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!


1 comment:

cic said...

Good plan, Jamie. I hope it works out well for you.
At the moment, I'm suffering Third Novel Syndrome. I'm delighted that my first two , 'Family Matters' and 'Making it Home', did as well as they have. My third one is written but in the editing process but I keep not getting down to it.
I need to put your plan into action. Now!
Thank you for pointing the way forward.