Second Novel Squeeze

Guest post by Tamara Hunter

Toni Jordan had what was, by any measure, a dream run with her satirically funny debut novel, Addition. Sold into 16 countries, it featured as ‘Comedy of the Summer’ on Richard and Judy’s Book Club – the British equivalent to the trend-setting Oprah version – and overnight shot from 280,000+ on the list of Amazon top sellers to 21.

Glowing reviews, interviews and the sale of film rights followed. But when the brouhaha faded away and Jordan sat down to write her second novel, the nightmare began. With others standing around expectantly, waiting for her to produce something as good or even better, Jordan began to sweat. Sitting at her computer day in, day out, she found that contrary to the relatively easy, free-flowing experience she’d had the first time around, she was having to force herself across what seemed like an abyss.

“I sat there for a year,” she said at the Perth Writers Festival. “I was second guessing myself and I was thinking about what everyone would think and thinking ‘How did I do this the first time?’ My husband would come home from work, look at me sitting at the computer and say: ‘You look like you’re constipated’.”

Her mother didn’t help by ringing her one day and randomly asking her the name of ‘that Gregory Peck film’.

“I said ‘To Kill a Mockingbird?’” said Jordan. “And she says ‘You know that woman never wrote another book – one book,  that was all she ever wrote.’ And then she goes ‘Margaret Mitchell, same thing, only one book’. I said ‘No, not quite the same thing, she got hit by a bus, but anyway’. But I think she was actually trying to say, in her twisted way, you’ve written a book – just relax, it’s okay.”

When Jordan eventually handed the manuscript to her publisher, she got the reception she’d been dreading.

“He used this very technical editing term – let me see if I can remember it. Oh yes: God awful.”

But rather than crushing her, the reaction – along with a few sage pieces of advice as to how she might revamp her characters and plot – galvanised her.

“Somehow that was the thing I’d been worried about for over a year, that people wouldn’t like it and it would be awful,” she says. “Suddenly I had nothing else to worry about.”

By the time Jordan had made the train journey home she had already decided how she was going to fix it. She completed a redraft within four months and the result is her second novel – the romantic comedy heist Fall Girl. Although Jordan still regards it as her second draft, the final novel doesn’t have a single sentence in common with the first draft. In the rewrite, she introduced six new characters, reversed the gender of key characters and layered another plot over the first one, which became only a minor part of the story.

Jordan said she was a big believer in the power of the subconscious to work things out, and that even as she was writing her tortuous first draft, the back of her head was working out how it really should be.

 “This was such an interesting experience because I am so new to this whole creative writing thing,” she said. “Addition was the first piece of creative writing I’d ever done. I didn’t start until I was nearly 40 – I had never done anything creative before. I think I am still finding my own process.”

Established novelist Melina Marchetta, who wrote the much-loved, award-winning Looking for Alibrandi, also struggled to get over the second novel hurdle. It took her 11 years to attempt her second book, Saving Francesca.

Asked about who she was speaking to when she wrote, Marchetta said she avoided writing for anyone else, instead focusing on the character she’s writing about and blocking out everything else.

“The only time that I didn’t try to block it out was after Alibrandi – and I didn’t write for 11 years,” she said. “So that was a lesson to me. I’m not saying that I’ll never get over the fact that I didn’t produce a book in 11 years, but Alibrandi was kind of in my life. It was bigger than me, and it’s probably the novel that I can speak about the least because I didn’t know what I was doing. So I produced something that people loved and they’d say ‘Do it again!’ and I’d think ‘God, I don’t know how I did it the first time’.

“Whereas with the other books, I love those – I mean I love Alibrandi, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I don’t but I don’t know how to talk about it in the same way as Francesca on because I am so aware of my process and I love the fact that I’m aware of my process. And so I just trust what I’ve done, and I think it’s worked for me.”

Toni Jordan is a former research assistant and molecular biologist who went on to marketing, copywriting and a  regular column in The Age newspaper. She spent seven years in the 1980s examining one protein in horse blood to help determine parentage in racehorses – only to be gazumped by the discovery of DNA testing in the 1990s.

Melina Marchetta is an award-winning novelist and former teacher. She burst onto the Australian young adult literary scene in 1992 with Looking for Alibrandi, which was subsequently made into an award-winning film starring Greta Scacchi, Anthony LaPaglia and Pia Miranda. Her other novels are Saving Francesca, Jellicoe Road, Finnikin of the Rock and her latest book, The Piper’s Son.

More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival >

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