I usually like to eat negative feelings into oblivion one cheesy corn-snack at a time, or drown them thoroughly with a nice glass (bottle) or two of red wine. Mostly, I like to bury them in the deep, deep sands of denial. But apparently, writing your feelings down is supposed to be cathartic and therapeutic. Thankfully, I like to write, so there’s some hope of getting through this period of emotional turmoil without ending up with diabetes or cirrhosis of the liver.
I am supposed to be starting my second novel today, and as you can see, instead of doing that I’m writing this blog post. So why amn’t I writing my novel? I have everything I need to begin: a good idea, experience and I know the process. The prospect of starting that magical first draft process anew should fill me with anticipation, excitement and happy tingles.
And yet? And yet.
I am terrified.
For all of you embarking on your first novel, I’d love to tell you that having finished it you’ll be brimming with confidence. That you’ll strut to your desk with a popped collar, crack your knuckles to get to work on book #2– you probably won’t. You’ll likely be full of apprehension and procrastinate for a long time. Like me. And here are five reasons why:
1. The second novel is notoriously difficult
The myth of the difficult second novel will have drilled its way into your psyche by now. If it hasn’t, I just popped it in there. Sorry about that. Obviously, if you keep hearing that something is going to be difficult, it fills you with dread. If professional, successful, published authors feel that fear, then it is normal for you and me to feel it too.
I remember draft #1 of my first novel so well. Before I started I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. King advised me that magic was involved. That magic is what carries you from day to day. You don’t know where the words and ideas are springing from, but they come. It was surprisingly easy to write 2000 words or more every day. I had the ‘writing fever’ as JK Rowling likes to call it.
What if you can’t conjure that magic again the second time around? I suppose we need to just try and remember the feelings we had before starting the first book, and how well it all turned out in the end– in other words, we need to have faith in the process.
2. This novel won’t be as good as the first
Two weeks into writing novel number two and I decided that I absolutely hated my novel. I took a break and focused on something else, and while I was away from my novel I realised that the reason why I hate it is that I’m comparing it to the polished final draft of my first novel. I’m comparing it to something that had undergone four drafts before it got to the stage where I was happy with it. So it wasn’t fair to compare draft #1 of my new novel with draft #4 of my previous one.
Ernest Hemingway put it most eloquently:
‘The first draft of anything is shit’
All the bad stuff is fixable. You just have to get the thing down on paper.
As for the novel being bad when it is finished, this is a danger. I mean, this is a real danger. I’m not a published author, yet. So I don’t have an audience to please. There are no expectations weighing me down. But the way I’ve decided to look at this is: reactions to the stories themselves are totally subjective. Whether a story is more interesting or engaging than another, is entirely down to the reader. If you would read it, then write it. You’re as good a judge as anyone else. When it comes to the objective stuff, such as the quality of the writing, you should be able to craft a better novel the second time around. Or at least, you should find it easier to craft a good novel the second time around. We know the wrong turns we took the first time around, and we know how to avoid them.
3. My Second Novel is too Similar/Different to the First
Published authors embarking on their second novel are terrified of trying something new but equally terrified of writing something too similar to the last novel and becoming formulaic in their approach. That is the fear that writers have. However, some readers enjoy the familiarity. They feel that reading their favourite author should be like putting on a pair of comfy, well-worn slippers at the end of the day. This mostly applies to genre fiction or serial fiction. And I love a bit of genre fiction now and again. How comforting it is to put on those comfy slippers and relax.
Other readers like to see the range of what one writer can do. I’m also this kind of reader. I don’t mean that I want the writer to jump from one genre to another, but if the writer is ‘genreless’, I like to be surprised. I crave a completely new experience from that same writer. If I discover a really good author, I trust them to write something good and to write something compelling. Something that I can’t possibly predict.
Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors because she manages to do both. She writes a lot of dystopian/speculative fiction, but she doesn’t limit herself to that, so I don’t count her as a genre writer. Each of her novels differs in voice and content, and whilst some, like Oryx and Crake, are as funny as they are dark, some are very serious in their tone such as The Handmaid’s Tale. When it comes to placing those two books side by side, you’d think they were written by two different authors. I think that’s an amazing feat to pull off without compromising on the quality of the writing itself. When I pick up a Margaret Atwood novel, I’m guaranteed three things:
(a) A gripping plot
(b) A well-written story
(c) It will be different to her last.
I trust her to deliver, whatever the content of the book. I hope that if I can have her confidence and attitude, my novel, despite being very different, will be as good as my first. I hope that when they are published, my readers will trust me to produce something good every time, and not worry that one book differs too much from the last.
Of course, Margaret Atwood can get away with this stuff because she’s Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is in a position to do whatever the hell she likes at this stage, but who’s to say that one day you won’t be nipping at her ankles, as you rise through the ranks. Who’s to say you can’t make diversity work for you.
4. I won’t love this book the way I loved the first
At times, when I was writing my first novel, I felt an incandescent rage towards it. When the characters weren’t behaving or the plot just wouldn’t knit together and I couldn’t think of solutions or because it felt like the editing would never end. But mostly, I loved my book. I adored the characters, the island, the plot– all of the things that I had created. They made me happy. They made me feel proud. I had written a book that I wanted to read. I know that my novel is, like most novels, far from perfect, but even with its flaws I still love it.
I’m the oldest child in my family. I remember when my mother confided in me that she was scared, when pregnant the second time, that she couldn’t love my sister as much as she loved me. I was totally adorable, so I understood her concerns. She thought it was impossible for her to love another person to the same extent– that there wasn’t enough love to go around and I’d always have the lion’s share. Then she gave birth to my sister, Lois, and she found that the capacity in her heart grew, and yes, she could love us both equally without diluting her love for me or giving my sister less. Though I suspect that I am secretly her favourite child, she assures me that love doesn’t have to be divided up, it can simply grow.
I hope that applies to novel #2. That I can just love them both equally, and with no favouritism.
Or else, I’m hoping that my first novel will be something like my first love– a defining period in my life but something I ultimately learn from and move on. And that my second novel might even (inconceivable right now, but possibly) be better.
5. Writing it is going to be daaaaamn hard
Having already had a spin on the mind-fuck merry-go-round that is writing a novel we are only too aware of the difficulties that face us. I think it’s natural to be hesitant about throwing yourself back into that particular emotional meat-grinder a second time around. It isn’t an easy thing to do, and we know that now.
We need to keep remembering how important it is that we transfer as much of ourselves onto the page before we leave this place, and how worthwhile it is. Look back on your first novel and think:
‘I did it. I really did it.’
And give yourself a pat on the back, before taking a deep breath, girding your loins and starting all over again.