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First person, first draft – The Story of a Second Novel

My Natural Habitat!I haven’t posted anything about my writing since the new year, but many of you know my current project is to write the first draft of my second novel in six months, finishing by the end of 2014. It’s a self-imposed deadline, because I have something to prove. I’m very grateful to have the support of so many people spurring me on and asking how it’s going.

But I need to rewind before I can unwind. In just over two weeks, I’ll be back on this gorgeous terrace in Provence where two years ago I wrote the short story on which my new book is based, staying up ’til midnight several nights in a row. It was a game-changer. Everyone thinks I’m joking but that piece was a personal protest against the depiction of female sexuality in Fifty Shades of Grey (I’d recently read the first volume). It came pouring out with a conviction that I hadn’t experienced writing my first novel, then out on submission to agents. I experimented with a different style. It turns out that is my style.

It was the best thing I’d written by far and if that sounds cocky, the sting was that I realised my novel was very mediocre. I was feeling disheartened at my lack of progress and when the new story was shortlisted in the Asham Award and the judges described it as ‘novelistic’ in their very generous comments, they gave me the hope I needed. Someone who didn’t know me thought I could write. I paid for a professional edit, rewrote the novel with confidence and passion and the other missing ingredients, got lots of interest, got a brilliant agent and the rest isn’t history – it’s my present, and I continue to hope, my future.

The story, set in Paris,  had a complete arc already.  I spent months dreaming up new strands, subplots, etc to expand it into a full-length novel before agreeing with my agent that zooming in was the way to go rather than panning out. It makes a huge difference having the benefit of Diana’s advice and experience this time around – it’s not half as lonely as before.

I had a feeling this was going to be intense, but that was the whole idea.

Since I began writing it three months ago, I’ve worked on the manuscript six days out of seven, and last week when both our sons were away, I really went for it, blocking out all distractions until my husband got home from work. In theory I’m knocking out the first draft to have something to work with – a common approach that makes a great deal of sense (and not how I wrote the first one).

In practice, I soon found that sticking to the first draft ‘rule’ of not editing as you go and leaving wrong turns to sort out later doesn’t suit me at all.  Nobody can tell you how to write your book. I admire anyone who can cope with it, but I’d find it intimidating having to confront a giant shapeless monster at the next stage.  I’m not a fast writer and whilst I can edit (full manuscripts) for eight hours a day, I found doing 2 three-hour stints a day rather than one completely exhausting – locating the words and ideas in my head is one thing, translating them into sentences someone might actually enjoy reading is another, and it’s not something I want to rush. That’s the part I absolutely love.

There have been a few surprises. I never thought I’d get hung up on wordcount and I’m still sceptical about it as a benchmark of progress (I wrote at least 200,000 words to get my final count of 88,000 for book one) but you have to measure it somehow. I’m on course to meet the magic target of 40,000 words before I return to ‘my’ pool amongst the vines in mid-August. It’s often said that if you get this far, you’ll finish the novel, but I knew that already.  It helps that I know how it ends!

The drawback of my editing habit is that the day invariably starts with me chopping a load of the previous session’s output. On the face of it that’s depressing, but overall I have a better sense of knowing what I’m doing this time and the confidence to do it my own way. Reading back over previous chapters helps me focus on where I’m going. I have my outline, but it’s only the equivalent of the numbers in a ‘join the dots’ that also needs colouring in. This is a story that’s very dependent on character dynamics and motivation which only fully reveal themselves to me in the making. It’s obviously very ropey – it’ll take as long as it takes to get right and it won’t be easy.

The second big surprise is that I’m writing it in the first person. All my short fiction has instinctively been first person but I always thought it would be impossible to sustain over 80,000 words. After only five chapters in third person the rawness and immediacy of the protagonist was missing. It felt distant and unengaging. I had to let her tell this story in her own voice – the words may come from me but they belong to her.

