The ever-lovely Stephanie Butland has released her second novel, ‘The Other Half of my Heart‘, and to celebrate, Stephanie is visiting the blog today to talk about the ‘difficult second book’. Is it myth or is it that much harder to write your second novel? Read on to find out! As always, thanks to Stephanie for taking the time to share her writerly wisdom.
Ah, the Tricky Second Novel. Is it as tricky as the name suggests?
Well, the first thing to say is that telling someone that something is going to be difficult isn’t really a brilliant start. Just try, right now, NOT thinking of a purple snake and you’ll see what I mean.
I think I managed to dodge a bullet, second-novel wise. There was a two year gap between my signing a two-book deal and the first novel coming out. That meant I was writing the second novel without any pressure from either:
- the critical acclaim/worldwide success of the first book
- the fact that it died on its arse.
(The reality for the first book, as so often in life, was somewhere between those possibilities.)
Also, I was already being paid for Novel 2. I think that was more important than I knew: although the money wasn’t enough to Be A Writer and nothing else, it did make my early fumbles at a second manuscript necessary. It took me a long time to grope my way into the plot and shape of my second novel, so had it not been expected – was it not being paid for – I think I might have abandoned it altogether. In fact I did, for a while. I started writing something else. My agent and editor admired it, and then pointed out that that wasn’t really the book that had been bought. So I went back to ‘The Other Half Of My Heart’ with much the same frame of mind as whoever it was who had to spin straw into gold. Except I didn’t even have any straw. But I was being paid. So I kept at it.
And as well as an advance, I had a deadline. This meant I ended up writing seventy thousand words in two months. (In fairness to myself, I’d written the first thirteen thousand over the previous – um – year.) Most of the words were terrible, but I had something like the shape of a book. Honour was satisfied and my editor put on her rose-coloured specs (or maybe her x-ray ones) and saw through the mess to the novel that was waiting to be coaxed into life. She gave me some hints and I did some editing and, bingo. (Well, not quite. You can read about the whole business here.)
In all honesty I don’t think my second novel was any harder to write than my first. It was a different experience, but because I’d had two non-fiction books about my dance with cancer published already, I knew that every book was different. And of course part of the reason each book is different is that the writer changes, grows more, knows more.
When I was writing ‘The Other Half Of My Heart’ I knew a lot that I hadn’t before. I had more of a sense of how publishing worked, so I didn’t feel quite so small and lost – a bit like when you’ve started a new school, but you’ve been there long enough to figure out the short cuts and understood how the canteen works. I knew that there would be a period during the writing, towards the end, when I was convinced that it would Never Work, but when I got to that point I remembered that I’d been there three times before and ploughed on.
I knew that I could write a book, and I knew that it was a question of making time and working hard.
I also knew how thrilling it is when the words do start to work out what they are doing and the characters are real enough that every little thing you write about them doesn’t have to be decided. (The first time I dress a character, everything needs a lot of thought. Once I’ve decided that someone wears, say, a tweed Crombie coat with a velvet collar, then the rest of their wardrobe will follow very easily. Put that character in hospital fifteen chapters later and I don’t even have to pause before putting his button-up pyjamas on – this is not a man who sleeps in boxers and a Def Leppard t-shirt.)
I’m just completing my fourth novel, and I think I can say though every writing experience has been different, there was nothing about this second novel that was more difficult than the first – or either of the books I’ve written since.
I suspect that, as writers, we are more fraught when we approach the second novel. It feels as though there’s more at stake. I don’t know that there is, because at the end of the day, it’s about the reader and the page and whether there’s enough on the page to keep the reader interested, whether it’s a first, second, or seventeenth novel they’re reading.