Pop quiz: name Philip Pullman’s first two published novels. Struggling? OK, an easier one. Name Patrick Ness’s first two books.
Tricky, huh? Both of these wonderful writers started gaining real traction with their third or fourth publication. (Go to Chris Wooding’s site and his list of published work begins with Broken Sky, his third novel. The first two have been redacted entirely.)
Why’s this on my mind? Because Payback, my third novel, is due out in July. Now don’t worry folks. I’m not comparing myself vainly with the writers above, I know my place in the great children’s-fiction-pecking-order. But in a number of important ways, Payback is my first novel too.
I couldn’t do any of the above with Poison Boy – I was an assistant headteacher working 60 hour weeks when I wrote it. While working on Lifers, my four-year old daughter wasn’t sleeping and I was a deputy headteacher trying to find time to finish a textbook I was co-writing for an educational publisher. I love P-Boy and I love Lifers. They represent the very best novels I could have written at the time, given the person I was in the circumstances I was.
But let me share one story about Payback that illustrates how the experience has been so different.
Recently, as the picture above attests, I got the page proofs through the post from the wonderful people at Chicken House. They look flippin’ great. As usual, I was asked to give the mss one final read, highlight any small changes and return them to CH HQ.
I remember to my shame what this process was like for my first two novels. I was exhausted, haunted by work-issues, pausing to take calls from colleagues, finish reports, plan lessons and mark work. I was doing staff appraisals at the same time as I gave Lifers its final once-over, drafting replies to letters of complaint, reviewing student contracts and re-jigging the school calendar for the academic year ahead.
With Payback, I blocked out three days, settled down and read the whole book aloud to myself. Something I was doing for the third time. The third time, folks. There are sections of P-Boy and Lifers I’ve never read aloud. Third time reading Payback (aloud; my laptop asleep, no calls or emails, nothing but blissful deep concentration) I still found things to change. The sound of a sentence, extraneous adjectives, crappy expression.
It made me think: great writers have lots of things us ordinary writers don’t have. Maybe they have a better ear for dialogue; maybe they have a broader vocabulary; maybe they have the eye of a true observer of human nature, or they have a flair for crisp, concise expression.
But maybe they have something else. Something arguably more important than all the other things. Maybe they have time.
During the writing of Lifers I fired off a blog post for Author Allsorts called Little Pockets. It described how I worked back then – stealing a half hour here and there to get some words down. I finish with this: “I sometimes wish things were different…but I know it’s not going to be any time soon. In the meantime, this is what most of us have – little pockets of opportunity in otherwise frenetic days.”
Somehow I made it out. Payback will too; coming your way this summer.
Give it some love – it’s my debut novel. 😉