Second Novel Syndrome

I caught a lovely old clip on the internet recently of Muriel Spark talking about how she writes a novel. She tells the interviewer that she writes her name on the first page, then the title on the next, then Chapter One, and then she writes on to the end. She makes amendments as she goes along, but afterwards, the manuscript goes to the typist and that’s it. The book is written.


Of course there are lots of people who write books like that, but how many of them are actually any good?

Susan Hill, whose work I greatly admire, also professes, in her wonderful book about books and writing, ‘Jacob’s Room is Full Of Books,’ to write from beginning to end with no re-draft.  She thinks about the book a lot before she begins, but then she plain old writes it.

Such bliss, alas, is not for me. I have to go over and over. Rinse and flush, shred and tear, rephrase, rebuild, re-plot, re-conceive. This is where I am with my second novel right now. In the ‘do I give up altogether, or do I battle on?’ stage.

I thought I knew what I needed to do based on feedback I’d received. Then, I re-considered and thought perhaps I didn’t. I know it needs more. It needs something. Oh, what does it need? I really don’t know.

Part of the problem is that my previous novel wasn’t snapped up by publishers. It’s still lying around the house somewhere. So now, because I don’t want that to happen again, I’m mindful of steering clear of the pitfalls I fell into last time. Of committing the crimes the publishers accused me of before.

I try to remember that lots of novelists only succeed at the second, third, or more, hurdle after falling short at the first. Take the New York novelist, Adelle Waldman, whose debut, ‘The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P,’ enjoyed much success, but who confessed at a talk I attended to having found it cripplingly difficult to write after her first failed to find a publisher. All she could think of throughout the process was, this probably won’t get published either. It’s amazing such self-doubt doesn’t extinguish the creative juices altogether.

But it’s not just those of us who are unpublished who find second novels tricky. I know of several writers whose first novels have been published, deservedly so, to much acclaim.  Now they are writing their second under the shadow of expectation. They have to match, or exceed, what went before. They are indeed contracted to do so. But what they wrote before may have been the fruit of many years of writing and tinkering and day dreaming. Now they must deliver to a deadline, whilst giving up huge swathes of time and energy to actively promote the book they’ve got out already.

It’s never easy. Except for the gifted few for whom writing a novel seems to be a mere case of wielding a pen. Is it really as simple as they make out? Does it mean that those of us who struggle aren’t proper writers? Maybe. Who knows? But I can’t waste time worrying about it now. I’ve got another chapter to re-write, bin, and re-write again.




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New Year’s Thoughts

I haven’t blogged in a long time, mostly because I haven’t had any significant writing news. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I am now busy editing my second novel. I think that’s going ok, but what do I know?

As always, I’ve enjoyed reading lots of great books. No day ever goes by for me without literature. It is my most dependable companion. Literature allows me to step into other people’s lives and have my own reflected back at me. It provides escapism, but it also reminds me of what’s important and how ephemeral it all is.

Platitudes abound at this time of year but mostly they’re not very helpful. I get really tired of hearing phrases like, ‘seize the day,’ and ‘you only live once,’ and ‘make the most of every moment.’ What does all that mean? It’s impossible to live life to the full all the time and it’s not helpful to be made to feel like a failure if you don’t. There should be plenty of latitude to be morose and bored and lost.

For me, a more useful maxim is ‘don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Of course, it’s impossible to adhere to this too. We all sweat the small stuff. This is the danger of human interaction: obsessing about stuff that doesn’t actually matter. Relationships can turn on such trivial and insignificant concerns. Two people can have very different interpretations of the same thing. We all have our own reality. This is one of the driving forces of conflict in fiction. So easy to recognise in others, not so easy to call to attention in ourselves.

Another common theme in fiction is the transience of life. ‘This too shall pass’ is a saying I’ve never really understood. To me, it’s always sounded like an inane, bland and somewhat negative take on life. It seems to say, nothing matters because you’re all going to die. But I’ve come to realise that it’s a more compassionate message than that. No matter how bad things are, they won’t stay that way. The same is true for good things – you can’t sustain them forever so don’t pin all your hopes and happiness onto a transient state. You cannot control life, but that doesn’t mean it has to control you.

