The Curse Of The Second Novel
I bring you bad news. There is a curse on a second novel. To be exact, there is a curse on a second PUBLISHED novel, no matter how many novels you’ve published before.
I’m not sure if this applies to indie novels, I confess, but I think it might, if you have at least had some kind of success on your first book. Now, it depends on what success is to you. If you go Martian-big on your first novel (we should all be so cursed) I almost guarantee that you’ll suffer second novel curse on the next. But it’s possible that if you never at all expected to sell anything at all, and you sell a couple thousand books, you’ll also suffer second novel curse.
What is worse, you can suffer second novel curse when you have “simply” taken a big leap in sales or in PERCEIVED craft. I know. Ask me how.
So, to begin with, what is second novel curse?
Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.
The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract. Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption. As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened. (For expert mode try, as I did the last time second novel curse struck, being deathly ill and moving three times in a year. It’s a treat. Most effective block EVER!)
What causes this dread issue? Beyond its being your second published novel or a novel after a great leap in craft and earnings?
Yeah, I can see you say no you. And that’s the biggest issue with second novel curse. You always think “Certainly I can’t be insecure. I’ve practiced my craft for years. I know what to do.” And yet it is.
Take me for instance: The first novel I sold was my eighth completed novel (three of the others have since sold, one is slated for rewrite because I crammed a trilogy into 100k words. Knew I was doing it too. It’s a long and sad story. And the remaining four are in a world I THINK I now know how to approach, but which was a difficult sale for traditional publishing.) Surely I knew the dance, right?
And yet, right after I published Ill Met and got a contract for All Night Awake, I found I’d forgotten everything about how to write. In fact I was so vulnerable, I let my agent talk me into discarding my first draft completely, and following his outline (more or less) resulting in a book that isn’t necessarily bad, but which is completely wrong for that series and which of all my books published so far is the least successful EVER, this including some duds I published with small presses under closed pen names.
As it was, it took me going to a hotel for a couple of weeks to finish that book, because otherwise I kept getting sidetracked by the smallest things.
The reason was a fear — panic — that the novel was bad. Why? Why would I feel that way when I had competently finished eight novels, and my first published novel had been accepted on proposal, and then promoted to hardcover when the full manuscript was delivered? Why would I further take the suggestions of an agent who really didn’t have any success in publishing, beyond a few work for hire books?
Because it had taken me so long to get accepted and the process seemed largely arbitrary. I was terrified that the second novel didn’t somehow meet invisible standards I couldn’t even figure out. (In retrospect because these were largely arbitrary and couldn’t be guessed. They had to do with mood of the editor, meeting her, etc, than with objective quality. Traditional publishing got so many submissions that it had to go beyond “It’s a good/publishable manuscript” so the selections would be subjective.) It is human to believe there must be rules, even when we can’t see them, and to panic when we can’t see them.
The second novel to give me “Second novel curse” was A Few Good Men. Not writing it. That was easy. It was written in two weeks, and it FELT RIGHT. I still think it is one of the best books I’ve ever written and only Darkship Revenge felt as “good”. This left me stuttering while writing Through Fire, because it felt like a “second novel” and I couldn’t recapture/recreate the feel I had while writing A Few Good Men. It hasn’t, btw, been markedly commercially successful, but as an experienced writer I know that how well it does is a function of how the publisher treated it, the cover, and well… luck.
I’ve observed several friends, both traditional and indie going through this as well, so I know it’s not a personal quirk.
So, second novel curse, i.e. an unwonted difficulty in finishing the book after some achievement, whether the achievement be in sales, selling to a traditional house, or even a perceived jump in craft exists.
What do you do about it?
1- Don’t panic. Yes, I know you aren’t aware of panicking, but become aware of it and then stop it.
2- Realize your novel is at least as good as your “successful” one and probably better, no matter how it feels. We grow by doing. Even supposing that you’re sick, not functioning, and you have the dreaded cleaning lady’s knee, it’s unlikely to be that much worse than your “successful” novel that anyone else would NOTICE.
3- For the love of heaven don’t let your insecurity push you to the point you take random suggestions from random strangers. Use your normal beta readers, and don’t cave in to THEIR suggestions unless three of them return the same opinion (without coordination, which means they don’t know each other or you trust them not to have talked about it with each other.) Even then, be aware you’re fragile and don’t take suggestions without deep thought.
4- Just write it. To quote Heinlein “They don’t want it good. They wanted it Wednesday.” Do realize that even in indie the success or failure of your novel has very little to do with “quality” — even what YOU perceive as quality — and more with luck/finding the right audience, etc. I have indie friends who are baffled by the one of their novels that sells and sells and sells, and my own best-selling-book was a work for hire which bored me so much I wrote it in three days.
5 – If needed isolate yourself, grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and make yourself write. At this phase, I often go to a hotel for a long weekend, and finish the book. Brad found that local libraries often rent “study rooms” which can serve the same purpose, if you book them from library open to library close. Just changing the location and isolating yourself is often enough to get your subconscious unjammed. If you absolutely can’t even look at it when you’re done (has happened to me) hire a trusted structural editor (I have recommends) and copyeditors and do the minimum you can do.
6- When all else fails, paint by numbers. If you’re so stuck that your normal subconscious creation won’t come online (it’s happened to me at least three times, usually due to illness, but panic can do it too) do a detailed outline, and color by numbers. This is why even if you’re a gateway writer and an extreme pantser, you studied structure and diagrammed novels (right?) It’s so that you can fill in with hard work when the magic fails.
7- Eschew the pernicious myth that some writers only have one novel in them. This is a favorite thing for people to tell you when you’re down in second novel curse dumps. It’s also bullshit.
As with most bullshit there is SOMETHING in it. The something is that at that point in your development there might be only one book you’re competent to finish.
However I don’t know any writer — most of us have lived and dreamed and talked story since… since we learned to talk — who has only one novel or only a limited set of stories in him. We are story tellers. We were born that way. Eventually some future civilization might find a cure for the condition, but until then, we pour out stories by function of being alive. If there’s only one story you FEEL COMPETENT to write, either you’re so scared of failing you figure you’ll dress your success in new feathers and try it again, or your craft is insufficient (this happens to those who sell their first or second novel ever-written, sometimes.) The cure is to study how to write. I recommend Dwight Swain’s work, though Card’s book on how to write Science Fiction is also excellent and unencumbered by the tendency of later “how to books” to be “books on how to sell to traditional publishing editors right now.”
Now stop dithering and go work already. They don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday. That means you only have a week. Stop wasting time.