28 March 2018

The difficult second novel

ANNABELLE THORPE CURTIS BROWN CREATIVE
by Annabelle Thorpe Guest Blog, Novels by CBC Alumni, Opinion, Writing Tips

So, the hard part is over, you’ve published your first novel! Well, former CBC student and author Annabelle Thorpe is here to tell us all about the difficulties of writing that second novel from her own experience, and offers some guidance along the way.

Considering it’s a known thing, like the Difficult Second Album, you would think that struggling with a second book shouldn’t come as a surprise.  And yet it did.  Even though it took ten years, on and off, to write the first one, I blithely signed my two-book deal, which gave me the sum total of fifteen months to write the second.  I had an idea, and characters all set to go.  What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, how little I knew.  The first, and main difference between a first and second novel is that, once published, you are inside the mechanisms of the publishing industry and your book is subject to an entirely different process.  You are perceived as a certain type of author, who writes a certain type of book.  If you want to change that – and many authors do want to do something very different from their first novel, it can be a difficult transition to make.

It had taken so long to write my first book, that by the time it was published I felt that it didn’t quite represent how I wanted to write now.  My second book was going to be something darker, more intense.  What I failed to realise is that if you head into these waters, you need to be very sure of where you’re going.  Was I writing a thriller?  Maybe.  A police procedural?  Definitely not.  It turned out that what I wanted to write – a study of a marriage breakdown and betrayal, played out in the unsettlingly ‘other’ city of Marrakech – didn’t fit into any standard genre definition.  The questions started coming; how could the book be marketed, if no-one was sure what it was?

There were other problems too, mostly entirely of my own making.  I’d been so caught up in wanting to do something different, something clever and experimental that I’d made the classic error of forgetting to consider the reader.  Early drafts of the book began with a dinner party, introducing all the characters at once, and plunging the reader into Paul and Freya’s lives several weeks after they had moved to Marrakech.  The book was in three parts, with multiple points of view; the second part filled in the back story, with the third re-telling the same events as the first, but from a different perspective.

Even attempting to describe the original structure makes me realise how overly-complex it was.  And yet I spent weeks with post-its all over the lounge carpet, making sure dates and events tallied in parts one and three, that the different perspectives added up to one comprehensible whole.  In the simplest possible terms, I had thrown the kitchen sink at it; rather like the contestant on Masterchef who puts twenty-seven different ingredients on the plate, and loses out to someone who’s created something beautiful with three.

Looking back now, I think partly what happened was a mix of being overly-ambitious and equally over-excited at finally being a published author.   My first book got me published, my second was going to be more sophisticated, more clever, more. . .everything.  It didn’t occur to me that being ‘more everything’ might not be the best idea.

The trick with a second novel, I think, is to realise that it still incredibly early days in a novel-writing career, and that there is still so much to learn.  Being published brings wonderful rewards but there are also pressures, restrictions, and the realisation that on one level, your beloved book is simply a product to be marketed and sold.  Building on the first, looking at what you did well, what readers loved about it, and striving to do those things better, is probably a wiser, more successful way to go.

In the end, What Lies Within, became a thriller – interwoven around a marriage breakdown and betrayal, and still set in Marrakech.  Over time the narrative became simpler, my characters more sympathetic, and some of the POV’s melted away.  Fifteen months became eighteen, and then two years, as edits and rewrites saw the book slowly morph into shape.

And now, finally, my problem child is about to go out into the world, and I’m proud and relieved and anxious and pleased.  And grateful too, for what this long and difficult process has taught me, and what I’ve learnt from those who helped me along the way.  Book three is starting to take shape; a more gentle story this time, a clearer focus, less ingredients in the mix.  I’m calling it the Straightforward Third Novel.  Because if that isn’t already a thing, it should be.

Annabelle Thorpe’s second novel, What Lies Within was published on April 5 (Quercus, £14.99)

Annabelle was a student on one of our flagship novel writing courses.

Find out more about our current selective entry three-month novel writing courses in London (scholarship available) and online (deadline for applications for both is Sunday 8 April).

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