Monday, 21 May 2012

Second Book Syndrome, or How putting one book behind you can unleash a brand new world

by Jo Wyton

The wondrous Addy Farmer blogged beautifully a few days ago on The Book of Letting Go, her story of finally dropping a manuscript that she's been devoting everything to for a long time. It's apparent from the comments that people left, that she isn't the only one.


Coincidentally, at the SCBWI retreat last weekend, Lee Weatherly (she of Angel fame) spoke about Second Book Syndrome. Typically, this hits those who are recently published and now required to write Book Two, but as Lee pointed out, it can include anybody who is writing a manuscript under pressure, no matter where that pressure comes from, who is struck by a severe inability to... well... write anything at all, really.

Now, I haven't personally suffered the dreaded Second Book Syndrome. No nausea, no wobbly knees or sweaty palms, and definitely no fingers that dare not type the next word lest it turns out to be not good enough. But I have had another kind of Second Book Syndrome.

The good kind.

Seven years ago, I started writing my first ever book. I bought a notepad and a crappy pen, and I sat down on a bench in a lovely park, and I thought This Is It. The story I wanted to write was one I'd carried around in my head for a long time. THE story.

It took me about a year and a half to get a first draft down. Then there came a year of editing. And then a year and a half of total rewrite, and another year of editing plus replotting and rewriting.

And then the dreaded moment...

THIS. ISN'T. WORKING.

Oh gods above, but did I want to ignore THAT particular feeling. If I'd have been honest with myself, I probably would have discovered that I'd been aware of that feeling for some time. But you know what? I'm glad I ignored it as long as I did.

Because if I think carefully about what actually happened in that five and a half years, I'd probably say this:

1. The first eighteen months were spent learning how to reach the end of a novel...




2. Then there was a year of learning how to line-edit...


3. And then two more years of learning how to plot and shape characters...





Five and a half years after starting to write my first novel, the only physical thing I had to show for it was a pile of paper in my desk drawer, not good enough to submit with any seriousness.
But I knew how to write a good character. I knew how to structure a story. I was still fairly useless at plotting, but I'd worked out ways to how to get around my in-built plot anti-compass. I knew how to edit, and I knew how to polish.

So, when a friend advised me to put my first novel away in favour of a YA I'd been playing around with and given up on, I reluctantly agreed. After all, Novel Number One seemed to be going nowhere except loony-land with me firmly strapped in the passenger seat.

Now, I had the chance to start all over again, and this time it was, well, MORE FUN. It was easier.

This time, it felt like I was writing the right book. In actual fact, I think what probably happened wasn't so much that it was the 'right book', but that I was finally able to write a book at all. It was nice to see that what was in my head was coming out on the page, and it was lovely to hear from writing friends that it was so much better than what I'd written before.

It's OK to make mistakes. In fact, it's good to make them. The fact that you can recognise something that isn't going anywhere as exactly that, is worth something. It's worth a hell of a lot. So, yeah, by all means put that novel you've been struggling with for 5 years away in a drawer, but don't forget about it. Cherish it.

I would never take that first novel back. It was bloody hard work and it took a lot to let it go, but it also went a long way towards teaching me how to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it, and for that reason, it's the best novel I will ever write.

37 comments :

  1. I'm yet to get to the second book syndrome! LOL! Well, not even the first one! But it's good to be prepared - from reading this it sounds very free-ing letting go of something you just know doesn't work! Thanks for sharing! Take care
    x

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    1. Thanks Kitty! Good luck with book one syndrome...!

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  2. I'm with you here. I had a four year first novel hell, and just like you, the subsequent book I wrote won a place in Undiscovered Voices. So it was worth it - I learnt loads in the process of that first book and perhaps even more from the second one. And each book that follows does seem to get a little shorter to write - thank heavens!

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    1. Does it, Nick? Does it really?

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    2. I agree with Nick - each one seems a little easier - although I do wonder if that is simply because I know more about the pitfalls now - it's easier to avoid them, instead of having to fix them, which is what was happening before. I also wonder if there are a whole new set of pitfalls out there that I don't know about yet (probably).

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  3. Ha! I like your editing face. Very scary.
    And I'm a firm believer in 'if it isn't working, move along', and that all those steps along the way are what you teaches you how to write.
    There aren't shortcuts - writing is one thing you learn by doing.
    Hurrah for book 2!

