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But it’s not just those of us who are unpublished who find second novels tricky.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.