When One Novel Isn’t Enough

1I’ve just begun outlining my fourth novel.  No-one is more surprised  at reading those words than I am!  Obviously, I’m still in the honeymoon period, meeting the characters, sussing out locations.  There’s nothing like starting back at the beginning to remind you how delicate this process is and how, at one point, writing more than one book seemed like wishful thinking.  They say that everyone has a book in them, but the greatest fear of all writers is that one book is the limit.  What if that’s all there is?

I remember when I published my debut novel, the thought of writing another book was almost laughable!  Do that again?  Are you nuts??  The idea for that book came to me somewhere around 2010 – but that’s not really the beginning of the story.  I began writing The Heirloom after a two-year break from writing, following the disappointment of my ‘actual’ first novel, unfortunately titled ‘Shoot The Moon’.  I missed.  My ideal publisher requested the full manuscript.  It was too good to be true – I hadn’t even finished writing it (rookie mistake number one) and now I had a major Irish publishing house interested.  When the letter came back, praising my writing but accurately pointing out that the story wasn’t strong enough, I went into a kind of mourning.  One rejection letter of my first and only (and unfinished) novel was enough for me to scrap the entire enterprise.  When  you start out as a writer, your ego can be so fragile that even when positive feedback arrives along with an initial rejection, it comes as a huge blow.

Over time however, my bruised ego healed and I began reading more and beyond the limited genres I felt comfortable with.  I discovered time-slip (or dual timelines) and just fell in love with the idea of connecting the past with the present.  So, my writing was good but my story wasn’t strong enough, eh?  Well, I was going to give them a story to knock their socks off!  I spent over two years researching and writing a monster of a novel, with a story stretching from medieval Ireland to the present day.  It took over my life and at times (i.e. all the time) I felt as though I had bitten off more than I could chew, but when I eventually self-published The Heirloom, I felt a huge sense of achievement.  For about a week.  And then people started asking if I was working on my next book.  I thought I’d misheard them.  ‘But look,’ I’d say, ‘look at the big huge book I wrote.  It took two years and it nearly killed me.  Isn’t it brilliant?  Won’t I be living off this success for years?!’  Tumbleweed rolled by as my audience backed away.  Turns out readers need proof that you’re not a one-trick-pony (bloody readers).  If they like book one, they need book two to satiate their appetite, or they’ll have to look elsewhere.

All of this is like a threat hanging over an author’s head!  Like a lover threatening to leave if you don’t keep them… entertained.  Not a great motivation for writing, but motivation nonetheless.  I quickly realised that if I wanted to stay in this business, I had to write more than one book – hardly rocket science, but still it came as a shock!  This was officially my second book, did I really have a third in me?  But just when I wasn’t looking, the plot for my next novel dropped into my lap.  I was watching a TV show about an Irish chef living in France and for some reason she decided to visit a renowned bakery that was shrouded in secrecy, as no-one knew who the baker was.  I may have made that last bit up; it’s all so long ago that I’m not sure where the TV show ended and my imagination began.  Either way, the ingredients for The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris were gathered and I began writing again.  Just recently while doing a clean up of old files on my computer, I found the first draft, in which I hit the mother of all dead ends.  I had forgotten that, but my original plan for the story just didn’t work.  I thought, that’s it, I can’t write.  I remember now, laughing slightly hysterically with my sister about it, who assured me that I would get there in the end.  But how could she know that?  I didn’t even know it!  As an observer of my writing process, all she saw was another speed bump, not a dead end.  I can’t say exactly how long it took me to work out another route, but one day my main character Edith appeared in my  head and took over the story.  I started having fun again and realised that my first attempt was too serious.  I was trying too hard to be a writer instead of telling a good story and enjoying myself on the page.

Writing never really gets any ‘easier’, but I suppose what does change is your faith in the process.  Practice does actually make perfect and what’s more, it builds confidence.  Somewhere in your neural pathways is the memory that you have done this before and therefore, can do it again.

Whether you are traditionally published or self-published, there are pressures to get more books out there as quickly as possible, but I’m not sure if this is a good thing for writers.  I remember getting the advice that you should have three novels written before you begin publishing and thinking, who are these people?!  I don’t think I would have been able to write another novel if I hadn’t seen that there was an audience for my work.  Also, I am a firm believer in giving your ideas time to germinate.  I see a lot of commercially successful authors who have a new novel out every year for a decade and I wonder, where do they carve out the time to just, think?  Maybe it’s a luxury, but one of my favourite things is turning an idea over in my mind for months at a time, watching it take shape and expand.  This is the time when serendipity peeps out from behind corners, magazine articles, overheard conversations; drawing all manner of flotsam to the shores of your mind, that just happen to fit your story.

