“Everyone has a novel in him or her. Not everyone has a SECOND novel.” – Jeremiah Healy.
By PJ Parrish
We really need to talk about your second book.
What? Are you nuts? I’m still working on the first! I’ve been working on it for five years and it’s killing me!
Yeah, I know. But you really have to trust me on this one. Even if you haven’t published squat yet, you really need to hear me out on how important it is to starting thinking now about your sophomore effort. Why? Two reasons.
- Your first book might not get published. What then? You going to curl up and die? Or will you live to write another day?
- Your first book might get published. What then? No one can ride a one-trick pony to a successful career. Not even a scribbling monkey scribe.
All of us here at TKZ are at different points on the writing path. Some of us are just starting out. Some are mid-road and mid-list. Some are published but stalled. Some are gliding along with dozens of titles up on Amazon. But all of us need to think about that “second” book…or for some of us, the “next” book, always the next book, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. So even if you are sitting there at Book I, Chapter 4, this is still something you need to think about. Because being a successful writer isn’t about playing checkers. It’s all about chess, and looking a couple moves ahead, even if you’re stuck on moving out your pawn.
There’s a ton of advice out there on what’s called Second Novel Syndrome. Some of it is good. Some of it is dumb because as we’ve learned here, not every path is your path, Grasshopper, and advice is cheap and cheap anything is often bad.
Books are like kids. Some slip out easy. Some come out kicking and fighting only after months or years of labor. Your first book, like your first kid, is fraught with tension, tenderness, and outright terror. Oh God, what if I drop him on head? What if my kid is ugly and dumb? Should I switch him from Gerbers to Sprout Organic? The second book, if you’ve learned anything from the first experience, is more like second kid. It’s bath time and dinner! Ah, just set him out in the backyard in the rain with a handful of Cheerios.
Let’s go back to that one-trick pony. Because if you get hitched up with an agent or editor and they buy your book, the first question out of their mouths will be, “What else you got in your pipeline?” The second question is “How soon can you get it to me?” This is because we are primarily talking about the mystery/thriller genre here and that means you have to be prepared to turn out quality on a regular (like annual) basis.
Even if you are self-publishing you must do this. Especially if you are self-publishing, because you are going to have an even harder time of getting noticed, and the more real estate you occupy out there, the more often you can feed your readers, the better your chances.
Like my good buddy Jerry Healy said, you have to have more than one novel in you. You don’t want to Question Mark and the Mysterians. You want to be Elvis. Okay, that’s overly ambitious. You want to be Billy Joel. Or maybe Phil Collins but only after he left Genesis.
History is paved with the graves of one-hit wonders in every arena, from music to sports to tech inventions (like the guy who invented the computer mouse prototype and never came up with anything else.). Maybe the saddest one-hit wonder was a guy named Harvey Bell. He was a graphic artist who created the smiley face in 1963 for an insurance company ad campaign. More than 50 million smiley buttons alone were sold in the 60s. Bell was paid $240 for his design and never hit it big again.
Music is filled with one-hitters. Rick Astley made a career of it. Here’s a whole list of musical one-hitters. Some of my faves are Wooly Booly, I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred, and Popsicles and Icicles by the Murmaids. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Funky Town.
In acting, there’s a term called the One-Scene Wonder. This is a character who has one good scene then disappears (not to be confused with a cameo or spear-carrier). My favorite One-Scene Wonder comes in Pulp Fiction when Christopher Walken tells a gross story about his father’s watch. There’s also a terrific One-Scene Wonder in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Rowan Atkinson, as the priest, keeps screwing up his lines.
Sports has its share. Joe Namath, Mark Fidrych and my favorite Ickey Woods, the Bengals running back who scored 15 TDs one season, had a hit dance with The Ickey Shuffle, then shuffled off to Buffalo. (actually, he got hurt and retired).
Which takes us back to books. Now any one of you out there can name a One-Hit Wonder in fiction, but the list toppers include Margaret Mitchell, Salinger, Emily Bronte, Boris Pasternak et al. If you want to know what the New York Times Bestselling One-Hit Wonders of all time are, click here where you find Richard Simmons sharing space next to Stephen Hawking.
This post today was inspired by synchronicity. My writer friend Rick Helms posted some advice on Facebook (and reminded me of Jerry Healy’s quote) on the same day I read a story about a writer named James Ross. I had never heard of Ross, but he published only one novel in his life, They Don’t Dance Much. It wasn’t really a hit in in 1940. In fact, Flannery O’Connor, who met Ross at a writers conference, wrote to her agent to say, “Ross is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.” The book later became a cult hit, though, with the Washington Post calling it “a hardboiled gem.”
