I Am Scared of Writing My Third Book

When I was a kid, I used to wonder what took authors so long between books.

I couldn’t fathom why Emily Rodda or Geoffrey McSkimming or JK Rowling would take years to produce the next instalment of Rowan of Rin or Cairo Jim or Harry Potter. What were they doing – swanning around their writery mansions, swimming in backlit infinity pools, drinking cocktails? I didn’t understand how, if you had a publisher, and money, and time, it could take more than a few months to churn out a new book.

Man, am I eating my words now I’m working on my third book. This shit is nowhere near as easy as it looked.

The conditions I’m working in are bloody awesome though, and I actually haven’t blogged about them since they all transpired.

In summary, early this year I signed a two-book deal with the legends at Text Publishing. I was so stoked. My agent, Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary, pitched The Brink and there was a bidding war between two publishers, which had me practically pissing my pants with excitement. Both publishers were amazing and I could’ve happily signed with either (a good problem to have), but the incredible team at Text were the right fit at this stage in my career and I was so heartened that they really understood my voice and who I am as an author, and wanted to nurture it.

More pragmatically, they gave me a bunch of CASH. Yeahhhh boi! The advance was very nice, and meant I could make a go at being a full-time author, which has been my dream since I was seven. It was an epic moment of arrival.

I got to work fast: I had to deliver the structural edits of my second novel, The Brink, by the end of August this year (the book will be published August 2022). With no day job to distract me, I worked quicker than expected, submitting the edited manuscript to my publisher by mid-July – six weeks ahead of deadline.

At the time, I think I knew there was a rumbling unease in me, because I made sure to labour the point to my publisher: please don’t get used to me being early with deadlines.

On one hand, it’s just solid business sense to under-promise and over-deliver. Plus, deadlines in the publishing world are (tacitly) made to be broken, and most of us realise that as we get a little further into our career. As Douglas Adams famously said, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’

That said, I had no intention of not sticking to my next deadline – but I had the vibe it wasn’t going to be easy.

After finishing The Brink, I was meant to go straight to work on Book Three, a contemporary novel for adults. I’d already completed the first draft in May 2020, so it was a case of reworking the story into a stronger second draft, to be delivered to my publisher by the end of November this year.

But once I was done with The Brink, I felt immediate resistance to my third book.

At the time, I rationalised it as me needing to take a bit of breather. After all, The Brink is really fucken intense.

So, since I was well ahead of schedule, I decided to take a short break.

I sat with my master list of planned creative projects and thought about which project I could tinker with as a light distraction. I could play with ideas for my fourth book – the intended sequel to Invisible Boys. I could return to a fantasy novel. I could add to my nearly-complete short fiction collection.

But none of those ideas appealed, because they all required emotional investment: writing them meant dredging up feelings.

Ah, there was the rub: I did not want to deal with real shit.

Once I understood that, my path forward was clearer. I started a new, fun project I have no intention of finding a traditional publishing home for: an eight-part novella. I am writing it purely for the love of writing and the world it’s set in.

That worked. For a few weeks, I wrote fast and had fun. I laughed. My main character is a smart arse. I like his voice and how he’s a brat.

But once I reached chapter six, I slowed down, then ground to a halt. I didn’t want to finish the novella, cos once it was complete, I’d have no excuse to not work on Book Three.

This is the nebulous shadow that’s been lurking in the corner of my eye, a truth I’ve been avoiding: I am very scared of writing my third book.

And it’s not for the reasons I might’ve expected.

It’s not the weight of expectation of writing a follow-up to a successful debut (I already went through that shit with The Brink – and that pressure was not fun).

It’s not about the shift to writing for an adult audience (most of my readers are adults anyway, and those who are older teens will be adults by the time this third book is published).

It’s not even about the premise of the story itself (I reckon it’s killer and people will love it – I hope so, anyway!).

No, the fear is the real shit I am going to have to deal with in order to write it.

The only way writing a novel works for me is if it is a vehicle to tell my own truths. The end product is made-up characters and an invented plot for others to connect with, but the seed from which a book germinates is always my own lived experience.

Invisible Boys was an exorcism of the teenage shame that left me psychically pockmarked; The Brink is a coming-of-age novel about being a misfit and what it means to want to burn yourself down.