If your goal is to sell a lot of books, then yes, by all means write a trilogy and study the genres that are popular right now (it’s grip lit by the way, you can have that for free!).  But if your goal is to be a writer and to write the kind of stories you love, that say something about you, don’t rush.  You have to make the choice between what’s right and what’s easy.  I read an interview recently with Irish author John Boyne who said he always advises his students against taking the easy route and ‘brushing up’ old manuscripts, for lack of any better ideas.  This may have been a cheeky reference to some of his fellow authors, but I get his point.  Sometimes the thought of starting out from scratch again is so scary and the pressure to produce a new novel so great, that the temptation is to cut corners.  But it’s your integrity that’s on the line – your unspoken contract with the reader.  Like I said, it doesn’t get any easier, your ego is still open to bribery.  I wish there was a lovely motivational quote I could use to send you all merrily on your way, but you know the answer and it’s not very glamourous.  The only way to write your next book is sit down and write.  And believe.  And in my case, surround yourself with four different types of chocolate.  And stop looking at Twitter!

Things I’ve Learned About Writing… 15 of them!

typewriter-801921_960_720 Having reached the ‘Thank God the first draft is over’ stage of novel number three, (number four if you count my first unpublished manuscript) I feel I  have come to understand a lot about the writing process and what works for me.  Not content to sit here and keep all this useless valuable information to myself, I’m gifting it to the world!

  1. Your first book will probably be a bit shit.  That’s okay – it would be far more disconcerting if  your first attempt was your magnum opus (that’s Latin for ‘get the posh ice-cream out – I’ve just written a bestseller!’).  You will often hear writing referred to as a ‘craft’ and as such, you are doing an apprenticeship.  Get yourself down to the library – yes, the library – and find some really good books about writing novels, from arcs to POV’s, characterisation to pacing.  The only way to get better is to keep writing and not get too upset when you have to put that first manuscript in a file called ‘Why world?  Why?’ or as I labelled mine ‘That’s the end of this writing malarkey!’
  2. READ.  This is not optional.  Just like artists study the great masters, you have to study the great authors.  The trick is not to compare yourself to them.  That’s the quickest way to end your writing career.   As the poet Jane Kenyon said —“Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.”
  3. There is no ‘one way’ to write a novel.  Some people have mood boards with photos of their characters and settings, along with floor to ceiling post-it note maps, all tied together with a lattice-work of red thread.  Personally, I like to just sit at the computer and write.  ‘It’s all in here!’ I assure people as I tap my head.  Then I like to really ramp up the tension by doing things the hard way, like writing chapters out of sequence, creating different timelines and then frantically trying to match them all up at the end.  Bliss.
  4. Define your idea of success.  This is really important – in all areas of life.  In this age, I think we all suffer to some extent from the ‘nothing is ever good enough’ bug.  We are constantly bombarded with other peoples’ amazing success and so our own expectations keep shifting, as we are always looking for the next thing and the next.  When I started writing, I just wanted to write a book that I was proud of and that readers would enjoy.  My goals have grown and changed since then, but my idea of success hasn’t.
  5. Staring out the window is writing.  It just is.  Taking a bath.  Going for a walk.  Reading a book.  It’s all writing – so give yourself permission to spend time away from the screen.
  6. I used to think that your ‘writer’s voice’ was important.  I probably blogged about it (see point number 8).  Now I realise that a writer’s voice is the last thing you want to hear when reading a book.  I want the writer to be invisible.  I want the book to feel like a lost story I just happened to pick up by accident.  In other words,  good writing shouldn’t sound like writing.
  7. I like to write ideas down as I get them – preferably on random pieces of paper I will spend the next 48 hours searching for in the bin, while my lovely ‘writer’s notebook’ lies idle and pristine in some far-off corner of the house.
  8. There are an infinite number of bloggers online telling you how to write.  ‘100 ways to write that snogging scene’.  ‘150 ways to beat writer’s block.’   After a while, you realise that you would be better served spending your time reading the back of a cereal box.  (Who doesn’t love a good word maze?!) What’s worse is, you waste valuable writing time trying to learn a load of rules you’ll probably figure out for yourself anyway.  Unless it’s an established author that you admire handing out this advice (who’s at least on novel three!) – ignore it.
  9. I edit as I go along.  There I said it.
  10. Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft.  I once heard it said that a first draft is telling yourself the story, so just let it be that.  A rudimentary ‘he said she said’ gawky-looking manuscript that will, after much love and attention (and unhealthy dollops of frustration) turn into a beautiful swan.
  11. If you ever want to get those odd jobs around the house that you’ve been putting off for years finished – start writing a book.
  12. Adapt or die.  Well, you probably won’t die, but in this highly competitive space it’s always good to be able to adapt your writing plans.  You may not get the publisher you wanted, or you might get an agent you hadn’t foreseen.  Maybe you’ll end up writing children’s books instead of crime.  Allow yourself to be open to opportunities, but that doesn’t mean you should write something you don’t love.  If you don’t love it, what’s the point?
  13. Connect.  Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, you are the best person to promote your writing and the best way to do that is to connect with your audience, peers and industry professionals.  Even though Twitter and Facebook are the MORTAL ENEMIES of your writing time, they are a vital tool when it comes to marketing your book.
  14. If you write – call yourself a writer.  Simples.
  15. Creating a book out of nothing is a kind of alchemy.  Enjoy the magic!  Writing is the best thing in the world because you get to tell a story that is uniquely yours, and in a way that nobody else could.  Write it, because no-one else can.

You can buy my novels in eBook and Paperbook format here:

Amazon UK : Amazon US : Barnes & Noble : Kobo : iTunes : Easons

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The Mysterious Bakery On The Rue de Paris (6)