Failure, Freedom and Fresh Starts
Apologies in advance for the length and personal nature of this post, but I thought it was time for an update on what I’m doing. Or, more precisely perhaps, what I’m not doing. That’s what has made this post so difficult to write. You see, I’m not really writing a novel. I tried to, I really did. But I’m not.
If you’ve been following my progress over the last few years (thank-you!) you may remember that I’ve been trying to write that difficult second novel. After my debut was published in 2014 I’ve been struggling, not least because in 2014 I had my first son (followed in 2015 by son number two) and became a full-time mum. I suddenly had to find new ways of working. My writing time was squeezed into naptimes and the gap between putting the boys to bed and doing the washing-up. It wasn’t just that I had much less time, it was also that my writing time could be stopped any second - mid-scene, mid-sentence - and I might not be able to pick up where I left off for days. I had to find new ways to keep track of a plot, and force myself to write whenever the boys were asleep, even when severely sleep-deprived. Therefore, when I managed to get a workable second-draft of a novel finished last year, three years after starting to write, I was proud of what I’d achieved.
Here’s the thing though: I didn’t like it very much.
In the rush of having created a novel, I sent it off to the agent for my first novel to see what he thought. In the weeks I had while waiting for a reply, I began to grow uneasy. I had several misgivings about the novel which began to gnaw at me. I told myself it was natural for any writer to be self-critical, but I knew it was something more than that. I believed in the premise of my book, I even thought some of the writing was pretty decent, but I didn’t like the plot. More damning, I didn’t like my main character. Instead of the excitement I’d felt each time I was waiting to start a new edit of my first novel, I wasn’t interested in what I could do to edit this one.
When my agent got back to me, confirming a lot of what I was thinking - nice idea, good writing, major flaws - you know what I felt? Relief. Overwhelming relief. No disappointment. Nothing negative except maybe a little embarrassment that after the moderate success of my first novel I’d been found lacking in writing my second. This was three years' work. Three years where I’d only written four pieces of short fiction because I’ve been focusing on this novel. And yet all I could feel was relief. I no longer had to write this novel. I could dislike whichever characters I wanted to. I could put the whole thing away and never look at it again if I wanted to. I didn’t even have to be a novelist at all!
The decider for me came when I realised - before getting the feedback from my agent - that I didn’t want this book published. If you think that about your own work then you’ve pretty much signed its death warrant. I didn’t want anybody who read The Art of Letting Go and liked it to read this novel as I was sure it would disappoint them. And I didn’t want anybody who hadn’t read my first novel to read this as their first experience of my writing.
The thing was, I’d tried so hard to write what I thought I should write. I thought publishers would want a commercial book. My first novel was a bit weird in style and I thought I should avoid that. Instead of writing what I wanted to write how I wanted to, I’d tried to write what I wanted to how I thought I should. And that will never work. Above all, publishers want good books. If “a bit weird in style” is how you write, you’ll never write well by getting rid of your weird bits. I planned all the life out of my idea.
So what now? Freedom! I thought for a few days about whether I wanted to be a novelist at all (I do). I then considered whether I wanted to try to be one now while I’m responsible for two very small children pretty much 24 hours a day, or whether I wanted to wait (I want to keep going now if possible). I then wondered what to do with this funny little failure of a novel. After all, the premise IS one I believe in, and I hope I’m not being arrogant in thinking that my writing overall is getting better still (of the four short fiction submissions I’ve made since starting to write this novel, two have won second-prizes and one first-prize in good competitions).
I have come to this conclusion: I’m going to do this novel; I’m going to do it my way. Now I am suddenly free from turning out a new novel quickly I find I am full of ideas of how to change it. I’m excited about it again. Maybe it won’t work, maybe it will take me another five years, but it will be my novel, not written to try to fulfil some uncertain criteria. I feel as if I’m starting again in a way. I don’t have an agent or publisher waiting for it. When it is complete I can find a new agent or publisher, or publish it myself, or stick it at the back of a virtual drawer. I am free of expectation! What’s more, I know now that I don’t want to only write novels. I’ve missed other writing way too much. I’m going to write slower and take time to do other projects as well - stuff that will feed my writing soul. And sometimes, I’m going to take a week-off and “just” be a stay-at-home parent, because that is enough of a job right now too.
I’m so grateful to have been able to publish my first novel in my twenties. To have it sell well, reach high into the Kindle charts and be shortlisted for a literary prize was amazing. Everything else doesn’t have to come straight away. Now I realise that, I feel excited about writing. And isn’t that the most important thing?