3 Ways to Avoid 'Second Novel Syndrome' (SNS)

Second Novel Syndrome (SNS) is a well known malady (at least among frustrated and nervous authors) that refers to the expectation that an author's second novel will be written better and faster and more artfully than their first work. 

Normally this applies most especially to author's with wildly (or even mildly) successful first novels, but I have no trouble telling you that it applies to those self-published authors who were deliriously happy to have a thousand copies of their work in circulation.

"Here Be Monsters" was rumbling around in my head in various forms for years before I started actually writing it last summer. Since that time I've edited and published the book (and a second edition which addressed some minor errors), written a couple of short pieces, promoted my work on and off of the internet, and started planning the next novel (tentatively titled, "Caretakers") ... I have concerns that my subconscious (which played a huge role in planning the first novel) has had less time and energy to devote to working on the second one.

There is also always the concern that a writer has used up all of their good ideas or clever word usements in the first novel, and has nothing left to dazzle the world with in their second effort.  I feel this a bit, but don't worry so much about this facet of SNS as I can already see the shape of the second novel, and feel the story and characters coming together in my notes.

 Having avoided the subject for long enough, I thought that I would do a bit of research on SNS, and try to come up with a plan to avoid the bane of many writers; to that end, here are my personal tips for avoiding SNS.

One: Write...start small, but establish a pattern and write everyday

 I write short stories and novellas around and in between my work schedule and family life, but wrote my first novel during the summer, and that's how I plan to write the second novel.

Thanks to my teaching job, I have more free time in the summer than during the rest of the year; thanks to my family being so understanding and accommodating, I managed to carve out 3-4 hours each day during the month of August (with some days in July as well) to write.  I sat down each morning, reviewed my progress along the storyline from the day before, and tried to write between 1500 and 2000 words each day.  I didn't worry about fixing what I had written the day before, knowing that I would get to editing in the months after the rough draft was done.

The important thing is to write everyday, not that it is perfect, or even great, or even good.  Write the novel, and then once everything is in place, work with your editor to identify which pieces don't work, need to be fixed/dropped/added.

Two: Don't try to write the same novel again

I've recently gone back and re-read my first novel, "Here Be Monsters", and found (happily) that I still love it.  I had a unique character to introduce to the world, and I did.  I had a fun and interesting and nasty and thought-provoking story to tell the world, and I did.  I've already told that story and in my second novel I'll be telling readers a different one.

"Caretakers" will ask readers to spend some more time with Tyler Cunningham, the protagonist from my first novel, but they'll be introduced to a Tyler changed by the events in HBM (and also in the short work, "Mickey Slips"), and the story I'll be telling is radically different.

The story in "Caretakers" spans decades in the telling, and will require a prologue to effectively set the stage (recently a no-no in the publishing world, but I'm choosing to go with it for the sake of the story, a luxury that I can enjoy being my own publisher).  I will be introducing and sustaining more principal characters, and narration of the novel will be from two radically different points of view (Tyler is...odd, maybe unique, and Susan is quite vanilla).  This novel will be more of a mystery than HBM (which is really a detective, or crime, novel). 

The first novel focuses a lot on establishing the protagonist, the shape of his world (and his place in it), and his interactions given a set of stimuli, and leaves readers contemplating Tyler, his world, and worldview.  The second novel will work to place Tyler in a more complete and complex world, have him face and explore multiple challenges in working his way through the central conflict of the story, and will hopefully broaden the scope of thought-provocation by the end of the book to include not only Tyler, but the world that he (and all of us) move through in our daily lives.

Three: Pick your heading...carefully

Your first novel was a single point of literary expression in a universe of writing. 

When your second novel is published, you will have a second point on the coordinate plane of the literary world, which math-geeks (and people who bother to finish reading this sentence) know establishes a line and course (or direction of travel) for your writing. 

Knowing that your second novel will establish the direction of your writing in the minds of readers and reviewers, you should make certain that the path that you've chosen will bring you in a direction that you actually want to go.

I can feel the shape of "Caretakers" and like the differences and similarities between it and "Here Be Monsters".  Having introduced Tyler and the world in which he operates in the first novel, I am looking forward to writing more mysteries that make use of him as a lens through which to look at the way the world works.  I am excited to explore the Adirondacks more with Tyler, and to meet different sorts of people than we explored in HBM.

