That difficult second novel

Roof pattern, Heathrow Airport

When I think about the output of some novelists, I’m a bit ashamed of how long it is taking for novel number 2 to take off. It has stalled before it has even pushed back (I know these airport terms; one of my friends is an air traffic controller). Has anyone else had this problem? In truth, I half-expected it. If I were a musician, it would be no surprise at all. The curse of the second album is a hard curse to dodge.

To pre-empt any potential difficulty, I had two strategies in mind. Firstly, I could write a sequel to The Backstreets of Purgatory (there are plenty of minor characters begging for their moment in the limelight and several who didn’t make the cut who are itching to be centre stage), or I could turn to a story and a set of characters that I already knew from another piece of work.

As part of my MA, I’d written a screenplay for a TV drama (unpublished or whatever the correct term is for screenplays that have never seen the light of day). It was the story of Sandra, a factory worker who had lived all her life in the same small town in Scotland, and who gets her revenge on the daily petty bullying she endures by committing an act that horrifies her tormentor (to be honest, it horrified me too). By the time I’d finished the screenplay, I knew Sandra inside out and I knew her story. With the knowledge and experience I’d gained through writing Backstreets, what could be more straightforward than changing the screenplay into a novel? I reckoned I’d be able to whip out novel 2 in no time at all.


So far, my ‘old versions’ folder has three different chapters called chapter 1, several others that were supposed to be chapter 1 but which I stopped labelling as such because I realised they might become chapter 2 or 3 or whatever, chapters written in the first person, in the third person, in the voice of someone who is ANGRY (and those capitals don’t even do justice to the amount of shoutiness), and in the voice of someone who is quietly resigned to the troubles they endure. There were chapters written in the past, in the present, chapters written in both. There was a narrator, there wasn’t a narrator. It was a mess (and that is when I was writing to a plan). In among what amounts to about thirty thousand words, there are probably about five thousand that I like (or to be more accurate about five thousand that I don’t physically cringe over when I’m rereading) and might possibly use again, but nothing that is actually working for novel 2.

So, despite knowing my characters and the story really well from a previous incarnation, and making a pretty detailed plan (I’ve written before how I’m a plotter, not a pantster), here are some of the reasons* I reckon I was failing.

*for ‘reasons’ you could equally read ‘excuses’

  1. Headspace: I wasn’t completely finished with novel number 1. The manuscript for The Backstreets of Purgatory was finished well over two years ago, but with the structural edit (thankfully only minor rewrites), copy edit, proofs, cover design and text, it was never far from my mind. And I had become so close to all the characters in that book that I found it almost impossible to dedicate my imagination and my thoughts to another set when the antics of the first lot were still keeping me awake at night.
  2. No shortcuts: However much I hoped it would be, the novel was never going to be a mere rewrite of the screenplay. There were loads of reasons for this. Descriptions, voices, point of view would all need work. Directions for the ‘actors’ (the actors that never were) were left to a minimum in the screenplay, dependent on their skill for the expression of emotion and the physical actions, all of which would have to be filled in in the novel. And then there was the dialogue. The screenplay relied on unspoken words, underlying tension, silences. Directly transcribed into prose, the dialogue lost any sense of this tension. The whole thing needed far more work than I had anticipated.
  3. Style: I couldn’t find right the tone or the voice for the novel. Several attempts were discarded on the basis that they were too similar in style to The Backstreets of Purgatory. Several other attempts were discarded on the basis that they were about as far removed from the style of Backstreets as it was possible to be. Disaster. Overthinking does not lead to natural writing.
  4. A crucial missing detail: Despite my detailed outline, the idea as a whole was missing something. Why? I was happy with the characters, I was sure I had the story and the backstories, and I could picture the town in which they lived perfectly. So what was it? In a late night flash of inspiration (which thankfully I had the foresight to note down and not tell myself that it would be fine, that I’d remember it in the morning) I changed the setting from a factory to a funeral parlour. Today, I sat down and wrote a (another) chapter by chapter outline and the ideas flowed and coalesced and cross-fertilised and seemed to write themselves. Phew!

I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track now. Novel number 2 might finally take off. All that is left to do is actually write the thing.

[See if I’m at the same stage this time next year…]

Oh, and does anyone know a friendly funeral director?


Photo: Roof pattern, Heathrow Airport by Simone Hutsch on Unsplash

Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

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