Writing a Second Book
By Dean Atta with advice from Sharon Duggal, Ben Faccini, John McCullough and Allie Rogers
In August 2018 I will leave New Writing South to embark on writing my second book. The Black Flamingo, a YA novel in verse, is due to be published by Hodder Children’s Books in August 2019. A year to write a book sounds like a long time but actually, because of editorial, production and marketing deadlines, the first draft has to be delivered by October 2018 and the final draft by March 2019. Some of the book is already written, as my agent needed a sample to pitch to publishers. This book was initially pitched simply as a poetry collection but my new editor at Hodder Children’s Books was enthusiastic about me writing a book for a teenage audience and we met to discuss how I could write a novel as a series of poems. Successful examples of this form include Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – both of which I would highly recommend, they are stunning stories with young, black, female protagonists. I am writing the coming of age and coming out story of a black, gay, teenage boy, from school to university with holidays of self-discovery to his grandparents’ homes in Cyprus and Jamaica. This will sound familiar to anyone who knows me. I want to write a story close to my own because I want there to be a story out there for young, black, gay boys to see themselves in and others to learn from and relate to in other ways. I know what I’m writing about, I know who I’m writing for and I know how I’m going to write it. Now I have to get down to the business of writing it. Through working at New Writing South over the past 18 months, and also at First Story, I have gotten to know some wonderfully successful and generous writers of poetry and fiction, so I have turned to them for advice for myself and anyone else embarking on writing a second book.
“Writing a second book is bloody hard work. It is slower and messier and tougher than I could have imagined. First novels simmer for years and fill notebooks that cover decades and whole chunks of our lives. They are the culmination of late night conversations and early morning revelations and somehow they get written and rewritten more times than we even realise. And, we go through this process in the bittersweet position of not having anyone looking over our shoulder (no agent, no publisher, no editor and no audience). Second books are not so – if you are lucky you have many people looking over your shoulder and time is often limited. My advice (including to myself) is to remember that you did it before so you can do it again. Try and bang out a complete rough draft as quickly as possible without too much reflection so you have plenty of time to redraft, edit, fix things, change things in the way you did with the first book – this is when the book will really be written. Be grateful you are in this position and most of all be kind to yourself because you know you can cross the finish line, you’ve already proved it.”
“I started my second book when my first book, Little Gold, was out on submission in search of a publisher. That wasn’t a deliberate strategy but it worked out rather well for me. Being on submission is excruciating, never knowing if today is the day you’ll get an offer and weathering the bumps and bangs of rejection, so having a new project to work on was a valuable distraction. My second book, Tale of a Tooth, arrived in the form of the insistent voice of the protagonist, four year old Danny White. I didn’t stop to consider if this was a sensible choice as a second book, I just wrote it because I had to. I’m sure there are plenty more sensible ways to approach the second book but I followed my usual strategy of writing what I felt I needed to write. This paid off for me when Legend, who published my first book, made me an offer for Tale of a Tooth. Tale of a Tooth was published in April 2018, just short of a year after my first book.”
“You’ve written one novel so you think you can write another. That’s the main trick the mind plays on you. I suppose you have to do your best only to allow what was helpful from the previous publication process to filter through. You need to get back to the world you inhabited before you were published, to both the insecurity of that and the freedom. I wrote my first novel without too much sense of choice. It just had to exist. With my second novel I felt each sentence had options, alternatives – and that threw me. The over-awareness was destabilising. So don’t take anything for granted. Don’t expect anything.”
“My biggest tip for writing a second book is not to worry if it takes a while. I wrote very little for two years after my first collection The Frost Fairs came out. Be patient and allow yourself the freedom to experiment and explore different themes, to try out new techniques and forms. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and take a few missteps. Growth happens at its own pace, and often at an unconscious level. Read lots of writers new to you and just enjoy the process of investigation and breaking fresh ground. You’ll get there, just like before.”