Difficult second novel – the quest continues

I don’t usually go in for the ‘writing process’ stuff on this website – it’s done so well by so many other writers that there doesn’t seem to be much point. But I’ve heard the same thing from a number of novelists recently, ranging from the huge-selling HarperCollins published superstar to the dewy eyed newbie, and it’s something I’ve personal experience of.

It is this: writing the first novel was easy. Writing the second was like pulling teeth while getting blood out of a stone.

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. Even then, I was surprised by just how many novelists are affected by it. Hamstrung by it. Defeated by it.

My first novel – and please prepare yourself for a further cliche here – ‘almost 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. The characters built themselves up before my eyes. If I needed to know where things went next, I had only to ask one of them. The settings came to life. I couldn’t just see them, I could touch and taste them. I wasn’t creating something, I was just writing down what was happening in my head. Sure, there was work, but it’s the kind of work that wants you to do it and shows you how. Not the day to day work that fights you, the day job that sucks up all your time and energy and will. Work that doesn’t feel like work. I had signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) never thinking for a moment I could write 50,000 words in a month. I had flu. I was struggling with a piece of contract work that had spiralled into something much more involved than I had thought. Yet it really worked. I wrote a novel.

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. By September the following year it had been accepted for publication.

I don’t say this to seem superior or to rub other writers’ faces in it. Believe me, my own face is being rubbed in it by my further attempts to write a novel. And my ‘success’ is a mere trifle compared with some people’s. For a real tale of first novel success, have a look at Harry Bingham’s series of blogs about how he got into the novel-writing business.

Write a novel? You’ve done it before, haven’t you? And you didn’t even know what you were doing, so the second one should be a breeze.

More like a hurricane-force headwind.

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. It was provisionally titled ‘Thin Air’, and was about the disappearance of the French airship Dixmude in the 1920s. The story was a sort of interwar Flight MH370, with political rivalry, national pride and wishful thinking all conspiring to turn the mystery of what happened to the airship from a simply tragedy to a labyrinthine drama. It had a great hero – the idealistic scion of a noble family who had been transferred to the French naval airship service seemingly by mistake but took to it with messianic zeal.

Seemingly then, I had everything going for me. Yet the experience of writing of this novel was so utterly different to the first, and the worst thing is I can’t really put my finger on why. With the first novel I seemed to know instinctively where to take things, and with relatively little research (sorry, other historical novelists). Moreover, while 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 subesequent lot 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, my writing itself was 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? What’s it even here for?’ The writing puttered to a halt. I got over the NaNoWriMo 50,000 word line and fell, panting and cramped up, to the ground. The characters were dull and interchangeable. The action seemed repetitive. I had no idea where to go from there.

Since then I have made three more attempts to write my second novel. I started with a rewrite of Thin Air with a dramatically different starting point and two fictional main characters who excited me both in their own right and for their ability to help me shed light on the factual part of the story. This new start went well, but I decided to put it to one side and work on something else. The reason was NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo, which had served me so well in 2011, and which still turned my head. You have to have something new for NaNoWriMo, right? So I put aside Thin Air to work on a different project, which I call ‘As Yet Untitled For Copyright Reasons’.

This went a little better than Thin Air had, but it was still a slog. I went back to the drawing board several times. I put it aside at one point to write the first 15,000 words of the sequel to the first novel. Then I went back to As Yet Untitled. I signed up for the Writers’ Workshop Self Edit Your Novel course, which was mind-blowingly brilliant, using As Yet Untitled even though it still wasn’t finished. It was an amazing course but I now felt stuck between the Scylla of finishing a first draft that I wasn’t quite sure of the direction of, and the Charybdis of having a barrage of new ideas and skills to apply to further drafts.

You may see a pattern emerging. A whole lot of work, a loss of confidence, a return to the drawing board, a whole lot more work. I’d offer some theories on why the second novel is how it is, but I don’t think it would do anyone any good. Everyone knows it’s supposed to be difficult. No-one thinks their own experience will be like this. It always is. I can only guess that in writing the second novel from a different place, we encounter rougher terrain. In climbing further towards the summit, the air is thinner and colder.

So where am I now? I’m limping on with As Yet Untitled, now at around 112,000 words. I’ve gone through moments of thinking it is the worst pile of ill-written dross that ever bothered a Pages document and feeling it might yet have something worthwhile. As Harry Bingham says, the second novel always does get finished… somehow. I’ll just have to go on believing.

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