Second novel syndrome

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I thought I’d escaped second novel syndrome. By the time my first novel was out, I already had the first words of the second novel queuing up in my head, clamouring to be written down.

Speak Its Name didn’t make much of a splash, and that was something of a blessing. I was able to keep plugging away at A Spoke in the Wheel, here a word, there a paragraph, and by about April I had something that resembled a first draft.

Then I won a Betty Trask Award. And that was amazing and brilliant, and I am at this moment planning to spend my prize money on an epic Interrail trip around Europe, but it hasn’t half given the monsters a lot to talk about.

Here is a sample of some monster views on A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • this one’s not going to win you any awards, you know
  • it’s not as good as Speak Its Name
  • it is NEVER going to be as good as Speak Its Name
  • and everyone who reads both will know that and you will DISAPPOINT THEM
  • you’re a one-hit wonder
  • everyone who was impressed by the award? NOT IMPRESSED ANY MORE!
  • you have to create a COHERENT BRAND!!!
  • write what you know!!! why are you not WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW???

But that’s monsters for you. They don’t want you putting a substandard product out there, because then PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.

And you know, it’s a reasonable point, if only they could make it without all the screaming. Nobody wants me to put a substandard product out there.

What I’d forgotten – what I always forget, every time – was that I’d been here before. I’d already run into moments of self-doubt, several times over the course of writing that first draft. I’d always been able to talk myself out of them. I thought this time was different, that this time it really was going to turn out to be unsalvageable.

That always happens, too. I always think it’s going to be unsalvageable, and it never is.

Second Novel Syndrome was only a recurrence of what had happened during the writing of the first. It’s always the same. I get a horrible sense of its not being good enough.

Then I see what’s wrong with it.

Then I see how to fix it.

And then I remember that all that the yelling really means is this:

It isn’t finished yet.

100 untimed books: lighting

63. lighting

63. lighting

The nights are drawing in. I’ve been using my daylight lamp every day since the beginning of August, and I have to say it’s helped. I’ve been very tired, but on the whole I haven’t been experiencing the low moods that I usually get in these early autumn months.

So here we go. Five stories of music and nightfall.

100 untimed books

100 untimed books: the rent’s not paid

82: the rent's not paid

82: the rent’s not paid

I am pleased to say that we are in fact up to date with the rent. But it is rather dispiriting to consider that, Cambridge property prices being what they are, we will probably be renting for some time yet. I believe that this was not – for a variety of reasons – something that Gwen Raverat had to deal with.

100 untimed books

Sometimes writers don’t write, and that’s fine

Trust me: I'm a card-carrying author

Trust me: I’m a card-carrying author

This week I was enraged, yet again, by a reappearance of the ‘writers write, and nothing stops them writing’ meme. I won’t link to the specific instance, because it was posted under lock, but here’s a (comparatively inoffensive) case of the genus in the wild. (It was the first one that came up on Google. I do not endorse the contents of the rest of the blog, either.)

Articles like this begin with ‘writers write’, which is true, if inane. I said myself, the other week, that the best way to get good at something is to do it and do it and keep doing it.

They then extrapolate.

Some of them add, implicitly or explicitly, ‘every day’. Some of them add, implicitly or explicitly, ‘and don’t make excuses’. Some of them end up implying that any week – any day – that you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.

Which is bullshit.

This is the longest thing I’ve written in days. I’ve written no fiction at all since last Wednesday, and I could quite see this state of affairs continuing all summer. Have I suddenly stopped being a writer? Of course not.

Here is a selection of reasons why I haven’t been writing:

  • I wanted to read Alistair MacLean instead.
  • I have had a lot going on in my day job.
  • I spent last Saturday at Norwich Pride.
  • I’d never seen Die Hard and we had to spend an evening remedying that state of affairs.
  • It was my birthday.
  • A fanfic I’ve been following was updated, so I read that instead.
  • I was off sick for two days and good for nothing other than sleeping and watching Star Trek.
  • I’m not a morning person.

I could point out the ways that all those things that don’t look like writing could contribute to making me a better writer. I could tell you that reading and watching other creators’ work gives me tools to use in my own. I could tell you that time in the ‘real world’ expands the material I have to write about. And that would all be true, but that’s not my point.

Because really, it all comes down to this:

I’ve been really tired and haven’t felt like writing.

That ‘excuse’, yes.

Here are some other reasons, which don’t apply to me, but which do apply to plenty of other writers who may not be in the physical act of writing at this moment:

  • childcare responsibilities;
  • other care responsibilities;
  • having to work two or more jobs to make ends meet;
  • chronic illness or disability;
  • wanting to enjoy that holiday of a lifetime and not spend it on things they ‘should’ be doing.

I’m sure there are many, many more. Feel free to mention them in comments.

These days it’s increasingly difficult to make a living by writing alone, and most of us therefore don’t have the luxury of time devoted to writing. We have to fit it in around the edges, and sometimes the edges themselves are filled up with things like other responsibilities, or sleep, or even fun.

Here’s the thing: I know, because I’ve been here before, and I’ve come through it and written again, that it’s not the end of me as a writer. I very much doubt that anyone would try to tell me that it was, now that I’ve finished and published a book and won an award with it.

I put the first word of Speak Its Name on the page in November 2007. I approved the finished work in January 2016. Did I write every day of those eight-and-a-bit years? Of course I didn’t. And it’s the better for it.