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    1. That drawing of my editing face is my actual editing face. *fact*

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  4. You know they say we're supposed to write a million words before we've learned how to write? Well, those first books we write and then consign to the bottom drawer are part of the foundations that hold the rest of our writing up. They are vital to the process. Which can be a very long one . . .

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    1. The one I've heard is 10,000 hours of writing practice. Either way I'm sure I'm there!

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    2. I've heard the 10,000 one too. I've clocked up 9,949 hours, five minutes and three seconds exactly. So close!
      Love the drawings Jo! You look so cute :)

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    3. Hmm I don't have much wordage in my practice novels. Definitely haven't hit a million yet. Which means I've got lots to learn. Yikes!

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    4. But all those words you write and then delete - they count too! Bet you've WRITTEN a million, even if they don't all still exist.

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    5. But those 10,000 hours include thinking time, surely? I'm NEVER going to get to a million words!

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    6. I'd like to know who set the benchmark of having 'learned to write'...

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  5. were you taking photos there, Jo? Scary. I love your final sentence!

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    1. Yes - can't you tell Addy? I should have gone to art school. Think I've missed my calling, there.

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  6. Hooray! Thanks for a great post. It's hard, but SO MUCH LESS hard, to do it with picture books. But so so true. I would never want to un-spend those months I spent on my first real 'baby'. Like you, I learned loads from it -including how *not* to do it.
    Thanks again, Clare.

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    1. So true Clare, and if anyone hasn't seen Malachy Doyle's post on persisting with a book over the years then please take a look at Clare's Picture Book Den blog. Nothing's wasted!
      http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/

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  7. This rings a bell. Have you cannibalised any parts from the original MS?

    Also, where's the bra?!

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    1. Not deliberately Mark - I haven't been through and looked at it since I stuffed it in that drawer. But I do find that bits and pieces creep in - the odd phrase, the occasional detail. Nothing major - no characters or scenes or plotlines, just small pieces. Are you a cannibaliser?

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  8. This is so timely for me Candy! Thanks! I am now re-visiting 'the story' that I started to write - god, I hate to admit it, but it's probably close to 20 years ago. It's the story I want to tell but, as well, I found it didn't work. It's been time travel, story within a story, historical, middle grade, first, third person! I've tried it every which way and like you found that a lot of things didn't work, but learned about how to make a lot of things work. And I've published two novels along the way! Now I'm back at it as a contemporary y/a, with a good strong character and it seems to be shaping up. Onward and Upward to infinity and beyond! Writers, eh!

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    1. Aww thanks Jan ... except it's Jo's blog post.

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  9. Brilliant! And yes, the editing face. I'm going to dream about that one.

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  10. Great post, Jo! Before we moved, I had to go through all my files, and it was a great moment when I came across that first novel. So much of me went into it.

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  11. This is a wonderful post and one I know so well. I faced the fact that half way through my PhD the novel I was writing for it just wasn't working. I really struggled to start a new one but am so glad I did as this second story was far more powerful. But the first story was one I had to write as it was a story that was stuck in my head for a long time. I needed to get it out of the way. I am a great believer, as you seem to be too Jo, that all writing is never wasted.
    Love the pictures too, thank you Jo

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    1. It is definitely a strange moment, moving on from one novel to the next, but such a relief to find out you can write something other than that one story!

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  12. Hee hee hee - Enough with your stupid book, it's dinner time!

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    1. I'm fairly sure that is what it is my cat's head most of the time!

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  13. Brilliant, Jo! How liberating! I'm five-years-and-one-manuscript down the road and was having a hard time convincing myself that Book 1 was a worthwhile experience whatever actually happens to it in the end. Now I know it's true. Watch out Book 2. Here I come BIG TIME.

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    1. Well I hope you have fun with it Rowena - that's what it's all about, after all!

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  14. Such a good post, and so true. To become good at anything takes practice. The more we write, the more we hone those writing skills and the better our writing becomes. It's one of the things I like best about writing. There's always something new to be discovered and learned.

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  15. Great post. I have a different kind of 2nd book syndrome. It's the kind where you write a picture book, submit it, it gets yanked out of the slush pile and published, and for the next 5 years you write and submit and can't get a 2nd book published!! Aargh! Will I die a One-Book-Wonder?!?

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    1. It's funny - as hard as you might work, in the end it all comes down to a bit of luck - finding that right person, at the right time, who loves what you are writing. I'm sure you'll find them in the end, even if it seems to be taking a while.

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