand why writing this story has proven so difficult. I’ve berated myself for not just sitting down and typing the damn thing out. I’ve felt lazy and unself-disciplined. I’ve tried to work out what the problem is, why it feels so much harder than first time around, and I’ve come up with a few reasons:
When I was writing my first book, there was just me, alone in my attic, writing the story I wanted to write. I had no voices in my head except my own. I didn’t have a publisher. I didn’t have a deadline. I didn’t have readers who’d liked my first book and couldn’t wait for my second. I didn’t have readers who’d not liked my first novel, and whose criticisms were ringing in my ears.
I had no one but myself and my story, no outside voices, no ‘noise’, no one to confuse me, no one to listen to but my own voice to guide me—or Ida’s voice, as it was in my case.
This time around, there’s a lot more noise inside my head. There’s a publisher and readers I don’t want to let down. There’s a relatively successful début novel that I want to improve upon. And there are deadlines.
Along with all of this, despite the fact I’ve written one novel I’m still discovering my ‘voice’. I still don’t know the type of writer I am and the type of stories I want to tell. Do I want to keep writing historical fiction, and, if so, how historical? Do I want to write a commercial story or a literary one, as The Sisters’ Song seemed to sit on the border between the two?
It’s very hard to block all of these external voices out and just listen to my internal one. But even my internal voice isn’t as kind as she was first time around. My internal critic has now been through the editing process with a publisher and she’s learnt loads. She now recognises good writing and good story-telling. She’s no longer naïve and deluded like she was first time around when she had no idea how bad her first draft really was. She now recognises pedestrian prose, gaps in the narrative, and tense and POV changes, and she finds it impossible to keep writing forwards without correcting what her creative writer has written.
If that’s not enough, on top of it all I’ve realised something else has been going wrong in writing this story:
To date, my attempts at writing a second novel have been okay, and I’ve kind of liked the stories, but they haven’t really grabbed me, not in the way The Sisters’ Song captivated me for the six years it took to be published.
I was passionate about that story—it meant the world to me. From the moment I began writing in Ida’s voice, I cared about her, Nora, Len, Alf and the kids. I cared about them because I knew them. They were real to me, because they were characters from my family history. The story was personal. Although I was writing fiction and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was trying to understand the family into which I was born. I was examining the generations that had gone before me, the ghosts—good and bad—that had been in every room of my childhood. I was explaining myself to myself.
In my attempts at this second novel, I didn’t have that personal connection to the story. This was a deliberate decision. I feel a bit silly admitting it, but I felt like I’d cheated by using my family history as the basis for a novel, and I wanted to write this second one purely from my imagination, like a ‘real’ novelist would.
But with nothing personal in the story, it wasn’t as special or as meaningful to me. I didn’t care about the characters as much as I’d cared about Ida’s story.
So here I am at my desk, about to embark on yet another version of this novel. I’m not starting from scratch because each version adds to the previous one, and I’ve already written the story. But this time, I’m going to ignore all the external noise and just listen to myself—the quiet, creative part that guided me so well first time around.
I’m also going to silence that know-it-all critic who won’t shut up because she knows what makes a good novel.
And I’m going to make this novel personal. After all, it’s the personal that is universal.
*All photos taken with my phone.