After their first books come out, a lot of writers are left with a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome. It reminds me of one of my grandfather’s bird dogs who got lost during a hunt and spent the night outdoors in an electrical storm. The dog made it home the next day, but, for the rest of his life, he remained what my grandfather sagely described as “not right.” Recently published authors often have the same wild-eyed look of that bird dog, as if they’ve been through such a prolonged series of flashes and booms that they simply can’t begin to articulate the experience.
There are several practical reasons why it’s so hard for a writer to recapture the zest of a first novel. The first book usually represents what the writer felt most compelled to say, the story he always wanted to tell. Debut books often have a breathless quality, the sense of someone trying to say too much. Writers often spend an insane amount of time on that first book—heck, it took me ten years, on and off, to produce Love in Mid Air. No agent or editor is waiting. There are no expectations or deadlines, so you write and rewrite and simply live with the story in a way that you’ll never quite reproduce.
With the second book, you have a track record. If the first one wasn’t as successful as you hoped (and unless you’re Kathryn Stockett, it probably wasn’t), you may find yourself consciously chasing the market more with your second. If, on the other hand, your first book was a hit, it’s possible you’re under pressure—either self-induced or through your publisher—to repeat the formula with your follow-up. Market chasing and repetition are hardly the keys to good writing, so the result may be a second book that fails to equal the energy and innovation of the first.
But the biggest reason book two is hard is because the writer is like my grandfather’s bird dog—shaken, spooked, and just plain not right. Even the most successful debuts have moments that sting—bad reviews, declines in sales, that time you drove three hours to a reading and two people showed up. Like a veteran marathoner or a woman pregnant with her second child, the experienced novelist knows precisely how much it’s going to hurt.
We still have to do it.
A second book is actually more a test than the first. Not in how well it’s written—although some writers manage to triumph over all these odds and produce stellar sophomore efforts. But the second book is where the writer screws up his courage and learns to proceed without the illusions and wild optimism. If he gets through it, he becomes not just someone who once wrote a book, but an author who has launched a career. Even more important, he knows he’s writing not because of any particular fantasies about how publication will change his life—he’s writing because he wants to. Because he’s a writer. And, despite the disappointments and the setbacks, this is what we do.
About the Author: Kim Wright has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than twenty-five years and is a two-time recipient of the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Writing. Love in Mid Air is her first novel, and she is presently at work on a mystery about Jack the Ripper. You can watch the Love in Mid Air trailer here.
Story by K.M. Weiland