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Stella Duffy has written twelve novels. Theodora, published by Virago (UK) in 2010 and by Viking Penguin (US) in 2011, is her first historical novel. The Room of Lost Things and State of Happiness were both longlisted for the Orange Prize, and she has twice won Stonewall Writer of the Year. She has written over forty short stories, including several for BBC Radio 4, and won the 2002 CWA Short Story Dagger for Martha Grace. She is currently working on the sequel to Theodora, The Purple Shroud, as well as several film and theatre projects. Stella is also a theatre director and performer, and has written eight plays. She was born in London, grew up in New Zealand, has lived back in London for since 1986 and is married to the writer Shelley Silas, her partner of 21 years.
second novel blues (and third, ninth, eleventh …)
I was asked to help the friend of a friend, someone who has had a first novel accepted for publication and is having a hard time with the second.
Having emailed her my own thoughts, I figured it’s something worth sharing with others, if only because I really could have done with someone telling me it’s ok, you’ll get through it – not just when worried about my second novel, but when worried about all of them! Here then, with some slight changes for public consumption, is my reply to the suffering writer …
So, someone has read your first 10,000 words of your second novel and it doesn’t work for them.
Hmm, do you think these first 10,000 words work and it’s ‘only’ your friend/writing mate/agent/editor who doesn’t?
If so, get on with it, you’ll find a way to make it better later.
Personally, I would never dream of giving 10,000 words of a new book to Agent, a friend, Editor, or anyone else.
Usually Agent and I have a lunch or a chat when I’m starting. I tell her my idea. I tell Editor too. (Unless it’s around new contract time in which case I might write a few chapters or a synopsis to tempt Editor.) And then that’s it until I’ve done my first draft, my own revisions, and then re-made it good enough to show Agent. (Who invariably has thoughts, then I re-do again, THEN it goes to Editor.)
Now, I know everyone has a different process, but personally 10,000 words in is nothing for me. Certainly not on a first draft anyway. It’s very common for me to entirely re-do the first 10/15,000 words of a manuscript, usually long before anyone’s seen it. And almost always after finishing my first draft. Because while I might know the plot (ie, what happens), I rarely know what the real story is (ie, what’s really going on, what the book’s really about).
I’d guess that only 10,000 words in, you have no idea who this character really is yet, or what the book is saying. I’d imagine you’ll find out round about the 40,000 word mark and by then it will be clear and then you can finish your first draft and go back and re-make this section that’s being troublesome. Personally I’d keep going for now. (Unless of course, you’re totally lost yourself at the 10,000 word mark and truly truly can’t go forward?)
In which case – look at who you’re writing. If it’s a first person narrator, have you considered trying a third person narration? (Or vice versa.) Is it in past or present tense? If it’s first person, is the right first person telling this story? (Maybe a friend or family member or nemesis needs to be telling this character’s story instead?)
Sometimes these things can make all the difference.
One of my books (The Room of Lost Things), was written in past tense for the first 40,000 words. Then I realised it would work much better in present tense. Ouch. I went back, re-did those 40,000 words entirely, it just flowed from there. (Well, not flowed exactly, but it certainly came a little easier.)
Sometimes I feel very passionately about a particular book. Sometimes that’s because it’s more ‘me’ than one of the others. But writing ourselves isn’t really what most of us are after if we’re wanting it to be our lifelong career – not least because we’ll find ourselves emptied and over-exposed. Writing a character is. Sometimes the choices characters make that are utterly different to our own choices are what bring them to life. (Shudder – ‘bring them to life’! Apologies for writerly cliché.)
The main thing I can say is, you’re not alone. This happens to all of us – someone, quite often ourselves!, doesn’t like the first 10,000 words. Sometimes we do junk those 10k, knowing they might suit another story another day. Sometimes we work through it, treating this first chunk as a warm up. Sometimes we turn that chunk into something else. Something we just bite the bullet and tell another story – because sometimes we’re not ready (willing, brave enough, good enough) to tell this particular story yet. And sometimes what we’re writing isn’t a book, it’s a film/tv/play/story.
Stop beating yourself up. Take a break from this project (an hour, a half day, a week, whatever you can manage) do something fun or do something that just needs doing (gardening, house cleaning, writing a different project), let yourself dream about how else it might be, what else you might bring to it (of course you care about it, but sometimes that care, that passion gets in the way) and then try to come back to it with a clearer vision.
I have problems with different things for different books. We all do. Every book, every project, every piece of writing is different. and just when you think you’ve worked out your process, that’s when reality is likely to come slamming down on you and show you a whole new way of making, a totally different process, a brand new way. (Or you have to go searching for that brand new way because the old way no longer works.)
One other thing – for very many people, especially if you’ve been working towards being published for a while, getting published becomes the goal. But once your first book has been accepted for publication, that goal has been and gone. Becoming a writer (the one who does it day in, day out) becomes the goal. And that’s a lifetime’s achievement and not something any of us are going to manage within two books. (Or even 13, which is where I am now.) There’s also a problem that our unpublished want-to-be published friends, with the best will in the world, don’t quite get how scary this is. They just think it’s great we’re being published and think we should be grateful and get on with it – they’re right. And they’re not. It is terrifying, just because it’s great, doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying. I understand. All the published writers do.
So don’t feel alone, do give yourself an hour (or more) off from thinking about it, and then get on with it. I suspect when you’ve finished your first draft you’ll have a far better idea of what this character is trying to say and who they are than you do now. (Even if you are one of those big planning types, which I’m definitely not.)
Right now, you’re way ahead of me at the second novel stage – you have one coming out, a great agent, and you’ve now started talking to other published writers who’ve done more and can tell you you’re not alone. I didn’t get to that stage for several books. Brilliant start.