By Christine Piper
Author Christine Piper was struck by a difficult case of sophomore syndrome. (Supplied: Timothy Lee)
Writing a novel a year and finally getting published at 40: how five writers got their starts
Writing a book is often likened to having a child: the idea grows inside you until, after the agony of labour, it enters the world.
But the reality is a bit different. With writing, the agony lasts several years, and you may never get your bouncing baby.
My first novel, After Darkness, had a long gestation. I wrote it as part of my degree, and like many PhD students, I started off with big dreams of changing the world.
Almost five years later, burnt out and in debt, I was just happy if the markers passed me.
I figured I might be able to publish my novel in a few years’ time if I was lucky.
So I was shocked to discover, just before submitting my dissertation, that I’d won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award — meaning my novel would be published in just a few short months.
It was released in 2014 and was ultimately shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Though grateful the fruits of my labour had come to fruition, I came down with a case of the imposter syndrome: the feeling that my first success was a fluke, and as the public would discover the truth with my next effort.
So for my second novel, I set the bar high.
I envisioned a sweeping historical tale on the high seas, tracking a pair of Australian lungfish on their journey from Taronga Zoo to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and the attempts by two unlikely lovers to steal them.
Soon after I got the idea, however, I put the project on the back burner due to the birth of my first child (that’s when the real difference between books and babies hit home — babies are so much harder after they come out).
Once I returned to work, I did some research, wrote an outline and then floundered for 18 months.
I conscientiously sat at my desk three to four days a week, typing at the pace of a wounded sloth, unable to get beyond a few overworked chapters and a clutch of inauthentic characters.
The sophomore slump
I was in the throes of “the difficult second book” — otherwise known as second-book syndrome, or what Americans call “sophomore slump”.
It’s a phenomenon whereby a subsequent effort fails to live up to the first.
Harper Lee famously suffered from drinking, self-doubt and decades-long writer’s block in her attempt to write a follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird.
American author and MIT professor Junot Diaz considered a career change during the 11 years it took to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Markus Zuzak took 13 years to write his follow-up to The Book Thief (not technically his first book, but his first adult book), writing and rewriting it, then abandoning it at his wife’s behest, only to return to it again until Bridge of Clay was finally complete.
It’s not only writers who are afflicted.
Writer-director Richard Kelly followed his cult debut Donnie Darko with the apocalyptic mess, Southland Tales.
Sex, Lies and Videotape put Steven Soderbergh (and the fledgling American indie-film industry) on the map, but his next directorial effort, Kafka, was described as “overwrought, over-long and over-indulgent”.
TV’s Lost was unable to deliver on the promise of its dazzling first season.
In sport, it’s known as second-year syndrome: the bane of star rookies everywhere.
Musos are equally susceptible, with The Strokes, Alanis Morrissette and The Darkness all disappointing fans with their follow-up albums.
Get out of your head
Although sophomore slump can be explained statistically as an effect of regression towards the mean, it’s mostly due to mental self-sabotage.
I was stymied by a creative paradox. Although I finally had the time and money to write, I felt crushed by the weight of expectation, however real or imagined it was.
I tried to perfect every sentence and stubbornly stuck to my vision for the story, complete with an arch omniscient narrator befitting a Proper Literary Novel, or so I thought.
Now four years into my next novel, I’m happy to report the past 18 months have been very fruitful.
Realising my need for regular deadlines and feedback, I engaged a freelance “writing coach” to whom I sent work to every fortnight.
In this way I made it to the end of a long first draft. Now the thorny process of revision begins.
I’ve discovered a new area of interest, too.
The flow state
During my fortnightly writing binges, under the pressure of an approaching deadline (or often several hours past it), I found there was a point where my internal critic fell away and the words poured out of me.
I was in the zone, otherwise known as the flow state.
It’s a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the optimal feel-good state where mind and body seem to merge and productivity soars.
Hoping to experience it more frequently (and not just at 3:00am), I researched it and applied the principles to my life, aiming to write first thing in the morning when flow is most likely to occur.
I also set myself a goal to write 500 words an hour instead of my usual 200.
And because the flow state only lasts a couple of hours, I stopped while it was still morning.
Physical, repetitive tasks such as walking in nature, gardening, yoga and folding origami (or the washing) helped get me into the zone.
When I managed to get out of bed early enough and sequester myself from a demanding toddler, these strategies largely worked.
Whatever your approach to tackling your next big project, try to ignore the demons in your head.
Don’t think about your audience or the end goal, do it for yourself.
The best books, films and shows are made in the spirit of exploration, unfettered by preconceived notions of what the project could or should be.
And forgive yourself.
When I finally realised I would not be able to finish my second book before I had a second child (I’m due to give birth in seven weeks — one would think a four-and-a-half year gap enough time to complete another novel, but alas, it was not) and took my foot off the pedal, my imagination had space to breathe.
Christine Piper is the 2019 Copyright Agency New Writer-in-Residence at the University of Technology, Sydney. She will discuss her writing process at a free public talk on October 16.