Finishing your first novel is a complicated experience – at least, it was for me. First there is a sense of accomplishment that, however flawed, you completed a substantial work – in my case, a 90,000-word novel. But immediately thoughts should be moving to the next novel (or short stories if you want a change-up), we are told. I have found myself fixated still on the first, though. I’m not happy with it. As much as I admire some of the sections of the book, I am not happy enough with the total work. It mirrors how I felt when I ran my first marathon – I got my tactics wrong and ended up walking a lot during the last 10 miles, finishing outside 4 hours. You are supposed to feel a sense of accomplishment at completing a full marathon, yet I was left with an anticlimax – yes, I had finished a marathon, but I hadn’t entirely run it and finished under 4 hours. The next marathon I ran 3hr 57min … cue celebration? Nope. Again, I got my tactics wrong and finished badly. 4 weeks later I ran 3:55 in a more consistent run. Only after 3 marathons did I feel satisfied.
So I am engaged in a retrospective. I have reflected on novel number 1, which I elected to self-publish despite some promising initial feedback from 3 agents (though none would ultimately represent it). I have tormented myself about whether to leave it well alone and move on to the next, whether to do some rewriting of it with a re-release, or a third way.
As it happens, I have opted for the third way. I am writing a brand new novel, but one that will be what the first one could have been. I am a different, hopefully much-improved writer than the one who began The Murk Beneath in late 2009. I don’t want my first, flawed novel to swallow ideas that I can revisit and better express in the second. Will there be some overlap between the second and first novels? Yes, clearly. But they will still be very different experiences. Would someone who read the first novel feel a bit cheated if they read the second, given some similarities? I hope not and I don’t think so. But we are not talking about many readers, so it should not be something to worry me if I plan on a much more successful second novel.
I did agonize about just getting on with novel #2 and not looking back. What I like to do is to write a couple of chapters and see if they are “grabbing” me. If they don’t, I move on and try again until something grabs on to me. Only when I tried my third way did I get further and feel the magic again. There is a theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi, which is a bit like a state of Zen. In the “flow channel”, you are finding things relatively easy, though there will be peaks and troughs (e.g. you flow easily through a chapter, but then have to figure out a nice way to end it that will hook the reader into the next) – but when in the flow channel, you keep safely between anxiety (e.g. writer’s block) and boredom (e.g. not really into the subject matter or theme of your novel). I’m only 3 to 4 chapters in, but I feel it. I think it will be a huge improvement on the first and I’m optimistic that this time I will get a good agent. No guarantee of course, but at least I’m in the channel now.