Monthly Archives: June 2014

Writers ask writers: ‘difficult second novel syndrome’

picisto-20140611023627-550765Today the Writers Ask Writers group comes together to celebrate the launch of a new book by one of the group: Dawn Barker’s second novel, Let Her Go. Fractured, her first, was a page-turner, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Dawn will be talking about Let Her Go here next week, the first in the new series 2, 2 and 2 on looking up/looking down.

The topic today is, well, topical: the so-called ‘difficult’ second novel.

If you google difficult second novel syndrome you’ll find pages and pages of angst and counter-angst from writers who have suffered from it, writers who haven’t, those with advice and those with analysis. Causes are multifarious, but most seem to fall generally into two camps: exhaustion (the first novel has drained the imaginative life from the writer) and expectation (the first novel has to be ‘bettered’—whether in terms of sales or critical reception or self-defined success).

I don’t remember feeling exhausted of ideas or energy for writing my second novel—possibly because I knew it was going to involve a lengthy research phase before I entered the writing phase. I began that before my first novel was published, so there was a period of overlap between them, in which I was editing The Sinkings and researching Elemental. One seemed to balance the other.

picisto-20140611032418-617083As for expectation: I wasn’t conscious then of specific ‘second novel’ pressure; I was too busy coming to grips with what I was trying to do conceptually and narratively with Elemental. Danielle Wood summed up this distinction brilliantly when it was put to her that, having written one novel, she now knew ‘how to do it’. She responded that all she had learned was how to write the novel she had written; she would now have to learn how to write the next.

Among the many things I had to learn in the early stages of Elemental were how to write a sustained work in the first person, how to structure a long novel covering a life of more than eighty years, how to pace past and present, immediacy and reflection, and how to create an unfamiliar world through memories not my own. And I learned in the way that works for me: through immersion in the past, through instinct, through questioning, through trial and error.

If you’d asked me then if I knew what I was doing, I’d have shrugged, I’d have shaken my head. There are times I might have cried, but there were not too many of those. Frequently I reminded myself that I had felt the same when writing Little Jock and Willa in The Sinkings, and somehow I’d managed in the end.

picisto-20140611033435-692936In retrospect, I can see that some of the pressure associated with publishing a second novel was circumvented by Inherited, a collection of short stories published between the two novels. That came about more by stealth than design—a gradual accumulation of material through a felt need to actually complete a few sprints during the marathon of the novel!

However, I’m prepared to rewrite history and call it a smart move.

You can click on the links below to read my friends’ views on the difficult second novel:

Annabel Smith found that the first gave her confidence to write the second. The biggest difference between them, she says, was the marketing.

Emma Chapman is still in the process of writing her second novel, and is finding it more relaxed but full of challenges.

Sara Foster was a new mother when she wrote her second novel and found the former more scary than the latter!

Dawn Barker found inspiration for her second novel from such disparate sources as Florence and The Machine and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

PWFC author collage


Filed under Writers ask writers

A June photo-reminder…

because there’s music in looking down…



Filed under Photo-reminders looking up/looking down

Six degrees…from stars to storm

#6degrees Rules

The nominated book for this month’s 6Degrees meme from Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I confess I have not yet tackled this one, although I plan to soon. At 800-plus pages, it represents a significant commitment of reading time, and this is what leads me to the second book in my chain…

Poor Fellow, My Country by Xavier Herbert, winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1975. This is an Australian classic I’ve been interested in reading ever since I edited an excellent literary biography of Herbert: A Long and Winding Road by Sean Monahan. But at 1400-plus pages—reputedly the longest work of Australian fiction ever published—it’s another one that must wait for the right time. One of Poor Fellow, My Country’s main characters is the Aboriginal boy Prindy, which brings to mind a novel I read recently…

Cicada, the debut novel by Moira McKinnon, also features a strong Indigenous main character, the domestic servant Wirritjil. To me, Wirritjil is the novel’s heart, a heroic, pragmatic woman who leads Lady Emily Lidscombe on an epic journey across the Kimberley region of Western Australia’s North West as Emily flees from her maniacal husband. Cicada opens with the birth, and immediate death, of a child, viscerally realised on the page, as does the next book in my chain…

