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.
This has actually happened to me with my third novel. My second came out quicker than the first! I completed it in a rush before I got story edits back on To Become a Whale. Then it marinated for a long time, which helped. But my gosh the editing.
But what you’re describing here totally applies to my next thing. It’s too big. Too tricky. And, like you say, my taste is better now, and I can smell something rotten far quicker. And I think we can beat ourselves up awful quick when we’re not being disciplined with writing; I know I’ve walked around feeling guilty that I’m not putting fingers to keys.
You’ll get there Louise! All this work you’re putting into it will turn the story into something profound I’m sure!
I’m so kicking myself for not writing my second novel prior to publication of my first, but I’m not very good at multi-tasking!
We *will* get there, both of us! Congratulations on your second—can’t wait to read it—and good luck with your third. 🙂
I wish you all the best xx.
I’ve crashed out again at 30k words on novel #2. Planning to try to pick it up again in mid Jan. I hear you on the personal drive though – my first one was easier, I think, because I wrote it while I was angry. I wrote it because I was trying to explain something to others and to myself.
I’m still not sure WHY I’m writing this second one apart from it being a good story.
I hear you completely on trying to explain yourself to others through a novel. Also, anger is a powerful driver of a narrative, a wonderful source of passion!
I sometimes wonder if I’ve said all I have to say in my first novel. Then I remind myself of how passionate I get about things—maybe I need to write a novel about Trump! It sounds like we both need to find something that will put the fire in our bellies again.
You’ve been so kind and patient and caring towards me and my work, despite having all of this going on– because you are Superwoman! Big hugs, and a cup of tea is always waiting for you at my place if you need one. x
I might take you up on the offer of a cuppa! I’m hoping this is the breaking of the drought! 😊
A delight and informative to read your reflections Louise…and an extra delight to view your exquisite photographs. Thank you! Helen Oxnam
Thank you for reading, Helen. I’m so looking forward to surmounting this second novel hurdle. 😎
Keep at it Louise! I love your openness and honesty. It’s encouraging to hear how you and other writers face writing hurdles as it helps light the way.
Thanks, Susan. Yes, we all face similar hurdles, and at least we can know we’re not alone. x
Oh I don’t envy you Louise.I mean,I envy you in terms of already having one book out! But this “second-book syndrome” sounds nasty. Having said that it feels like an important process that you are moving through and I’m sure the book will be even better for it. Keep listening to your heart, to those quiet voices that insist and to those ideas that draw you back. The more I write the more I realise that’s where the gold is hidden…Good luck and keep us updated X
I think you’re right—it’s part of the process and every writer has to go through it to learn to trust themselves. You’re also right when you say that’s where the ‘gold’ is.
I’m trying so hard to hear my voice, but it’s so quiet, and a bit fearful, and in need of some gentle coaxing at the moment. 🙂
I’m delighted that you’re back sharing your writing journey with us, as I think it’s vital that writers share the negatives as well as the positives about their experiences. I’ve got a good feeling about this next attempt at Novel Number Two — especially if you find a way to incorporate or reflect upon your own experiences as part of the storytelling. “Authenticity” and “being authentic” have become buzzwords in recent years, but I think they have always been evident in those novels that we all connect with viscerally. Best of luck with the next stage of your writing journey. xxx
And I’m gobsmacked that those photos were taken with your phone! xxx
I think it’s important to share both the good and the bad, too, otherwise you feel you’re the only one who’s doing it tough, when the reality is that most writers experience it.
Thank you for your good wishes and I hope your intuition is right about this next attempt! 🙂
P.S. I use an app on my phone called ‘Camera +’—it helps you take amazing photos!
I think what you are describing is just part of the process, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. From what I could make out from the Freefall writing workshop, in my opinion your writing just keeps getting better and better. Looking forward to reading the second novel when it is ready.
I think you’re right—it’s all part of the process of learning to trust your own voice. Onwards and upwards from here! 🙂
In my experience every novel is difficult in its own way: from the shortest and least serious to the longest and most in depth. We write knowing the ultimate pointlessness of the exercise and the power of words when they connect. Best of luck with this one!
I’ve only written one novel so far, so I’m yet to learn how hard it is to write your 3rd or 4th or 22nd! I’ve no doubt you’re correct when you say they’re all hard.
Words are powerful and I know that thrill of connecting with readers—I so long to do it again.
Thank you for your comment. 🙂
I love reading your comments about your writing! I also struggled with writing the second one as felt exalts as you did – that I’d said everything I wanted to in the first !
But you’ll find the thread and it will happen when as you say, you connect with the personal story.ive always wondered how much of fiction is personal and finally realize that most is. I only write non -fiction so it’s easier not to create other characters I think !
Will wait to see your progress and one day hope to read both ! Enjoy your honest and insightful blogs
All the best for the new year xx
Someone once said that all art is autobiography, and I completely agree. We cannot help but reveal ourselves through our fiction. I must admit, non-fiction and not having to create characters sounds tempting right now! 😂
Thank you for reading, Dominique.
