The Difficult Second Novel: How I Found My Process
I’m often asked what my writing habits are, or what is the ‘process’ by which I write a novel.
Until fairly recently, I found it impossible to answer this, and I’ve come to realise that it’s because I didn’t have a writing process while I was working on Little Deaths.
Like most debut authors, my first novel was written over a long period while I was working full-time, and with no hope of publication or even of securing an agent. I wrote purely for pleasure, as a challenge to myself, and because I had a story that I wanted to set down on the page.
As my agent said this week, first novels are usually the outcome of protracted, intense, insular periods of writing that might have taken years to produce. You can write when you feel like it. With no deadlines and no-one asking how it’s going, you can choose to write only when the mood strikes or when the muse visits. You’re not published and no-one is reading your work – you are free, and you are privileged.
After publication, you lose this interior life. You have to find a way to write while ignoring other people’s opinions and expectations, market pressure, and the pressure you place on yourself. For several months, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I was exhausted. I thought perhaps I only had one novel in me. I thought maybe I only knew one way to tell a story.
But then I realised, without ever defining it as such, that I’d have to find a way back to the intense insular work. In finding my way back, this is where I learned my process. I’m setting it out here so that I have an answer if I’m asked again, and as a reference point for myself when I come to write the next book.
I take a story – so far, always a true story, involving a murder and a mystery and old black and white photographs of people who are dead.
And I pick a character to tell me their version of the truth. I clear a few days: no emails, no admin, nothing to distract me. I sit down, I listen, and I write. I don’t write in a linear way. I don’t write anything that will be published. I tell ideas of ‘polished’ and ‘clever’ to fuck right off. I fight my way through the kind of self-conscious prose I’m writing here, and I get back to the sheer pleasure of it. To the fun of arranging words on a page, of experimenting with sound, with metaphors, with images.
I throw in a surprise or two for myself: what if she’s already dead when her sister has this conversation with her? How does she feel the first time she sees a naked man? Another naked woman? How would she describe the first time she smells garlic or tastes wine or reads her favourite book? What will happen if I write this scene using only one sense?
And through all of this, I learn to fall in love with writing again. This is where I’m most creative. This is where I do my best writing.
I keep going, and gradually these experiments become coherent paragraphs.
I keep going and, eventually, they become distinct scenes.
I keep going, and they begin to link up and I see connections appearing.
I keep going, and my characters start to take on a life of their own, to speak up, to make demands. I want a love affair, they say. Or a holiday.
Give me a life-changing problem, and see how I respond. Go on. I dare you.
At around 30,000-40,000 words, I stop. I take a break. I read it all through and take stock. What do I have? What’s the story that I’m trying to tell? I distill it right down: what do my characters want and what’s stopping them from getting that?
Then comes the technical stuff. I list the scenes I’ve written. I rearrange them. I think about character journeys and character development.
I jot down ideas for what might be missing. I write the ending.
And then I start again, freer than before, with the weight of several thousand words behind me and – most importantly – with characters behind me who have begun to live and breathe and speak to me.
I listen to them.
I tell their stories.