One of the issues new writers face is the pressure to deliver the dreaded sales hook. I’m deliberately not revealing the premise of this story online, but I’ve discussed it with a few people and the universal reaction is ‘OOH!’ which is very exciting. Another is the likeable characters/wanting to fall in love with the characters thing (I wrote about this here). This frustrates me as I don’t personally need or want this from every book I read.

The best way to describe my relationship with my protagonists is that I feel for them. I do also like them – I wouldn’t choose to spend so long with characters I disliked – but they are complicated and flawed, a mixture of postive and negative, because that’s my perception of real people and of myself. I can’t second guess how anyone else might respond – one of the most rewarding aspects of sharing my first book has been the astonishing diversity of reactions (and a special thank you to those who’ve read it recently – your encouragement was a real morale boost!)

DSCN8775So like all novels for all writers, this one is a commitment, an investment and a risk. The protagonist’s voice is the only one and she behaves in a way that will provoke strong views. There’s something very exposing about that, especially in first person. Will people think it’s me?* Of course some will (they invariably do), but I can’t write this novel at all if I let myself worry about that. All fiction is autobiographical to a degree: not necessarily in terms of action or mentality, but in the sense that everything that makes it onto the page has somehow, in some form, passed through the filter of the author’s mind. That is the one part you can’t deny. I get a real kick from reading fiction that is bold and emotionally honest, with a voice that sounds real, that asks questions to which there are no easy answers.

That’s the kind of book I want to write.

*It’s not me.

I’d love to hear how your writing’s going. Do you have a specific goal at the moment?


Next week in the final post before I disappear, my personal Poolside TBR List. I’ve already read everything on my Summer Reads – find out what I’ll be reading on my sunlounger.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


30 thoughts on “First person, first draft – The Story of a Second Novel

  1. What an excellent post, Isabel. I’m so glad your second novel is going well so far. You’re absolutely right that we all work in different ways, and no one can tell you how to write a novel, but what’s also interesting, I think, is that sometimes we end up writing each of our own novels in completely different ways.The method you describe in this post is exactly how I wrote my first two books, and it was what I felt suited me (although I found it a long and sometimes tortuous process). However, I’m now working on my third novel, and the story is pouring out so fast that I’m just steaming ahead with only the tiniest amount of editing along the way. The danger is that I may well have a large, shapeless monster to contend with at the end, but at the moment, it just feels right. Sometimes, I think we really do have to follow our instincts. Good luck, and I hope it continues to go well – I’m sure you’ll meet your self-imposed deadline!

    Posted by Susan Elliot Wright | July 29, 2014, 13:54
    • Thanks, Susan, that’s really interesting that you’ve changed tack. I can relate to it because although this is only my second novel, it feels right to approach it in a completely different way and let it pour out (relatively speaking!) My first one took so long because I was learning to write as well as learning how to write a novel!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 29, 2014, 17:21
  2. Excellent post, Isabel. I’ve been writing my first book editing as I go (partly because I’ve had to submit bits of it for various academic courses) and it’s become frustrating. I’m going to attempt to do a complete first draft of the second before I do any editing; I’ll let you know how that goes!

    The other great thing about this post is that I’m now absolutely desperate to read your books. Your comments about them make them sounds as if they’d be just my thing.

