There is a common refrain out there, in every corner of the internet, on panels and interviews galore, where authors talk about how hard it is to write their second published book. It’s so common, in fact, that it has a variety of names–the sophomore slump, second book syndrome, the tenth circle of hell, etc etc. Today, I’m here with the Writer’s Block Party take on why authors find their second novel so difficult — from the perspective of me, an author currently working on her second contracted book!
In many cases, it’s your first book written entirely under contract.
When I was querying and on sub, all I wanted was the chance to write that second book at all. I thought, naively, that my extreme desire to make my next book the best it would be would avert the sophomore slump on its own–but actually, it only made the pressure worse. While I had three years to polish and fuss over my debut novel, I have far less time to write my second–and it’s the first time I’ve ever started something from a total blank page, KNOWING that it will be on shelves. This has taken some serious getting used to.
Starting over is difficult–and humbling.
Going from a polished book that’s heading out into the world soon to a writing a first draft is incredibly disarming. I’d been working on my debut novel for so long, it was a huge blow to my writerly confidence to sit back down at a blank page, try to write something new, and realize that, surprise surprise, I had not magically figured out all the secrets of writing just because I’d sold a book! I still write crappy first drafts. I still don’t know how to outline. And I’m still way too fond of putting an em-dash in every other sentence.
There is a saying that you don’t learn how to write books–you can only learn how to write the book you’re working on at any given time. I don’t think I really understood that saying until now. Ultimately, writing books involves learning how to start over again and again. While I’ve certainly learned a ton from writing my debut novel, as well as the books that came before it, those lessons won’t be enough to avert all the mistakes I make when I start a new project.
And that’s okay.
Sequels are hard!
Not every second book is a sequel, so this applies more to my individual experiences than every author who’s had trouble with their sophomore novel. But my debut novel sold as the first in a duology, and so right now, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: drafting a companion book. Which means I have to finish everything, tie up every arc, and keep the momentum I built in the first book going. It’s a whole new toolbox that I’ve never used before, and there have been a few growing pains.
This might seem like a weird thing to include as part of why writing a second book is hard. But it’s actually been a big reason for me. Seriously–I know how lucky I am. My books are being published! It’s a fulfillment of a lifelong dream that I will never, ever take for granted.
However, it means that when things get tough–and, guess what, they ABSOLUTELY do get tough–I feel as if I have no right to suffer. I never want to come off as condescending or ungrateful for the opportunities I have.
Yet I’ve come to realize that it’s actually incredibly humbling, and kind of nice, to know that a book deal doesn’t magically fix all of my problems. Published authors aren’t writing gods–or at least, I certainly am not. Writing is ALWAYS going to be hard, and it’s all right to acknowledge that. You can understand that something has its downsides while still being grateful for it.
You have to learn how to handle all the voices in your head.
When I started writing, the only voices that I was listening to were my characters. I created in a vacuum–I had no social media presence and no beta readers, so I wrote entirely for me. In time, however, I realized that I had let a lot more voices into my head–and that my critique partners, my agent, and my editors’ opinions, collectively, had started to matter so much more than my own.
Writing my sequel has been so tough because each time I sit down to draft, I heard all those voices in my head, critiquing every line before it ever hit the page. So I’ve been working on only listening to my own voice again–at least for now. There is a time when this book will need my editor, my agent, and my critique partners. But I can’t make this second book mine the same way my debut novel is if I don’t put my own opinions first.
I’m still drafting my second book, and it’s still hard. But I have great friends who are holding my hand and listening to me every step of the way, a great agent and editor who will help me make it the best it can be, and I feel so lucky that I get to put this book out into the world in ~2 years. So there you have it: my reflections on the sophomore slump.