That difficult second novel

I was rather hoping that the ‘difficult second novel’ concept was one of those writer myths, like wafting around on a chaise longue all day, or earning as much as JK Rowling. Eternal optimism? Yes. Still there.

I started writing my second book – ‘A life without you’ – in February 2015, just after finishing final edits on my first. Naturally, I didn’t make it easy for myself. The book had more characters than my first, the settings were less familiar and it has a dual timeline structure that alternates between the past and the present. It was also the first novel I have written under contract and therefore to deadline.

My first novel was written over five years in eight drafts. I wrote my second in one year and five drafts. I had the idea before I signed my deal with Hodder, but when I started drafting I had absolutely nothing on paper. No phrases. No character breakdowns. Just a vague idea of a story about a mother (Gina) and daughter (Zoe) who are estranged at the start of the book, but who are thrown together again when Gina starts to lose her memory. Every detail needed to be worked out – setting, structure, characters and – most fundamentally of all – the storyline, including the explosive secret that lies at the heart of the novel. I had only seven months before my ‘publishable draft’ was due in, and I found writing against the clock both motivating and terrifying. I wrote and ate chocolate and wrote some more. My family forgot what I looked like. But I did hand my draft in on time, on October 1st 2015.

What I hadn’t realised was how much the editing process would speed things up. I wouldn’t let anyone near the early drafts of my first book – so I had no guidance or input on how to improve it. But with my second, my wondrous editor at Hodder – Emily Kitchin – made all the difference. She turned around my drafts incredibly quickly, finding the good in the characters and plotlines and firing the next set of edits back to me as quickly as she could. As such my writing timeline was compressed, and the book found its shape much more quickly than my first.

However, and it’s a BIG however, I absolutely hated the deadlines. They loomed. They lowered. There was a fair bit of weeping and typing at dawn. I had eight weeks for my (HUGE) structural edit. Two weeks for copy edits. It never ever felt like enough. Trying to give the book the attention I wanted to while juggling parenthood and a day job led to some serious caffeine overdoses as I dragged myself out of bed at 5 to carve out some writing time. I constantly feared that the whole process was too quick to yield anything worth reading – and yet – now it’s done – I am incredibly proud of my second book and delighted by the way people are reacting to the story.

So, was my second book any more difficult than my first? I don’t think so. It was just difficult in a different way. My first was such a lonely journey – five years of keeping myself in the chair telling myself that it would all be worth it in the end. My second was much more intense and time-bound, but I knew that the words I was writing would be in print one day, and that was incredibly motivating.

However, that is just my experience, and every writer is different. Over the next few weeks I’ll be asking some of my favourite authors to talk about their experiences of writing their second novels. First up is Louise Beech, the author of the brilliant ‘How to be Brave’ and the forthcoming ‘The Mountain in my Shoe.’ I hope you enjoy the series, and the insights it gives into the writing lives behind the books you see on the shelves. I’m off to write my third…

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