    Posted by naomifrisby | July 29, 2014, 14:03
    • Thanks, Naomi and please do keep me updated on the first draft uncut. I wish I were less of a control freak, but we can only work with what we have…
      And your second comment really made my day – thank you so much for saying that!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 29, 2014, 17:22
  3. Dear Isabel,
    Congratulations for having the courage to take on a new approach – you deserve success for your perseverance and your patience. Your modus operandi is not one I could adopt myself, but circumstances alter cases, and you have time on your side in a way that I don’t. As you know I was 79 when my first novel came out, and here I am two years later having just published my third! I am sure if I had been a lot younger I would have done lots of editing and re-writing, but when I finished my latest, Billy’s War, I was so excited because it was so much better than anything I’d written before and I was not convinced that six further months’ work would bring so much improvement that it was worth sacrificing the sequel that I’m already planning! Remarkably it took less than six months from conception to publication – I had made three or four false starts after completing The Heat of the Kitchen, and was feeling thoroughly depressed in mid-November 2013, but then wakening from a post-lunch snooze (well, you’re allowed that at my age!) I had the germ of an idea which I started working on; at 10 o’clock the following morning I printed out a 1,500 word synopsis, which I pretty well stuck to until I’d finished. Unfortunately Joan, my wife, broke her wrist in early February, and I lost two months writing in consequence. I took it up again in early April, and Billy’s War, 80,000 words long, was finished by the end of June. It’s amazing what ‘Time’s wingèd chariot’ can make you do! I’m happy to say that the way it’s been received so far is very encouraging, both in terms of opinions expressed and in terms of sales.
    Like you, I’m off to Provence next week – to the same place we went to last year and the year before (well, it does belong to my daughter, so we don’t even have to pay!) Are you going to the same place you were in in 2012? If you remember we were going to meet, but then you had car trouble and I fell down a stone staircase and broke a couple of ribs – I wasn’t actually drunk, although I had had one or two, which was probably a good thing, because I fell in a fairly relaxed way – if I’d tried to stop myself falling I would probably have done a lot more damage!
    Anyway, have a great holiday, and good luck again with the work. If you are nearby and would like to meet, that would be great – I still have the same mobile no., and of course you have my email address too.
    Best wishes,

    Posted by Tony Whelpton | July 29, 2014, 14:21
    • Hi Tony and thanks for commenting. Wow, your output is nothing short of extraordinary! To start from scratch and have something fit to be seen within six months is beyond my imagination, so many congratulations on your success – you deserve a holiday after all that. I think I’ll probably just collapse in a rose-infused heap after the last few months – yes, it is the same place but a few weeks off still.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 29, 2014, 17:26
  4. V interesting insight into your writing process….good luck with it ….and enjoy your holiday in la belle France 😉

    Posted by hastanton | July 29, 2014, 14:53
    • Thanks, Helen. This will be the sixth time at this property (have rented the smaller one too so the kids can do their own thing and we won’t have to share the pool) and have lost count of the number of holidays we’ve had altogether in Provence. It is heavenly in every way!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 29, 2014, 17:28
  5. Hi Isabel
    It’s so great to read an update of your year…. and inspiring… I have spent most of my writing time this year on a forensic edit of Honor’s Ghost, now all but finished apart from final proofing. Can’t wait to read your second novel. Glad to know your well, and hope we get to catch up before the end of the year. Voula x

    Posted by voulagrand | July 29, 2014, 16:40
    • Thanks, Voula and congratulations! ‘Forensic edit’ sounds very glamorous but I know from experience that what that means is a lot of VERY hard work and perseverence. Do let me know if you need a beta reader – you did such a great job for me I’d be delighted to return the favour (and get your lowdown on the new one in due course!) Yes, hope to see you again soon.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 29, 2014, 17:30
  6. It sounds like your novel will be great, especially as you’ve had such great feedback. I like what you say about writing in first person. My natural tendency is to write in third person but like you, my protagonist needed her own voice, as an outsider with a strong story to tell. Will be glad and sorry to leave her when I get into book two!
    So impressed with your self imposed deadline – I’m sure you will do it, and I look forward to reading both books when published!

    Posted by electrasmoped | July 29, 2014, 17:59
    • I know what you mean, Ruth, I feel a real bond with Alex my protagonist even after a relatively short acquaintance! You must know everything about your MC by now. Letting my characters from book one go has been hard and I doubt I will completely until I get that story out there. Thanks so much for your support and enthusiasm for my writing.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 30, 2014, 19:37
  7. Great post, Isabel. You’re working your socks off! I’m still working on my third novel. Each of them has come together in different ways. Mrs S took years. My current WIP is almost ready for submission and only took 7 months to get to this point, it’s been like a whirlwind. I can hardly remember writing it, which is disconcerting but exciting. Ain’t life grand? Enjoy your holiday x

    Posted by louisewalters12 | July 29, 2014, 21:07
  8. What an exciting moment it must have been when you realised you had written something really fantastic! I’m like you Isabel – I can’t just slap out a first draft and then come back and edit – I have to edit as I go – each sentence flows from having the last one right. If that makes me slower, so be it.