I've done some broad-brush outlines of "Caretakers", along with some research.  I have a couple of interviews that I need to conduct before I get down to the fine-level planning of June and July.  I am excited and nervous about the actual writing (to be done in August, for the most part).

Although I have worries about facing the laptop on August 1st, and having nothing come out...or finding the pages filling with stale ideas and flat story, I have a secret weapon that is a certain defense against SNS: the knowledge that I wrote a damn good novel the last time around.

That knowledge, that secret weapon, belongs to me...and to every second-time novelist facing SNS.  We wrote a good book the last time around, so we know that the words will come this time around also...we also know that everything wrong with the rough draft can be fixed in later versions, with the help of your editing team.

So settle down, brew up  some coffee, and start writing!



Some Teaser/Update Information

I've been working on a number of projects, none of which are ready for publication and/or promotion as yet (which is why I haven't been talking much about them), but it occurred to me that I haven't been blogging as much recently, so this seemed like a good time to bring you up to speed on what's been keeping me busy lately.

I took a day trip down to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake to do some research on their collections and to get a feel for how their archives of photos and documents might be accessed and accessible.  In the novel that I'll be writing this summer, Tyler Cunningham will be digging into the history of the Adirondack Park, and more specifically into the world of the Great Camps to help solve a mystery.

The trip yielded pages of notes and dozens of pictures to help me in planning the coming novel, tentatively titled, 'Caretakers", and has opened the floodgates for more ideas with every passing day; my steno-pad is filling up day by day.

I've also been doing some research into podcasting and/or rendering some short pieces of my work into podiobooks.  Setting up the equipment and space and material has taken some time, and now I just need some quiet time in the house to do some test runs.  My plan is to initially host/distribute them through this website, and then depending on their success perhaps to bring them over to iTunes.

Finally, I'm still working on the story of Tyler Cunningham's first case.  The story is taking longer to tell itself than I had anticipated, but I like the shape and feel of it.  The story opens in the early summer of 2002, just 7 months after Tyler's arrival in the Adirondacks, and he is still establishing his map of the area and the people.  He is invited/coerced by his landlord to help with a family matter that quickly gets out of hand and launches Tyler violently into a recognition/acceptance of his usefulness as a consulting detective.

These three projects, along with the regular family & friends stuff, work, and reading as much as I can, are filling my days in a pleasantly stressful way.  I'm looking forward to the end of the schoolyear, so that I can focus on writing and camping over the warm months.

Thanks for your continued interest and support!



Arguing with my brain (and losing)...and a plea for help!

I've been working on my current short story for too long.  

I know the story, like the story, but am having trouble moving it from my head to my laptop.

I think that the reason for my difficulty is that I've been thinking about the next Tyler Cunningham novel, and it's taking up a lot of mental real estate.  

I can picture the entirety of the story arc for the next novel, tentatively titled, "Caretakers" (in my mind, and in SmartPig meetings only). and keep writing chunks and sequences while driving to work or cooking dinner or watching TV or making coffee in the early morning quiet with my dogs.  

The short story I'm actually writing at the moment is an untitled piece that relates the story of Tyler's first case, and brings to light a few characters that are a part of his small and peculiar social world.

The two writing projects are vying for primacy in my brain, and while I want to complete the short story first (it's about 30% through the first draft at the moment), "Caretakers" is beating the inside of my skull like Athena, ready to be born.

I'm unsure what is the right thing to do.  A part of me wants to work through the dueling stories to finish the short piece.  Another part of me wants to embrace the novel project, and move forward with that, ahead of my schedule (I had planned to outline during July, and write "Caretakers" during August). A third option would be to do the outline and some planning work for the novel (to a greater or lesser extent), put it away, and finish the short before actually starting serious work on "Caretakers" for the summer.

I would love to hear your thoughts about which path you would follow if you were (or have been) in my place.




Concept Mapping My Protagonist's World

In a recent staff retreat with the SmartPig minions, one of the topics of discussion was the success of the newest eBook, "Mickey Slips", and future related projects.

Tyler Cunningham, the protagonist in my first novel, "Here Be Monsters" has some significant social delays and/or deficits, but even so, he manages to create a network of acquaintances in the Adirondacks after he flees New York City following the loss of his parents on 9/11/2001.

He builds the relationships, as we all do, through interactions in his daily life.  Tyler's interactions are limited due to his social awkwardness and lack of understanding of the rules that most people learn in childhood, but still present.  He is not a comfortably social being, but his needs and likes determine the shape of his world nonetheless.

