Why a Sophomore Novel Is So Different from the First

This post is by Kim Wright.

I started to write that a sophomore novel is much different from a first book, then I stopped myself. It’s closer to the truth to say first-time writers are different from second-time writers. It takes a whole different mindset to get through your second book.

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 a sophomore novels, 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 sophomore novel 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 sophomore novel 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.

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Kim. I’m living in Limbo Land between my first (one-book)contract and the release of my debut novel and am working hard to produce a second story that will also be contracted. You’ve helped me feel more “normal” for being somewhat “shaken, spooked, and just plain not right.” =)

  2. Wow, this was so timely.

    I am in the rewriting stages of my second book, entitled Uneasy Spirits, to my first book, a historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, which I self-published in December 2009. I had worked on that book off and on for 20 years, and much to my delight, it has sold very well (over 13,000 books so far. )

    The outline to the sequel had existed for about 5 years, but last January, when I sat down to write it, I began to feel such terror that it would not be as good, that all those people who had written to me and said, “can’t wait for the sequel,” would be disappointed,

    I had to keep pushing that thought away, just get into the fun of writing something new (you see for 20 years I had been basically rewriting, not writing), and hope for the best.

    I have been through the first round of beta readers, and so far so good, but as I rewrite, and begin to think about launching the book, again the fear is palpable. With the first book every sale was a success (my expectations were so low-when I sold my first 150 copies I was over the moon-this meant some complete strangers had actually bought it!). Now, if I don’t sell at the same pace as the first, I know I will not just feel disappointed, but even worse, I will feel like I have disappointed my readers and let my characters down.

    So thanks for this analysis of why this stage is so hard-probably for most of us.

    M. Louisa Locke

  3. Nice. Kinda a mix of exactly what I needed to hear and a bit frightening to read because it just might be true.

    How do you ensure that the muse will strike again? You never can. But you have to try.

  4. Very interesting post. I think this is a process every author goes through when completing new projects for their publisher. I know that, for me, my first novel was relatively easy to write, but so was my second one. It was the third novel that tripped me up. I knew that the second one will be well-received, but the third was a more difficult story-line.

    But I have found that if I just write the way I feel the story coming, it ends up better than what I’ve done previously. My main project is a seven-book-fantasy series for AMG Publishers (The Sword of the Dragon). The first novel is selling very well and I have no doubt the second book will be received even better. The challenge, however, will be to continue traveling everywhere I can to hold signings and book talks. The audience will not continue to grow unless I bring the books in front of readers who have never heard of me.

  5. Terrific post, Kim. Few writers suspect what awaits them when they write on their own, finding their way, honing their voice and discovering their style. The second novel, as you say, brings pressures too – but with luck one of the other things we have learned is how to battle through to the end.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Kim! This is a phenomena most writers encounter sooner or later, and it’s wonderful to know we’re not alone in the challenges presented by a sophomore novel.

  7. I found my second novel easier to write than my first. Once the first one was accepted, my main thought was that I must be doing something right, which boosted my confidence no end! But now. with one novel published and another one due for release next February, I’m really struggling with the third novel.

  8. It seems to affect different writers at different points – second or third book usually, but sometimes later – but nearly everyone seems to eventually hit this wall of “What comes next?” I recently finished a book about the publication process that’s coming out via Press 53 next month called Your Path to Publication and while researching the book I talked to A LOT of writers. One of the things that struck me is that they all confessed to the doubt, anxiety, envy, disappointment etc. that you’d expect writers to feel – but many of them had been shocked to learn that not only do those emotions not fade after you get the first book published, but they may even get worse. I guess the bottom line is that no amount of experience or success leaves you complete immune to the ups and downs of the writing life.

  9. Some really great points. I’ve written several books, but the first was never published, and the two after that were published with small presses. Now I’m about to have my first big debut with a powerhouse publisher and yeah, I’m “not quite right.” This one was purchased in a 2-book contract and the publisher wants the second book to release 6 months after the first, so I had to churn that one out in a jiffy. The first of the 2 I was able to take my time on, so I’m concerned about the second (this is an urban fantasy series). The first book in my series will be out August 23–yes, this month!–and my stomach is in knots. So I’m happy to have found your blog. Thanks for posting this. 🙂

  10. I just picked up your book yesterday!

  11. Now working on my sixth novel… every one is different! Thanks for this post.

  12. Great post. My first novel was a monster and I shelved it, the second was an escape into a new story and fresher style, knocked the first draft out in record time by telling myself it was just a quickie novella. Twenty revisions later it had grown to smallish novel length. Love the first drafts but I’ve learned to have fun with the revision process. When writing ceases to be thrilling, it just ceases altogether, but that’s just my issue!

  13. It reminds me of something a friend of mine always says. Which novel is the hardest to write? Whichever one you’re working on at the time….

  14. I so needed this post. My debut novel comes out in May 2012 and I’m working on book 2 (I have a 2-book contract. And believe me, no one is more surprised by this than me!)
    I’m bookmarking this interview. I’m also printing it out and keeping it so I have easy access to it so I can reread it. I’ve already face other challenges of writing the second book (bringing a secondary character front and center) but you’ve got me thinking about other things now.
    Thanks.
    I think.
    No, really. Thanks.

  15. Terrific post, Kim.

    Signed,

    “shaken, spooked, not right.”

