Saturday, 1 May 2010
How does a writer decide what to write next? Do you stick to the same genre and style as your previous book(s) or strike out in a new direction?
The question was posed by Anne M Leone (one of the Undiscovered Voices winners), after I blogged about my latest book. She wrote: I was wondering how similar you imagine the new book will be to your previous novels about Ty. I've been thinking a lot lately about what one writes after one's first book/series. Did you keep the same setting? Same type of genre/age group? Same themes? Or did you not make any conscious decisions at all, but just write the next idea you had?
I’m very new to writing fiction. Just over two years ago my only experience of creative writing as an adult was failing the Open University Writing Fiction short course, because I couldn’t get my head around the short story form. When I started writing When I Was Joe I was most interested to see if I could actually write a whole book. I didn’t think much beyond that.
When I finished writing Joe I wanted to try writing in two voices. I started work on something about twin boys. I wrote about 15 chapters, then the story fizzled out - mainly because I had no idea where it was meant to be going. I showed it to my writing group. They weren’t keen. Later I showed it to my agent. She didn’t like it. So that one was abandoned…although I’m still perversely fond of it and I might revisit it one day.
Then one day I woke up with a killer first sentence for a sequel to Joe, plus ideas for the first three chapters, and a great chapter ending. I sat down and wrote it, even though I know it was complete madness and a total waste of time to write a sequel when I didn’t even have an agent, let alone a book deal. But I couldn’t stop writing it (and rewriting huge swathes after my writing group had their say). I’d written about a third of Almost True by the time I got a deal for Joe, and my editor at Frances Lincoln read it and offered for that too.
I finished the first draft of Almost True in October 2009, and had made all the major structural changes by the end of the month.
Then I madly signed up to write a novel in a month. I had a vague dystopia idea knocking around my head. I started writing…and hated it. My narrator felt insipid, the plot was turgid. Clearly I needed time to clear my head, move on from Ty, spend a bit of time thinking up a killer idea.
But it didn’t work like that. Halfway through November I was reading a news story about a big lottery win and wham! I had my new idea. I had the same feeling that I’d had with witness protection. This is a subject I can write about. This is a subject with depth.
So, what stays the same? The setting is London, and it’s contemporary. It’s told in the first person. It’s aimed at teenagers, boys and girls. It’s based on a news story, and I’m researching it much as I would a newspaper or magazine feature. At the heart of it there’s a teenager faced with a life-changing event. I try and build believable rounded characters, I try and keep the pace reasonably fast-moving. I try and create a protagonist who is human and flawed yet sympathetic.
And what’s different? The narrator is a girl, not a boy. I’m finding that more difficult - but that’s possibly because Ty’s voice is still strong in my head. The themes are completely different. The main character is older than Ty, the language she uses is a little more complicated. It’s not a thriller. It’s got more romance and it’s more obviously funny. It’s written in the past tense, which is messing with my mind - I hate it - but it does work for the story and it makes me feel it’s very different from When I Was Joe.
I’ve seen very successful authors labelled by their genre, under pressure to come up with the same formula again and again. I’ve seen some talented writers actually come up with pretty much the same book again and again. I'd love their success, but until I have it I want to develop my range. I’m still learning to write fiction. I’d rather attempt to build a reputation as a writer who can do different things than as a writer of ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ crime novels.
Having said all that, nagging away at the back of my mind is a third book about Ty. I’m not sure whether that's where it'll stay.