May

19

2009

thirteenth book syndrome

Filed under: crows, writing

As I said, I had a major writing epiphany or two the other day.

I might have mentioned a few million times that I’ve had difficulty starting my last book and this book I’m writing now. I’ve got tangled up in plot and character and made several false starts. In both books I had to change my heroine’s job. In both I’ve got sidetracked into secondary characters’ stories which overly complicated the main story. I also started both books too late in the story, and had to go back and start several months earlier.

I was quite panicky about all these problems with Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom, because it was my twelfth book written for publication, and I’d never really had those issues before. It made me very cranky and very frightened and it meant that the first few months of writing were really a struggle. With this book (my thirteenth), I’m not so frightened about it (though I may be just as cranky). I know I got through it last time and that when I finally found my way, it became much easier. I’m also buoyed up by the knowledge that both my agent and my editor loved Nina Jones (yay!) and so I’m fairly confident that even though the writing may be painful, I can come through it to the other side. However, I’m having the same sorts of issues.

I know why I’ve had these problems. It’s totally psychological, and it all has to do with my signing my current contract, which is for bigger stand-alone women’s fiction novels with Headline Review. I had the contract offer this summer, which was when I was writing Nina Jones, and Nina Jones was a stepping-stone book for these bigger books—it’s nearly 110,000 words, which is pretty much as long as my contract stipulates for the Review books. And it has a different sort of storyline from my more romance-focused books, in that it concentrates much more on the heroine’s journey, her childhood and her family, and actually includes three (THREE!!!) love interests.

I know these beginning-something-new issues are common with writers. One of the writers’ loops I belong to has recently had a very interesting discussion about “second book syndrome”, which happens when an author has had her first book accepted for publication, and sits down to write the second book in the contract. You’d think, logically, that this would be a great time to write—for the first time maybe, she’s got validation that her writing is good, she’s got editorial support, she’s being paid to sit in that chair. But in reality, the second book is very scary to write. You have a standard to live up to now. You have more to lose if you fail. You just know that everyone is about to find out that the first book was a fluke, that you’re an imposter and that you don’t really deserve to be published.

I don’t think this syndrome is just for second books. I think it can come at any time in an author’s career, and for me, it’s coming at the career change moments. I’ve gone from writing 60,000 word category romances for M&B, to 90,000 word single title romances for Little Black Dress, to 120,000 word commercial women’s fiction for Review, in the space of about two years, and every step has been fraught with doubts. I struggled with writing All Work and No Play…, knowing it was my last book in my Mills & Boon contract. I didn’t struggle with One Night Stand, which was my first in my line of books written for Little Black Dress, but that was because I was hugely pregnant and then dealing with a newborn, and I wrote most of that book when I was quite literally insane with baby brain.

But Nina Jones is my last book for my Little Black Dress contract, and this current book is the first in my Review contract. They mark an ending, and a beginning. No wonder I’m frightened of writing them. And that fear, for me, has translated into making lots of false starts.

My editor and agent tell me that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I’m already doing what they want me to to do; that’s why I got the contract. I don’t suddenly need to become a different writer with different stories because I’m being printed with another imprint.

But The Fear (aka The Crows) tells me that’s not true, that Everything Is New, that I’m A Fraud, and that I Need To Do Everything Different.

I don’t know how to get rid of those crows, but I feel better having identified their names and where they’ve come from, and linked it to the normal crows that most every writer gets. Part of being a writer is learning how to ignore the cawing.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll blog about the realisation I’ve come to about structure and plotting, and that if I want to move forward, I really need to go back to the beginning.

Have you hit stumbling blocks at significant career moments? What did you do to get past them?


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  1. Oh yes in the middle of a stumble at the moment. If I’m not going to write romance then what will I do? I’m still confused and am scared of my current wip but am hoping to get through it. Eventually.

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  2. I think with you it’s a case of FINISHING THE STORY. Because it’s a good story and it will tell you the way to go with it. Then you can make some decisions about what you want to do next.

    I also need to FINISH THE STORY, so I know whereof I speak. :-)

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  3. I think most of my blocks come about because I am absolutely rubbish at determining if what I’m writing is any good or not. Sometimes you can use a previous book as a yardstick since if that one worked and you want the next book to be better than that then you know the areas you want to improve but a completely different project doesn’t give you a benchmark to measure yourself so the crows have a field day.

