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Sunday, January 06, 2008

 

Secondbookitis

I have, as those of you who are old lags of this site will doubtless be aware, recently completed a first draft of Book 2. Without going into details, I can say, from the bottom of my knackered heart, that it was much harder to write than Book 1.

This is proverbially true for many writers - in fact, many's the person who got a pained look from me by saying amiably 'Ah yes, the second book's always the hardest to write, isn't it?'. (Yes it is, but it's not always tactful to remind a writer of that fact while they're in the throes. It's like telling somebody they look unwell; it never makes them feel better.) So, why is this? What are the causes of secondbookitis?

The primary principle is simple. The best thing in the world, in terms of creating work, is having a relaxed mind. Space to turn ideas over, willingness to play and experiment, unselfconsciousness that allows you to try something that might or might not work: these are things that let your mind expand and produce your best work, because nothing is blocking your flow.

But having written a first book, those things can be hard to come by.

First, you have something to lose. If you're just starting out, you can make mistakes; that's to be expected. Most writers shelve early work, and if there's nobody's eye on them, it hardly matters. You have to put away six months' work? Never mind; you weren't working on a deadline. If, however, you are working on a deadline, suddenly the pressure increases. Working as an amateur, it hardly matters if you waste a week on an experiment that didn't pan out and have to scrap it, but as a professional, that's a week closer to your deadline. And the deadline means external forces, professionals you desperately want to impress. Making a fool of yourself when no one's watching is fun; making a fool of yourself in front of the publishing industry is a horrifying thought. We're all happy to dance around singing into the hairbrush when we've got the house to ourselves, but imagine doing that while Simon Cowell is watching you, and you've got some idea of the havoc publication can wreak with a writer's sense of security.

(I hasten to add that my publishers in no way resemble Simon Cowell, or at least, Simon Cowell's screen persona, as he may be a gentle and sweet man in private life. It's just that tension can magnify even the loveliest publishers in the world into Cowell-like dimensions if you let it.)

In short, the Big Chance factor kicks in, in a rather nasty way. If you're still unpublished, your big chance is, you hope, yet to come; time is flexible. If you've been published, this is it, your big chance, here and now, and if you make a fool of yourself, you think, you're going to blow it.

Fear of repeating yourself can be inhibiting. There's nothing wrong with writers who hit a winning formula and produce a lifetime of books varying that theme, and in fact, a lot of inventiveness can be manifested within a narrow spectrum. However, if that's not your ambition, then you can become paranoid. That scene you're working on seems to be going well, but hang on - isn't that a little like a scene in your first book? You're repeating yourself! Cut it, quick, before somebody spots it! And now how should you write it? You don't know, because you've rejected the idea you were most comfortable with. Resolving to write non-repetitive work is working according to a negative rather than a positive plan, and that never, ever helps.

The idea of professionalism is also a killer. I've talked about this before, and I'm repeating some points from it here, but the basic principle is this: the minute somebody starts paying you for your work, the inner demon that hates all things creative has a nice little stick to beat you with. Because, you see, professionals are supposed to be tough. Professionals work regular hours, punch time-clocks, hand over the same number of punnets every day, and never, ever let their personal feelings intrude upon their work. Writing, on the other hand, can be a wayward business. You can keep to regular hours if you have a mind to, but everyone has good and bad days. And your emotions get into it. They have to: a writer out of touch with their emotions is like a footballer out of touch with their legs. This makes you terribly frightened of being vulnerable to them, ruled by them, and you can wind up feeling that you should be able to rise above your emotions. This makes about as much sense as a footballer trying to rise above his legs, and you can just imagine the mess if he tried that; it's the same for writers.

You've also got something to prove. Few people are slow to tell you that second books are traditionally worse than first books. Nobody wants to be that writer, especially if you had only a one-book or two-book contract. So the part of you that hates you is continually comparing your second book to your first. This is bad news: it can make your first book swell in your mind until it becomes the proper book, the real book - after all, it's been published! - and the one you're working on now is like the younger sibling of a talented elder, anxiously entering the classroom surrounded by teachers frowning down over their spectacles saying, 'Whitfield junior? Ah yes, you have some big shoes to fill, young lady.' Nobody is at their most charming under such circumstances, and books have to be charming if they want readers to like them: they have to entertain, seduce, persuade. It's hard to be persuasive when you're full of doubts yourself.

And, as I've said before, all of these are new problems. The old problems, you've probably had for years: will I ever get published? Do I have any talent? Will anybody ever like my work, or am I just wasting time fooling around with these artistic pretentions? These are real and serious worries for an aspiring writer, and can crush the life out of many a sensitive beginner; even the most robust beginners stagger under the weight of them. Getting published silences those queries. But, as I've said in another post, your inner demon, the horrible beast inside you that wants to kill every creative hope you ever have, is an endlessly resourceful creature. You have to learn to ignore it, because trying to appease it is like changing your hairstyle because the school bully said it was so last year: it won't make it stop, and you'll be letting someone who doesn't like you dictate your life. But it's far easier to ignore when you've heard it all before.

