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Second Novel Syndrome by Shane Dunphy

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Shane Dunphy

Shane Dunphy

In 2009 I was making a documentary for RTE television and, as part of the shoot, the crew and I ended up in the beautiful English village of Dorking.  We were based there for a couple of days, and stayed in the White Horse Hotel, an 18th century coach house.

I was delighted to discover that one of my favourite writers, the great Charles Dickens, had stayed in the hotel, and had even written part of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, there (apparently, it was one of his regular retreats).

The owners of the White Horse had preserved the great man’s room like a museum exhibit.  On our first night, just before bed, when the place was nice and quiet, I gazed in the doorway, one of those velvet ropes preventing me from going any further into the sanctum.

The room is quite large, and has all the usual things hotel rooms have: a bed, a dresser, a thick rug on the floor, some slightly faded paintings on the walls – but what really drew my attention was the desk.  It was an impressive, sturdily built affair, made of what looked like oak, its surface pitted with marks and scratches, the lacquer a delicious, dark chocolate colour.

I have a theory that all writers suffer from acute desk envy, and as I looked at the ancient, beautiful writing desk, I despaired of ever owning anything so perfect upon which to inscribe my modest literary creations.

I also realised, somehow, that it would feel incongruous to have such a thing in my chaotic, junk room of an office, the virtually obsolete laptop I favour despoiling its burnished surface.

That desk was meant for nobler, purer creations.

I went to bed feeling unworthy and a bit inadequate.

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, and just then, I understood why.

Despite being a Dickens nerd, I hurried past his old room during the rest of our stay.  I didn’t think about the desk again until eight years later, when I was in the middle of the first great crisis of my writing career.

The first half of 2017 had been good to me.  My debut novel, After She Vanished, had been well received; I had signed a movie deal and things were looking positive – ten years of working at the coalface of the publishing world had started to pay off.

In late July I sat down to begin writing When She Was Gone, the second book in the Dunnigan series.  I made a cup of tea, went into my higgledy piggledy office, opened my decrepit laptop, and waited for the muse to wallop me.

Ten minutes later, I was still waiting.

When this happens I usually just start typing, my logic being that the sheer mechanics of the action will get my creative juices flowing.  I have always said that even if the first ten pages are rubbish and end up being scrapped, it’s a sacrifice worth making, a sort of literary clearing out of the pipes.

I’ll just type up the title page, I thought.  That’ll get things flowing.

I did.  It didn’t.

An hour later I was still gazing at the blank screen, the cursor flashing ominously – accusingly, even.

I sat for four hours that day, and five the next.

After the title page, I typed not one word.

The great crime writer (my heroes seem to relish making me feel worthless) Robert B Parker, wrote five pages a day, and churned out at least two books a year (in 2009 he published four).  Parker always said he didn’t believe there was any such thing as writer’s block: “It’s just laziness,” he drawled in his deadpan way.  “I’ve never heard a plumber complain about plumber’s block.”

Those words spun around in my head.

I became utterly terrified (I was convinced I would never be able to write again) and spectacularly grumpy with everyone around me.

After three days my wife, Deirdre, finally had enough.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

Deirdre listened patiently as I admitted I was, for the first time, linguistically constipated.

“If the laptop is freaking you out, why don’t you try pen and paper?”

I stared at her blankly.

“How would that work?”

“Come out of your Man Cave and sit in the kitchen or go to a café or even go up into the woods if that helps, and try writing there.”

This was definitely a new idea.  She continued:

“And how did you start the last book?”

“I did character sketches.”

“And it helped?”

“Yes.”

“Can’t you do that this time?”

“I know all the characters.”

“You know everything you need to know about them?  Where they live, and what they wear, and the types of cars they drive and what drink they order when they go out?”

“Well… sort of…”

“…their phone numbers and their favourite colours and the TV shows they like and….”

“No.  I don’t have any of that.”

“Get a pen and paper, find somewhere to sit down away from your office, start working on those things, and see what comes.”

I nodded.  I was starting to feel a surge of relief.

It was a lifeline, and I grabbed it.

That afternoon, with a notebook and pen, I began to create the world my characters would inhabit.  I already had a loose plot, but it was really just a basic structure to hang the story on.  Over six hours I filled page after page with notes on everything from the addresses of important locations, to back-stories for some of my new characters.  I wrote descriptions of the landscape, comments on the weather, and even drew a map of a fish-processing plant where the story would reach its climax.

The following day, I sat at my laptop again and without pausing for a second began the book.  It was one of the fastest writing experiences I have ever had.

It was while I was writing all those notes that Dickens’ writing desk came to my mind, unbidden, like the Ghost of Furniture Past.

Maybe it was writing in pen that did it.

I remembered that the staff at The White Horse had a framed page of The Pickwick Papers written in the novelist’s tiny, precise script, just outside the door to his old room.  I had marvelled at how clean and accurate his cursive was, fascinated by the myriad corrections and margin-notes he had inserted, all perfectly legible, presumably to remind him of things to add or change in the second draft.

I realised as I filled the notebook in my childish, messy script that perhaps I had stumbled upon why the image of me sitting at the desk the great man had used didn’t somehow gel: it was built for the purpose of hand-writing.  The carpenter who had lovingly crafted that gorgeous old piece of furniture had never, in his wildest imaginings, envisioned a laptop computer – he built it for someone to sit, pen in hand, with the purpose of marking words on paper.  Form and function met seamlessly in that desk.  To use it for anything else would be unthinkable.

Somehow, getting back to basics, tapping into the physical, and perhaps the spiritual, essence of writing was what I needed to overcome my bout of Second Novel Syndrome.  I like to think Dickens would have understood.

Even if Robert B Parker wouldn’t!

(c) Shane Dunphy

About When She Was Gone:

When criminologist David Dunnigan receives the shocking delivery of one of his niece Beth’s shoes, it reignites the eighteen-year-old investigation into her disappearance. But is Dunnigan ready for what he might find?
New evidence links Beth’s abduction to a series of suicides in an antiquated psychiatric hospital, and to an Inuit village in the frozen north of Greenland where the parents of Harry, a homeless boy Dunnigan and his friend Miley rescued from the streets, may have been trafficked.
Can Dunnigan survive the hunt, and will he find Beth after all this time?

You can pre-order your copy online here.

And you can order your copy of After She Vanished here.

About the author

Shane Dunphy worked for fifteen years as a frontline child protection worker in many different parts of Ireland. He now teaches social studies and psychology and is a regular contributor to television and radio programmes on issues of child and family welfare.
He is the author of several non-fiction books, including Wednesday’s Child and The Boy They Tried to Hide.
He now also writes fiction as S.A. Dunphy.

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