The difference with these first two books was how much distance I had from them. The Invisible Boys are sixteen; the protagonists in The Brink are eighteen. I’m thirty-three now and although I am intimately present in both books, and writing them changed me massively, they are tackling older wounds from my younger years.

My third book is different. It’s about where I am now. I’m reflecting on what has happened since the Saturn Return of my twenty-ninth birthday. This book is about identity and relationships, conformity and individuality, acceptance and abandonment, abuse and escape, liberation and fallout. It is about what happens after the dust has settled.

During these past four years, there have been so many public highs, career-wise, that I know many people’s perception of my life is that it is charmed and that I am lucky. Professionally, they are probably correct.

But there have been many enormous unseen lows in my personal life which has made for such a schizophrenic four years in that regard. Almost every time I was being applauded or congratulated for something going well in my career, I was privately devastated by stuff going on in my personal life.

The truth of the last four years is that they have simultaneously been the best and worst four years of my life.

To write this third book, I have to take my blinders off and look at this time, and where I have landed now, with no illusions. I am going to have to write in real time about my present condition and ask myself: Where the fuck am I now? Who the fuck am I now? What the fuck am I even doing here? When I’m not telling my social media followers that I’m stoked and pumped about this achievement or that – how do I really feel?

Despite everything I’ve learned about making space for all emotions, this year I’ve still fallen into the trap of trying to keep a lid on how shit I’m feeling. Out of some sense of being grateful for what I have, or not wanting to seem negative, or not being an artist having an existential meltdown while the world is a fucken tyre fire.

Anyway, that’s bollocks and I should’ve known better. The world remains a tyre fire whether or not I add my kerosene to the blaze.

And I know the only path to feeling happy personally is the same path to feeling fulfilled professionally: I need to be expressed in writing in an honest and unfettered way. No pretending I’m fine when I’m not. No bullshit.

That’s all it takes.

My resistance to Book Three was not without merit, though. One thing I’ve learned, repeatedly, is you can’t write about something if you’re still going through it.

I’ve been grieving a lot of stuff for four years – broken relationships, rejection from tribes I thought I belonged to – but I’ve been treading water, impotently pinballing between denial and anger. After finishing the first draft of this book, I segued into the bargaining stage of this colossal relational grief. I was scrabbling around a dark cave, blindly looking for an exit that did not exist. Maybe if I always do x, and I never do y, then I won’t need to lose this person or that person from my life.

The bleedingly obvious truth is that no healthy relationship requires you to contort and suppress yourself in order to be tolerated. There was never a way out of that cave. Separation and departure were inevitable if I was to survive intact.

My task now is not to escape the cave, but to accept that it is where I live, and learn to allow my eyes to adjust to the gloom.

Although painful, I’ve recently been able to end that onanistic bargaining stage, which means I’ve now landed squarely in depression.

At the moment, most days, I feel lonely, isolated, burnt-out and bleak. I am often empty; sometimes I feel like a husk. I remind myself this is temporary and a part of the process, and although it sucks big hairy donkey balls, I can cope with it and it won’t finish me off.

But it’s still not the place to write a friggin novel from.

So, I’ve decided to pause this book until I’m in the right headspace for it. I’ve negotiated with my (very understanding) publisher to deliver Book Three at the end of March 2022 instead.

I feel like I’ve become one of those authors taking a while between new projects, though rest assured I am not swanning around in my author mansion (mostly because I do not have a mansion; I live in the hood yo). I’ll still be hectic with workload – finishing my novella, copy edits for The Brink, all the other busy paid work of being an author, plus several unannounced projects underway.

But when I’m not working, instead of mining my deepest darkest for nuggets of literary gold, I’m gonna chill the fuck out, man. I’m gonna stop putting my brain and my heart under the artistic microscope for a couple of months. I’m gonna spend the rest of this year living, chilling, processing, doing normal humanoid stuff and letting myself naturally shuffle from depression to the final stage: acceptance.

I think this rest is an essential part of the creative cycle.

Next year, I’ll return to Book Three, and enjoy writing for what it is: an alchemical confession box, a lightning rod of catharsis and expression, and the best medicine I know.

Holden