Writing the dreaded sophomore novel is a daunting process. Most authors who have bled over their second book will confirm that. When the time came for me to write another novel, it was with a sense of trepidation, tinged with anxiety as I approached the blank screen. Will anyone read it? If they do, will they like it? My first novel had been well-received: positive reviews, runner-up for a prestigious award, decent sales and lots of nice comments. So far so good.
I was busy with promotion, which is a side of publishing that I love. Book festivals and public speaking are two things that I actually enjoy, possibly a consequence of years of classroom teaching. Either way, I was occupied and happy, and Book 2 was at the back of my mind but not taking up too much space. I had ideas for it: someone (probably female) returning to live in Dublin after twenty years in London, a recent separation, a child in tow. I wanted to further develop the bewilderment of the returned emigrant that I had written about in my first novel, which I’ve discovered is a theme that draws me in over and over.
When eventually I sat down to write, the characters had to be coaxed out of hiding. My assumption had been that they would spring, fully formed, needing only to be written. Not so. Eighteen months – slow, pain-filled months, brimming with doubt and deleted chapters, extinguished characters, a meandering plotline – led me to finally call time on Book 2. I had over 60,000 words, parts of which I was extremely happy with, but somewhere along the road I’d lost the thread of the story, and it didn’t come back to me. Lots of factors can be blamed: being a mother, working for a living, all the usual excuses, but the bottom line was that the book slipped out of my grasp while I was busy looking elsewhere.
It’s a most defeating experience, and it’s common to almost all writers of my acquaintance. It is part of the process of creating, a space where the writer can learn and move on from.
But the disappointment is huge. So too is the sense of time unrecoverable. All those months spent crafting characters and storylines, only for them to disappear into the ether.
The dilemma was age-old: what now?
I had a novel of sorts, the first book I’d ever written, overlong and overwritten, but a full novel with a storyline that I had loved writing. At almost 120,000 words, it was ridiculously long, and so I stripped it. I didn’t even bother reading it, because I knew that all I needed was the skeleton. I took out superfluous characters, deleted chapter after chapter, rewrote and stripped and rewrote some more. Even though the original draft took me just over three months to complete (honestly, I don’t know how that was possible, and the only excuse I can offer up is my childlessness, which led to energy and time, neither of which I possess in any quantity now), it has taken me two full years to get Night Swimming in shape. The distance of years allowed emotional distance too. I wasn’t precious about deleting whole chapters, no matter how appealing they had seemed at the time. Removing characters that had made sense on the side lines back in the noughties but no longer held either appeal or relevance, was surprisingly easy too. As with onions, I peeled away and kept on peeling, until what remained was the barest nub of the story. My narrator, Megan, and her mother and grandmother, Gemma and Sarah. The Americans. The boy next door. The timeline, July and August 1976. That was everything I needed to start all over again. Because of my husband (Mark) and my child (David), the characters so named needed new monikers, and they became Chris and Daniel.
Because the first draft had flowed so easily, it was something of a surprise when rewriting the book took much more effort and time. Yes, I had the bones of my story, but putting it all together in a tighter, shorter frame was more difficult than I’d imagined. I was now a published author, which meant I no longer had the freedom to write without caring whatsoever what anyone thought. It had to be good. It had to be readable. This book I would be judged by. Suddenly those comments on Goodreads and Amazon, the reviews on blogs and in papers mattered.
Carefree no more, doubt began to creep into the spaces in my mind that were once occupied with story. It slowed me down, made me spend more time fretting than writing. And time really is of the essence when writing. There’s never enough of it, and frequently the time we do have is easily squandered on non-essentials such as working, parenting, sleeping. I learned to cut back. I began job sharing, which in teaching is not always the best option because I still have to show up at school every day. It does, however, reduce the amount of time spent prepping and marking, and I carved up my non-teaching time and tried to write at specific times. I was successful at this some of the time, and other times I was a hopeless failure, but at least I had breathing space.
So over the past two years, the book emerged, piece by piece. Drafting (I’m a terrible drafter) brought new elements into the story, things I hadn’t envisioned beforehand. I changed the backstory of Megan’s father, added an abandoned swimming pool (so easy I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner), changed the father storyline again, and once again, and otherwise kept to the original skeleton. I watched grainy YouTube clips of the 1976 gymnastics competition in the Olympics, checked and rechecked political facts, bestseller lists, music and films. I listened to Pink Floyd and The Doors, as my characters did. I asked my mother about Ranelagh in the seventies, visited the canal several times, walked the towpath up to Portobello and imagined I was my own characters hiding behind the curtains of weeping willows that have grown along the canal for longer than I have been alive. I researched heatwaves, and learned new facts which had to be edited out of the final manuscript because in 1976 such things as urban heat island had scarcely been discovered, let alone named. Global warming and climate change would not enter public discourse for another fifteen years at least. My characters were allowed to enjoy the heat in peace, without the existential angst that accompanies unexpected and prolonged hot weather in today’s world.
Last summer, as another heatwave gripped Ireland and didn’t let go, I was able to experience once again Dublin as it sweltered. Mindful now of our ever-warming planet and the dangers that lurk therein, I wasn’t able to exist purely in the moment and luxuriate in the sun on my skin, but as my final deadline loomed I was helped along in doing the final tweaks with some real research on park benches, beaches and in the back garden.
Maybe I’ll get back to those 60,000 abandoned words at some point. For now, another storyline is distracting me for Book 3. Night Swimming is at large, and so far it’s doing just fine without me.
(c) Doreen Finn
About Night Swimming:
The truth has a funny way of outing itself, especially when families go to extraordinary lengths to hide it even from themselves. It is summer 1976 and a heatwave is gripping Ireland. Nine-year-old Megan thinks her life with her mother and grandmother is almost perfect. But when an American family moves into the flat downstairs, things quickly begin to unravel. Through her friendship with the rebellious Beth, Megan begins to question the real reasons behind her father s absence, as well as the growing closeness between her mother and Beth s father. The truth finally emerges, pressing itself on a complex family dynamic and demanding attention, until a devastating tragedy means it can no longer be ignored. Meghan s life will change in ways she could never predict.
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