Before publishing two novels, I would, like many other writers, read blogs that I hoped would prepare me/help me along the road to publication.
I have read (probably just like you, if you’re reading this), wise words about ‘How to hook an agent’ (‘hook’?! Haha!), ‘How to write a submission email’ and even, yes, ‘How to write a novel’. There is plenty of helpful advice out there for anyone hoping to publish.
There’s a reasonable amount of advice for writers who are just about to publish – sort of, ‘How to survive a book launch’ and ‘OMG how will I cope when people actually read my words’ sort of blogs. For what it’s worth, in my own experience, neither of these situations are as bad as you imagine. In fact, both are rather lovely.
[Me, launching Death and the Harlot, perfectly happily. I may have had a drink ...]
I have now read ‘The tricky second novel’ blogs too. I hate to say it, but my second novel wasn’t at all tricky. It flew out of me. I think this made me cocky.
The third novel has proved to be the little bastard I’ve had to wrestle with, plead with, tear apart, stamp on, and restart. This has taught me humility. Like all lessons in humility, it’s not been entirely enjoyable.
But the one blog I have not found is the one on Book Grief. It may, of course, be out there; I just haven’t seen it yet. So, I am writing this as a means of personal catharsis, and in the hope that it might help someone else.
Book Grief: There comes a point in the process of novel writing, when you have to move on from the thing you have created. And it is not easy. It’s not easy because, when you’re writing, you become so very deeply embedded in the world of your novel that pulling away is painful. And you grieve a little.
For several (many?) months, I have been the only person who has lived with my characters and their trials and joys. This has been frustrating. As I say, Book 3 has had to be wrestled into submission. I would have loved, many times over, to discuss with someone – anyone – what to do with it. I don’t mean plot structure, or characterisation, or general sense of direction. I have the most brilliant agent in Laura Macdougall (at United Agents) and she is someone I can turn to with queries, ideas, concerns and, if I had sent her a half-cooked synopsis, she would have made intelligent and helpful comments. But the wrestling and frustrations have been much vaguer than all of that. Far vaguer. To do with the novel’s ‘essence’ – if that’s not too grand a word for it.
I once described this inability to share the essence of your novel to a writer friend, as being a bit like trying to share your dreams with a partner over breakfast. My writer friend agreed wholeheartedly that this was a thing. For the dreamer, caught in the thick of emotion, and the ‘feel’ of the dream, sharing the bare bones of what happened in the dream never quite gets to the heart of what the dream was about - and why it was so good/bad/funny/frightening. Dreams are a holistic experience and if, like me, you are a vivid dreamer, trying to explain them makes them sound 2D instead of 3D, black and white instead of technicolour. You want to communicate everything, the whole experience, and you end up with ‘… and there was this funny sort of house, that I thought I knew, but didn’t …’
So, for a while, you swirl in frustration, emerged in this incoherent dream world that is your novel. You feel what your characters feel – and then you change what they are feeling, because you are a writer, and that nonsense in chapter twelve is not making sense. You inhabit their world – the world you have created and which lives in your head. You cannot quite understand why no one else knows about it, why no one else talks to you about it in the way they talk about your previous books. And then you remember that no one but you knows about it. No one. At. All. In truth, no one cares.
Finally, after blood, sweat and tears, it emerges into some sort of coherent shape and you allow another person (for me, this is Laura, my agent) to have a look at it. This is the point where I say to her: ‘Have it, for goodness sake. Take it away from me. Tell me what’s not working, because I cannot see anything any more, and the words are now blurry.’ Then I open a bottle of something fizzy, relieved to have passed it on.
Happily for me, Book 3 was not a huge pile of the proverbial. There were just a few queries, comments and pointers from Laura. Soon, I was cheerfully re-engaging with my world, safe in the knowledge, even as I rearranged it, that someone else knew it existed! Now I can have a nuanced conversation with someone who has peeped into the world of the novel. I can ask, ‘Does this ring true to her character, do you think?’ ‘Ought I to make him more like this?’ ‘Does this work?’
I will, I am sure, have all of these conversations with an editor all over again. And then pick over sentences and phrases and words … before the novel is published.
But Book 3 is no longer just mine. The world I created is not mine any more.
Of course, I write novels in order that they will be read. There are people waiting (desperately, some tell me) for this book.
But for months, this world has been mine alone. My dream, my head space, my every waking thought (almost). Not the plot, not the characters, but the essence. I have smelled it, tasted it, loved it, hated it. Fought it. Loved it again.
The day after I re-sent Book 3 to Laura, I was totally lost. I had no idea what to do with myself (despite having a ‘to do’ list). I pottered. I sat. I did a bit of ironing. I bought bathroom scales (really). But I was purposeless. So purposeless that I sat and wrote, on a blank sheet of paper, ‘Lizzie Hardwicke, Book 4’. I jotted down some thoughts, but really, I didn’t so much want to move on to the next book, as to return to the one I’ve just sent off into the ether.
I was, I realised, grieving.
My little world, my own creation, the place I have made my own for months, has gone. Very soon, I hope, it will be a world that others inhabit and enjoy. But for a while it was mine alone. And I have had to let it go. And, I think, I am mourning.
So, like a person who is truly grieving a loved one, I resolved to be a little bit kinder to myself. I went to the cinema and had lunch with a friend. I booked the physio session to deal with the back/hip pain I’ve been ignoring. I bought a pattern to make a jacket, and I am about to pull out my sewing machine. I make myself nice tea.
And, because I cannot touch a photograph of my world, and gaze wistfully at it, I have allowed myself to read a few paragraphs of Book 3 on my Kindle. My favourite bits. Not to fiddle or edit, but just to look, and love, again.
I will move on. There will be edits, more edits, cover designs … and then, Book 4. I know will love Book 4.
But, if you meet a writer who has just sent off her book, be kind to her. She is, probably, a bit sad.
This book was a nightmare at times, but it was my beloved nightmare.
And I have had to let it go.