Fiction often deals in make-believe, fantasy and heightened reality. But it can also encompass the ordinary, the quiet and the every day. While social media is obsessed with proving how exciting and extraordinary our lives are, when the chips are down, I’ve often longed for those normal, uneventful days when I can go about life without fuss or pain. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but sometimes I love waking up and thinking, today is an ordinary day.

Literature for me acts as a counterpoint to all the noise and the hype. Sometimes when someone tells me they’re upset, frustrated, depressed, or anxious, I feel like saying, why don’t you read a book? I don’t say it, because it sounds far too trite. Reading a book won’t solve your problems or reveal the meaning of life. But, if it’s a book worth reading, it will be an enriching experience. Rather than seize the day, or live life to the full, ‘read a book’ makes the most sense to me.

This post is dedicated to Alan Doyle, who set up and managed this website for me as a friend for free and who sadly passed away this month.

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Keeping it Real

I’ve had a period of rest from writing recently. My next novel is finished and while I wait to see if the powers that be consider it to have legs, I’ve been giving my writing brain a break.

The best bit about taking a break has been the opportunity to immerse myself in even more reading than usual. As a reader, I always tend to have my critical brain switched on. But, when I’m not actively writing and when a book is really good, I can pretty much give myself over to the delight of being swept away to another world. Good fiction, as well as being entertaining and transporting, usually has something pertinent to say about life. Not in an obvious how-to-fix-it way, but in the more subtle evocation of the ebb and flow of human existence. At a time of general uncertainty in my own life, I find this deeply consoling. Fictional characters whose lives are unpredictable, with shades of light and dark, reflect back my own. The over-arching message of all the best fiction is, you are not alone.

I’ve been enjoying other leisure pursuits: a holiday in Italy, exhibitions and concerts back home, trips to the cinema, learning favourite poems by heart and rekindling my old love of photography. I’m an amateur, hobbyist photographer and delight in creating photographs free from the exacting standards I attach to my writing. I don’t worry too much about whether it’s clichéd, or technically inept. I simply post my efforts on Instagram and, if I’m lucky, receive a couple of likes before the image is consigned to obscurity.

Flicking through other accounts on Instagram, I am struck by how blissfully happy, productive, popular, remunerated and aesthetically nourished we all are. That’s what it looks like anyway. Do people post about failure, disappointment, relationships that go wrong, careers that flounder, ill health, boredom and spots? Not much. It’s all about lifestyle and success. Meanwhile, so many adults, young adults and children that I know are sinking beneath clouds of ever decreasing self-esteem. Lack of self worth and lonely despair in the light of others’ brilliant existences, seem to be a scourge of modern life exacerbated by social media.

For the sake of offering an antidote to all this, I’m going to tell you now that my previous novel has failed to secure a publisher. I’m not afraid or ashamed to admit it. Having blogged about writing a novel and sending it off, I’ve put its progress, or lack of, out there. So, yes, my novel has done the rounds of publishers and drawn a blank. The stumbling block seems to be the main character – she isn’t likeable enough. I like her (though I admit I wouldn’t invite her to tea), but that, of course, is no use.

Rejection is part and parcel of the writing life. We all know of successful authors who have been rejected countless times. We all know there’s a large element of subjectivity involved and an even larger element of luck. But none of that really matters. I’m not revealing this in order to garner support and encouragement, or commiseration and consternation. It’s okay for my book to fail. I’m not happy about it, but failure is okay. It’s part of a realistic engagement, not just with the writing life, but with life.

I want to succeed in what I do, but I’m also enjoying this current let up from trying to succeed. As I said at the start, I’m enjoying reading. You might think the last thing I’d want to do is read other novels that have been more successful and are undoubtedly better, than mine, but that is exactly what I do want to do. Because writing for me isn’t about pure ego. It’s about being fully engaged in what I love: books.