Get published, and it whips out a whole new agenda, which hits you like measles hitting a remote civilisation: you just don't have any resistance built up, and it takes you a while to rally. The thing is, from an unpublished perspective, published writers look like completely different people. But they're not, really. Your personality doesn't undergo some chemical reaction on contact with a publishing contract: you're exactly who you always were. You're suddenly one of the people you always thought were big and tough, but you're no bigger and tougher than you were yesterday. It's very hard, in such circumstances, not to feel smaller and weaker than you actually are.

So what's to be done about it? What helped me, in the end, was giving up on the idea of being a professional. With Bareback, I wrote the entire book as an amateur, and it sold, and some people liked it. That was all fine. In my own mind, now, I'm still an amateur. The word has a fine origin: it means somebody who performs an activity just for the love of it. I've become, not a professional writer, but an amateur writer who sometimes gets paid. It's a good feeling.

I wonder, does secondbookitis affect people who haven't sold their first book in the same way? Experiences and opinions are welcome.

In any event, I'm still waiting to hear back from my agent and publishers about Book 2; at the moment, they're either still on holiday or wading through the mountain of mail that accumulates during the holidays, so it may be a while before I get an opinion. Writing a second book is an experience that I am so grateful I'll never have to go through again. But having said that, I kind of liked how the book went, in the end, so I'm just going to have to hope for the best.

Comments:
Off-topic, but regarding Bareback / Benighted timeline:

I'm a bit confused about when the lycos became a larger percentage of the population than the nons. In the section that talks about the history, it sounds like there weren't as many lycos during the Plague and Inquisition as there are now. I've just finished the scene where Lola May meets the social worker in her bar, so maybe there's more explanation after that.

I'm loving the book and I definitely want to read the results of Secondbookitis.
 
Hello there!

Hm, possibly my writing was unclear. :-) I suspect the area of confusion may be the difference between lycos and lunes.

There were always more lycos than nons; during the Renaissance, the state itself was regarded with more suspicion - which doesn't mean that lycanthropic people were a minority, just that they were more vulnerable to accusations of witchery and crimes committed on moon nights, because it was harder for them to account for what they'd been doing. People thought lunes were bad, which is to say, people in a werewolf state; lycos, the same people in human form, were another matter.

This is based on a sad but true story of the witch hunts, which is that people would sometimes be accused of having done things by sending their spirits out in their sleep. As they were asleep at the time, it was difficult to prove they hadn't done it.

Hardline religion, the kind that's about proscriptions and prohibitions with the gnosticism driven out, is often suspicious of the liminal and the intimate: things like sex and sleep, where your conscious mind is not in charge. Luning falls under that category. I thought it probable that, if most people turned into wolves at times, there would be hysteria about it in some quarters, the same way you can have sexual panics.

Does that help? If not, do say so... :-)
 
Got it -- I think I didn't get the difference between lycos and lunes.

It doesn't diminish my enjoyment of your book, but this doesn't ring true to me: "People thought lunes were bad, which is to say, people in a werewolf state." That's saying that the majority thought that they themselves were bad.

If 90% of the population has a common experience (and here, this group has a common experience on the same night every single month), I would think that the experience is more likely to be ritualized and celebrated than feared.

I don't quite see how to align that with the witch hunts, though, but I'm not sure that matters. At least now, I understand the history.

I'm lovin' it!
 
Ah, but think about how paranoid people get about sex. Or how squeamish they are about excretion. Some people feel that the natural is good, but others feel that the physical is suspect and disgusting. Alas for mankind, it's often the latter group that campaign hardest to make the laws...

Glad you're enjoying it! And thanks for plugging me on Slacktivist; a gesture most appreciated. :-)
 
I dearly want to spend my money on the result of second bookitis. How is that for cheerleading?

And I am now curious enough about the Writer's Dreaming book to hunt up a copy of my own. It won't stop the nightmares but it will feel less lonely.
 
You are a cool person indeed, is how it is for cheerleading. Thank you!

And drat it, I'm up at 2.30 in the morning again. I'm getting fed up with this. I can't even drink myself into a stupor because I gave up alcohol for new year. Know any good midnight sites to while away the time, anyone?
 
Lessee, your midnight is about 4:00pm in San Francisco, just about when agent Nathan Bransford posts to his daily blog.

www.nathanbransford.blogspot.com

He's like the anti-Miss Snark, but still full of wisdom and whimsy. I wish he were my agent.
 
Thanks for plugging me on Slacktivist; a gesture most appreciated.

Glad to do it!

For midnight haunts, there's always Pogo.com. It's a game site, with lots of fun solitaire, one-on-one and group games. Since it's international, there's always someone to talk to; and if, not just play a relaxing ame, like Penguin Blocks (my favorite). It's free to try, but som of the cooler games require a not-terribly-expensive membership.

If you join, let me know your username, so I can Friend and find you.
 
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