I haven’t exactly been unproductive during lockdown, but it has sucked for creativity. I’ve been kept in work by a couple of TV projects along with edits on The True Colour of a Little White Lie – then of course there were my twin lockdown projects, the podcast Was It Worth It and web-series The Pact. But those were born out of an almost desperate need to make something during this time, projects that never would have existed if somebody hadn’t eaten a pangolin in Wuhan.
But even before lockdown I was struggling a bit creatively. I got about halfway through writing what would have been book three in the Maggie series, only to realise that it was not working at all. And meanwhile, I was repeatedly trying and failing to make any headway on Madison’s Masterpiece, my planned sequel to True Colour.
Eighteen months ago, these struggles wouldn’t have mattered much, at least not to anyone apart from myself. But a couple of months back my publisher called to ask how the sequel to True Colour was going. I made some noises about how I was still discovering it then flippantly said ‘but I’ve got time’. The brief silence I got in response undermined that assumption. I had time, yeah, but not enough to waffle and chase different creative impulses. To know that we had a book in good enough shape to be published a year after True Colour, I would realistically need a draft before we rolled into 2021.
While Madison’s Masterpiece was the frontrunner, I in fact had three different ideas for sequels to True Colour that I’d been playing with. Masterpiece would have taken the Tana French approach of telling a different character’s story. Idea Two would have been a totally different story featuring protagonist Nelson two years later while Idea Three would have been more of a direct sequel to the events of True Colour. So I gave myself permission to, without throwing out any of the work I had done on Masterpiece, toy with working on Idea Two instead. And quickly the story formed; characters and plot points growing around a central theme of how sometimes we obsess far too much over being friends with people who are like us as opposed to people who like us.
Something else that unlocked the story for me was embracing the fact that it was a sequel. In the earliest conception of this idea I’d figured I would include only oblique references to The True Colour of a Little White Lie, but as I plotted I realised how inauthentic that would be. The events of that first book would have been huge for Nelson; where we left him last time would absolutely define where we find him this time.
So I started to write. And at first it was clunky. I felt rusty. Nelson’s voice, self-deprecating, naïve and occasionally petulant, seemed to come only in snatches that made me wonder whether this was the same character. But I pushed through slowly something resembling a book took shape.
At around the halfway point I had to take a week off to focus on a different, more pressing project. At first I worried that this would compromise the flow but in actuality it had the opposite effect; when I came back to Nelson 2 something seemed to click into focus. Of course Nelson’s voice had changed, because Nelson had changed. Two years isn’t a long time for adults, but for teenagers the gulf between fourteen and sixteen is enormous. And because Nelson wasn’t the same person as he was in True Colour, I couldn’t write the story the same way I wrote True Colour.
I started worrying less about articulating or narrating Nelson’s emotional state at every point, like I had in the first book. I picked up the pace, jumping more ruthlessly between key moments. And weirdly, this let me relax into the book a little more, letting the moments where the characters just hung out and talked and enjoyed each other’s company, the moments that underlined my theme, breathe and develop naturally. There’s one passage towards the end of the book that is among my favourite things I’ve ever written, a reflection on friendship and impermanence that is unlike anything I have ever put on the page before. And it was from this passage that I found my title, a title that both reflects The True Colour of a Little White Lie and gives this book its own separate identity – A Different Type of Ordinary.
But the awkward early stage of the writing process bothered me. I might have found my rhythm towards the end, but when the time came to read over it, would the first half work at all?
Honestly, it’s hard to say. I started reading with the understanding that I would probably have to cut a lot. The first draft had come in at 75,000 words – longer than The Hunted (67k), True Colour (53k) and all three Boone Shepards (40-60k). I figured I would conservatively cut about 5000 words, maybe 10,000 if I was really ruthless.
I cut 17,000 words. And that was only after a first read.
Books teach you how to write them. I always struggle how to answer when people ask me about my process because the process is different every single time. Even two books in the same series can’t be written the same way because for them to have any integrity as stories they have to have their own concerns and identities even as they complement each other. True Colour is a highly interior book, the story of a lonely kid coming into adolescence and slowly learning that everyone else around him is just as much a person as he is. Different Type is the logical next step. It’s more rife with drama and incident, and as such there is less room for the reflections and internal hand-wringing that characterised True Colour. I had to write the book to figure that out, but I’m still not sure it works.
For now, as I return to the Maggie-verse to try and make the sequel to The Hunted even better than the first, I’m honestly just happy to have written something new, something messy and heartfelt that is likely a long way from perfect, but at least comes from somewhere real. Time will tell if that’s enough.
Writing words about writing words.