Francesca Haig’s The Map of Bones, and the challenges of writing a second novel.
Like most authors, I do my best to avoid clichés. Last year, depressingly, I found myself living a cliché: the difficult second novel.
I wrote my first novel, The Fire Sermon, over six or seven years, with no pressure at all. The book was just a fun side-project for me; a diversion that I’d toy with when I had a moment between my full-time job and the other demands of my busy life. On holiday, I’d write a few thousand words, then put it away and not touch it again for months. Even after the novel was bought by publishers, the editing process went smoothly – it was hard work, but it felt like fun.
Writing the sequel, The Map of Bones, was entirely different. Writing was now my full-time job, but that wasn’t the only thing that had changed: I had a baby, and a deadline, and editors waiting to see the next draft. Instead of years and years, I had eighteen months. There was also the pressure of having the first novel published in more than twenty languages. That kind of good fortune is a lovely problem to have, but instead of giving me confidence, it left me with an occasionally crushing sense that I was no longer writing only for myself, but for readers, critics, agents, and editors, all of whom might find the novel wanting.
Added to that is the fact that the second novel in a trilogy has its own unique challenges: How much to recap what happened in the first book? How much to stick to what worked in the first novel, and how much to strike out into new territory? How to build a satisfying climax within the second book, whilst keeping something back for the third?
So I worked, worked, and worked some more. Deadlines came, and were pushed back, and then were pushed back again. My editors were patient, but they also pushed me (and the novel) again and again to get it into shape. They did their job, which is to ask the novel the hard questions; when the answers weren’t good enough, they let me know that it needed more work. At one stage, with another deadline looming, my long-suffering sister was receiving drafts late at night, in fifty-page chunks, reading late into the wee hours, and phoning me from the bus stop on her way to work each morning to give me her feedback.
And in the end? I’m proud of The Map of Bones in a way that I wasn’t of The Fire Sermon. It’s not that writing The Fire Sermon was easy – writing a (decent) novel is never easy, or there would be many more novelists. But because of the accelerated process of writing The Map of Bones, the transformation from rough draft to finished novel felt more tangible. I grappled so hard with all the problems in the earlier drafts that the final book feels more hard-won. It’s a darker novel, I suspect (one of the days that my sister phoned me from the bus stop, she was in tears), and probably a more complex one. It may not be an easy novel to read – it certainly wasn’t easy to write. But I’m proud of it in a way that still catches me by surprise. When the first finished copies arrived at my house, I had to restrain myself from ripping the parcel open on the doorstep and chasing the postman down the street, brandishing the book and shouting ‘I made this! I made this!’
Francesca Haig’s The Map of Bones is available now!