After the happy ending… by Iona Grey
I read Claire Frost’s post about the difficulties she faced in writing her first book with a great surge of writerly empathy (and admiration – having been lucky enough to hear her read an extract of the finished and soon-to-be-published Living My Best Li(f)e I know it’s an absolute cracker!) Her honesty inspired me to share the challenges* I faced when writing my second novel.
(*For ‘challenges’ read ‘three-year-long misery-fest’.)
I remember the moment I finished my first book very well. I remember writing the last line and reading it back, and the slightly incredulous realisation that the book was complete. I remember going downstairs and getting the mini bottle of champagne I had bought a week or so earlier out of the fridge and taking it back up to my writing attic in a daze of dizzy disbelief. I took a photograph on my phone – the words THE END obscured by golden bubbles. It was a moment of pure, untarnished happiness. And, dare I say it, pride. (Because we know what pride comes before, don’t we?!)
I looked at that champagne-moment photo so many times during the years that followed. I even made it my computer screensaver for a while, in the hope that it would provide motivation – a constant reminder that I had done it once and so, surely, could do it again. I needed that as time slipped by and the first book, Letters to the Lost, progressed through the heady process of acquisition, editing, production and release and the questions about its successor became harder to sidestep, more painful to answer.
The truth was, there wasn’t really a book 2; certainly not one that would be delivered to deadline, just before book 1’s release date. I had started to write one while Letters to the Lost was out on submission (before the acquisition/editing/production cycle began) but when I tried to describe it to my brand new editor in our very first telephone conversation I was aware that the ethereal strands in my head were not translating into a snappy, saleable sales pitch. (I’m not, by nature, a planner.) I didn’t blame her in the slightest for suggesting I work on another idea.
It sounded simple, and very sensible. There is an infinite number of ideas out there, an endless supply of rich, fascinating stories waiting to be told, but somehow I couldn’t seem to grasp one and make it genuinely come alive in my head. In the end, mindful of the fact that the billion pound publishing industry would grind to a halt if authors allowed themselves to be subject to the whims of the elusive muse, I sketched out an idea that felt promising and figured that I’d flesh it out and fill in the gaps as it grew. I prefer to write like that, discovering as I go along, not quite knowing what will emerge from the mist… Only this time the mist didn’t clear. It intensified into a thick, muffling fog which made it pretty impossible to think about anything at all.
The process of writing involves constant decision-making. That’s pretty much what it boils down to – a series of decisions, about what the characters look like, how they act and react, what events in their past have shaped them, what choices they will make to form their futures. Somehow I arrived at a point where the simplest decisions about my own life – what to wear or cook for dinner – seemed impossible and overwhelming, so I had no hope of deciding anything for anyone else. As the book faltered, proper fear took over. Fear that the first book had been a fluke and that I was an impostor, fear that I would never write anything again and would be sued for breach of my two-book contract, fear that I would let everyone down – my family, my publishers, and anyone who might be kind enough to invest their time in reading Letters to the Lost and want to read a second book.
And those fears seemed to open some secret door in my mind and let a whole lot of others come rampaging in to play. While the book had been out on submission I’d had a health scare, which was fairly swiftly resolved with a minor op, but which left in its wake an anxiety that was much harder to deal with. (Displacement anxiety perhaps – physical symptoms were somehow easier to obsess about than the imaginary characters that were refusing to talk to me.) And at the same time I was going through one of those major transitional stages in life, with the first of my daughters leaving home to go to uni then going to America for 3 months, the other two dealing with exam stress and the usual teenage dramas and my parents/in-laws beginning, one by one, to succumb to the really intractable challenges of advancing age, all of which required my input – physical, mental and emotional. We had major work done on the house, which meant six months of builders boots traipsing up and down stairs, loud voices shouting between floors, the radio playing at top volume and – in the lowest point – no kitchen, cooker or washing machine. With my peaceful routine so thoroughly disrupted, my focus scattered, not writing didn’t even seem strange anymore. I could hardly finish a shopping list.
One deadline passed. And then another. I shelved a second book and then a third (at eighty thousand words) and changed my screensaver from the champagne picture to one of a Herefordshire valley, soothingly timeless. My mental health, previously robust, started to splinter. Insomnia swooped in, bringing a sort of dread at the onset of every evening. I stepped away from social media, because I didn’t know what to say on it anymore. Once, on the phone to Sainsburys about a problem with an online grocery delivery, I burst into tears and had to put the phone down mid-sentence. (I never rang back. I haven’t shopped online since!)
Friends were wonderful. Writer friends understood and I don’t know what I would have done without their counsel, their kindness, their shoulders to cry on. It was part of what stopped me from giving it all up and applying for jobs (which I thought about constantly), because I couldn’t bear to sever my link to such lovely people. My agent was fabulous and the S&S team endlessly, incredibly supportive. ‘Whenever you’re ready,’ they said. I wished I knew when that would be.
The lifeline appeared out of the blue, in the form of an idea that I instantly knew I wanted to write. After struggling, and failing, to force three different books onto the page, I had one of those epiphanies that definitely should have been accompanied at the very least by a lightbulb appearing above my head (except that it was in the shower, so that would have been dangerous.) I didn’t quite leap out shouting ‘Eureka!’ but as soon as I was dressed (I live in a very conservative small town) I went out to buy a new notebook and by the evening it was half filled with a scrawled outline that sang out to me. It felt like all those clichéd metaphors at once – emerging from a dark tunnel into dazzling sunlight, shrugging off a heavy weight. I hadn’t yet written the first line, but I knew that the writing drought was over. I felt elated with relief.
Considering it’s been four years since my first book came out, it might seem strange to say the second one was easy to write, but it actually in the end it was. The voices of the characters in The Glittering Hour spoke to me clearly from the start and the story, very loosely based on my own family history, pretty much tumbled out onto the page – or that’s how it seems now I’ve passed the finishing line (and taken another mini-champagne snap!) Compared with not writing, it was an absolute joy.
Love Iona xx
The Glittering Hour publishes in hardback and eBook first, on 30th May, and paperback on 17th October.