Hi Louise, I really enjoyed your first book and I’m looking forward to the next one. Take heart. I am confident you will be able to work through it and come out the other side. I love those photos. Is this your everyday view? All the best for 2019.
Thank you for reading my book and I’m so glad you liked it!
I feel that I’m finally ready to write Novel #2—the ideas are there and I have a good feeling in my bones!
I see this view nearly every day when I walk our dogs around the lake—we’re very lucky to have it on our doorstep!
Wishing you all the best in 2019, too. 🙂
I certainly agree with you that all art is autobiographical, in some degree. And I also agree with Ms. Lawrinson about each book being difficult in its own way. Helen Garner puts it like this: you write your first book, and then you think, “Great; now I know how to write a novel.” WRONG. You know how to write THAT novel. The next one, and each one after that, is a different beast with a different set of problems…
Second Novel Syndrome might be a collective consciousness phenomenon, but I think its sheer prevalence among writers makes it real enough. The stuff about the noise you mentioned, too; Missy Higgins’ “Everyone’s Waiting” springs to mind. I think it was Stephen Fry who said that people take their whole lives to write their first book because, regardless of the time that elapses between starting the first draft and finishing the final one, that first book is like a precis of their core experience up to that point. John Fowles achieved prominence with his second novel; I think an early version ‘The Magus’ had been rejected, but he was asked if he had anything else in his bottom drawer. He had; he’d written ‘The Collector’ while trying to figure out how to fix the other one (which I’m not sure he ever completely fixed). Anyway, ‘The Collector’ came out first, and it made his name. Iris Murdoch attempted four or five novels before getting one published (but then again, in sheer drafting terms, she was a writing dynamo beyond the capacities of most people…she published thirty-odd books in her lifetime, and not all of them were good…)
I don’t know if you’ve been doing this, but you might find that writing other things (like this blog post, for instance) gives you a mental break and a creative boost whenever Novel #2 starts dragging its feet. There’s a lot to be said for writing (or doing) what you want to do when you want to do it. But this has to be tempered by the need to be disciplined and dogged if you have long-term aspirations. And, just for the record, from my own experience, I have a stage play that I’ve been trying to re-write for the best part of five years. I keep hoping it will have its day, one day. 🙂
Thanks for all of this, Glen. Yes, I think second novel syndrome is a real syndrome, due to the reasons I’ve cited above and probably many more.
I understand what Stephen Fry means, and that’s how I felt about my first novel. Through all of this writing trial and error, I’ve realised I can’t write a novel without putting ‘me’ into it. I know now that I have to write something about which I feel strongly and personally, passionately and viscerally, or it won’t mean anything to me. All of these realisations mean that, hopefully, I won’t make these mistakes again and, hopefully, there won’t be a ‘third novel syndrome’. 😉
By the way, good luck with your stage play—I hope it will have its day! 🙂
Excellent, honest and authentic post, Louise. I think writing in this way – unabashed and just telling it how it is – really helps keep our creative juices flowing somehow. It’s great to hear more about the most recent ups and downs of your writing journey. It is also very relatable and makes me feel better about my own writing lol. Like Ben mentioned above, my second novel was fine because I was still in total obscurity then, but now I’m writing my third, I feel those pressures of expectations etc. Thanks for talking so openly about what it’s like. Look forward to your next blog post, and to your next novel, of course! 🙂
I so wish I’d written Novel #2 before Novel #1 came out—you’ve been very wise in doing that.
From all of the twisting and turning I’ve done trying to squeeze a novel out, I’ve learnt that it doesn’t help. You can’t force it; it will only come when it’s ready and when you’re ready. I didn’t write about it here, but for most of this year I’ve not really been in a headspace for creating. That was mainly due to the novel coming out and the busyness that goes with publication. Finally, finally, it all seems to have shifted into place in my brain, and I feel like writing again. Can’t wait to write this next novel now! 🙂
P.S. I hope I haven’t spoken too soon. If you return to this post and this comment’s deleted, you’ll know why. 😂
So glad your mojo is back, Louise. I’m commenting here so you will find it harder to delete your comment hahaha.
Very sneaky. I’ll have to stick to my words now. 😊
It’s lovely to hear all this Louise, it helps all of us feel less alone with our troubles… you’ll get there!
I can only write honestly so I’m glad this post resonated with so many. 🙂
P.S. Please drop me a line and let me know how you’re getting on with your book. x
Louise, I sinceraly hope this attempt is going smoother for you. Thanks so much for writing honestly about your experience. Merry Christmas!
This version is working much, much better! I’ve finally learnt what I was doing wrong, plus I’ve found the right ‘voice’, which is half the battle.
My apologies for being so late replying to this—I hope you had a lovely Christmas, too. xx