We'll use a concept mapping program to lay out his world in terms of the activities he engages in, and the people that he is forced to relate with through those activities.  From that map, I will work my way around the map, continuing my work on backstories (many of these people already have backstory notes from my planning notes for the first novel).

"Mickey Slips" was the product of just this type of backstory work, and a discussion with some interested readers who expressed an interest in finding out more about the relationship between Mickey and Tyler hinted at in "Here Be Monsters".

While the short story presented in "Mickey Slips" takes place after the events of "Here Be Monsters", other stories focusing on the characters in Tyler's world may take place in the months and years before my first novel took place (as is the case with my current WIP, a short involving Cynthia, a character from the novel, and Maurice, Tyler's landlord)

My primary interest is in deepening the backstory on Tyler's world, but also to find which of the people and/or aspects of his world could make for interesting stories.  I'd like to eventually work my way around the map of Tyler's social world in stories, and release a collection in print and eBook formats.

If you have any characters or events in Tyler's life of particular interest, please feel free to get in touch with me, and who know ... maybe a story will come out of it.




3 Simple Ways to Make Editing Easier!

Efficient and effective editing is critical to the success of your writing; without it, you will turn readers off with typoes and odd word usements before they get the chance to fall in love with your story, characters, and imagery.

It would be great if our work as writers was done when we finished the rough draft, but it's really just begun.  Solid editing delivers your writing from an idea all the way to a finished product that will grab your audience by their hearts and minds.

There are three ways to make editing easier for you, which will in turn make reading your work easier for your audience ...

1) Accept that editing requires numerous read-throughs and revisions

Editing can't be a "one and done" task.  At the very least, you should have a person beside yourself: read your rough draft for content (story, storyline, pacing, conflict/resolution, and characters); after fixing the rough draft content, have another person do the copy-editing (grammar, spelling, format, clarity, etc.); when the writing is polished and read for publication, have it proofread by another person (someone to go over the whole thing with a fine-toothed comb for any lingering issues).  Any or all of those stages may need to be repeated multiple times (possibly with multiple readers) before you are ready to go to print.

Anyone who insists that they can edit their own work is lazy, lying, or deluded.

You need to have outside eyes and minds looking at your writing to edit effectively and efficiently ...this is not a part of the self-publishing process that you can do by yourself.

2) Use the right tools for each stage of the writing/editing job

A surgeon uses knives and clamps and sutures.  A carpenter uses a hammer and nails and a saw.  A chef uses the best ingredients, tried and true recipes, and pots/pans.  Writing (and editing) is the same, in that you need to use the best tools in the proper manner to get optimal results.

I do my research and planning on paper notepads with pens.  I write using my laptop and Microsoft Word.  My content-readers read the story in pdf format, and then meet with me to tell me what they thought.  I share the next version of the story in doc format, so that my copy-editor can tear the story apart (and then later, I can put it back together) with track-changes.  I like to read the print-ready final copy on paper.

That's my process.  I know lots of authors who HATE track-changes, and prefer their editors use a red pen or  manipulate multiple versions of the story with GoogleDocs.  I like a face to face meeting to discuss the big-picture of the story, but hate going through copy-editing with my editor.  How it works for me is unimportant (except to me) ... you need to explore the options out there, and pick the method that works for you (by which I mean yields the best finished product for you and your readers).

The only hard and fast rule should be to vary how you interact with your text and editors at each stage of the process, so that it is seen and modified in different ways.

3) Do your final proof with paper and pen and stickies

As both a reader and a writer, I feel strongly that printed paper is magical.  I like the way that it feels and smells and looks ... I love reading on my Kindle and iPad and Kobo, but still feel that I get the closest read with a printed-paper book (perhaps in the same way that I get a closer shave with a real razor than with an electric one).

When a story of mine has been through content reading/editing and copy-editing and proof-reading with outside readers, I like to get a printed copy of it, and go through with an actual red pen to look for problems.  I almost always find something (or a number of somethings) to fix or un-fix.  More than that, it also gives me a chance to pretend that I'm reading it with new eyes, and to explore the things about it that I found interesting enough to write down in the first place.

I haven't come across a perfectly edited/proofed story in the last ten years, including all of the hundreds of books that I've read in that time ... there's always something that can be fixed

 I hope that these three tips will help improve your editing process.