GUEST BLOG: Anna starts again
7th August 2014 - 12 Midnight Anna Freeman
Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize winner The Fair Fight, set in the little-known world of female boxers in the late-18th century, where nobility and the working class meet, is published at the end of this month. But for its author, Anna Freeman, the two-book deal she signed with her publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, means that she's now faced with starting from scratch on a completely new idea. She shares some of the lessons she's learning tackling that notoriously difficult second novel.
My first novel - The Fair Fight - is finished. They've taken it away. I was enjoying the proof stage, moving commas about and checking facts I'd already checked. The manuscript had had many editing eyes on it and was polished as much as possible. The characters felt so much like people that sometimes when I couldn't sleep I imagined them talking to me. Oh, alright, sometimes I imagined they gave me a cuddle (but that was always weird because even though I know them really well, they've never actually met me). So, I finished that book. I'd have been happy sitting in my flat, rearranging the words indefinitely. But apparently they won't pay me for that. And I did spend years praying that someone, someday, would publish my work. But still. The Publishing Industry Stole My Baby. And now I have to make a new one.
I might have begun it already - I've written some words about stuff - but whether they'll end up being part of the book is anyone's guess. I have a computer folder with a working title (I can't say what it is or I'll instantly hate it), and docs inside labelled 'Draft Chap. 1' and 'New Chap. 1' and 'NEW, new Chap. 1'. Here's the problem with the drafts I've written so far: they're rubbish. They really are. I'm not being self-depreciating or falsely modest. I'll warn you if I'm going to start doing that. They just aren't very good, because, and here's a thing I've learnt, first drafts are almost never good.
Thank god I still have the first drafts of The Fair Fight. They were awful, too. Stilted, forced, unrealistic, long-winded. There were early characters who ended up in the bin. The voices were inconsistent, because I didn't know the characters well enough to hear them clearly.
So, I do know that this new novel isn't going to look promising until suddenly... it does. Or, and this is the bit that knots my stomach, what if it doesn't work and I have to throw it away and start again? And then what if that one doesn't and it turns out that The Fair Fight was the only novel I had in me? I signed a thing, promising to write another one! I will have officially failed. People will notice.
I expect, just like every 'epiphany' I ever had as a stoned adolescent, I am having a bog-standard angst-experience for new authors. Probably people will read this and yawn, or chuckle ruefully. I tell myself that. Sometimes it helps. Maybe all big projects are a mess until they aren't anymore. Maybe Rembrandt was always saying, 'This isn't art! These are just splotches. Oh. Wait. If I look at it from over here, maybe it looks like a lily pad.' I'm not comparing myself to Rembrandt. I'm not Dutch. Or dead.
I am trying to give myself permission to be rubbish. I tell my students this: just decide to write something without judging whether it's okay. You will definitely have to throw away half of what you write or be one of those writers with no self-awareness, who thinks every word they write should be carved in stone. I'm pretty sure those are the only two choices. Well - the third choice is never to write anything in case it fails. Lucky I already signed that contract. No third choice for me.
Really, though, I think a secret thing. It's a secret because I try not to think about it in case I'm wrong, but I'll tell you, because I can't see you, so it's like you're not there. The secret is this: I think it'll be okay. I think this bit is really hard, and I'm groping about, trying to build a Lego castle in the dark, but there'll come a point where it almost starts building itself. When it will feel like I'm watching, rather than creating it. Last time the story suddenly started unfolding so fast my fingers couldn't keep up and I had to get all the essentials down and go back and put the details in later. That moment is so special it makes my chest cramp up to think about it. Maybe, in six months or a year, I'll be talking to my new characters when I can't sleep. Eliza or Judith or whatever her name is eventually. I know how lucky I am to be allowed to try to do this for a living. I used to work in a call centre.
I don't really do preaching. I'm never sure that I'm qualified to speak about things outside my own experience. But I kind of hope that any new writers reading this might feel heartened. It's rubbish because it's supposed to be. That's what early drafts look like. Foetuses aren't pretty, either. We only pretend they are because it's hard to see properly on the scans and it's a kind of miracle that they'll turn into babies eventually.
Anna's previous blogs for Foyles
- Anna and the idea: on trying to come up with an idea for her seond novel
- Anna learns to edit: on learning how to accept her editor's suggestions and when to stop stop making changes
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