While I was writing my second book, like any true millennial, I took to googling. Every combination of ‘second book’, ‘sophomore novel’, even ‘the tricky second album’. I became an archaeologist of digital musings on the second novel, digging up the same results each time. Ah, there you are, old friend, the 1985 NY Times Symposium on second novels, the discussion of ‘second-novel-syndrome’ in the Telegraph from 1999. I’m not sure what I was actually looking for – I think I was hoping I’d stumble across the perfect article, a magical recipe that would explain to me, step by step, how to do it all over again.
With my first novel, Things Bright & Beautiful, I toiled away for years in secret, and then spent another year sending it out to agents before I met and signed with my agent, Hattie Grünewald. It was a long, slow, process of altering and editing and adjusting. After Things Bright & Beautiful was published, I had a spell of emotional vertigo: there were now hypothetical readers out there, ‘watching’ me while I worked on my second novel. My agent counselled me to enjoy the process, not to rush. But I was gripped with a feverish panic – what if I couldn’t do it again? What if I had ‘used up’ all my ideas?
From speaking to other writers, I think this is a common fear. There comes a moment when you look at the 80,000 words of your first manuscript and marvel at the proficiency of your past self. Who was I? How did I ever manage it? It’s hard not to worry that you won’t be able to recreate the process, never mind the outcome of writing a publishable novel.
And for me at least, there are the hard truths of the industry. If I’d had a burning desire to write a Space opera in rhyming couplets (I didn’t), it would be unlikely to appeal to my existing readership. Anyone who enjoyed my first book would likely want to read something that was similar enough to inspire faith in my writing career, but different enough to feel fresh. The publishing industry leans heavily on debut novels to make a big splash, and there is an (understandable) assumption that by the second novel, writers have found their voice and know how to speak directly to their readers. I tried to comfort myself by remembering how many authors’ second, third, fourth novels introduced them to new readers; think of Half of A Yellow Sun, or The Essex Serpent, or Gone Girl.
I’ve never taken a creative-writing course, or even (I’m almost embarrassed to admit this), read a technical book about writing. Everything I know about writing I learned from reading novels, and I like being able to work without any expectation that, for example, a climax needs to happen at a certain place in the narrative. So when it really came down to writing Belladonna, I forced myself to give up the googling, and went back to the only piece of advice that has ever worked for me: write drunk, edit sober.
For me, this means closing out the ‘imaginary’ voices of any hypothetical readers, and writing, unselfconsciously, the kind of book that I would like to read. It also means trusting that imagination isn’t a font that can be drained. Rather, it’s more like a muscle that becomes more robust the more you use it.
In the end, I wrote the first draft of Belladonna over six weeks. I was in-between jobs, backpacking in Europe with my partner, and took with me an ancient iPad mini with a shattered screen, and a portable keyboard. I propped it up in cafes, on the couch where we slept in someone’s living room via Airbnb. Reminding myself to write drunk, edit sober, I smashed out thousands of words of nonsense a day. True nonsense – half-written sentences, chapters where characters’ names changed from one line to the next. But I had the skeleton of a book, and with it, a huge sense of relief- I was capable of doing it again! Yes, it took another two years of editing before the book was in a publishable state, but for me, the important step was overcoming the fear of all that blank space.
Now I’m writing my third novel, and I think I’ve made progress, because I haven’t yet felt the urge to google ‘how to write a third novel’.
(c) Anbara Salam
It is summer, 1956, when fifteen-year-old Bridget first meets Isabella. In their conservative Connecticut town, Isabella is a breath of fresh air. She is worldly, alluring and brazen: an enigma.
When they receive an offer to study at the Academy in Italy, Bridget is thrilled. This is her ticket to Europe and – better still – a chance to spend nine whole months with her glamorous and unpredictable best friend.
There, lodged in a convent of nuns who have taken a vow of silence, the two girls move towards a passionate but fragile intimacy. As the year rolls on, Bridget grows increasingly fearful that she will lose Isabella’s affections – and the more desperate she gets, the greater the lengths she will go to keep her.
Belladonna is a hypnotizing coming-of age story set against the stunning and evocative backdrop of rural Northern Italy. Anbara Salam tells a story of friendship and obsession, desire and betrayal, and the lies we tell in order to belong.
Order your copy online here.