Doing a number two

I learned a lot about writing from Tinker, Tailor, Schoolmum, Spy; certainly, my writer toolkit has improved dramatically and while writing my new manuscript I’ve patted myself on the back a number of times for not falling into any classic bad-writer traps this time around. But if I thought I was done learning how to write a book, I was sorely mistaken.

Way back when I understood nothing of how publishing works, I thought my next book would be a sequel. It’s not, before you ask (lots of people have). I’d love to do one, but I need each of you to sell the first book to another 3,000 of your closest friends before I get to write Vicky again. It didn’t matter, in the end; I had loads of ideas, although it took a while to land on the thing that felt right, not least because of lockdowns and covid and, well, you know the rest. In the end, after a spring getting Tinker, Tailor, Schoolmum, Spy ready for publication and a summer spent reading, musing and generally procrastinating (as well as promoting my very new, very real book), I started writing properly in September. It was just after TTSS launched, and I was buoyed up by the amazing experience that was having my first book in print and raced through the first third of the story, however, as autumn crept towards winter, my enthusiasm and positivity quickly turned to fear and general paranoia, that I would never be able to write another book.

Things may have been slightly easier if I’d had a plot. I hate plotting. I’ve convinced myself it takes all the spontaneity out of writing; I loathe the idea of post-it notes and spreadsheets and notebooks and whatever else wise people who meticulously plan their books use. I wrote Tinker, Tailor, Schoolmum, Spy in a proper seat-of-the-pants style. I didn’t ever feel like I needed a plot plan. I knew what I wanted from my story and my characters and was happy to rework it over and over again until I got it right. This time things weren’t quite so clearcut, and the fact that the book didn’t come out of me fully formed has been a source of great frustration.

As the end of the year approached, I was stuck in the dread zone, two thirds of the way through, at the point where nothing makes any sense anymore and I assumed I would never finish. However, I was thankfully wrong; by the end of January, forcing myself to stay off social media and going into hibernation thanks to yet another covid wave, I was done with a first draft. It was 10,000 words too short, had a big chunk in the middle that didn’t make any sense and a character who was completely superfluous to requirements, but it was done. The whole thing took me five months, which isn’t bad going at all, especially when at least half of that time was taken up with deleting huge tranches of copy in fits of anguish and scrolling past all the more successful writers on Twitter every day.

I sent the first draft to my agent at her (misguided) request with a message that read: ‘I am aware this is shit, please don’t drop me’ and then rested up for a few weeks before starting the first big edit. Lots of writer friends said they were sure it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be. Bless them and their unwavering loyalty. It was.

But looking back, so was the first book. I just didn’t know it – I had no means of measuring my writing, back then; it’s only now that I know what a finished book looks like – and the effort that goes into getting it to that point – that I can be honest with myself about the probable state of my first draft of TTSS. And the second. And the third. It’s the knowing that knocks you sideways, of course; Book number two is not so much of a learning curve as a sort of virtual torture chamber where your self-confidence goes to die. But a few months and a lot of red pen under the bridge, things are much improved, and I’m just about reaching that delicious point where you realise you do actually have a whole book and it’s quite possibly not shit anymore, and you’re ready to talk about it with friends in pubs without desperately trying to change the subject when they ask ‘how’s the writing going?’.

I wonder if this really was a difficult second album, or whether every book is agony once you’ve written the first one, because every time after that debut, you’re so acutely aware of the mountain you have to climb. I might have already got to the summit, but each book is like taking a new route… so is it really the same mountain, and does it get any easier? I guess I’ll find out when I start number three. But for now, I’m just crossing my fingers that my new book baby will find a place in the world. Watch this space…