The Burial by Courtney Collins, which is set in the mountainous bushland of rural New South Wales in the nineteenth century. The mother, Jessie—bushranger, horse thief, murderer—is on the run, and the novel is narrated by the voice of her dead baby. I have described it here as an Australian gothic, which immediately reminds me of…

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, another Australian gothic and another Australian classic. Set at the ghostly Hanging Rock in Victoria in 1900, the novel tells the tale of a group of schoolgirls who disappear. One of the girls is Miranda, and I can never hear that name without thinking of…

Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Prospero’s daughter of the same name. So this month’s chain has barrelled along from nineteenth-century gold-rush New Zealand to an island in the Mediterranean in the Renaissance.












If you’d like to join in, the rules for Annabel and Emma’s 6Degrees meme are above, and here are the links to Annabel’s post and Emma’s. And, of course, I’d love to read your 6Degrees chain.



Filed under 6Degrees

3, 3 and 3: Michael McCall, director/actor/writer/teaching artist

photo3, 3 and 3 features creative people doing creative things, and my June guest, Michael McCall, has done—and continues to do—many.

Is the face familiar? You may have seen Michael in theatre productions (What the Butler Saw, Macbeth, Ghost Train, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or a short film (he was nominated for Best Actor at the 2013 WA Screen Awards for One Night Only), or on television (Three Acts of Murder, Roll, The Shark Net). And he will soon be on screen in the feature film These Final Hours, which has just premiered at Cannes.

Behind the scenes, he has a long list of theatre directing credits, including two nominations for Best Director in the Equity Awards (The Deep Blue Sea and Missing), and has recently directed several short films (Tartan, a short film he also produced, was recently screened on ABC2).

Michael is also a writer and an educator in theatre and film, and is in the final stages of a PhD in Performing Arts at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

In other words, he’s a busy man, and I’m delighted that he has found time to talk about some of the things he loves.

3 things you love about what you do

1. Working in the arts has glamorous moments, but it’s still a tough old business, not for the faint-hearted. What keeps me hanging in there isn’t the tantalising idea of fame and fortune but the colleagues I am surrounded by every day. Film and theatre involve a high level of collaboration in what is oftentimes a Sisyphean journey, and this ensures that life is much less solitary. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good stories and witty anecdotes.

Being surrounded by individuals with broad talent and eclectic lived experiences has to be one of the major upsides to this bizarre and tumultuous artistic existence. So many of the people involved have depth; perhaps it’s their ability to share and imperative to communicate thoughts and ideas that create the space for this to happen. I love being around these people whenever I can.

2. Anyone who understands teaching will know that teachers are often born, not made, and I’ve been, according to my now thousands of students in Australia and America, fortunate enough to be one of the former. Of course, they could be lying. They are storytellers, after all.

My teaching came about because of the need to earn a living in some other fashion than barwork—an artistic cliché and my stock in trade, along with labouring, during the lean years of my early career. But over the years it has developed into a craft, and then into something more important. It has forced me to articulate what I believe I know about my craft and has demanded of me the continual elaboration and dedication and discipline needed to be relevant as a tutor. It is a natural part of the artistic experience, to pass on what you know. It’s provided me so much pleasure. It’s kept me warm on cold nights. It’s an incredible honour.

3. I love storytelling. I suspect it’s inherent in me—I’m a Scotsman of Southern Irish descent. My greatest creative pleasure is the imaginative exploration that occurs early in the process. The problem solving. The new life that is being produced. Imaginative exploration—yes, that’s the key for me. That’s not to say that my own life is boring. I jumped out of a plane last year, so I’m not lacking stimulation—some might say hyperstimulation. But the chance to watch the formation of a story taking place gives me utter delight. It’s particularly the case with work where I follow the process through from conception to presentation. We’re very lucky in Australia that we have such a long tradition of storytelling, reinventing and innovating over tens of thousands of years. Storytelling, then, could be said to be evolutionary—I think that’s as important as landing on a far-flung planet.

