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…

That difficult second album

It’s been a funny six months since I got my literary agent. Time seems to have slowed down, or is passing in larger chunks, I’m not sure which. I no longer speak about the process of writing in weeks, but in months, or years even. At a micro-level, things are happening. My first novel has been edited once more (with feeling!) and safely delivered to my agent. She loves it. I love it. It’s gone, out of the door, on submission to publishers; all I can do now is wait, anywhere between four weeks and four years, to find someone else who enjoys it enough to put it into print.

In the meantime, my agent asked me what I was going to do next.
‘The sequel’, I said. Easy. I have an outline of the next book in the series, and in my head, it seemed like the natural next step to start writing it. Just incase I get a two-book deal, my inner voice mutters hopefully. I am more subtle with my out loud voice. ‘That makes, sense, right?’
‘Do you have any other ideas to pitch?’ she replied, indicating it didn’t. I ran through my library of half-started/half-finished novels: a middle grade ghost story, a YA fantasy, a fully blown sci-fi novel that’s been in my head for about five years now. But I knew none of that would be useful to an agent that’s just signed me to write commercial women’s fiction.

‘I have one idea,’ I ventured. ‘But it’s literally a single sentence.’ And I pitched her a thought I’d had in a particularly dark, hormonally driven moment a few months ago that hasn’t gone away. A back of a fag packet idea that I had no notion of how to execute on.

Of course, she loved it. I mean, REALLY loved it. ‘I LOVE that idea,’ she said. ‘You have to write it. Now.’
‘But I don’t have a clue what it’s about. I literally have just that one idea.’
‘You’ll get there. Go away and think about it over summer. I can’t wait to read it.’

16uwxlSummer lasted quite a while as far as I was concerned. July and August were spent reading lots of commercial fiction, because the voice I wanted for this book, I knew, would be in stark contrast to my first novel. Not all women’s commercial fiction is created equal and there’s a startling range of writing styles, some of which I’d really rather never read again. But a few stood out as the sort of book I wanted to give a go; Elinor Oliphant, Three Things About Elsie plus half a back catalogue of Liane Moriaty later, I knew what I wanted my book to feel like, even if I didn’t have a story yet.

I waited, patiently, for inspiration to hit. The one idea played in my head like a broken record and I was sure that I had the rest of it tucked away somewhere, but August became September and still, I had nothing. The terror of putting pen to paper and coming up with anything close to meaningful began to overshadow my ability to write and by October, procrastination and self doubt had crept so far into my head that I’d given them house keys and a drawer. Since July, I’d written approximately 5000 words, with no direction or real sense of what the story was at all.

I don’t know why today was different. I’d been on Twitter, the writer’s equivalent of prozac, and got lost in a series of posts and articles that I could vaguely pass off as research. But then suddenly, an idea popped into my head. And it was so obvious, and so easy, that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. What sweet relief! Suddenly all the other ideas began to arrive and I began the glorious business of putting together a plot. By midday, I had a couple of A4 pages that were starting to look suspiciously like a story.

Writers talk a lot about their process. Articles – indeed, entire books – have been devoted to the subject of how to write. My MA peers, when we meet, represent the entire gamut of book writing methodology, from blow by blow post it note plotting, to 1000 words a day for the whole of November NO MATTER WHAT, to my rather less precise notion that I’ll write when I have time and the mood takes me and the ideas will happen when they happen.

I had begun to doubt my own process, believing, quite wrongly, that I should be ‘better’ second time around, about the structure and methodology of writing a novel. Turns out that I should trust my instincts. It took me 40 years to come up with the idea for the first book, and only six months to come up with second. I’m on a roll.