I thought those failed books were just that: failures. But now I see nothing was wasted

Journalist and author Hannah Beckerman on overcoming second novel syndrome

In 2013 I sat down to write my second novel. My debut was about to be published and I felt buoyant with optimism. I was, at the age of 38, after a 15-year career in television, beginning my life as a writer.

Six years and many thousands of unpublished words later, my second novel is finally about to hit bookshops. Except that it’s not really my second novel. It is, in truth, my fifth. Because for the past six years, I’ve suffered from that widespread and yet rarely acknowledged creative affliction: second novel syndrome.

In the music world, the difficult second album is a familiar trope, but in publishing it’s not something we – authors, editors, agents – seem to want to admit to.

For me, the issue was not one of writers’ block or even the fear that my second novel wouldn’t live up to the first: my debut novel was not a wild success and there was no legion of readers and critics eagerly awaiting the next.

Firstly, there was the issue of self-consciousness. When you write your debut novel, there is often no imaginary reader – or critic – sitting on your shoulder, observing and opining on every word you write. You write purely for yourself, to see if you can do it. In my case I told no-one other than my husband that I was writing: the chances of humiliation if the book never got published were slim, and therefore I could write without judgement. But by the time I came to write my second novel, that sense of innocent anonymity was lost. Even without critical success for my debut there was still a certain self-consciousness with my second. I began to write with an audience in mind, which fundamentally changed my relationship to the words on the page. I became become more self-critical, more anxious about what others would think. I become, in a way, schizophrenic: both writer and critic simultaneously.

The other issue for me was simply one of learning my craft. My debut novel was a good story, and there are things about it that I’m still proud of, but technically – stylistically – it was raw. I sat down to pen my second novel believing that I knew how to write, only to discover that I didn’t. I tried to write one novel about a subject very close to my heart, and it took multiple drafts to realise that it wasn’t working. Next I attempted an historical novel and it was another year before I sensibly gave it up. I returned to the previous book, tried to re-write the entire story from different perspectives, but couldn’t make it work.

In various folders on my computer are those three books: 350,000 words, multiple drafts of each (I daren’t think about how many revised words in total). Each time I consigned another book to the virtual bottom drawer, I was overcome by feelings of self-doubt. Every time I read about a fellow novelist managing to publish their second book, I was consumed with envy. More times than I care to remember, I flirted with the idea of giving up writing altogether. But the urge to write has a life of its own, even in the face of creative adversity: it is an itch that will not be scratched. And so, on I ploughed.

At the time, I thought those failed books were just that – failures. But now I see that none of those thousands of words were wasted. They were part of me learning my craft, part of the fabled 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says you need to learn a skill. They were necessary for me to be able to write the book I’ve now written.

When I look now at If Only I Could Tell You – my second novel or, at least, the second to be published – I can see where all that work has gone. In the story of mother Audrey and her estranged adult daughters, Lily and Jess, I can see echoes of the conflicted, complex family dynamics I was experimenting with in the second book I tried to write. In the flashback sequences – to Audrey’s youth, and to the sisters’ childhoods – I can see the influence of the historical novel that never came to pass. In the ethical and moral dilemmas at the heart of the story are resonances of ideas I played with in earlier works. And in the layering of the novel’s narrative and its deep emotional pull, I can see the lessons learned and craft honed from all those unpublished drafts filed away on my computer.

As a journalist and event chair, I interview many authors – both debut and well-established – and know I’m not alone in experiencing second novel syndrome. One award-winning novelist told me they hated their second novel so much they won’t have a copy in the house. Another advised me simply to get the second book out of the way: “Your career really starts with your third.” Countless debut novelists have confessed to me their struggles with second novels, problems they daren’t confide to their editor or agent for fear of a loss of confidence in them. I think we’d all do well to acknowledge the creative struggles involved in novel-writing, particularly second novels. Writing for a living is an enormous privilege, but that doesn’t always make it an easy endeavour.

In spite of all the angst over the past six years, I’m pleased that none of those other books saw the light of day. I know they weren’t good enough, and that had they got published I would not now be looking back on them with pride. Instead, I have a second novel I can be genuinely proud of, a novel I feel confident to send out into the world, knowing that I have spent time honing my craft. It may not be the second novel I wrote, but I’m thankful – and not a little relieved – that it’s the second I’m publishing.

If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman is published by Orion