This story in the Times mentions some high flying debut novelists whose second attempts have failed to live up to their first: Charles Frazier and Zadie Smith (who more than made up for it with the superb On Beauty in my opinion) for example. Included in the list is Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, which I would strongly argue does not deserve to be on a list of failures. Sure, she had the syndrome bad probably, which is why it took her so long to write (ten years between outings) but I thought it was very good book - a very different book, but a good one nonetheless.
Of course all of this has come to my attention because I am working on my own second novel after a reasonably well received first novel. I am constantly being asked by people if I feel under pressure to live up to my first. My answer is that of course I do, but it's not other people's expectations that I feel acutely, but my own. I just want to write a better book. I am writing a better book (she says, hoping that statement won't come back to bite her on the behind!). It's been 7 years since I started The Sound of Butterflies - I should be a better writer by now. So, yes intense pressure, thanks very much, but I don't think it is to do with Second Novel Syndrome. I hope I never rest on my laurels and feel released from that kind of pressure, because that's when I have stopped trying to improve.
All a writer can do when faced with something like SNS is to ignore it and sit down and write the best book he or she can write. And that goes for third, fourth and fifth novels.
I arrived at the library today to find a talk being given by Basia Bonkowski, author of the memoir Shimmer. I'll just sit down and listen for a bit, I thought. A question came from the cosy audience: what was your writing schedule like for the book (a topic which seems to hold endless fascination for audiences the world over - aspiring writers themselves perhaps, looking for the secret?)? Well, said Ms Bonkowski, I had two small children and after I dropped them off at school at 9am, I turned down everything else so I could spend four hours writing. Then at 1pm I stopped to do the errands I needed to do before picking the kids up again.
Here I was, in the library, having just dropped my son off at creche with 4 hours to write, and what was I doing? Not writing. So, feeling guilty, I slunk away and began my working day.
The Christchurch libraries have become my new office. I have talked before about how I can't work at home. Working in the library is great. They have wireless internet for when a little procrastination is in order, and no other distractions. I find the general hum and bookishness of the place very conducive to working on a book. Yesterday I went to the Sumner library, which is near my mother's house, where I stole two hours. It is amazing how I seem to be able to write just as much in two hours as I can when I have a whole day. I think this is because I have to only focus on one thing - getting some words out - whereas on my full days I tend to start slowly (because I have all day, right?) and spend a lot more time reading books and websites for research and thinking about the overall novel instead of just the next 500 words.
As I was typing away at the Sumner library, my brand new computer froze on me. I rebooted it, hoping that it would autorecover the file I had been working on. It didn't. Not only that, but when I opened my memory stick, all the files, despite still being there, with names and 'last modified' dates on them, were completely blank. 0 kb used. Blank.
Luckily I have been almost vigilant about backing up this novel. The memory stick contained all the files that I had held on my work computer at the university, which I had already backed up onto another memory stick (thank God). But I lost what I had written that day and the day before, which admittedly wasn't very much.
I learned a valuable lesson. Apparently, if you open a file in a memory stick you should copy it over to your hard drive and then start working on it. Otherwise it can behave in all sorts of strange ways, and it doesn't automatically autosave like a hard drive file would do.
Not the most inspired post today but I hope that is useful to someone. The reason I'm letting myself add to my blog? I wrote my afternoon's minimum quota in half an hour today. Must have been thanks to a kick up the posterior by one Basia Bonkowski. Think I'll go back and write some more.
I have a self-imposed deadline of August to finish my new novel. That gives me five months to finish the first draft (25% to go) and whip it into shape. It's a very real deadline. I have something else on from the end of August that will stop me writing for quite some time and I just won't allow myself to not finish it by then.
But it is putting the pressure on. When I think about five months, it seems like a long time, but I know how fast that can travel. But then again, if I look at it practically, it took me only four months from finishing the first draft of The Sound of Butterflies to submitting it and having it accepted by an agent in the UK and a publisher in New Zealand. My writing is much more confident and stream-lined now, so the new draft is a) shorter and b)more polished than TSOB was at this stage.
I talked a long time ago about my decision to try out the shitty first draft technique on this novel, but I abandoned that along the way. You see, I need to feel that I am in control in order to move forward, and that meant going back over the early chapters until the voice was right and until they pointed me in the right direction of where to go next. I also need to feel in love with my book to be excited enough to keep going, and a shitty draft isn't going to generate that love. So even though I'm calling it my 'first draft', my chapter one has gone through six drafts, my chapter two four drafts etc.
I gave a small talk at the Hagley Writers' Institute, where I will be supervising a few students this year. I read from my new novel, which felt really good. Reading it out loud enabled me to hear it with fresh ears and I liked what I heard (you can probably tell I'm going through a bit of a romantic phase with my novel - in all likelihood we will be fighting and/or not speaking to each other in a couple of weeks). It also reminded me how valuable reading your work aloud to yourself is. I did a practice run the day before for timing, and it helped me make a few adjustments to sentences that didn't flow, to trim them a bit and to work on the cadence of the language, which is very important to me: I do not believe in just delivering information in the most economical number of words; they have to sound right. I read the entire manuscript of The Sound of Butterflies aloud to myself for the very final draft. It took me about a week, from memory. A daunting but very valuable exercise, which I recommend to anyone on the verge of finishing their novels. It helps you pick up all sorts of gremlins.
But back to Hagley - one of the students asked the assembled supervisors (an illustrious group: Charlotte Randall, Frankie McMillan, whose reading of a short story had me enthralled, and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman) about how much they plan their work before writing. Charlotte Randall says she doesn't plan hers at all, she just starts writing, although she often writes the last page first so she has something to work towards. Frankie said she writes a draft from start to finish, but she writes short stories, which is a bit different to writing a novel. I gave contradictory answers really. I plan bits. Then I unplan. One novel I nearly wrote I think I planned too much and it froze me. I realised that the students were listening eagerly to see how much planning they should do, but in the end I had to confess that it works differently for everyone and the only way to find out what works for you is to write a novel. I learned more about writing a novel by actually writing one than I could have from any number of classes or how-to books and blogs. That first novel was never published, but it didn't need to be - it served its purpose, which was to teach me how to write a novel.
I spent the weekend in Welllington where I had an absolute ball, catching up with good friends, attending one of the best weddings I've ever been to (and probably ever will) and meeting with my writing group. It was perfect really. My writing group gave me wonderful advice and encouragement and I wished I could explain to them what I was trying to achieve without spoiling all the surprises in the book. At the moment, if it works, it will be the kind of book that you need to read all the way to the end to see how everything that has come before falls into place. If it works.
So this deadline has put a fire under me, and as a result I think my blog is going to suffer a bit. But then I hope I can be back with posts about the process of getting one's second book published, which I hope will be useful to some.
The Sound of Butterflies was the title of my first novel, published in the UK by Picador, in the US by William Morrow and in New Zealand by Random House, and translated into eight foreign languages. In 2009 my next novel, Magpie Hall, was published in New Zealand by Random House, and in 2012 my first novel for children, Red Rocks. This blog is my thoughts on the world of writing and books.
Photo by Sharon Blance.