I’m so excited to have Kerry Hudson guesting on my blog today. The genius behind the Womentoring Project, her debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma won the Scottish First Book award and was nominated for a slew of others. Yesterday her second novel, Thirst, was published. It’s a love story with enormous heart, told the way I wish all love stories were told, about real people in a recognisable world. Thirst is a romance between security guard Dave and the homeless shoplifter he catches stealing an expensive pair of shoes. With tenderness – and a fierce instinct for survival – Alena takes root in his life. But she has secrets she will protect, even at the risk of losing him.
After such a successful debut, I wondered what the process of writing her second book had been like for Kerry. She agreed to spill the beans. Personally, I think the following holds good whether you are writing your first novel, your second, or your fifteenth.
Today is a day of celebration for me. This week is. This year. This lifetime. Because I have my second novel. Thirst, coming out – a proper book from my publisher who I adore – and I truly believed that might never ever happen. Not because I wasn’t under contract (I wasn’t though – I had a one book deal) or because I couldn’t think about what to write next but simply because it was my second.
Guys, they have an actual name for this – it’s called ‘Second Novel Syndrome’. Note that it’s not ‘hiccup’ or ‘set-back’ but an actual ‘syndrome’. I’d heard about it and I was scared of it. And at the same time I was working on my second novel (squeezed in where I could in lunch breaks and my commute) things I never expected in a million years were happening with my first novel Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Before He Stole My Ma. It was shortlisted for seven literary prizes and won the Scottish First Book Award, it was reviewed in the papers, so people actually read it (yes, even people I didn’t know) and suddenly people were interested in what I might be writing next. Then, there it was, the terrible, dark looming presence of Expectation. Alongside that, I was lucky enough to get an Arts Council grant to travel across Russia to research my second book. So now I *had* to write a good book, I’d been given money, people were wondering if I was a one trick pony, I was wondering the same myself…Can you hear it? The high pitch of my anxiety, with the fearful thump of my heart as a bassline?
So how did I overcome it? Well first of all I decided to ‘fuck it’. That’s right, the first thing I did was give less of a shit about what people were thinking, wondering or expecting. I think for most parts of life this is a good strategy but especially for taking that leap and embarking upon making up a whole world using only your mind and words. Then I took the following steps, my own Second Novel Syndrome prescription. You are all welcome:
I wrote a quick and dirty first draft to start with. No pressure about beautiful prose or the perfect descriptive term for moonlight on puddles just words on the page until the story and characters went from one place to another. Actually it wasn’t so much a quick and dirty first draft, as an utterly filthy draft, but it was my raw material I could sculpt into the book I knew I had in my head.
I took time away from my literary life. Listen, it is really (really!) nice when people are saying lovely things about your wee novel that you thought would sink without a trace in a sea of other debuts but it is also very distracting. I think ego, either a hurt one or an inflated one, is along with Expectation the enemy of good writing. So I used every penny I had (again) and took myself back to Vietnam for four months. Away from the noise of my first book, where it was just me and my bicycle and Dave and Alena (and yes, the internet, but I still felt so much more removed from it all).
I decided to honour Dave and Alena. My main characters, the heart of the novel and people who go through incredibly hard things and yet show bravery and hope, who still have the capacity to love and be loved. Typing it, it sounds slightly insane to not to want to let down fictional characters but that’s the truth none the less.
I started giving a shit again. I returned to the UK with a decent…fifth-ish draft (it’s hard to keep track after you’ve pulled it apart and built it again so many times…) and began thinking of the reader, not critics or peers or my editor even, but the people who would pay their hard earned tenner and loan me their hearts and minds for the duration of the book. And then I didn’t want to let them down either.
So that’s it really, maybe it’s a help to someone somewhere. For me, this week is a celebration. Thirst is the book I had to write, from my heart and guts and is as good as I could possibly make it. And now? Now I’m a quarter into my third novel which I doubt will be any easier but I’m starting to realise: it’s the battle that keeps the writing alive on the page.