What took me so long?

NOT The Likeness. but a photo by Andrewrabbott – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18569561

The sequel to The Figurehead is finished. It’s called The Likeness and, as well as having another death for John Grant to investigate, it also follows the development of his relationship with Helen Anderson. There are three main threads or themes to the story but revealing them might involve spoilers so you’ll just have to take my word for that. There are, though, two things about it that provoked this blog: 1) my struggle with the ending, and 2) the fact that it took me four years to write it. Each of the first drafts of all my other novels took well under a year.

I hadn’t intended to write a sequel to The Figurehead but a few readers said they wanted to know how the John/Helen relationship developed and, when I started wondering about that myself, I realised I was curious, too. I also liked the idea of returning to the Aberdeen of the 1840s. So, like so many things in life, the whole process was accidental. I wrote The Figurehead because a friend suggested I should write about a figurehead carver, and its sequel because of the curiosity of some readers. But why did it take four years?

I’ve no idea. The opening went well and quickly and, once I had a body, the rest began to follow on. Who was she? Why was she found in that state and that particular (nasty) place? Who and what were her connections? Discovering and unravelling all this was intriguing and enjoyable. Then, after about 18 months, it slowed and more or less stopped. The various threads had been developed, Helen was about to board a vessel to sail away and John was well advanced in his creation of the likeness, but I kept finding reasons to do other things. In the end, I had to force myself to get back to it. I sat for ages trying to work it all out, wrote slow chapters, deleted them, started again, but found it hard to reconnect with the characters. I genuinely wondered at one stage whether to just give up on it altogether – and I’ve no idea why. I just did other things, wrote short stories, gave workshops in schools, did the occasional bit of commercial work, even tried starting another novel.

Then, earlier this year, I made myself reread everything I’d written and actually forced myself to get back to it. Bizarrely, it worked, and soon I was regularly adding to it, getting to know the people again and feeling excited about how it was going. I knew the last two chapters were going to be tricky but, rather than being put off by that, I liked the idea of the challenge and I got through the first version of them very quickly.

But it wasn’t yet over. Three friends beta-read it, said nice things about it but all – with degrees of insistence ranging from gentle to uncompromising – raised doubts about the ending, doubts which confirmed what I felt myself. I’m not telling you any specifics but, as I rewrote the final chapter over and over again, I was very aware that I was in a fight with Helen. I’ve come to know her very well and I felt sometimes as I wrote I was doing her an injustice. I’d write something then think ‘No, she wouldn’t say that. That’s not who she is. Etc., etc.’ So, gradually, the ending evolved and reached a point at which I and all the characters were in agreement. Strangely, the specific outcome at the end is only slightly different from my first attempt at the resolution but it comes about for different reasons and is reached via a different route.

The Likeness will be published later this year. It’s not essential to have read The Figurehead first but it’ll be double the enjoyment if you do.