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.

You do not have to read my book

DSCF2408Occasionally a friend or family member will say to me, rather apologetically, that they haven’t bought my book. Or that they’ve bought it, but they haven’t got round to reading it yet. ‘It’s not my usual kind of thing, you see…’

I usually remark in reply that, had I started a business knitting and selling babies’ bonnets, for example, I would hardly expect my entire acquaintance to start sporting infantile headgear merely to show solidarity with me and my enterprise. Oh, if they happened to have a baby, or know a baby, and they bought one of my bonnets to present to this baby, I would be pleased and grateful, but I wouldn’t expect them to wear something so, um, unsuited to their personality or state of maturity.

Not everybody is going to like my book. Not everybody is going to be interested in Christian politics or student politics. Not everybody is interested in reading F/F (in fact, hardly anybody seems to be interested in reading F/F, and on the LGBT review blogs my purple passionflower cover looks very incongruous in amongst all those shirtless torsos on the explicit M/M works).

And that is absolutely fine. Not everybody has to like my book. Not everybody has to read my book. You don’t, if you don’t want to. ‘It was written by this person I know’ isn’t, in itself, a particularly good reason to read anything. (Although ‘It was written by this person I know, and I want to see if I recognise any mutual acquaintances’ might be; though you’ll be disappointed, in the case of my books.)

This goes for the next book, too. In fact, if what you liked aboutĀ Speak Its Name was the Christian politics and the student politics, and you are not interested in cycling, chronic illness, or the parlous state of benefits in 21st century Britain, you are entirely at liberty to skip A Spoke in the Wheel. I hope you don’t need me to tell you that. You always were at liberty to skip any or all of my books, no matter how close or longstanding our relationship.

On the other hand, if you did like Speak Its Name, you might find that in A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • you like my prose style more generally
  • the overall theme of ‘finding out that you are, in fact, not such a terrible person as you feared you might be’ is also significant
  • the jump from a claustrophobically tight third person narrator to an unintentionally unreliable first person one isn’t actually all that huge
  • it’s still all about integrity

Christian Union kerfuffles: some useful questions to ask

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‘You write one little book about a Christian Union kerfuffle,’ I remarked earlier this week, ‘and every time there’s a Christian Union kerfuffle everyone goes all, I saw this and thought of you.’

This is perhaps unfair. Christian Union kerfuffles can happen at any British university, at any time, and anyone who happened to be even tangentially involved – on any side – will shudder gently to themselves at the memory and consider pouring a stiff drink. Many readers have told me, ‘Oh, I rememberĀ something just like this happening at __________ in the mid ____ies…’

On the other hand, perhaps it is fair. So far as I know, nobody apart from me has written about them in fiction. I can’t imagine why. (Other than the fact that they turn out to be very difficult to get published, I mean.) They generally attract enough drama, misunderstanding, and deeply felt and opposing idealism to fuel an epic.

It’s easy to understand why. Universities are full of people who have time, energy, and deeply held beliefs, who may be homesick or lonely or vulnerable, whose horizons have been suddenly and forcibly widened. There’s always a kerfuffle waiting to happen.

The most recent one happened at Balliol College, Oxford, earlier this term. I am not qualified to make a specific comment on the events at Balliol, for the following reasons:

  • it’s over a decade since I graduated
  • I went to a redbrick university, not Oxbridge
  • I live in Cambridge these days

What did I do when I read the story, then? I shuddered gently at the memory and considered pouring myself a stiff drink. It’s a general response to a general occurrence. As is this:

Over the years that I’ve been keeping an eye on these events I’ve developed a set of questions that I ask when I read stories like these. This is the big one:

  • Is this a simple question of secular versus sacred?

Because the story almost always appears to be about the Students’ Union versus the Christian Union, and it’s almost always a whole lot more complicated than that.

  • Whose voices are we not hearing?
  • What voices from other faiths?
  • Come to that, what about other Christian voices? Do we have a Roman Catholic take on the situation? Quaker? Orthodox? No? Well, what about the college chaplain?
  • If not, why not?
  • Is this particular Christian Union representative of all Christians?
  • Who’s affiliated to what? Do those affiliations tell us anything about the approaches, beliefs, or behaviour that can be expected?
  • Is everybody who they say they are? Are they as immediately involved as they claim to be?

I tried to give a fuller answer than we usually get to all of those questions when I wrote about a fictional kerfuffle at a fictional university. No, Stancester isn’t real, and nor is anything that happens there. But for all that it’s a familiar story, and it could have happened anywhere.

Three links

2013 September 031

Firstly, an interview with crime writer Don Massenzio. You can read my thoughts on ego (and why it’s necessary to have one), the pseudonym I’ll probably never use, and who I’d like to invite for dinner in the name of musicological research. It’s all here: Perfect Ten with Kathleen Jowitt

Secondly, the Society of Authors have put up a link to a recording of the Authors Awards ceremony from June. If you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, the presentation of the Betty Trask Prize and Awards can be heard beginning at 08:14, with specific reference to Speak Its Name at 13:20. But I’m really linking it for Ben Okri’s absolutely stonking speech, which begins at 25:35. Highly recommended for any author who occasionally (or often) finds themself wondering what the point of it all is…

Thirdly, I’ve now set up a Facebook page for me and my works. If you use Facebook for that sort of thing, wander over here and give me a like.

 

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!