    I’m about to start a new novel on a writing residency in october. Usually when I begin my books I have nothing more than the scarp of an idea but this one is very different. I have a rough idea of the plot (I had to write a synopsis for a grant application) and the themes are ones I’ve been thinking about for several years, as they are based on my experience with Post Natal Depression. I’ve also made many notes of different scenes. So I’ll be beginning a lot more prepared than I’ve ever been and I’m interested to see how different that makes the process for me.

    Best of luck with your big writing push – I hope it goes wonderfully for you.

    Posted by annabelsmith | July 30, 2014, 14:13
    • Hi Annabel, I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who can’t operate like that. You’re right, that was a big moment for me as there’s a huge difference between showing promise as a writer and standing any realistic chance of getting published (I’m still staggered how hard it is!) congratulations on winning the grant and residency – I’m finding it so much easier writing with a plan and hope you do too. Good luck!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 30, 2014, 19:45
  9. Great post, Isabel. Sounds like things are going really well, which is great. I’m sure the success you deserve is just around the corner.

    I’m just about to go away to a retreat to finish the final edit of my novel. This one has poured out in concentrated bursts but then I can’t edit for a very long time. I’m hoping that will change with novel 2! I also mull and plot a lot in my head before writing anything and I can’t see that changing. Time will tell I suppose!

    Have a lovely holiday x

    Posted by Amanda Saint | July 30, 2014, 18:56
    • Thanks, Amanda, I really hope you’re right! You’re really going places yourself and I hope the retreat goes well and that you’ll be ready to take York by storm! Can’t wait to read it having seen that very early draft.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 30, 2014, 19:47
  10. Love following your progress as you know I’m a big fan of your work. Good luck with book two – it sounds as if you really know where you are going with it and how to get there. Enjoy the journey and a well-earned break in France. x

    Posted by helenmackinven | July 31, 2014, 17:57
  11. Great post. As someone who is about to embark on a second novel (after a couple of false starts, 20k words of another that I might go back to in the future) – it’s nice to read that someone else has issues with the ‘rules’. I can’t seem to carry on if I don’t read through as I go. I’d be terrified of the shapeless monster! Also interesting that you are writing first person. I started my first novel in first person and didn’t feel I could sustain it, so added in some 3rd person chapters from other characters too. It ended up very different to how it started, but like you, I was learning to write as I was learning to write a novel… am quite excited about the next one now, I plan to keep going with a linear narrative, so quite different from my first. Have a lovely holiday!

    Posted by SJI Holliday | August 1, 2014, 11:04
    • Thanks, Susi, and congrats on your book deal – seeing debut writers get a break is always a huge inspiration! I have little time for “rules” – it’s good to realise you can write a decent novel all sorts of ways. As for first person, I never thought I could keep it up and there are challenges, but for this particular novel it feels like the only way to go!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | August 2, 2014, 08:07
  12. Just discovered this, Isabel, so apologies for the time lapse… fascinated by the fact this second novel originates from a short story – I have a short film & a radio play I wrote for CW assignments and their characters are nagging me relentlessly to be let loose – in particular I live the insight of delving deeper not panning out. Very helpful, thanks!

    Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 14:12
    • This sounds like something worth pursuing. That’s how I felt about my first novel and why I bothered rewriting it, etc. I’ll never completely let those characters go until I get that book out there. As for novels based on short stories, many are. I’ve heard it said that an idea that keeps growing is worth following and I definitely believe that.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 15:51
      • That’s very reassuring & encouraging… I’ll let my characters know next time they pop up nagging 😉 Thanks x

        Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 17:59


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