I am really nervous, sitting down to write this — almost more nervous than I am about the fact that The True Queen is out today. (You can buy it! Please do!) But I promised myself I’d do this once the long nightmare was over, because it’s helped me when other writers have talked about the hard parts.
Second book syndrome
I had second book syndrome in spades. Two things contributed to this. The revision process for my first novel Sorcerer to the Crown had been extensive and emotionally challenging. Now, I have absolutely no doubt it improved the book, and it also developed writing muscles I hadn’t even known existed. But by the time I was done with the book — or by the time it was done with me, which is more how it felt — I had spent so long considering external feedback, working in a way that I found quite counter-intuitive, that it was very hard to find my way back to the inner voice that tells you what you want in your writing, what you are trying to achieve.
The second thing was the attention. Sorcerer wasn’t a huge bestseller or anything like that, but it did receive a measure of buzz and it led to far more people reading my work than ever before. This was great and what I’d been working towards, of course, but it was also stressful. Suddenly I had to contend with the pressure of reader expectations. I really, really wanted to get the second book right. I was terrified of putting a foot wrong, and that’s death to creativity.
I started writing the second book in January 2015, right after turning in final edits on Sorcerer. I’d originally written Sorcerer as a standalone and we sold it as the first in a loose trilogy — the next two books were to be standalones set in the same world but focusing on different main characters.
I slogged through the first draft, trying to avoid googling “how to write second book???” more than once a day. I never really got to grips with my new protagonist, but I kept working, hoping this would remedy itself in the next draft. (It often takes me a whole draft to work out what a book should be about.) I completed a 120,000-word “this is not for showing ANYONE ever” zero draft in June 2015, then started revising.
As I revised, though, I started to worry. I still didn’t know my protagonist and that didn’t seem right — I had felt very sure of Sorcerer‘s Zacharias and Prunella from the start. I spoke with my editor, who suggested among other things that readers would want to see Zacharias and Prunella again.
All right, I thought. This draft and protagonist clearly aren’t working. Maybe the answer is to go back to the characters I — and my readers — already know and love.
So I decided to put my 120,000-word MS in the bin. It was painful, but I hoped I’d got all the wrong words out of the way, so I could write a good book now. I outlined a completely new version, with a new plot. This time it was a more traditional sequel, focusing on Zacharias and Prunella’s further adventures.
Between October 2015 and March 2016 I produced a new draft. I turned it in, keenly conscious that it was more holes than cheese, but hoping I’d be able to work it up into something decent with my editor’s help.
A couple of weeks later, my editor was let go.
I was passed on to my (great!) current editor, but before my former editor left the company, she very kindly sent me her notes on my MS. They required a significant rewrite of the book, but I’d known that was coming and it was a relief to have specific feedback after spending so long flailing in the dark with my draft. Sure, I was in for a lot of hard work and the publication date would need to be pushed back, but at least I had a place to start from and an idea of what to fix. Apprehensive but determined, I dived into the revision.
In total the rewrite took six months; I turned the revised MS in in August 2016. The draft clocked in at just short of 124,000 words. I told myself that it was all right that the draft felt terrible. It probably wasn’t as bad as I thought, and they could help me make it better, right?
In September 2016, my agent rang and told me that the revised MS I’d turned in was not publishable.
What it felt like
I felt like my head had been kicked in. I felt like I was failing over and over again, with no end in sight. I felt like a total loser.
At some point during the almost 4 years when I was working on this book (these books? they were not really the same book), I asked an author who’d published a trilogy what it had been like writing her second book. She said, “Have you watched The Night Manager?”
I had not. She said, “There’s a scene where someone gets beaten up, a torture scene, and it’s really brutal, really gritty. This person gets absolutely battered, and it just goes on and on and on. That’s what it felt like.”
We’ve got to go through it
After some discussion my publisher agreed to grant me yet another extension to allow me to start again from scratch.
There was something freeing in having been broken down so completely. This time I tried something I hadn’t done before, that I hadn’t quite dared to do. I stepped outside Regency England. I started from home — from Janda Baik, a fictional island in the Straits of Melaka, the stretch of water along which my family has lived and died since our forebears left China for Malaya. And I started with a protagonist with no memories and no magic, embarking on a perilous journey.
In the course of 2017 I wrote the book that would eventually become The True Queen. In 2018 I edited it and now, in 2019, it has been published and the thing is done.
The True Queen felt better than the previous versions from the outset, but that didn’t mean the process of writing it was not painful, full of stops and starts, clouded by doubt and uncertainty. At least once I had a screaming meltdown and had to be talked out of emailing my agent to say I couldn’t do it, I had to pull out of the contract.
But somehow I made it to the end. My feeling for the book now is like my feeling for its ordinary, long-suffering, well-meaning protagonist — Muna, who must leave her home and almost everything she cares for to set off on an adventure with an uncertain end.
I tried my hardest with the book; its aims are worthwhile aims. Whether the book achieves those aims is for readers to decide now. I hope they find in it what I always try to put in my stories — entertainment, reassurance and heart.