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.



  1. One of the problems with Suggestion #6 is that extreme pantsers (me, at least) don’t have sufficient conscious knowledge of the novel’s details to outline it. I’ve tried this, and it doesn’t work. Even after practicing the craft since I was in seventh grade, I’m not sure what the mechanism is. The tale seems to tell itself as I write it down; I think that’s what “gateway writing” actually is. Worse, the time or two I’ve tried to outline a novel, the novel that happened bore little relation to the outline I wrote.

    Deadlines can help. One possibility is to do a sort of buddy writing arrangement with a writer friend. Agree to deliver a chapter to one another every day|week|month, or whatever schedule. This worked for me with Drumlin Circus which I wrote in six weeks (lightning fast for me) by virtual of not wanting to disappoint a good friend and longtime supporter.

    The motto of my CoS writing group was “Write The Damned Book.” There is no one way there.

    1. As a pantser (usually), my version of #6 is just start writing. Anything at all. #6 is really “Follow your process,” so if pantsing is your process, trust it. If I just start writing, my brain eventually gets back on track. I may have to cut out some pointless navel gazing and travelogues, but I get there.

      1. This is one structure I’ve found useful:'s_journey.htm
        Not that I follow it rigidly, or even use it much. But when I’m stuck, I drag it out and see if I’ve hit any of the steps in anything resembling this order, and I can usually spot the weak areas and what I need to do the fix them.

        “The Big W” is also useful. Check how many try fail sequences you have, and don’t forget the bleak dark bit before your Good Guys grit their teeth and tackle the last battle.

    2. There were supposed to be pants??

      I too am of the “one word creates the next” school of smithery, and I write in very nearly final draft (generally a bit too lean, so I have to add details later, but I *never* need to revise — all that mechanical cranking seems to happen in the back of my head before the words ever get out). My notion of an outline, most people would call first draft; it’s where a scene has bits sketched in because I have the gist but not the details. I also write in no order whatever — scenes come to me at random, and get stitched together as they find a fit in the story’s timeline (this is why one book expanded to eight and counting).

      This should perhaps be dubbed the ‘scattershot’ method (it looks like a mob, but brings down the target), but I’m going to steal pantzer for it instead. 😀

      When I’ve tried others’ methods, either I stall out or don’t like the results. But I’m also a freak whose right and left brains have an unholy alliance, rather than being constantly at odds, like a normal person. 😛

    3. I’m learning I need an analysis phase when I get stuck not just in gearing up for revision. Take a step back and look and go ‘what have I done with this?’ which usually points to holes, which usually kicks the pantser side into fixing them. Currently it is very inefficient, but I’m hoping it’ll get better the more I practice it.

  2. I look forward to having this curse.

    Speaking of The Martian, I have wondered if Andy Weir is having the Curse of the Second Novel. I thought he would have another book out by now. Of course, he’s tied up with Hollywood and selling a series to CBS, so maybe he’s just distracted.

  3. That’s exactly what happened to me when I switched genres and tried mil-sf. The first novel in the series took me less than two months, even with extensive rewrites. Then sales took off like a rocket and I… froze. It took me six months to finish book #2, for no good reason at all. I never thought success would paralyze me, but it did. And insecurity was a big part of it. I didn’t think the novel deserved to be that successful (at one point I almost deleted it and started over). Like you say, you can never tell what will hit it off with your audience.
    Ok, back to work on Book #4, which is already late. I’m going to take your advice and just write the darn thing.

  4. I am a Pantser — Panzer? Ja wohl! — for short fiction, but need a skeleton road map for books. Prior to breaking in, I let half a dozen novel projects crash and burn because I did not know where the books were going, and subplots multiplied even faster than secondary and tertiary character threads; to the point each novel looked and felt like a mess of cold spaghetti. Now I absolutely must have at least a basic framework, which keeps me headed in the right direction, while also allowing room for plenty of “pants” action along the way. (This is starting to sound like a 70s porn film, waka-wow-wow.)

    My big challenge with Book 2 has been, that it’s not exactly Book 2 as much as it’s Act 1 — in a three-act trilogy. Which must be three separate arcs all combined into one big arc. Every time I’ve made alterations to the road map for Act 2 and Act 3, it’s necessitated going back to fixing things in Act 1; so as to preserve continuity. So, instead of merely writing one book, I have spent the past 24 months writing three books, as if they were one book.

    And I am a short fiction man. Whose first book was a “fix up” using 30,000 words of previously-published short prose as the base for what became 120,000 words of novel. Trying to convert my short prose skills over to writing a trilogy . . . has been painful. Like learning how to write all over again.

    1. Back in the early Pleistocene when I was taking drafting classes in junior high…I learned a clever trick for drawing straight lines freehand. You don’t watch the pencil point, you keep your eyes on the *ending* point, and your natural coordination takes you there.

      My struggles (as a confirmed, hard-core pantser, and thanks BUNCHES Brad for making me want to spell that pantzer) is when I don’t have that end point in my brain. That’s when the panic and plot-spaghetti happens. I am, in fact, doing that now. I decided to make a standalone book into a trilogy. Book 2 was no problem, but book 3 is fighting like a cat going in a carrier. I will win in the end, but it is nowhere NEAR as easy as the trilogy I wrote with the end in mind from the beginning.

      1. In software development, we have the concept of throwaway models and throwaway prototypes. You don’t ship them, they’re nowhere near good enough to ship. You just use them to explore the problem, and then you throw them away.

        That’s how I’m approaching the outline for my current novel. An agent (not quite my agent, but I think that will change soon) suggested I do a Save the Cat outline to explore the ideas. And right there in the Save the Cat book, the author says when he’s all done, he throws (threw, he’s passed away now) the outline away. The point wasn’t a rigid plan, it was to make you think through the possibilities.

        I got a lot more comfortable with outlining after that. I haven’t looked at mine in two months, and I’m in no way following it rigidly. I added a major section — almost a novella — that wasn’t even in the outline. But I know what those aim points are now, and I’m hitting them (or changing them) along the way. I’m counting it as a win.

      2. Just a thought, extending your model: freehand curves may be drawn by dividing your attention between the end point and a midpoint the curve must go through. This might relate to controlling the story to follow an intended story arc?

        1. Hush, you! 😀 I’m doing that with another series, but I caught myself in time and pretty much deliberately set the world up to allow a “branching” series, focusing on different sets of characters. For the series in question, though, I can’t really do that.

  5. Yes, I’m in the middle of this. It’s the second book in a three book series and while it’s not the 2nd novel I’ve ever written, the bug has still bitten me hard.

    With well over a dozen books out under my own name, I would have thought I was safe.

    Silly me.

  6. This applies to more than just writing. The second product after a success is generally problematic in all sorts of creative fields. The mythical man month has an entire chapter about second systems and how they usually suck.

  7. Heck, I just want to write a book and not have it spawn a sequel, then another, with a fourth in the now-series bouncing up and down peeping, ‘Notice me! Notice me!”

    1. *offers you a hammer* smacking them doesn’t seem to make them go away, but it sometimes makes them shut up for a bit. (At least for mine).

  8. One advantage of indie for those of us who took the plunge after thinking about trad, is that you can bring out two novels in rapid succession. I brought out Madeleine and the Mists only two months after A Diabolical Bargain.

    Now, number 3. . . .

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