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  4. Second book syndrome? Oh yes, am right in the middle of it. Aggh, it’s grim. Can only dream of getting to Bk 13!

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  5. Hey, you’re not reading my head at the moment, are you? :)

    The way I’ve got through the stumbling blocks is to talk it through with my agent. That’s helped me refocus so I know what I’m doing now, what I want to do in the future, and what I need to do to get there.

    Then there’s the tricky bit: balancing that with life outside work, which is a bit, um, tough right now…

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  6. I am absolutely rubbish at determining if what I’m writing is any good or not.

    I can’t tell whether that’s true for me or not. I do generally know when I’ve written crap. It just feels bad. Whereas when I’ve got it right, I feel like it sparkles and it makes me happy. Every now and then my crap turns out to be just about all right, but generally I do know if I’m writing bad stuff.

    The problem is when I keep on writing bad stuff, or just good-enough stuff, and don’t really know how to get out of it. And I have a hard time knowing whether a whole book is good or not, or whether a big idea is going to work.

    I would find it difficult to use a past novel as a yardstick, partly because that’s a finished product which has seen so much revision, and partly because I can’t compare objectively. Can you do that, Nell?

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  7. Lucy, you can do it!!!!!!!! You’ll be at book 13 before you know it, hopefully not tearing your hair out like me. :-)

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  8. Kate, you’re right; I’ve found that talking to my agent does help a lot and it was a great relief to me lately to send her my synopsis for this project and hear her thoughts. Still, while reassurance is greatly helpful, it doesn’t get the book written and it’s just a plod sometimes to bat the crows to one side.

    Work-life balance, now, well that’s a whole other huge issue! (((hugs)))

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  9. Is it something in the air…I’m stuck in the middle of the book wondering if I should bin the whole thing..

    Hang in there Julie.
    lx

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  10. Liz—don’t bin the whole thing!!!!!!!!

    Your idea of taking a rest sounds good. You hang in there, too.

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  11. I totally sympathise, Julie. I get that feeling with…pretty much every book.

    The last-but-one Cat Marsters release I had, After The Fall, was something a bit different, a lot darker and more intense than I’d written before. I was terrified, and then two things happened to make it worse. One was that I got the first month’s sales, and they were terrible. The other was that it got a clutch of golden sparkly reviews, including a minor award. So was it terrible, or was it any good? Was it a victim of the economy, or did it deserve the bad sales? I still don’t know.

    Both of these things came while I was trying to write the sequel–having agonised for ages over whether there was any point to it, and being told by my editor to shut up and write because sales would pick up. The twin problems of getting better sales (so that the planned third and fourth books wouldn’t be axed) and living up to that award, piled on the pressure so much it hurt. I honestly couldn’t tell if what I was writing was tripe or not. I still don’t know (my editor said it was brilliant, but then she says that about everything I write). It came out last week and I’ve had absolutely zero indication either way.

    This does not help with writing the third book…

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  12. OOooh – how timely!

    Please point me in the direction of the writer loop about 2nd book syndrome!

    I’m currently 80% of the way through my second book, hearing lovely things about my first book (which is out this year) and STRESSING that, in comparision, book 2 is rubbish, rubbish, RUBBISH and everyone who loved book 1 will be soooo disappointed.

    I keep telling myself that there were moments when I didn’t believe in book 1 either and it was only when people started to tell me how much they liked it that I remembered why I did too (yes, I’m that neurotic!).

    Of course no one has read a word of book 2 yet (and never will in 1st draft form!) so it’s just me battling the crows for now!

    You’re right that JUST FINISH IT is the best advice. My hope it that editing it will turn it into a lovely sparkly book of which I can be proud. And if it doesn’t…that’s when you’ll find me in a crumpled heap on the floor with crows pecking out my eyes (I am melodramatic too!) 😉

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  13. The readers love your books, your agent loves your books and your editor loves your books. The only person you need to convince that you’re doing the right thing is yourself!

    You just have to “fake it ’til you make it” – or positive self projection if you read the motivational books. Force yourself to keep on track, stick up notes showing good reviews and nice comments/letters from readers and tell yourself you’re doing great. Eventually you’ll believe it! It’s like your writing is already off on it’s own forging you a great career, but your mind just needs some time to catch up! Trust yourself and your (well proven, 13 times!) abilities, and have a great time taking this exciting new step.

