First Word, Blank Page…

Hello!  Robyn Young signing in from Brighton, England…  Oh God.  Already I sound like I’m eighty-nine and have just discovered the telephone.

Blog virgin I’m afraid.

Well, in my defence, as soon as I typed the word BLOG into my computer it (in smug, know-it-all fashion) scored a red, squiggly I-do-not-understand-this line under it, which, come to think of it, is sort of what happened to me when Sarah invited me to be a guest blogger for today.  Just be yourself, she said comfortingly.

Myself, at present, is a jangle of pre-book nerves, so I guess that, as much as anything, is something to share.  Yep, it’s that first word, blank page time again.  The first two books of my historical thriller trilogy (try saying that three times fast) are finished and published.  And now there’s just the third to write.  Just the third?

Deep breath.

When I started my second novel, Crusade, my UK editor called it “second album time” implying this book would be harder to write, and get right, than the first.  Was it harder?  I expect, when I was rushing to meet the deadline, if anyone had asked – are you finding Crusade harder to write than Brethren? – I would have collapsed in a shuddering heap and shrieked YES! at them.  But now…looking back?  No, not harder.  Different.

I think that’s the problem – and I expect any novelists out there who have written more than two could probably give an even more interesting insight into this than I can – it’s that the experience of each book seems so different from the last that when it comes to write another it feels a little like the first time again.  Can I really do this? – you ask yourself, staring at the blank page and imagining little black lines of text creeping away into infinity.  And, in fact, how on earth did I do it the first two times?

Brethren began, just over seven years ago, as a single novel in first person and some – I’m still not entirely sure – how ended up as the first of a trilogy told in third person, that would span five decades from the last Crusades in the Holy Land to the fall of the Knights Templar in France, with over one hundred characters and a narrative that is half-fact, half-fiction.  Throughout the early stages I had no idea that it would ever be published – I didn’t have an agent.  I also had no real clue as to how to write a novel.  I’d written two before, but I’d finished both with a sense of relief, glad that particular out-pouring was done, and consigned them happily to a sock drawer after a half-hearted attempt at publication.  Brethren was different in that I really believed in it.  But the writing and the research were steep learning curves.  In the end I had eleven versions of the novel on my computer and by the time I was signed up by a publisher, I had rewritten it so many times that the various plot tangles that ensued took me several months to unravel with the help of my editor.

Book two was an utterly different experience.  I was able to put into practise everything I’d learnt during Brethren, which meant Crusade, although longer, took me eleven months to write rather than seven years.  Wary of another tangle I wrote a road map in the form of a detailed chapter breakdown (around 30,000 words) that I kept beside me as I worked.  Some writers I’ve told this to have shuddered at the thought, imagining it to be horribly restricting. For me it was comforting.  The novel did change as I wrote.  Some characters ended up speaking more than I’d intended them to, others died unexpectedly, certain plot strands were better in synopsis than in reality, others appeared, took shape.  I updated my map every so often to reflect these changes.

I know many writers and our methods are so different I’m amazed how we all end up with finished novels on bookshop shelves.  One novelist I know writes her books utterly painstakingly from first word to last, unable to move forward until each paragraph, each word is perfect.  Another writes his books at top speed hardly editing at all, then goes back through and spends months polishing them.  I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Now it’s my third: Requiem.  I’ve done my research, written my road map and I’m ready to go.  Monday’s the day I start and I have another tight deadline in which to finish a journey that by then I’ll have been on for almost a decade.  No doubt, come Monday, I’ll employ any number of those quirky, novelist avoidance tricks.  I’ll do the washing, scrub the bathroom, get drawn into unproductive oblivion by the Internet and probably get as far as thinking about cleaning the kitchen bin at which point I’ll hopefully decide that writing is actually more pleasant.  And I’ll get on with it.

I opened a copy of Crusade this morning and saw something that made me smile.  It was that page at the front which says: Other books by this author.  And there was actually one listed!  I know why publishers put that page in now.  It’s got nothing to do with advertising books and everything to do with reassuring authors.  Well, I like to think so anyway.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear some of your first word, blank page experiences and challenges, and what you do to get over it!