I’m just emerging, weary and very relieved, from writing my second book, How Not to Disappear. I knew before I started that second books were notoriously tricky. In the world of music, ‘difficult second album’ syndrome is well-recognised - the Association of Independent Music rather brilliantly awards a Difficult Second Album prize - and many of the same difficulties apply to writing. (I should say at this point that I really don’t want this to sound like a whinge. I know how incredibly lucky I am to be paid to write. It’s just that it’s not always easy, and when I was finding it tough it wasunbelievably helpful to know that other authors found it hard too.)
Perhaps the most obvious difference between a debut and a second book is the time issue. I wrote my first book, The Year of The Rat, over four years on and off. All my deadlines were self-imposed. Of course there were pressures - financial pressure, the pressure of not knowing whether all the time I was spending on it was ever going to result in anything, the pressure of self-motivation when I had many other calls on my time. But external deadlines, set by a publisher, are different. You’re being paid. This is no longer a dream or an ambition: it’s a job. There’s an awareness that other people need you to get your job done in order to be able to do theirs. I knew that ideally publishers want authors to publish a book a year and to be honest this scared me. Not because I didn’t think I could write a book in that time, but I didn’t know whether I could write the book I wanted to write as well as I wanted to in that time. (As it turned out, I couldn’t, of which more later.)
Then there was the pressure of having an expectation to meet, not only in the sense of ‘Will this book be as good as the last one?’ but also in terms of the kind of book I would write. With a first book you can write whatever you feel like. With a second, especially if it’s a two-book deal as mine was, you know there’s a desire for it to appeal to the same readers as the first book did. And of course I wanted people who liked the first book to like the second book too... At the same time I felt strongly that I didn’t want to end up effectively writing the same book again. I wanted a new challenge, something a bit different. I’d lived with the last book for four years, and it had been pretty intense. I was very ready for something new. At the outset, this book felt like a balancing act in a way that the first book hadn’t.
Meanwhile, time, energy and head space were being taken up by the first book. The launch of the paperback, blog posts to write, talks to give... I was extremely grateful for all of this, but it was undoubtedly a distraction, as were the perennial ‘How are sales going? Is your publisher happy?’ questions.
Of course, I knew from the start that the only way through this was to put it all to one side and immerse myself in the writing, in the characters and their story. This was how I’d written the first book, I just had to do it again. But it was easier said than done.
It’s fair to say How Not to Disappear took a while to get going. There were certain things I knew before I started. I knew it would have two storylines, one contemporary, one set in the 1950s. I knew the contemporary storyline involved a teenager and her great-aunt who was suffering from dementia, and that the 1950s storyline was the great-aunt’s teenage story. There would be some kind of road trip as they visited places from her past and unravelled the secrets from her past. I had an image in my mind of the final scene. Beyond that I didn’t know much.
I felt strongly that this story shouldn’t be planned, that I had to let it take its course. The fact that the road trip storyline is driven by a character whose memory isn’t entirely reliable meant that I wanted it to feel unpredictable - it couldn’t be too neat, too planned. I wrote the 1950s storyline separately, as a series of vivid flashbacks, and then had to make the two plot lines into one coherent story. I have to be honest, weaving the two storylines together was a complete nightmare, but I still think this was the right way to do it. I do think some of the most interesting aspects of the story came out of the fact that it wasn’t planned. But it was all rather nerve-racking and it did mean that my editor, Jane Griffiths at Simon and Schuster, had to take a big leap of faith... I’m extremely grateful that she did.
This book also turned out to be much longer than I’d expected - almost twice as long as my first book - which meant it took a lot longer to write and edit than I’d intended. Deadlines were missed, which was stressful and inevitably I felt that I’d failed. Still, I believed that it in the end it had to be better to write a good book than to write it quickly, and I’m incredibly grateful to my editor for taking the same view. Her patience meant I had the chance to make this story into the book I knew it could be. And once I stopped worrying about all the other stuff and just immersed myself in the writing, guess what? I loved it! It was fun again. I’d forgotten how exciting it is, that feeling when the words are flowing and it’s all coming out just right.
Of course, I don’t know whether anyone else will think the book is any good - only about three people have read it so far and we are STILL doing the very final round of edits! - but I do know it’s a book I put everything into and can feel proud of. And I realised while I was writing it that this was what I had to focus on. Of course I want other people to love the book, but actually that’s one of the many things about being a writer that I can’t control. All I can do is try to write the best book I know how to.
So, will Book 3 be easier or is the terrible truth that, as with parenting, writing doesn’t ever get easier, it just carries on being difficult in different ways? I suspect I know the answer to that one...
How Not to Disappear will be published on 28 January 2016.