At the end of last year, I wrote a post called The Trouble With Second Novels after I’d abandoned my second attempt at writing a second novel. At that time, I was trying to keep myself buoyant because I was feeling rather deflated—I’d hoped to have a complete first draft by the end of 2018 and I was annoyed at myself for letting people down. I felt as if I was lacking in self-discipline—I should have been able to just sit at my desk and write the damn thing.
Over the summer I’ve had time to ponder all of this and I’ve realised a few things: Those two ‘failed’ versions of my novel weren’t failures at all; they were part of the process and every single word in them was necessary. What I’d been doing was exploring and probing, gathering all the ingredients I needed to write my second novel.
Here’s what I’d been collecting:
1. CHARACTERS I CARE ABOUT
It takes a couple of years to write a novel, so if I’m going to spend years with the same group of people, I need to care about them deeply. I need to love them, all of them, even the mean and nasty ones. Just as it’s difficult to care about someone you don’t know in real life, so it is with fiction. I needed to get to know my characters before I could love them and tell their stories, and there was only one way to do that: write about them.
The two drafts of my novel that I wrote last year were me getting to know my characters so I could write their stories properly this year. I was learning all about them—about their backgrounds, their strengths, their failings. I was getting to know and love them*. They’ve survived, most of them, into this draft, and I’m ready to tell their story because I already know so much about them.
*Except Malcolm. I don’t love Malcolm. But at least he gets written out early and Maureen really is better off without him.
2. A THEME THAT’S IMPORTANT TO ME
I have difficulty writing on topics about which I’m ambivalent. But if there’s a spark, a passion, the desire to write is easy to summon. In order to write this novel, I needed a topic that set me on fire. It didn’t matter what I was on fire with—fury, shame, sadness, embarrassment, love—I just needed the passion.
My first novel began as a story about child abuse, something fiercely personal to me. As I wrote, my story broadened to become about women’s dreams and the conflict between our personal aspirations and our need, and desire, to nurture our families. As a working mother, I didn’t have to try very hard to summon passion for that topic—it was personal, the fervour was already there and the story poured out of me.
Before I started writing this second novel, I decided I didn’t want it to be personal—for many reasons, but mainly because I didn’t want to be so emotionally invested. I wanted to keep it at arm’s length, intellectualise it, not be so emotive. But because I lacked passion for it as I wrote, the story lacked passion on the page. And passion is like the battery of a novel; it’s the power pack on which it runs.
The stories I wrote last year were a bit boring, even to me, until I realised what was missing. The thing is, for many years I’ve believed that the deeply personal is also the universal, so I don’t know why I didn’t just listen to myself. But I had to try this out, come at as story from a different angle. It didn’t work, but I’m still glad I experimented.
3. THE RIGHT ‘VOICE’
For me, this is the most essential ingredient; once I’ve found the voice, the story flows.
It’s taken me a long time to find the right voice for this second novel. Time and serious soul-searching.
You see, I have a critic who sits on my shoulder and tells me, ‘Your writing’s too simple, too immature and belongs in a picture book.’ I so wanted to prove her wrong. I wanted to be a literary writer. To write languorous prose that makes readers swoon, and to write about big, serious, weighty, intellectual issues.
But that style isn’t me, and trying to write like it was. So. Very. Hard. Every word was a struggle, wrestled out of me. It felt like walking with dislocated ankles and knees might feel—uncoordinated and stumbling, not to mention painful. But I kept pushing because I wanted to prove I was a literary writer.
I was reminded of when I was learning to sing and desperately wanted to be a soprano—to sing the high notes and be the one performing the vocal acrobatics.
I didn’t want to be the alto, the one with the boring, low notes that hold the whole piece together but that no one notices because they’re too bewitched by the soprano and her vocal gymnastics.
I have a naturally low voice but I bought singing books for high voices and practised and practised, trying to raise my tessitura. My singing teacher would suggest lowering the pieces so they were within my range, but I thought that if I practised enough, I could turn myself into a soprano. All I did was strain my vocal chords and make myself hoarse.
One day, as an experiment, I begrudgingly tried singing a piece down a few tones. My voice magically changed from a thin, brittle sound, to something rounder and quite pleasant to listen to. I gave up trying to sing high because singing low was so much easier. Since then, I’ve also come to appreciate how lovely and resonant the alto voice actually is, and how valuable it is in a choir.
So it is with my writing voice. Writing in my natural voice is so much easier—the words are easier to find and the story unfolds all by itself. My sentences may be simple and un-swoonworthy, but I can create memorable characters and spin a good yarn. And there’s nothing to stop me writing about weighty themes, just in my own style.
Those unsuccessful drafts from last year helped me to discover the type of writer I am and where my strengths lie.
And I’ve learnt that it’s much easier to just be myself.
Once again, writing is a metaphor for life.
WRITERS IN THE ATTIC
Don’t forget to return on Monday when I have another ‘Writer in the Attic’.
Here’s a sneak preview:
‘And for me, the youngest, most awkward child in a gregarious family, books became the way I understood the world. Books taught me about friendship and love and betrayal and offered solace, music and company I could depend on.’