Rebecca Ley on Writing The TripApr 28, 2023
The best novels take us on a journey to memorable places. At its finest, destination fiction can be escapist; a sun-baked thriller or a snow-filled farce take us away from our everyday routines. After publishing her first novel during lockdown, Rebecca Ley chose sunnier climes for the setting of her second novel The Trip.
Rebecca first joined us on our Ninety Day Novel Course here at The Novelry, during which she wrote her first book, For When I’m Gone, published by Orion Fiction in 2020. Rebecca returned for The Classic Course to write her second novel which publishes in paperback this week.
The Trip tells the page-turning story of a seemingly perfect holiday in Marrakech, where six university friends reunite after two decades. But in the sweltering heat, a dark secret from their past threatens to spill over as they question what really happened on that fateful night. It’s beautiful, evocative and utterly intriguing.
In this blog post, Rebecca tells us about her writing process, adjusting to the second-novel mindset, writing during lockdown, and how The Trip came to be.
The infamous second novel
When I got my two-book deal, my acquiring editor took me out for lunch to a casually fancy restaurant, the kind with chalk writing on a blackboard and olive oil in little saucers. This is it, I thought, as I studied the sharing plate menu: I’ve arrived.
We were considering pudding, when said editor leaned across the table and lowered her voice. ‘Have you had any – you know – thoughts about the second novel yet?’ she asked. Still completely preoccupied with my debut (a masterpiece! a disaster!), I had to concede that I hadn’t. ‘You might want to start on it sooner than later,’ she added. ‘Second novels can be… tricky.’
Like many understatements, this well-intentioned remark showed its fangs with time. It turned out writing a second novel was to prove extremely tricky.
It usually is. You’ve already used up a lifetime’s carefully hoarded insights. Your own literary tics and bad habits are becoming increasingly evident. You’ve probably had at least one close friend be weirdly jealous or (even worse) entirely indifferent about your debut. And you have a nascent awareness of the realities of the modern publishing landscape which can be deeply inhibiting.
Now you understand the significance of genre, publicity budgets, 99p promotions, Amazon reviews, and digital marketing spend or lack thereof. In front of your own eyes, books have transmogrified from the cherished portals to alternate worlds that they’ve been since childhood, to nothing more than… products. Items on an order history along with verruca socks and gardening gloves.
As if all that wasn’t tricky enough, like most authors who got their book deals in 2019, working on my second novel coincided with publishing my debut into a pandemic.
In front of your own eyes, books have transmogrified from the cherished portals to alternate worlds that they’ve been since childhood, to nothing more than… products. Items on an order history along with verruca socks and gardening gloves.
And yet, The Trip comes out this week. I achieved the second novel feat, even though there were times when I suspected I might not. So, how?
Hold on to your love of stories
Firstly, I had to strip my weary heart of cynicism and remind myself that books aren’t merely products. They are magic. They can change lives. They’re the best art form that exists for charting the human soul.
All of us here know that, deep in ourselves, or we wouldn’t be trying to do this in the first place. So I reacquainted myself with this truth in the best way there is – by reading some good fiction. A little Zadie (Smith), some Katherine (Heiney), a touch of Jane (Gardam) and I felt the sense of pointlessness start to lift.
To plan or not to plan the second novel…
Next, I considered how to approach the job professionally. In a pantser v planner dichotomy, I saw myself very much as the former. My debut, For When I’m Gone, was written in a kind of unscripted fever dream. Yes, I used Scrivener to stay on top of the novel’s three different threads, but I didn’t know exactly where I was going with the story as I wrote it. No spreadsheets for me, no sirree.
This time around, I assumed that had to change. I bought and read Save the Cat, fully on board with sticking to a plot archetype and planning out the ‘beats’ of my new story.
That lasted about three days. It turns out that for me – and I know there are many authors who aren’t like this – being too precise about what’s going to happen kills the magic. (See this brilliant blog by Tess Gerritsen for The Novelry on outlining a novel, or this one by Beth O’Leary who also enjoys the magic and freedom of an unplanned first draft!) I write towards something I’m trying to get a view of, a kind of miniature galaxy twisting above my left shoulder that I can’t quite see properly but which gradually reveals its shape as I work.
Developing confidence in this as a valid approach was crucial. However, I knew that I still required discipline. The Novelry’s Ninety Day Novel Course had been brilliant for getting me going with For When I’m Gone, and so I signed up for The Classic Course, which proved to be similarly clever and motivating. Its core analysis of fairy tales was hugely inspiring and found its way into The Trip in the form of a nod to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes.
I write towards something I’m trying to get a view of, a kind of miniature galaxy twisting above my left shoulder that I can’t quite see properly but which gradually reveals its shape as I work.
