Have you written your best book yet?

Deep down, I think I’ve finally written my masterpiece. And it scares the living shit out of me.’ – Truman Capote

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And there’s my brother, loitering, with all his profound questions …

At my recent book launch – a split second before I was about to end the Q&A to go and sign books with my glorious, hand-crafted wooden pen shaped like a lion– my brother asked me a question that I only answered briefly, but that has haunted me ever since.

Do you think you’ve written your best book yet?

Do I? In that moment, my immediate answer was no. God, no. An absolute no. No, definitely not. No way. No, no, no. Please accept my first answer only. But is this quick response because of the abject fear that I have? A fear that I’ve already peaked with book four and the only way to go is down. No one wants to have been their best, they only want to be it now, or in the future.

Author of When I Find You, Emma Curtis, said ‘not by a long chalk’ when I posed the question to other writers. ‘Once you think your best book is written, you might as well stop,’ said Ellen Alpsten, writer of Tsarina. ‘No way,’ said Joel Hames, author of Dead North. ‘The moment I don’t think I can get any better I’m putting the pen down.’

I thought some more about it. Was my answer instinct and truth, or raw fear? The reviews for my latest novel – The Lion Tamer Who Lost – have taken my breath away. Readers have said it’s their favourite so far. All writers want this. To have improved and learned and grown. But the pressure on those two little words – so far – is immense. Will the next one continue that trend or am I going to fall off a cliff and cut my poor, curly-haired, hardworking head open?

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My magnificent, hand-crafted lion pen…

I talked to my husband Joe about it in the car late one night after I’d finished work. ‘It’s a bit like Michael Jackson,’ he said. ‘Is it?’ I asked. ‘Yes. Everyone wondered where he could go after Thriller. And Bad was fantastic, but was it another Thriller?’ True. Was it? How does one succeed an album that spawned seven top-ten hits, sold 40 million copies, and won eight Grammy Awards?

Have I written my Thriller? My magnum opus? My defining work?

(Not that The Lion Tamer Who Lost has been shortlisted for any Grammys or sold 40-million copies … yet.)

The answer after much consideration is still no, I don’t think I’ve written my best. The reason for that isn’t only that I’ve learned so much during this publishing journey – about editing, about pacing, about point of view – but that I’m too self-critical. I want to push my limits a little more each time. These limits scream at me every time I sit down to write; then there’s this voice that whispers to me that I’m stupid, not good enough. If it ever disappears, where will the fire come from?

So I asked a few more writers how they would answer.

Will Dean, auther of Dark Pines and Red Snow, said, ‘I bloody hope not. My whole writing process is based on fear. Fear if I stop and reread, I will lose confidence. Fear if I slow down on a first draft, I’ll lose momentum. Fear if I look at my work too closely, I’ll lose all hope. I always look forwards and don’t want to try to judge my own work. I just want to keep writing and keep having fun with it and let others decide.’

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Will Dean and his lovely hair.

That fear word again. In many ways the whole writing process is about fear. Fear of not finding any words – or as Truman Capote said, of not plucking them from the clouds. Fear of forgetting how to do it. Of running out of ideas. Of not being good enough. (Perhaps the latter one is only me?)

Conversely, Claire Allan, author of Her Name Was Rose, said, ‘I think yes. So far. I think there are two books in particular that stand out for me. But I’d hope to give you a different answer in five years’ time. I think we’re always striving to improve.’

I’ve used the word fear a lot, and yet writing is my joyful place. Despite the niggling, critical voices – they are not mine, I know that – I feel quite unwell if I don’t write regularly. I’m free here. If I ignore the nagging voice, I know exactly what I’m doing. Language fascinates me, the rhythm and flow of the words, the secrets they reveal.

Michael Malone, writer of After He Died, answered the question this way. ‘I really hope not. While I’ve still got something to say – and a desire to commit it to print – I hope that I’ll find even better ways of engaging my readers. I believe we are always learning, as writers, primarily from reading and observing people around us. There’s also the feeling that it is in some ways in the hands of our readers. Different themes/ subjects/ characters will engage them to greater or lesser degrees, regardless of how my skill as a writer has developed. I’ve already had people say that was good, but not as good as X. We have to pray that along the line it all marries up – technique/ character/ story – or continues to in a meaningful way.’

Adding to this, Phoebe Locke – author of The Tall Man – said, ‘I’d like to think I’m always improving but then I hope that will always be true no matter how many books I write – so yes and no, I guess! It will be fascinating to see what others say.’

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With Phoebe Locke at the Festival of Words event.

The novel I think could be my best scares the bejesus out of me. And that’s a good thing because I won’t write it until I’m ready, which of course I might be never. I’m not even sure it’ll be a novel, and I’m even less sure anyone would want to read it. Because ‘best novel’ doesn’t necessarily mean bestselling. Some of the best novels in the world didn’t sell well.

Will Carver said, ‘I’d have to say both yes and no. Good Samaritans is my fourth book to be published and I think it’s my best so far. I certainly learned from the things I did right and got wrong in the first three books. However, I have other projects on the go and I think I’ve learned from the things I did with Good Samaritans to make my next one better. So, when I’ve finished a book I have, at once, written my best book and not written my best book – because the next one should be better. I wrote the shit out of my second book but publishing cold feet meant that I changed a lot of it to suit people who were never going to read it. But if your question means have I written my magnum opus, the answer is no. I’m still discovering myself and what it is that I really want to write about. My best book, the one I deeply want to write, is locked up somewhere. It’s there but I haven’t written it yet. I want to find my Gatsby, of course. But I’m fucking miles away from it, right now. All I can say is that I learn with each book and hope I can continue to improve.’

I agree – I’m always trying to write the best thing I’ve ever written. I want to stretch myself, hence the genre change with my next book. I also don’t want to write what people expect from me, which after Lion Tamer is tragedy, tears and tissues. I want to surprise and maybe even shock. I never want to be lazy, churning out form books, one after another. I’d rather never write another word again.

Carol Lovekin – author of Snow Sisters – agrees about her best book being locked up somewhere. ‘I sense it’s hiding in my heart, waiting for me to decide, once and for all, that I’m good enough to take real risks. I still, sometimes, feel like an impostor. And I agree – once you write your best book, where do you go?’

Laura Pearson, author of Missing Pieces, said, ‘I hope not. It would be really sad to be always trying to match previous skill or success.’ Elisa Lorello, author of The Second First Time, said, ‘I always want and hope for my next book to be my best book yet. And then the next, and then the next…’

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Is it my best novel? I hope not.

As I write my sixth novel – currently called We Are Our Own Ghosts – and am at that excited stage, just over halfway, where the characters are shouting me in the night and the ending is starting to form, I feel sure THIS is my best. I hope it is. Because it’s a couple of years from being released.

After it’s out and I’m on my seventh? Then I hope it isn’t…

So writers – have you written your best book yet?