But I am not sure any one of us wants our one novel, gem that it is, discovered 35 years after its birth. So I really urge you to think now about book 2, 3…and 10. For what it’s worth, here’s some things I have learned along the way about this. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. But I offer it in good faith as someone whose first mystery came after her third finished (unpublished) manuscript and whose first published book didn’t sell for beans but whose second book is still selling (and got an Edgar nomination).
- Don’t be shy about getting feedback mid-stream as you write. Whether from an editor, agent, critique group or trusted beta reader. Test the waters.
- Don’t wait. Get going on your sophomore effort as early as you can. Literary folks can maybe afford the luxury of a Donna Tartt layoff. The rest of us, not so much.
- Don’t write the same book twice. You have to have a flow of fresh ideas. But if you are writing a series, you have to have continuity between books and still be fresh with your second plot.
- Don’t be afraid. Because you probably learned something from writing book one. You’ve improved. You’ll have some discipline and a better idea of your writing routine.
- Do understand that you might make the same mistakes. Go back and read your first book and look for what you did wrong. (I did this and boy, what a lesson!) Don’t repeat your mistakes. Watch out for your “writer tics” and try to correct them before they become full blown bad habits. Like using “And then…” (one of mine)
- Do understand that your second book might gestate and be born in a completely different way. You have to treat each in its way yet impose the same discipline upon your approach to it. (Back to that kids metaphor again, right?)
- Do establish a deadline. A first book has the luxury of taking as long as it wants to finish. You can’t do that with a second book because if you want to be published, you have to be able to produce on a regular basis that might be at least a book a year. If you give yourself deadlines – daily, monthly, and final – you might have a chance of success. Stephen Fry said of second novels: “If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
- Do know that second times are often the charm. Mike Connelly completed four manuscripts before he sent out his debut novel The Black Echo. Alice Sebold’s first book was Lucky, a raw memoir about rape survival. It got no attention. But her second book was The Lovely Bones. You might have heard of it.
- Don’t get discouraged if the first book doesn’t fly. Or even gets off the ground. Erosion of confidence is common after a first stab, especially if you didn’t get it placed with a publisher or got a lot of rejection. Well, you gotta toughen up. Maybe it wasn’t you the writer, maybe it was the story. It wasn’t fresh enough. It wasn’t unique. You didn’t quite have your craft under control. You put it out there before it was really ready. If you are knocked down by one blow, you will never be a writer.
Which leads me to one of my favorite One-hit Wonder songs of all time. Hit it, boys!
I’m on my first story and its only been four years. So I have another year left! Right?
I hope to finish up my second revision this week and I’ve been a thinkin’ … what will I do during the month I let this story rest?
Thank you for the spurs, PJ! I’ll see if I can get a move-on with a second story.
What will you do? Well, take a week or so off and do something unrelated to writing. You’ve earned it. Then get back in the saddle. To quote Mike Connelly (again)…write every day, even if it’s only one paragraph. Good luck!
Great post, PJ. I’m slowly building up steam to start my fourth novel. To use your analogy, I’ve already got three kids. Do I really want another? At my age? Sigh. Yeah, I guess I do.
Oh, and thanks a lot for the Chumbawamba song. I saw the link and thought, “I haven’t heard that in forever.” Now it’ll be stuck in my head for days. Oh, and according to we-couldn’t-say-it-if-it-wasn’t-accurate-Wikipedia, Tubthumping was on the band’s 8th studio album. Talk about your overnight success stories! 🙂
I hear you, Tom. I’m approaching my 67 birthday and I’m tired. 🙂
Seriously, yeah, some days I want to just sit by the fire with my dogs or sit on the balcony with my husband and a little glass of pinot and concentrate really hard on watching the leaves change color. But I know I have to keep moving forward and write. At my age, if you sit still too long, your bones turn to stone.
The more I learn, the harder it gets, the more insecurities I have, but the best marketing advice out there is “write the next book.”
If nothing else, it takes your mind off the first one for a while. 🙂
I have 100 pages left on my first book but already the seeds of both the 2nd and the 3rd are germinating. I’m thinking of working on both simultaneously – twins!
I know writers who work on a second book (esp if it’s a sequel or series) while they are finishing the first. I did it myself once because the idea behind the followup book was so intense that I felt I had to get it on its feet while it was fresh in my brain. Then I went back and finished the other one. It really worked…sort of gave new impetus to both projects. Haven’t been able to replicate that feeling since, alas. If it works for you, do it. Don’t buy into the advice that you MUST finish one before starting another. If you are disciplined enough to do both with skill and drive, do it! I guess the only possible pitfall is you might get seduced by the new fresher face?
Permission to dream! Thanks for the encouragement. I have my next one on the board now, complete with magazine clippings suggesting settings and characters. The display gives me a little thump on the backside to hurry up and get the current project done already.
Visual aids, like you set up Doug, are a good impetus. I do that as well…put up location pix I’ve taken or photos clipped from magazines of what I think characters look like. It’s a potent reminder to get to work every day and it sort of primes the imagination pump.