Choosing my setting and my themes
Working in lockdown with three children, often unable to leave the house, let alone my gritty, siren-filled corner of east London, I spent a lot of time thinking about lost freedoms we’d taken for granted. It seemed like common sense to set my book in an exotic location, so my writing time would feel like an escape from the Zoom calls, televised press conferences, preparing family meals and piles of laundry.
A few years earlier, my entire extended family had gone to Marrakech for my mother’s 70th birthday and stayed in a grand old riad, full of tiled courtyards, plunge pools and jasmine flowers, with a roof terrace looking out over the city. Looking at old photographs on my iPhone, I ached to be back there and decided to set my novel in just such a riad.
I already knew that I wanted to write about a couple who’ve known each other for decades and try to encapsulate how life feels once you get to your forties. I’m fascinated by how intimacy mutates over time, and I also aspired to look at how different professions (and disparate incomes) inform relationships in middle age. I hoped to articulate the weird, blinking apprehension that all those decisions you made in your twenties have come home to roost.
It seemed like common sense to set my book in an exotic location, so my writing time would feel like an escape from the Zoom calls, televised press conferences, preparing family meals and piles of laundry.
But I fretted that I didn’t have a ‘high concept’ idea. Indeed, for about a month, I became obsessed with elevator pitches and spent many evenings lobbing increasingly wild notions across the sofa at my husband.
‘What about if a fortysomething woman starts to time travel back to earlier versions of herself in perimenopause?’
‘How about a boy who gets locked in a huge safe and needs to be rescued before the oxygen runs out?’
‘There are like these dogs, right… and the protagonist can hear them think.’
I started writing some of these – not the dog one, alas – but none stuck. I adore high-concept fiction done well, but the clever idea really needs to serve the themes at play, and I realised my own were getting in the way. They were just gimmicks.
So I stripped everything back and decided to write about a group of friends over a weekend. Not especially original, or hooky, but something that carried the authenticity I personally crave in fiction.
Writing my first draft
With this goal in mind, I attacked the first draft. I like to write fast and not look back. A thousand words a day, ideally, written in an hour early on and then put away for my subconscious to mull over. I learned this approach on The Novelry’s Ninety Day Novel Course and it makes excellent sense. At the editing stage you can drop into the flow more easily working on your manuscript, but in the white heat of actual creation, an hour a day is entirely sufficient.
This time, for some reason, I didn’t use Scrivener but stuck to Microsoft Word. I think – with a virus rampaging both outside the house, then within – there was something about Word I found comforting. The OG writing software, on which I’d once written my university thesis about magical realism in the novels of Iris Murdoch, felt like a security blanket.
A thousand words a day, ideally, written in an hour early on and then put away for my subconscious to mull over. I learned this approach on The Novelry’s Ninety Day Novel Course and it makes excellent sense.
After about six months, I got to the end of my first draft. Then the real work began.
My agent and editor read it and made suggestions about the arc of the story.
I sulked for a while and then began the second draft.
At this stage, I tried to implement some of the plotting strategies I’d read about, although Save the Cat still left me cold. I switched one of the novel’s threads from the first to the third person. I amped up the drama at the midpoint. I cut some of the different perspectives, at my editor’s suggestion. Changed a character’s name. Tried hard not to be precious about killing my darlings. All this took around the same amount of time as the first draft.
Responding to professional feedback
One thing I found hard about writing a second book is knowing how hard to push for your own instincts in the face of editorial feedback. Bringing a book into the world is a huge collaboration, and every writer needs a good editor. However, a lot of this stuff is subjective and as a writer you need to back your own taste, to advocate for the choices you’re making. Such discernment is ultimately all you have, especially when the outcome of publishing your novel is so completely out of your control.
The new draft went back to my publisher. There were more suggestions. Another draft. Something close to the final novel started to emerge. I tried to hold my nerve. Writing and publishing a novel is, above all, an exercise in holding your nerve.
The finished ‘product’
Then, last week, I held a final copy of The Trip for the first time. The cover makes it look like a thriller but I’m not really sure it is. It’s a book about the things we can’t say to our oldest friends; about the commingled relief and sadness in accepting you’re no longer young.
I find it hard to read even a word of it now. After I discovered a misplaced apostrophe in For When I’m Gone that had somehow been inserted after copyediting, I’m terrified of discovering errors. But it’s the horror of encountering myself on the page that I’m more scared of. Reading words you’ve written and can no longer edit is as excruciating as listening to your own recorded voice played back.
So, please can you take it to a sun lounger somewhere and tell me what you think?
The Trip is published in paperback by Orion Fiction on 27th April.
Author and graduate from The Novelry
Rebecca Ley has written two novels: For When I’m Gone and The Trip, which published on 27th April 2023. She also has a successful career in journalism, having written for publications like The Times and The Guardian, and works as a ghost writer – including on the memoir of a remarkable man called Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee and Bafta-winning filmmaker.