“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I’ve often thought of Rilke’s words when I’ve felt lost, uncertain or sad. I think we all have those stubborn knots inside ourselves that we can't seem to unpick – things that never worked out the way we hoped, things we’ve neither been able to accept nor change, or times when we simply don’t know what to do for the best.
My second novel almost never got finished because it had its own stubborn knots! Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising – the accepted wisdom is that second novels are ALWAYS difficult.
When I wrote my first book, there was a freedom about it that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. I had no expectations. I didn’t know the ‘rules’ of writing either. I let my characters take it over. I was in love with them and just wanted to watch them.
I wrote and redrafted and puzzled over it until I was lucky enough to link up with some other writers, and we agreed to critique each other’s work. I remember the light bulb moment when Jane pointed out that I had a tendency to tie up the loose ends in each chapter as if I was tying a pretty little bow around it. She made me see that you need to plant unanswered questions in the narrative as it unfolds, so that the reader has to keep reading. I cared about my characters so much that I wanted to solve all their problems immediately (preferably within a couple of pages of them arising!) I had to learn when to let the problems sit, and escalate, and mix with other problems, and ultimately be resolved (a process also known as a plot!) The characters became more real than I’d ever thought possible – more themselves – because of the ways they reacted to those problems. The book got published and they went out into the world.
But as I continued into my second novel I had a terrible secret. I knew the rules of writing now... I had it all planned out this time... But I couldn’t get inside the heads of my new characters. I was Trying To Make It Work but I wasn’t in love.
As a more experienced writer, it was easier to recognise the weak points in the book, but I would do so grimly, like a doctor who’d just seen something dreadful on a scan or x ray… the turn of events that was too unbelievable… the characters who wouldn’t say anything to each other… the bit that should have been funny but wasn’t… the bit that shouldn’t have been funny but somehow was! These all seemed like mini death sentences for my story. I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk with my head in my hands.
But I kept going. Slowly, I started to ‘get’ my new characters, and to get them talking. The plot turned into something darker and more complex than I’d originally intended. I finished a draft.
I turned it over to my writer friends, Lesley and Jane, still agonizing about the things that weren’t working. In return, I received an outpouring of encouragement, enthusiasm and insight. It was like throwing open shutters and letting in the light. Jane, Lesley and I emailed back and forth for days on those difficult points. Through this flow of ideas and responses between the three of us, the characters became so real that plot developments, new scenes and even dialogue began to emerge, quite effortlessly, in the conversations we were having. (Note to any new writers out there: if you don’t have a Jane or a Lesley in your life, find one as soon as possible! I certainly couldn’t manage without them.)
As I rewrote the book, I began to realise something: the weak points, the knots and the faultlines in the story are your greatest assets. They are a call to you to think deeper, more imaginatively, to find new perspectives and to use every ounce of power you have as a writer. They will take you outside of your comfort zone to that region where your story changes from something you planned to something beyond yourself.
That’s when I finally fell in love with book 2, with all its sweet spots, its tricky bits and its mysteries. And there are still some mysteries in there that I’ll never solve… Why did Janey fall for a man who was supposed to be the villain of the piece? At the end of the day is he a hero or a villain or something in between? Did certain events in the book have a paranormal explanation or a psychological one?
I finished the book and this brought me to the scariest question of all – would my agent and publishers like it too? They did! It’s being released next year, and I cannot wait to see it there on my bookshelf, a tricky, maddening, much-loved sister for Tiny Acts of Love.
Writing and ‘real life’ mirror one another in so many ways. Neither can ever be perfect. Both are unpredictable, and painful at times. You can never make characters (or people) do what you want them to do. There are always difficulties in our lives and in the world around us, and some of them don’t seem to have a simple answer – or any answer at all.
But, as Rilke knew, and as Jane gently pointed out to me when I was a very new writer, we need to love our questions. Don’t despair over them. Don’t pretend they don’t exist. Stay with them, and be curious about them. They are our greatest gifts. They keep every good story going.