Second book syndrome: ‘You don’t wait for inspiration, you create it’

When you have a deadline looming over you, there’s no time for inspiration, you must be a well-oiled writing machine

Ayisha Malik: like a parent, your first seems to you a miracle; the second, however, feels more like an accident

Ayisha Malik: like a parent, your first seems to you a miracle; the second, however, feels more like an accident

 

Being emailed by an agent to say that they want to represent you, even when they’ve only read a hundred pages of your book, is a good feeling. It is a boost in an otherwise bogged-down-in-insecurity writerly life. Skip past the arduous task of redrafting (a million times, because you’re not as clever as you thought you were) and one day you get the ever-anticipated email, telling you that a publisher has made an offer. A good one. Not only that, but your book will be a lead title. There’ll also be a second book, but let’s worry about that later. There it is: your happily ever after. Except life isn’t like a book because the only real ending humans have is death, and I’m still very much alive. Not that I’m complaining.

My publication day came and went and there were the sought-after reviews, from magazines to broadsheets. It was grand relief – I have not spent two years writing something people hate. Then I had to face the thing I was going to worry about later, because later was upon me. I had a deadline, but no story.

I was lucky because my publisher wanted a sequel to the first book, so in many ways the core components were already there: voice and character. However, inspiration didn’t strike. That’s because no one tells you that inspiration is pure luck. It’s so rare that I wonder whether the whole idea is one big fallacy, created by one writer who was having a bit of a time of it, to make other writers who were also having a bit of a time of it, feel better. I don’t know why people are still allowed to ask: what inspired you? in Q&A sessions. Surely the only real inspiration to write is to unpick people and reveal human realities via the characters you create.

When you have a deadline looming over you, there’s no time for inspiration, you must be a well-oiled writing machine. I’ll caveat all of this by saying I wouldn’t have it any other way – except maybe more than a year to write a book. After over a decade of wanting to be published, finally having someone demand you have another book ready to go out into the world is a comfort. It makes the otherwise hazy idea of being a writer a little more solid. But by the time my deadline came around I had considerably more grey hair, darker circles, and more room in my wardrobe on account of having to throw away jeans that no longer fit me. The only thing I had less of was friends. Okay, not really, but family and friends certainly took a back seat as I scrambled for words – any words – hoping that they’d somehow make a semi-decent story.

I became The Frantic Writer. It was layered with this niggling feeling that my haphazard sentences wouldn’t translate into a) a coherent story and b) a story that I could love as much as my first one. Because, like a parent, your first seems to you a miracle – a testament to something undefinable; maybe the perseverance of creation. I think there’s a special pride placed in something you have had sole (until your editors get their hands on it, of course) mastery of shaping.

The second, however, is almost an accident – the one you have by default because you had the first one. I might not have got morning sickness, but there was usually some kind of nausea involved. Then there were the intermittent bursts of joy at getting a chance to create something again; the odd sub-plot that wove in perfectly with the main one; that one clever line I’m not sure which part of my brain managed to dredge up. I had the incredible feeling that comes with the idea of being able to complete something. Along the way I had also somehow built a network of writer friends who were going through the same thing, and we took solace in moaning about lack of sleep, looming deadlines and publicity anxiety. And then came the inevitable pain of delivery. The last, mad, 18-successive-hours-in-front-of-the-laptop rush. (Although I’m not fond of dramatics in my case there was an actual ambulance involved.)

The whole time was such a daze I hardly knew what I’d done, or how I’d managed it. (A few extensions helped). Memory plays tricks so you misremember things. But when you’re a slippery writer with an abundance of excuses as to why you’ve not written – including spending your day alphabetising your books – a contract grips you and glues you to your writing chair. You don’t wait for inspiration, you create it. It was the thing that took me from being someone who writes, to being a professional writer. I don’t often like thinking about those sleepless nights and bouts of anxiety, but now the bound pages of my words are in my hand, and I find my heart, quite unexpectedly, swelling with pride.
Ayisha Malik is the author of The Other Half of Happiness (Zaffre, £7.99)

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