    All the best!

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  14. I haven’t quite got that feeling yet being on my 2nd book now. I did have a moment and wonder if it was like the first book (out now) but I believe it is but a bit darker and with a twist unlike the other one. Keep at it Julie and you will get there in the end.

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  15. Kate, you really sum up some of the worries an author has about how other people will respond to her book. What’s ironic is that whether the response is apparently negative (sales not as good as usual) or positive (awards, editor approval)—you’re reacting to it the same way, which is with doubt!

    And that’s the Catch-22 about this situation: things are so subjective, that it’s difficult to believe that the work can speak for itself.

    In your case, I totally think you should believe what your editor says. Why would she say it was brilliant if it wasn’t? It’s in her interest to make it as great as it can be.

    Personally, I always do believe what my editor and agent tell me. They know much better than I do. So when they say my last book was spot-on, I feel good about that. But y’see, that was *that* book, and *this* book is always different…

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  16. Cali, so basically…we’re all normal. Everyone goes through these doubts. I’m very glad to see from your blog that you’re NOT letting your doubts about the current book stop you from fully enjoying the absolutely wonderful bits about having your first book published.

    And don’t forget, that your agent and editor are there to help you make the book sparkly, too. I can see you’re a bit like me, in that you don’t like to show something you don’t think is perfect to anyone. Being a perfectionist this way can make things harder, I think—it makes it more difficult to see the real strengths that can be there in a messy first draft.

    Anyway, you will be fine. So will I. It’s just good to share the crows around sometimes.

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  17. Kirsty, that is excellent advice, and EXACTLY what I’m doing. It’s so important to use positive thinking and to really believe that you deserve the good things that happen to you. If you don’t, you’re just sabotaging your own career.

    I think, though, that in the end, the only thing that removes the doubts is just to get the damn book done. Slog through the fear. Face it. Do it anyway.

    And I think that’s so important that I’m going to blog about that today, instead of what I was going to talk about.

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  18. Julie, if you don’t have second book syndrome, rejoice! Celebrate! Enjoy every moment! You are one of fortune’s favoured. :-)

    Seriously, I don’t think it’s a requirement to have huge self-doubt. It’s just very common. A little confidence is a wonderful thing and I’m glad you’ve got it.

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  19. I was lucky, in that I had my second book already finished when I sold my first. After I sold the 2nd book, I had to write the 3rd on proposal. That book nearly crippled me because I thought it was the biggest pile of garbage EVER. I was fortunate to be at a writer’s retreat a month before it was due, and I spoke with Nora Roberts after a workshop. I asked her, “Is it always like this? Or is it just me?” She said, “Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards.”

    So, I stopped whining about it, finished the book, and realized that it Could Be Fixed. My editor loved it.

    Now, when I hit those moments, I listen to my gut. It’s inevitably because I’m trying to force the characters to do something that’s wrong for them. Or the emotions aren’t set up right. If I backtrack, I can usually find the problem. If it’s the beginning of a book, I toss it and start again. Congrats on the new contract!

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  20. Wow if every book Nora Roberts writes is crap then I’m definitely on the right path lol! I love your work Julie and when I get a hold of Nina’s story I’ll tell you how fabulous you are, you’ll just have to take my word for it. I wish you many days of writing where the story simply flows!!

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  21. Oh boy! I am sooooooo sorry to hear that you guys are having all these doubts. I also can’t express how hugely reassuring it is for me to know that so many published writers whose work I love also go through the same “This story is crap just stop and bin it right now” syndrome I’m struggling with. I’m going to tattoo that Nora Roberts quote on the hand I use to slap myself with when things aren’t going well!

    That new contract is fabulous news, Julie. But of course, it’s not the thirteenth book. It’s the first book all over again, because it’s something new and different. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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  22. Michelle, thank you for your words and those from Nora! It is always so good to be reminded of that.

    Thank you Lacey. I wish you many days of flowing writing too! :-)

    Mulberry, it is good to know that other people go through this, isn’t it? You seem to be making great progress though so you go right ahead and write all that crap, and then fix it!

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