Before I sold I didn’t realize the 2nd novel syndrome was “a thing.” Thank goodness, because who needs the added pressure.
I kept my head down & wrote as I submitted proposals & entered national contests. After I became a finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart contest (with my first entry), it was tempting to get caught up in the drama, but a writer friend gave me great advice (as you have with this post). She said KEEP WRITING.
When I sold in auction soon after, the houses wanted 3 books. I eventually sold 6 without one book on a shelf, but because I had “inventory,” I had much of the work done. It took 2 years for my 1st publisher to find space in their production/promo schedule for my 3-book back-to-back releases. Since I had a full time demanding day job in the energy industry (with travel), I would’ve had trouble finding time to write these added books on my personal time had I not had inventory written. I was able to hit the ground running.
Plus the process of sending out submissions to editors/agents/contests can drive an author crazy if they sit & wait for responses without the distraction of writing that next book. Writing or developing book 2 can be good mental health.
Wow, what a tortured road you had early Jordan! Instructive though to any one who drops in here. As it is often said, it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Synchronicity indeed. I was just thinking about this last night. I’m at the mid-mark drafting the first book in a series. I was thinking I better get going on planning for book 2 so I can work on it while book 1 sits in a drawer for a month or so before editing. Good stuff here from you and Jordan’s comment above is gold too.
Always love Tuesday coffee with PJ!
Plus once you finish no. 1 and ship it out to agents et al, if you are writing again, it helps relieve the anxiety of no answers or rejections etc. That period when you get no response is hard, full of self-doubt. I know so many writers who literally lost their footing waiting to be asked to the prom.
I have never been able to work on a book without two or three other ideas vying for my attention, plus the sequals of each one. My problem is buckling down and finishing one before starting/committing to another.
My series is about a girl-next-door petite, highly-decorated U.S. Marine Corps military police officer (okay, maybe NOT so girl- next-door) who returns home from Afghanistan to help find her missing godbrother (a rare-or-never thing among Southern Baptist families), only to be plunged into horrid mysteries going on in her hometown, and the possibility that Timmy was in fact kidnapped by something, not someone.
The second book is similar–the same young woman, now an ex-police officer and now married with SIX children, no less, is called to Tennessee to give armed protection to searchers who are desperately looking for a six-year-old Down syndrome child. Her only responsibility to protect the searchers. Yet, why does she find herself climbing a cliff with a child tied to her back to escape from something that breathed horrid smells into her face, yet she has no idea what it is. And yet, whatever it is, killed her new friend, the Sheriff of Cherokee County.
And yet, I find I have had to write a new character into the series by means of a novella. So my writing hands are tied for years. (And yet, there is a thought that the USA intelligence community could hire a young woman to poison some of our nation’s enemies. Or that a deranged killed has killed Tony, Abby, Leon, and Jimmy. But he MUST get Leroy and Ziva before he’s finally finished.)
Sounds like lack of imagination is not your problem, Jim! Do you worry, I wonder, about a six-year gap between book 1 and 2, in terms of your heroine’s age and character arc? If, by second book, she has acquired SIX kids, that’s a lot of water under the life bridge. You’d have to cram a lot of backstory in, I would think, for the readers to make the time jump. Maybe book 2 is really book 5?
Excellent questions. But it’s HOW she came to be the parent of six children, that I deal with the time sequences.
And, if the Sugar Creek Gang, Nancy Drew, and Sam Durell do not really age over 20 years . . . well, you know.
I, on the other hand, age, well, quickly.
Thank you for your pointers. Enjoyed your blog, as always.
This is a wonderful post, Kris. It’s important advice–Every time I work with someone who has a book ready to send out, I ask them what stage their second one is in. Usually, they haven’t even thought about it.
I was late on the second book of my first contract, and it ended up dead in the water. No paperback follow-up. That was a hard, hard lesson, and one that’s taken me years to recover from.
Listen to Kris, y’all!
Your honesty is striking and appreciated. The best mentors are those willing to be vulnerable about their own mistakes.
I had the same thing happen to me once Laura. Was late on a deadline and paid dearly for it in lack of promotion etc. Publishers work on a strict calendar, slotting their myriad books in and the dominoes have to fall just so. So if you miss your turn-in deadline, you pretty much get ignored.
I was about three quarters of the way through my first novel when I got the idea for the second. I stopped to jot myself a few notes. Then I thought I would do just a bit of research. I told myself I would just write the first chapter. I was about 120 pages into the second book when I had to force myself to go back to the first.
I am always thinking about what comes next.
Don’t beat yourself up, Michelle. Lots of us have done just that. Sometimes, when you are mired mid-point or farther into a WIP, the going gets so hard that the temptation is great to switch to something fresh. It’s very seductive. It’s the rare writer who can work effectively on two projects at once. You. Have. To. Finish.