But I also know people who have been discouraged by this ludicrous gatekeeping, who have believed the pernicious myth that because they couldn’t or didn’t devote every spare minute to writing they weren’t ‘really’ a writer, and stopped altogether.

Bullshit, I say again. Stop telling people this. It’s untrue and it’s harmful. It’s not encouraging people to write; it’s doing the opposite.

You don’t get anywhere as a self-published author by caring what other people think about you, but it’s taken me a long time to get past caring what other people think about me. I didn’t tell very many people that I was writing, and it was largely due to the fear of coming up against this idea that I wasn’t.

I am not excusing – or asking you to put up with – the tedious people who bang on and on about how much they’d like to write, or expect you to listen to their detailed exposition of what they would write if only they had the time. You could consider sending them an invoice for your skills as a writing consultant. Certainly if one more person tells me that everyone has a novel in them, I shall find it difficult to restrain myself from attempting to extract theirs by violent means.

But you don’t get to tell people that they’re not a writer. I don’t, either. (That picture at the top of the page? Means basically nothing in terms of my right to assess other people’s writer status.) Nobody does.

Some weekend reading

Happy Saturday! I hope those who are now embarked on summer holidays are enjoying them, and that the weather cooperates with any long-planned activities. Personally, I’m just getting to the end of a week off work, and I’m very slightly less tired than I was when it began, so I’m counting that as a tentative plus.

This week I have a guest post up over at I Heart Lesfic where I talk about the difficulty of finding the book I wanted to read and my consequent decision to write it myself.

There’s also a giveaway of Speak Its Name, which still has a couple of days left to run. You might be lucky!

And I talked to fellow self-published author Helena Fairfax about my favourite places, my least favourite job, and what I’d say to Jenny Lind.

Enjoy!

Getting used to the idea (of being the first self-published author shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize)

It’s been ten days since the news broke, and I’m gradually getting used to the idea. Ideas, plural. That my book has been shortlisted for a major literary prize. That, whatever else happens, I have won £3000 to spend on foreign travel. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount have read my book. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount liked my book. Joanne Harris. Michèle Roberts. Simon Brett.

I’m pretty sure that this will turn out to have been life-changing, but in the meantime life goes on. I cycle to the station and I catch my train; I reset some passwords and I design a flyer or two. And I get used to the idea.

So do the people around me: the ones who knew before that I’d written a book, and the ones who didn’t. I’d kept it reasonably quiet at work, at church, in the extended family. People who followed me on Twitter probably knew; people who didn’t, probably didn’t.

And I have to admit that it’s suddenly become a lot easier to tell people. It’s not just, ‘I’ve written a book.’ It’s ‘I’ve written a book, and some very good writers think it’s good.’

One of the most important requirements of self-publishing, and one that I really didn’t appreciate until I did it myself, is a sheer bloody-minded refusal to give a damn what anybody else thinks. Or, less aggressively, the willingness to accept that every aspect and defect of the book is my own responsibility.

I appreciate the apparent contradiction between those two paragraphs, believe me.

I can only speak for myself, but I found that the bloody-mindedness didn’t land until just after I turned thirty. (Which may go some way towards explaining why I’m the first self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. The upper age limit is 35.) Up until then I was looking for somebody else to affirm my sense that my book was good, that it was worth putting out into the world. I was looking for somebody else to take responsibility. In the end, I had to do it for myself.

Of course I can see now that it would always have been my responsibility, no matter how many other people were named on the acknowledgements page, no matter who took the final decision to put the thing out into the world. It’s come into starker focus for me, that’s all.

I have this sense that I’m trying to get to the point where I genuinely, honestly, don’t care what anyone else thinks, no matter who they are, no matter what their qualifications. In the meantime, however, a judging panel composed of Joanne Harris, Michèle Roberts, and Simon Brett likes my book. I think that’s going to keep me smiling for a long, long time.

 

Giving up, and giving up on giving up

This year I’ve been doing Lent differently; by which I mean that I’ve not been doing very much differently at all. I haven’t given up anything, partly in an attempt to disconnect the idea of virtue from that of self-deprivation, and partly to see if there’s any correlation between Lenten discipline and the seasonal depression that tends to land early in March and lift around Easter.

It turns out that not giving up meat, not giving up alcohol, not giving up coffee, not giving up tea, not giving up biscuits, and not giving up anything else, has made precisely zero difference, and March has been as much of a slog as it always is. This has, oddly enough, made me feel rather optimistic. It would have been annoying to discover that I’d brought all my misery on myself by trying too hard to be ‘good’. Next year I can do what I feel like doing and not worry about it. And I also know for next year not to schedule any social events during March, because I’ll either flake out and disappoint people, or turn up and then cry and embarrass them.

I keep meaning to write about the structure of the Church year, and how useful I find it. Firstly, there’s the way that it keeps turning on and on with or without my involvement. I can fail to get out of bed three Sundays running, work a weekend away, and then go on holiday, and when I come back I can still reorient myself by the colour of the altar frontal, the readings, and the anthem. And then there’s the fact that there is actually an officially sanctioned time for feeling dreadful, followed by a time of feeling a huge amount better and being thankful for that. That bit’s coming up soon. I’m looking forward to it.