I know that whenever I’m looking to find company, comfort or catharsis, to be entertained and distracted, to be uplifted, to be moved, challenged, amused and stunned, one place I don’t turn to is social media. I turn to fiction, or to literature, or any art form. That’s where life is at, in all its vagaries and guises. I recommend it to everyone.


A picture to reflect my mood. Find me on Instagram at @cscruttwell




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Thinking of Running the Marathon?

Watching the London Marathon today, I suspect I’m not alone in finding it so inspiring and uplifting I’ve thought to myself, hey, why don’t I have a go?

Yes, I’ll put my name down for the London Marathon next year. Okay, so I’ve never run anywhere in my life, but look at those bozos at the back of the pack. I must be in better shape than some of them were when they started. A quick google search brings up a number of conflicting articles on why you should and shouldn’t undertake such an endeavour. From the comfort of my armchair, even the most discouraging of them makes it sound irresistibly romantic. The loneliness of the long distance runner. Put yourself to the ultimate test of physical and emotional endurance. Sacrifice all to achieve your goal. Pit yourself against the odds.

But then, a thought occurs to me. I don’t need to run a marathon. I’m already running one. Cue cheesy comparison between running a marathon and writing a novel. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve made the rather obvious connection between sport and writing. It’s the same, I guess, for any undertaking that requires commitment over a long period, stamina, self-belief, belligerence and a small degree of madness.

Paula Radcliffe, commentating on TV, offers her advice on survival. ‘You need to stay in the moment and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Try not to think about how much further you’ve got to go. Look out for encouraging landmarks along the way. There was one particular red phone box along the embankment that always spurred me on.’

God, do I need the novelist’s equivalent of that red phone box right now? It might look like I’m doing okay from the outside – I’m two-thirds through the second draft of my novel – but I’ve hit a wall.

The first draft is hard enough. That little spark of an idea you thought would make a wonderful novel keeps you going for a while. Then, you start to face problems. Doubt sets in. You plough on, ignoring the inconsistencies and gaping holes in the plotline and the long, boring bits. You think, leave it for now, I’ll fix that in the second draft.

You get to the end of the first draft. A moment of cautious euphoria. It’s an achievement, but you know there’s still a lot of work to do. You take a breath, decide what changes need to be made and dive in. The second draft starts off very well. Those opening chapters fly off the page with the benefit of knowing who your characters are and where they’re going. Gradually, however, as you progress through the novel, things start to fall apart all over again. You tie up the loose ends in the first draft, only for more to appear. As problems accumulate, you start to think, leave it, I’ll fix that in the third draft. Then, you’re two thirds of the way through, struggling up that punishing incline towards the story’s climax and you pause for air. You forget to stay in the moment. You make the fatal mistake of glancing back at an earlier chapter and you realise how unfinished it still is and how much further you have to go. Suddenly it all seems like a complete waste of time.

How decidedly unromantic it feels now. How ridiculous and vain and selfish. You think of all the other, useful things you could have been doing. All the worthwhile challenges you could have taken on that might actually have been achievable. All the shortfalls in your life that could have been fixed, if you weren’t so intent on writing that damn novel.

Do I sound defeatist? Well, that’s honestly how I feel right now. How do I get past this point of despair? In the end, it’s the most banal of motivations that keeps me going: the finish line. I’ve started, therefore I’ll finish. There comes a point of no return, when you’ve invested so much time and effort that it simply seems more wasteful to give up than to carry on.

I’m like one of those marathon runners who’s wobbling all over the road now, legs buckled beneath me. It’s not dignified and it’s not pretty. But I have no real option other than to stagger on. Maybe, just maybe, I tell myself, there’s a red phone box waiting around the corner.

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Hygge for Writers

The past year has been the same as every other year: a mixture of good and bad. At one point I made the mistake of thinking, and even more dangerously, saying out loud, that my life was running smoothly with everything going well. I don’t believe in tempting fate, but I did regret those words when the next challenge came and hit me in the face, as inevitably it would.

