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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I needed to read this. Thank you.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.”

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. Yes, yes, yes.

  9. 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.

  10. Great post, Kim!

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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

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

  15. 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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