Right so, my second novel is due out later this year. And when I’ve stopped flying around like a runny blue arse, I expect to find out that this is where things get serious.
The first of my concerns is practical. My debut was published by a tiny independent press and sold maybe a thousand copies. As such, it didn’t matter than it contained slanderous references to Frankie Boyle and Rebecca Wade and attributed a quote from Nigel Farage to Joseph Goebbels: nobody was watching. With this one however, coming as it is from the estimable Tindal Street/Profile Books stable, I have to be more circumspect.
A case in point: this time round, sorting issues of copyright is my responsibility. In the book, I wanted to use the whole of a poem by the Surrealist Robert Desnos. Would I be able to do this without infringing copyright law? The standard length of time that a work is protected—or so I learnt after Googling assiduously for fully ten minutes—is death plus seventy years. Robert Desnos died in 1944. My maths isn’t great and I celebrated.
Then I realised. Permission would have to be sought. But from where? Who held the copyright to the poem in question? More Googling. The University of Texas gave me an address in Paris. I imagined some old French fellow, alone in his apartment, chuffing on a Gauloises; in a drawer in his kitchen, a yellowing sheaf of poems, given to him by Desnos himself. Wrote a letter, got it translated, sent it off. Heard nothing. Decided to find an alternative.
It had to be a love poem and it had to be written by a Surrealist. A Surrealist who had been dead for over seventy years. Shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought, given that the first Surrealist Manifesto was written in 1924. I began in high spirits. Could I find one? Could I hell. I went through every online resource I could find and, in addition to being bemused more consistently than at any time since I last watched TV, I discovered that the Surrealists were—collectively—the cleanest, longest-living bunch of artists ever to cross the desk of Robert Hughes. Not for them TB or syphilis or booze or suicide or any of the other longevity-limiting conditions so beloved of just about every other school of artists/thinkers you can think of. Every man jack of them lived to be 130 or more. In the end my chances of an easy out were scuppered; I had to take a punt on the Desnos after all. Apparently, the fellow never published the same version of his poems twice, so it’s got to stand a chance that someone, somewhere, will be confused enough not to sue. I can but hope...
Another of the concerns that make the lead-up to my second novel a time of trepidation as well as joy, is creative. I mean I’m looking forward to adding to my, ahem, oeuvre. I have the idea that this will make it easier to place work, that new stuff will be read differently because of what’s gone before. All magazines claim to read impartially but you’re not telling me that an unknown writer submitting a boundary-pushing piece of work will get the same benefit of the doubt as someone with a range of publications in their biog. In theory then, now that I’m up to novel number two, it will free me up to take more risks with my writing, be bolder. To write something intentionally badly, for example, or composed entirely of clichés.
In practice, however, I might have to be careful. I recently came late to the writing of a celebrated author. (When I say celebrated, I mean someone whose first two books were enormous cult hits; when I say came late, I mean the first of his I started reading was his seventh or eighth.) And the book I chose was bloody awful: baggy prose, continuity gaffes, preposterous plotting, the whole sorry works. It is inconceivable that it would have been published if his reputation didn’t precede him.
Now I’m not deluding myself about the prospects for my second book. I wouldn’t know an enormous cult hit if it landed on my toe. But even so. Given that I am notoriously bad at knowing when a piece is ready to be submitted, this potential shift in the writer/editor dynamic raises real concerns about the quality control of my future work.
It takes me ten or more drafts of a piece of writing to get it close to what I want it to say. That’s ten or more rejections. How ‘established’ do I have to be before my eighth or ninth draft starts getting nodded through? How many reviews of how many novels will it take before I begin to get away with writing that isn’t the best it can be? How many people making assumptions about the quality of a piece of unready writing—nearly there, perhaps, but not quite nailed—before I start to build a body of work that is actually toss?
Charlie Hill's second novel Books is due to be published in November 2013. We will be featuring an excerpt on the Writers' Hub within the next few months.