In terms of writing, I have secured an agent but, as yet, no publisher. I am half way through the second draft of my next novel and, if I wasn’t frightened of tempting fate again, I’d say it was going pretty well.

As always, reading books has seen me through. If I can’t find solace in literature, then I know I’m in a bad way. That and painting my nails. I only paint my nails when I’m miserable so if you see me with coloured nails, be gentle with me.

One of the books I enjoyed reading this year was The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. It takes a look at the Danish way of life from the viewpoint of a journalist who tries it out first hand and examines why it is that Danish people prove to be so unanimously happy. Nowadays, you can’t open a magazine or enter a bookshop or buy a candle without coming across advice on how to get Hygge. Here, then, are my own top five personal remedies for combating life’s stresses and strains.

  1. Light a fire.
  1. Paint your nails.
  1. Buy something nice.
  1. Read a book.
  1. Write a novel.

Wait a minute. Isn’t writing a novel painstakingly difficult? Yes, exactly, it is. You will tie yourself in knots writing a novel. You will find yourself wrestling with problems so obscure, so arbitrary and so utterly pointless you are guaranteed to be taken far away from the rest of your life. Your novel is your constant companion – it goes everywhere with you. It clings to you and demands attention and it will occasionally reward your care with glorious, sudden insights at the least expected moments, such as when you’re squeezing onto a crowded train or stirring the gravy. It’s not hygge but it’s something better. It’s torture. I highly recommend it.

Happy Christmas everyone.

My beloved hygge writing corner

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Writer versus Reader

In a recent discussion with a group of friends about a novel we’d all read – a contemporary thriller which they loved and I didn’t – I was told I was approaching it too much as a writer, instead of as a reader. I employed too critical an eye, analysing plot, character, motivation, style. I just wasn’t giving myself over to the story.

This was most definitely true. I couldn’t relinquish my inner author, because the book was, in my opinion, too seriously flawed. The writing got in the way of my enjoyment. Was I wrong? Maybe, for not only did all my friends enjoy the book, but I also happened to read a tweet by an editor (not the book’s editor) whose comment after finishing it was, wow!

It sounds very arrogant of me to criticise and I’m not saying my writing is any better. I try very hard to make it better, but it’s not for me to judge whether or not I succeed.

One thing though: I don’t always read books with my inner author engaged. It is possible for me to become an out and out reader. The book I’m reading right now has absolutely got me by the throat. I have abdicated all my critical awareness in the pursuit of pure enjoyment. From time to time, as I read on, I tell myself I really should stop and try to work out why it’s so damn good.

Last night, two thirds of the way through, I suddenly clocked that it was written in the present tense. Nothing too astonishing in that, except that it’s the kind of thing that, were it poorly executed, I would have noticed long before. And now that I did notice, I didn’t care. I don’t want to analyse it. When I get to the end, then, I’ll have a think about what exactly makes this book work.

I suppose that’s the effect most writers hope to achieve. You want your reader to be carried along, oblivious to method. The more critical the reader, the more gratifying it is if you can induce them to surrender their judgmental eye and immerse themselves in the experience.

Given that reading is such a personal, subjective activity, who decides if a book is good or bad? Is it just a question of taste, or is there an objective measure? I think the answer is, it’s a bit of both. Some books really are badly written. But some readers are more demanding than others. Within the realms of average to brilliant writing, there’s a lot of room for differences of opinion based on personal taste. This is a good thing, because it means there’s a lot of scope out there for all sorts of books to find an audience. Not to mention, the opportunities for some good, heated discussions.

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Sit at a Typewriter and Bleed

A couple of people have mentioned to me that they haven’t noticed me blogging of late. So, what have I been up to? Apart from hiding from the sun, of course. Well, I’ve been writing. Nothing new in that. But, what is kind of new, is that I have been trying to enjoy writing.