  16. O.M.G. This is the post my soul has been DYING for, for the last few weeks! Just finished my first novel & I swear I have a panic attack every time I try to start novel #2, even though it’s plotted and characters interviewed and it’s buzzing around in my head. I’m just spooked nearly s***less to start another one. I’ll fail. It’ll suck. I’ll have a nervous breakdown. Or all of the above. After all, writing the first one was just a fluke anyway, right? Who do I think I am trying to write another one?

    See, you’re right. I’m just. Not. Right.

    But I’m gonna try anyway.

    Thanks for this awesome post!!!!!

  17. This post spoke directly to me, Kim. My debut novel comes out in December, and my second novel is complete and being shopped by my agent. That second one was TOUGH, for all the reasons you mentioned. I’m still feeling a bit shell-shocked by the whole process, as well as the prospect of the promotion roller coaster ride to come, so starting the third novel is feeling even more daunting!

  18. Hi guys, I don’t know if I should be happy the post hit a nerve or if I should be apologizing!! The second book does seem to be like its own little circle of hell, but at least we’re all in this together. And Caroline, thanks so much for buying Love in Mid Air!!

  19. This is an interesting perspective. As a newbie writer who hasn’t completed her WIP yet, I can’t even fathom a second novel much less a first publishing deal, haha. Still, great post!

  20. And even with works that are never going to be published, there’s such a learning curve between that first 50k story and the third one.

  21. That is all so very true. It’s kinda nice to have these concepts put into words. It’s like turning a light on in a dark room. You may be totally familiar with everything in the room, but now you can see it all. Nice. Thanks.

  22. I haven’t reached this point yet, but your post is a great reminder to us that it’s not always rosey and perfect on the other side of the publishing line. Thanks for your honesty.

  23. This was an amazing post. I’m there, writing my second novel, asking what the heck’s wrong with me on a daily basis.

  24. Thank you!! You put into words what I’ve been feeling. My debut novel, Lakeside Reunion, will be released in November. This novel is the story of my heart and took me ten years on and off to produce–no deadlines, just a dream. Now I’m finishing my second book–this one has taken two years. Again, no deadline, but an internal need to write a better book than the first. This summer I was strangled by fear of not being able to write a second book. Thankfully that fear has subsided and the second book will be sent to my agent this week.

  25. I needed to read this. Thank you.

  26. Jennifer directed me here from her blog – just what I needed to read, since I’m starting to plot book 2.

  27. I’ve heard this said so many times. I’m seeking representation for my debut novel, but because it is taking a while, I’ve started my second novel. I’m almost 60K words into it. I want to lessen any pressure I may have as much as possible! For me it’s all about the career.

  28. Thanks so much for the comments, guys! I think in some ways the problems you encounter with the second book make you feel even more disenfranchised and lonely. After all, once you’ve published, a lot of people feel that you’ve forfeited the right to complain about anything ever again. But there’s a whole new set of concerns that arise with book number two.

  29. I always giggle at the euphemism of “not right.”

    The author also fears that she will hear from a reader, as I did last week, that they “thought the first one was better.”

  30. Interesting, and totally inaccurate from my experience through the process. Then again I’d written several books before I got one published, so maybe that makes a difference. My first two books are my most successful ones, but my second one outsells the first at a 10:1 or higher ratio.

    My experience with first books is that they generally suck. Or if they don’t, the writer regrets by book three or four how amateur that first book is and wishes they’d done it better. I know I want to rewrite my first one!

  31. I just found out that my writing guide Your Path to Publication is available for preorder at Press 53. http://www.press53.com/BioKimWright.html It gets into a lot of these topics in more detail – including the basics about getting an agent, contracts, networking, working with editors, marketing your book, the pros and cons of self-publishing etc. The intro is available for a free download at the Press 53 site. Would love your feedback.

    And Jason, you make a good point. One of my friends is so haunted by the mistakes in his first novel that he paid for the champagne when it finally went out of print.

  32. Yes, yes, yes.

  33. Kim, thanks so much for your post. I am now writing (really, not-writing more than writing) my second novel and love your image of the storm-struck bird dog. It’s strangely reassuring to know this second-novel paralysis is a phenomenon shared by others. My first novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, which released in June, took me somewhere between 2 and 50 years to write, depending on your accounting practices. Number Two has to be on the lower end of that scale – for obvious reasons – and that makes it such a different endeavor.

  34. Great post, Kim!

  35. Truly a great post. My working title for Book #2 was “The Book That’s Trying To KILL Me™”

  36. Thanks, guys! I worked on a second novel for two years, shoved it in a drawer, wrote a nonfiction book, then started on my second second novel…at some point I’ve lost track of the count. When people ask me “how many books have you written?” I stare at then blankly.

  37. I haven’t found the second book harder than the first, but it is a sequel to the first. I’m still ‘playing’ with the characters and their story.

    My third book was a genre change so it came pretty easily, as well. However, we’ll shall see how it progress from here!

    Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

    Michelle
    http://www.michelle-pickett.com/blog
    twitter: michelle_kp

  38. Love your post. I love the genre of it!

  39. Hi Kim! Great post! Very insightful. I’m in the final editing stages of my second novel. I’m finding the editing so much harder this time around. You’re right, I am left a bit shaken after my first book was published even though my experience has been mostly good.

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  1. […] K.M. Weiland, author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander and Outlining Your Novel, sums it up perfectly in her blog post, “Why a Sophomore Novel is So Different from the First”: […]

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