Writers Ask Writers: Second Novels

WRITERS ASK WRITERS: Books That Changed Me

Last year, I took part in a wonderful series of blog posts along with five other West Australian authors, where we discussed many writerly things, from where we get our ideas, to where we sit down and write.  To celebrate the exciting publication of Dawn Barker‘s new novel Let Her Go today, we are teaming up again to talk about Second Novels and how tricky they can be.

Let Her Go

Let Her Go is Dawn’s second novel, a follow up to her hugely successful debut, Fractured.  I can’t wait to read it, having been utterly gripped by her first.  Our writers’ group were also lucky enough to see a very early sneak peak and give our feedback, and it really piqued my interest.  It’s a story about modern motherhood and its challenges, and it sounds like a surefire bestseller

“The second novel is a seizure caused by lack of innocence”

– Sydney Morning Herald

I’m the only member of the group (as of today) that hasn’t yet published a second novel, though I am very much in the process of writing one.  I thought that after battling through my first novel while holding down a full-time job, the process would be easier this time.  In many ways, it has been a more relaxed process, but it’s also had its challenges. 

Setting Myself A Challenge…

I’ve written about the research process for my new novel here, but I really set myself a difficult task in terms of imaginative stretch with my new novel.  It’s about a male photojournalist’s experiences during the Vietnam War, and how they impact the rest of his life.  When I began, I knew nothing about photojournalism, photography, Vietnam, the Vietnam War, war in general and what it’s like to be a man.  It’s been an interesting and rewarding process learning about these things (especially the latter!) and for me, each new writing project is a learning experience. 

Finding The Voice 

“The first book is a gift.  It is only with the second that you teach yourself how to write.”

– Don DeLillo

It took me a bit of time to find the voice of my main character, Rook, this time around.  Marta’s voice came to me very easily, and it was the driving force behind the narrative of How To Be A Good Wife.  With my new novel, it’s taken until the second draft to feel that I really know Rook, and I can now let him dictate more of what happens in the story.  That is a wonderful place to have got to, but it’s taken a lot of hard work, over a long period of time.  I feel more connected to and empathetic towards Rook than I did with Marta, as I can see his flaws and how they draw him towards mistakes, and I feel much more emotional about his outcome than I did with Marta.  Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing!

Juggling Multiple Locations and Times 

How To Be A Good Wife took place in one house in one setting.  It was in the present tense, and as it was first person, the field of vision was limited to Marta.  In many ways, this made writing the book very focused.  With my new novel, there are chunks set in different time periods across the photographer’s life.  Beginning in the 1940s in a coal mining town in England, spanning the 1960s and 1970s in both London and Vietnam, through the 1980s and to the modern day.  When I finished How To Be A Good Wife, I wanted to write a more varied story, and the research and creation of each setting has been interesting and absorbing. 

Expectations, expectations… 

It’s commonly said that second novels are more difficult because you are writing for an expectant audience, rather than for your own satisfaction.  I’m certainly more aware of my reader.  However, I feel terribly lucky to have the opportunity to share my work and get feedback from qualified, trusted members of the publishing industry.  Feedback and criticism of your work are the only way you grow as a writer, and that’s my ultimate aim.

Onwards and Upwards 

“The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel.  If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course.  The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”

– Stephen Fry

I certainly set myself a few challenges with my new novel, and it’s only now, two years in, that I’m starting to feel like I’m getting closer to achieving my initial goals.  That’s an exciting feeling, and one I hope continues as I complete the latest edit. 

Now let’s see how the others think writing a second novel compares to the first…

Dawn Barker – whose second novel is out today! Congratulations Dawn!

Sara Foster – who talks about the pressures of writing a second novel under deadline.

Annabel Smith – tells us about the way wuthor marketing had changed in the industry between her first and second novels.

Amanda Curtin – for whom a collection of short stories published between her first and second novels took some of the pressure off.

2 Comments on “Writers Ask Writers: Second Novels

  1. Many illuminating observations and quotes here, Emma. Much appreciated. I hope your current ‘act of professional writing’ ends up being a tour de force.

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