Writing the Difficult Third Novel

10th March 2014
6 min read
14th October 2020

Author Stephen May on the difficulties of the third novel, writing hard about what hurts, and writing what you know.

Stephen May

Like most male writers of my vintage I suppose I really wanted to be a rock and roller. And if you’re a serious, ambitious rock musician then the third album is key. The list of game changing third albums is quite extraordinary. The Clash’s London Calling, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, The Jam’s All Mod Cons, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Springsteen’s Born To Run. After The Goldrush by Neil Young  - all third albums.

Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedos was a third album, Love’s Forever Changes was a third album. Even The Beatles third album - A Hard Day’s Night - was special,  their first that is entirely self-composed. 

The third album is a big deal. My new novel Wake Up Happy Every Day is my third book

I’m not, of course, comparing my third novel with any of those rock and roll masterpieces, but when I was writing it, there was perhaps some of  the feeling of wanting to bust out, the urge to try something different, to flex all of the muscles that maybe fuel the great third albums. 

There was also, maybe, the sense of now, finally, being in control of my voice. Of being able to articulate what was in my head with some assurance. To have a broader, fuller range of colours on my palette than I had at the start of my writing.

My first album, sorry book- book dammit – Tag – is maybe my punk rock novel. It is a raw novel featuring an angry and desperate central character. It is not, like many first novels, a Roman a clef, but it is a book fuelled by the propulsive energy of at last getting a platform upon which to speak my mind on subjects that are important to me. About adolescence, about education and about the way imagination was being squeezed towards the margins of modern life. 

It’s also a book with two narrators. A fifteen year old girl and a forty year old man. I had particular problems with one of those voices. Not the one you think. Clearly my inner fifteen year old girl is far nearer the surface than I had previously thought.

But  writing that book did make me think I’d never do a book with multiple points of view ever again. It’s just too schizophrenic. Too difficult to stay in control of.

The second book Life! Death! Prizes! saw me stick to one narrator, but also use a few more chords, become a bit more aware of how I could use structure in a more sophisticated way to help tell my story. 

Once again my protagonist was a teenager– I clearly hadn’t yet exorcised the ghosts of that side of my life. And I make no apology for being a man of middle years writing as a teenage boy. I have, after all, done my research. I was a teenage boy myself for at least seven years. I say at least because I think I spent a great deal more years as a teenager than most people. 

Age doesn’t move forward at the same pace in everyone. I think I might easily have spent fifteen or twenty years as an adolescent before making a big leap forward to where I am now. Which is 29. Or around that anyway. Whatever it says on my driver’s license.

In any case, the classic advice to a new writer to write what you know might be wise words. But in the end it is only half the job. And not even the most interesting half. Write what you don’t know is also important. All good writing is an alchemy of experience, observation and imagination – and each piece of work will have those three elements combining in different ways. 

Which is possibly why my third album – novel! I mean novel –  is the story of a man who comes into unimaginable wealth by stealing his oldest friend’s identity. It might be why it features a wannabe childrens’ writer who is also an assassin working for MI6. It might be why one of the characters is in a care home suffering from dementia, while another is an illegal immigrant trying to start up a t-shirt business in the USA. It might be why the book is set largely in San Francisco, a city I visited for all of ten days in 2010.

The book contains a lot of things I don’t have much direct experience of, but I would still say to anyone this is my most truthful book yet, the one where all the things I do know about are distilled most effectively. This is the book where I have paid closest attention to the world around me, shoved it in the centrifuge of my imagination and then dripped a little concentrated experience into the charged matter that emerged. Just enough real experience to make it sing.

At least that’s what I hope. Because I’ve been ambitious with this book. Brave, even. I have – I hope – done what Hemingway urged writers to do that is to ‘write hard about what hurts.’ I hope I manage to make readers smile a little at the same time. Because with any luck this third book will be my London Calling – or, at the very least, My Trout Mask Replica, My Talking With The Taxman About Poetry. Maybe even my McIntyre, Treadmore And Davitt (the quintessential third album by seminal punk rockers Halfman HalfBiscuit – as you know).


Find out more about Stephen May on his website. His third novel, Wake Up Happy Every Day (RRP £12.99), is available now. Find out more about titles and buy the latest releases from Stephen at Bloomsbury.com.

IMAGE CREDIT: Jonathan Ring

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