Skydiving reminded me of going on stage—the build-up, the door opening, the exit from the plane and then just being in the moment because you can’t go back, you can only go forward.

Skydiving reminds me of going on stage—the build-up, the door opening, the exit from the plane and then just being in the moment because you can’t go back, you can only go forward.

3 places you’d like to visit, or revisit

1. I love New York. I suppose that’s where the T-shirt comes from. New York captures the best and worst of the modern world—it’s an artist’s conundrum and paradise. It offers dreams and nightmares, but it is what it is and refuses to be defined. The energy is palpable. It actually takes a while to walk around Manhattan, not because it’s a big city—it’s really not—but because there is so much to take in. And every borough offers so much diversity.

I took this picture from a New York cab on the way to Brooklyn to see Steve Buscemi reading the poetry of William S. Burroughs, which one of my students got for me. It is an image of New York City you don’t often see.

I took this picture from a New York cab on the way to Brooklyn to see Steve Buscemi reading the poetry of William S. Burroughs, which one of my students got for me. It’s an image of New York City you don’t often see.

However, I also love to drive around upstate New York. Twenty minutes out of the city you hit the most wondrous mountain country along the two-lane blacktop. Immense rivers, wild deer, dense forest embrace you, and you would never believe that NYC was sitting on the edge of it all. New York State offers a feast for the senses.

2. I grew up in a rough working-class suburb of Glasgow during the darker years of Tory social engineering, which indelibly marked me. Perhaps this is the main reason I’m attracted to stories and projects that deal with social inclusiveness and injustice. With Thatcher’s devolutionary cry of ‘There’s no such thing as society’, my father, a fitter in the Glasgow shipyards, would take me with his workmates on the Yarrow Social Club minibus out to the beautiful lochs and deserted pale white beaches of Western Scotland to fish. These men embodied society for me. A close-knit and stoic bunch who wanted their sons and daughters to have an opportunity to take in the natural beauty of Alba each weekend and wanted to show us something special. Memories of fires on stony beaches, of wild deer startled in the undergrowth, of wading in cold dark water, of waves breaking over boats in the Irish Sea—all of these I hold dear to my heart. It was truly a special time, as childhood should be. It would be nice to go back there one day…

3. There’s a lot of the isolated world that I still want to see. Forests down south, savannahs, wastelands, frozen tundra… What concerns me is how much is being destroyed by what we are doing. I just hope that if I ever have kids, there will be some semblance of the world I love to show them. We’re at a crossroads and it can go one of two ways… Let’s hope we come together as a people to work it out. I think there’s a place for art in this task.

3 favourite moments on stage/screen

1. Working on What the Butler Saw at Belvoir Street Theatre as an actor. It was directed by Jim Sharman and starred Max Gillies, a very dear friend. It was probably the pinnacle of my acting career to date, and to be in a dressing room with a living legend like Max was something special. He represents to me the greatness of Australian storytelling. They don’t make them like Max anymore.

2. Working as a teaching artist in Leonora over a year and a half back in 2002–03. I was employed along with several others by Barking Gecko Theatre Company to work closely in an artistic capacity with the youth of the town. It was a pivotal experience where I realised that a successful career was about more than just me; it was also about the people I reached out to along the way. We made a difference through storytelling in all our different ways, and we were gifted with many stories, too. I got more from that opportunity than any other. Part of it was timing; part of it was realising what I wanted to do with my life. The audience, in whatever way they manifest, is always the priority for me.

3. Stories that matter are really important to me. Of course, this will always be subjective, but when I finish a book, or writing something, or watching a film, I feel that whatever it is that I’ve been engaged with should have changed me. Hopefully, that’s what happens when someone engages with my own artistic endeavours.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing working in the arts. Then I see pictures of myself like this and I chuckle—it’s so not me. When all’s said and done, my life is just a collage of images and words. And long may it continue.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing working in the arts. Then I see pictures of myself like this and I chuckle—it’s so not me. When all’s said and done, my life is just a collage of images and words. And long may it continue.

For more about Michael McCall, see Actors Now and IMDB.


Filed under 3 3 and 3 (creative people)