When I went on my Icelandic Retreat earlier in the year and the faculty of illustrious authors was lined up for a final question and answer session, someone from the audience asked about the process of writing. One of the authors grabbed hold of the microphone and proceeded to tell us how much she absolutely loved it. She was at her desk first thing in the morning, tap tapping away on her keyboard before her husband left for work. She would spend all day having such fun with her marvellously entertaining characters and, when her husband returned home in the evening, she’d still be at her desk, having lost all track of time and completely forgotten to feed herself, without having budged an inch. 

While others in the room smiled and nodded in recognition of this sweet scenario, my heart sank. My god, I thought, is this what writing is like for these people? When I sit down to write, I am overcome within the first ten minutes by a desperate longing to unload the dishwasher. Plus, there’s no way I’d ever forget to feed myself, as I need to pour a gallon of tea and a packet of chocolate digestives down my throat just to make it from the first sentence to the next.

At the Q&A session, the microphone was passed to the next author in line who took it reluctantly, hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘I hate writing.’ Everyone laughed. Ha ha. No please, I thought, don’t let that be a joke. He went on to quote another writer (I can’t remember who) who apparently once said something like, ‘I love having written.’ Yes. Yes. Yes.

Writing is only enjoyable once it’s over. Or, on the infrequent occasions when it’s going really well. The first writer who grabbed that microphone must, I suppose, be blessed with a ready backlog of of ideas, scenes and characters just waiting to spill out onto the page and they must spill out in an instantly coherent, imaginative and engaging way. Writing really isn’t like that for me.

Recently, I read Ruby Wax’s ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled,’ in which she reminds us how much time we spend planning for an idyllic future which, when it arrives, we often forget to enjoy. For example, think about how much time we spend preparing for a holiday – choosing where to go, working and saving for it, getting our money exchanged, arranging dog sitters etc. And yet, how often do we find ourselves on that holiday thinking ahead to the next holiday, perhaps, or to when we get back home, or simply forgetting to cherish the moment in hand?

So, I’ve been trying to remember to enjoy writing, because that, supposedly, is what I want to do.

Mindfulness apparently takes a lot of practice. People go on mindfulness retreats in order to practice it. Well, recently, I went on another retreat to practice writing, to the lovely converted clocktower at Arvon’s Shropshire centre, The Hurst. Here, I had a self-contained flat with a desk, a shared kitchen with ready prepared home-cooked meals to pop in the microwave and all the provisions I needed. Peace and quiet, beautiful surroundings and a dishwasher that someone else unloaded before I ever got to it.

Once you have resigned yourself to the fact that there is no other task to perform, no excuse for distraction, you find you can stay at your desk for a remarkably long time and you can produce a remarkable amount of work. You can even enjoy the process, because you know that you will have written a considerable amount, not by the end of the week, or month, or year, but by the end of the day. I swore when I went home I would keep this up. I would keep enjoying it. But I failed. I couldn’t manage it any more than I can manage to go from one moment to the next thinking how wonderful life is.

Most of the time, when I’m writing I’m looking over my shoulder at what I’ve just written and I’m thinking it’s crap. Or, I simply can’t get the next words out the way I see them in my mind. That’s what makes it hard work, most of the time. That’s the reality.

And whilst it’s true that I did produce more material on my retreat, after I returned home and the idyllic veil had fallen away, I read over what I’d written and I saw that it was no better in terms of quality than what I usually write. There was as much editorial work to be done on it as ever.

I guess I should give myself a break and stop berating myself for not finding the writing process a font of unadulterated joy. It is a process towards an end. I am working towards the goal of having written. I am working towards finishing another novel. There will be times when I enjoy it, but more often it will be a struggle. Just like life itself. It may not always be joyful, but hopefully I can look back on it with some pride and satisfaction.

The title of this post, by the way, is taken from a quote from Hemingway who said, ‘ There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’



One thing I can enjoy without fail, however, is walking my dogs in the Autumnal morning sunshine

One thing I can enjoy without fail, however, is walking my dogs in the Autumnal morning sunshine

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Guest Blog About Never Giving Up

I’ve written a guest blog for the Writers and Artists website about why writers sometimes give up too soon in their quest for an agent. You can read it here.


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Yes! I have an Agent!


