Here’s a scenario that every fantasy fan will be familiar with. Our young hero seems like an ordinary sort of kid. But then they’re put under extreme emotional pressure, and in a moment of utter random genius they do a piece of really amazing magic. We’re talking roof-off-the-house, river-of-chocolate, loaf-of-bread-turned-into-a-unicorn kind of stuff. Hooray! They’re a wizard.
And then our hero is taken into a room, sat down and asked, if they’re so magical, to prove it. The first trick was nice, but now they need to do it again, following the correct procedure – and better, of course. Lots better. All right then. Hurry up. We’re waiting . . .
By now you’ve guessed that I’m not really talking about magic at all. My second book, Arsenic for Tea, comes out in exactly two weeks, a fact which still seems very unlikely to me. In comparison with Murder Most Unladylike, which I spent about two years picking away lovingly at, writing and rewriting, Arsenic for Tea’s journey from my head to a finished copy was unnervingly fast. It feels like about twenty minutes ago that it was still sitting on my computer with red strikethroughs all over it.
While I was writing the first and second drafts of the book, I was very calm about the whole thing. I was very sure that it was going fine. Really fine. Absolutely OK. In retrospect, I see that this was the sort of calm of a person who just hasn’t noticed that their leg has fallen off. Daisy and Hazel had long, long conversations that went absolutely nowhere and were utterly unfazed by the thought that they were trapped in a scary old house with a ruthless killer. My suspects just wandered about aimlessly. My murder plot was at least five twists and ten red herrings too complicated for even myself to understand.
And I couldn’t work out what was happening to me. I’d written a book before, hadn’t I? And as part of editing it I’d learned how to fix all my silly writing mistakes. So why couldn’t I seem to stop myself messing up all over again? Well, I’ve got a theory . . .
Second Book Hell Theory (made up by me, just now) goes like this: When you write the first draft of your second book (or your third, or your fourth), you know about everything you did wrong in your first. You’ve heard your editor’s comments, and you know, theoretically, what to avoid this time. But you can’t actually change your writing behaviour. You have to make the exact same mistakes, all over again, only this time you can see yourself doing it. Actually, out of sheer panic and confusion, sometimes you make new ones on top of the old ones. Because you’re not perfect. You’re that magical kid, stuck in a room with people staring at you. The good stuff may be in there, but it takes a long, long, long time to get it out again.
Writing a follow-up book, no matter what your circumstances, is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as an author. You wrote a standalone? Great. Now come up with another idea, entirely different and yet precisely as awesome. You’re writing a series? Fantastic! Write the same book again, only better and different (but not too different). Everyone loved it? Better hope they love this one more. Add to that the ghostly countdown clock ticking in your head as your deadline looms and you’re practically guaranteed to have a nervous breakdown.
By saying this, I’m really not trying to depress you. I just want you to know that you’re not alone. There is nothing wrong with you, or me, or any author who struggles during the journey from first word to finished book. What Second Book Hell Theory says is that, in messing up, you are simply obeying one of the first laws of writing.
Look, it’s fine not to get it right immediately. It’s fine to still screw up, the second time, and the third time, and all of the times after that, because that’s part of the process. It’s important to understand that, and to combat it by surrounding yourself with lots of people who can help you make your dodgy first (or second, or third) draft better. Thanks to my crit partner, my agent, and my editorial team (which, as I’ve learned from working in one myself, isn’t just an editor, but an editorial director and an editorial assistant and a copyeditor and a proofreader, all of them brilliant at their jobs), Arsenic for Tea has turned into something which I am really quite fond of. Surprised that it exists, maybe, but pleased with it. Draft four is a lot better than draft one could ever have been.
I’m working on my third book now, and I think that maybe – maybe – I’m starting to learn how to shut myself down before I commit my worst writing mistakes. But only sometimes. Most of the time, I’m still a writing idiot, and that’s fine. If you’re stuck in Second (or Third, or Fourth) Book Hell, the thing to remember is that, actually, you did write a book once. Chances are you can do it again. You just have to remember that nobody’s perfect.