It’s so hackneyed a concept as to be a cliche. The difficult second novel/ album/ breakfast (delete as applicable). The problem, as with most old saws, is that there is truth in it. This is why it doesn’t go away.
My first novel, Daedalus and the Deep (more on that later!) – and please prepare for a second cliche – ‘amost wrote itself’. I didn’t understand it when novelists said that about their work before I had successfully completed a novel of my own, but it did seem to be how things went. I’ve seen one theory that the first novel can seem easier because the author invariably spends a lot of time planning, thinking and constructing, and it might be based on an idea which has lived with them for many years. This wasn’t the case with mine. I know this because I had the idea on around the 20 October 2011, sketched out the prologue the following day and wrote the bulk of it in November for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). By September the following year it had been accepted for publication.
The second, however… I had what I thought was a good idea, which like the first novel was based on an historical incident. As with the first novel, it was an incident that immediately jumped out at me as a good basis for an historical novel – the disappearance of the airship Dixmude in 1924. Again, I began writing the novel – called ‘Thin Air’ – in November for NaNoWriMo 2012.
I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but the experience of writing of this novel has been utterly different to the first. With the first, I seemed to know instinctively where to take the characters – the crew of the corvette HMS Daedalus – and with relatively little, albeit tightly focussed research. Moreover, I felt I knew the characters well and they started to tell me how they would act in any given situation. I just couldn’t seem to make the cast of Thin Air speak to me. I found during the first novel that doing a bit of research along the way prompted more inspiration and made the book richer. With the second book, I couldn’t research at the same time as writing. At one point I just ran out of things to write. I had a plan and knew where things were going, I just couldn’t get from the shape of the plot down to the detail of the writing.
Whether as a result of this or a separate problem, the writing itself felt leaden. Looking back over it, there are shocking amounts of ‘tell’ sitting over the story like a sodden blanket – it’s not even partially redeemed by voice or style. Worse, I found on a number of occasions that when writing a scene that seemed important to the story I would find myself thinking ‘who cares? Why would anyone be interested in this?’
I’m currently struggling to go back to it at the moment, not knowing whether to try and plug on and finish a first draft before revisiting the whole thing, or to take it to pieces now and start from a different angle. I favour the latter at the moment as I don’t know if I could get to the end with it in its current for – or if it will be worth much if I can.
There’s a fantastic story in there – I just need to find a way to draw it out. And meanwhile, I have the publication of Daedalus to look forward to…