Does this mean I’m going to get published now? No, I’m afraid not. There are plenty of writers represented by very good agents who don’t make it to publication. What it does mean is that publishers may now be willing, at least, to take a look at my novel. It means someone in the industry is prepared to invest her time and energy in trying to secure me a deal. It means I have passed through one of the key portals. It remains to be seen if I stall here, or if I continue to the next level.

I have often wondered what it would feel like to sign with an agent. It feels great, of course. There is no denying the exhileration of reading that email containing an offer of representation (of which I was lucky to receive more than one). I managed to seriously aggravate a calf injury by skipping across the kitchen in my slippers.

It is also a huge relief. It’s taken time and persistence to get here. A lot of that time was spent simply waiting. Some agents, including those who requested the full manuscript, took a very long time to get back to me. It’s easy to lose faith and to fear that a firm offer may never quite materialise. So, relief, as well as joy, is the order of the day.

It feels strange, too. Strange to think that my book is now in the hands of another. Someone else is at the helm. It takes a leap of faith to surrender that control. I am no longer the person making the pitch, sending out the submission and I will no longer be the first to view the response. But, as well as feeling strange, it’s wonderfully liberating. Hell, why not let someone else handle all that stuff? Meanwhile, I can get on with my writing.

That’s the other great thing about it: the amount of time this frees up. Trying to find an agent is a time consuming process. It involves, not just sending out your opening chapters, but researching the best way to do this, attending agents’ talks and pitching events, writing and re-writing that bloody synopsis. No more.

I am realistic, I hope, about the prospects of publication. I know it’s a tall order. It’s heartening, at least, to know that an unbiased and experienced professional has faith in my novel. It has come out of the slush pile, let’s see where it can go next.

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The Meaninglessness of a First Draft

Whilst I’ve been living my normal life – walking the dogs, clearing out the kitchen cupboards, competing in swimming championships, laying plans for an orangery (I say!) – I have also been writing another novel. Surreptitiously. Almost, I might say, without noticing. I can report that I’m now nearing the end of my first draft. One big, final scene to write and then it’s all in the bag.

I have no idea what this novel is like. Really. I set out with a rough plan, a few character outlines and the main arc of a story. Every day that I could, I sat down and wrote 500 words or more. Some days I couldn’t. Some days I didn’t. Bit by bit, however, without my paying too much attention, the novel got written.

Having barely glanced back over what I’ve written, I know very little about it. I am aware of some obvious differences to my previous novel. This one has a much smaller cast of characters. There is less inter-play between characters, less dramatic cause and effect. The plot is simpler. The conflict more internal.

I have included more telling in this novel. My previous novel was show, show, show, perhaps because it was conceived during my MA in Creative Writing where we all know ‘show don’t tell’ is the overriding mantra. When I re-drafted that novel recently, I added more telling, more interiority. Sometimes the reader needs to be told, not shown, how a character thinks or feels.

Whilst on the subject of my previous novel, I’ve finally reached a point where I am, dare I say it, pretty damn satisfied with it. I’ve taken a long time to reach that point, with much processing of feedback, gaining of distance and re-evaluations.

I attended an author’s event recently at which Maggie O’Farrell gave a reading from her latest novel, followed by an interview and Q&A. When asked how many times she drafted her novels, she asked the audience to guess. ‘Twice? Three times?’ members of the audience offered. Nope. She estimated it was at least forty. Forty drafts! Music to my ears.

I don’t consider this to be the sign of a weak writer. I consider it the sign of a meticulous self-editor and someone who takes their writing very seriously: a professional.

I know from experience that, when I say I have completed a first draft, it means very little. It means I have some words to play with. A story to shape. Characters to make credible. But before I get onto any of that, I need to write the final scene. It’s a big, high drama scene. Quite a challenge, in fact. Which, no doubt, is why I’m writing this blog instead. I’m going to quickly change tabs on my computer now and see if I can surreptitiously write the finale without noticing that I’m writing it. A few thousand words with my eyes half shut. And then, once it’s done, I’ll be ready to give the book my undivided attention.

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