Lisa Williamson on Life, Writing and that Difficult Second Novel
17th March 2016, 11.23pm. I'm sitting on the Northern line, wearing my very best dress and gazing in wonder at the trophy nestled in my lap. A few hours earlier my debut novel, The Art of Being Normal won the Waterstones Children's Book Prize in the older fiction category and I'm still in a state of joyful shock. This continues into the next day as I happily respond to congratulatory tweets and choose the right spot on my desk to display my trophy. As I progress into the weekend, the happy glow starts to dim slightly. I'm still stupidly delighted, but my win is accompanied by a fresh wave of pressure. Because the more success The Art of Being Normal enjoys, the more my incomplete second book has to live up to.
Fast-forward to February 2017. My second novel for young adults, All About Mia has just been released and I'm happily working on a third. Although the pressure to deliver remains, it has morphed from burden into exciting challenge, and I feel calmer and more focused than I've felt in ages. So, what’s changed? Here are just some of the things I've learned over the past year:
1. Second books are hard (but not impossible)
On one hand the prospect of being allowed to write a second book about anything I liked was unbelievably luxurious. On the other, it was terrifying. The possibilities were infinite and I spent months jumping from idea to idea in my desperate search for 'the one'. In the end 'the one' was a project I'd previously abandoned. I'd written a full draft of All About Mia before discarding it in November 2015 in a dip of low confidence. I kept worrying about what I should write and ended up dismissing Mia's story as not 'important' enough (spoiler alert: I was wrong). Shutting those voices out and listening to my heart was a revelation.
2. Accept your writing 'process'
I don't plan. More accurately, I can't plan. And I've finally figured out that's OK. I may go down lots of dead-ends and accumulate a scary amount of deleted material but every single word helps me get to know my characters. My process may be erratic and uneconomical but it’s mine, and it sort of works.
3. Writing can be lonely
Some days I adore the solitude, others I urgently crave company. I've learned to identify these shifts in mood and work with them, mixing up writing dates with fellow authors and quiet days at home to stop myself from going bonkers. I’ve also twigged that I’m at my most creative when I regularly immerse myself in other people’s stories. This means not feeling guilty about taking the afternoon off to go to the theatre or cinema or a gallery.
4. Don't google yourself
Reviews of your books are for readers, not for you. Good reviews will find you. Bad reviews are better left unread.
5. Enjoy it
When I was writing The Art of Being Normal the concept of it being published one day was as dreamlike and outlandish as winning an academy award or marrying Prince Harry. Having spent twelve years as a jobbing actor, I was used to rejection and had already mentally prepared for my manuscript to meet the same response. When people reacted positively, I was both thrilled and suspicious by the unexpected change in narrative. This tightrope walk of emotions continued beyond publication. I was so worried about the fate of the book I'd worked so hard on I forgot to enjoy the ride. The most important thing I've learned over the past year is that being a writer is mostly just really ace. I get to make up stories all day, work with incredible people and meet curious and passionate readers, and I never, ever want to lose sight of how incredibly lucky I am to call this my job.