We’ve all heard the music industry cliché of ‘that difficult second album’ whereby bands taken by surprise by their sudden success then have to write a follow-up and promptly get a bit stuck. But is it the same in the book industry? The contributing factors are certainly the same. Some debut novels get a huge amount of hype that helps propel them up to the top of the charts with phenomenal success. Think The Miniaturist, The Shock of the Fall and this year’s The Loney, to name but a few. But what happens once that debut is out there? How does it feel to then try to write a second? Eleven Prime Writers talk candidly about their own experience, how writing their second novel was different to writing their first, what lessons they have learnt, and whether there really is such a thing as that ‘difficult second novel’.
In her hilarious blog on the subject Vanessa Lafaye (whose second novel Isle of Bones will publish next year) lists the symptoms authors face when writing their second book. The list includes ‘sleeplessness, scribbling plot ideas constantly, accosting strangers who look like interesting characters, staring anxiously into space for long periods, and obsessivly reading reviews of Book 1,’ as well as a ‘crippling self-doubt and an almost pathological envy of “those bastards who write series”.’
But why is it so hard? Tammy Cohen (whose most recent book is When She Was Bad) has had seven books published and says that the one she most struggled with was Book 2. ‘Stupidly I disregarded all the advice to get a first draft down before Book 1 was published to avoid being distracted by reviews/promotion etc. and the result was I left it far too late and then completely lost my way. I will never forget the agonising lunch two days before Christmas when my editor told me it had to be rewritten from scratch. I remember wandering around the West End in a tearful daze. I really thought my writing career was over almost before it had begun. You can imagine what a festive Christmas that was! But she was completely right. And thankfully none of my subsequent books have been quite so difficult.’
Claire Fuller, however, did take that advice. ‘There were nineteen months in between Penguin buying Our Endless Numbered Days and publishing it,’ Claire says, ‘so I did manage to keep to my deadline, but the actual writing was definitely harder than with my first book. I went down a lot of dead-ends and had no idea what would happen in the end. At around 20,000 words I decided to delete 10,000 of them, and after I submitted the manuscript to my agent I rewrote the second half.’ Claire’s editor at Fig Tree/Penguin of course went on to buy it, although, Claire says, the novel went through several rounds of edits. ‘I am hoping to do the same thing again – the first draft of my third book will hopefully be finished before Swimming Lessons is published in January 2017.’
I get easily distracted at the best of times,’ says Jason Hewitt, ‘and having a debut novel out is probably the biggest distraction you could ever wish for.’ Like Claire, Jason aimed to get his second novel Devastation Road written before his first (The Dynamite Room) published but, by his own admission, he missed the deadline by a mile. ‘This meant I didn’t enjoy the buzz of being published for the first time as much as I should have done because I was too busy panicking about the half-written mess of a story that I had waiting for me at home. By the time I’d submitted it to my agent I had just about convinced myself that it was so dreadful that the very act of hitting ‘send’ was akin to committing career-suicide. Thankfully I was wrong although it still took ages to get over my self doubt.’
It’s a story that Juliet West (author of Before the Fall) can probably empathise with. ‘When I signed a two-book deal in 2013 I had just over a year to write my second novel, and I had every intention of meeting the deadline. I quickly realised what a mammoth task this would be. I was writing from scratch about a historical period I’d barely researched, juggling part-time freelance work, promoting my debut novel, and coping with the myriad demands of family life. Somehow I delivered on deadline, but I hadn’t written the book I’d originally conceived, and I knew in my heart that this draft needed serious work. Fast-forward another year (ahem, and-a-half…), and the final draft is all but complete. I’ve learnt that fiction isn’t journalism. Contracts and deadlines can be motivational, but they can also skew the creative process. My Book Two needed time to breathe.’
Sarah Vaughan puts this experience of a tricky second novel as an inevitable rite of passage for any writer. ‘That first novel is written in a rush of excitement; the second – perhaps particularly if you have a two-book deal – is a novel written with a burden of expectation and a deadline already imposed on you. I tried to play it safe, at first, and, thanks to my clever editor, ended up rewriting a substantial amount of The Farm at the Edge of the World. But I learned a vast amount in doing this and I think it’s a stronger, more confident novel as a result.’
A similar point is made by Louise Beech. ‘Writing (and editing) book two is a curious thing,’ she says. ‘You sense that expectation somehow, out there. Will it be as good as/the same as your first one? My debut – How to be Brave – wasn’t the first novel I’d written, though it was my best, at that stage. I’d kind of built up to it, in a sense. The one I’d written before it – The Mountain in my Shoe – I was then able to edit and improve.’ Louise used everything that her editor taught her, about pacing, over description, accuracy etc. ‘Of course, I’m nervous,’ she says. ‘In some ways I think there’s more pressure with Book 2. Less allowance perhaps for error as you’re not a novice now (apparently – I always feel that way!) and more is expected. But I’m so excited too. And I can’t wait to implement all that I’ve learnt into book three, which I’m currently editing.’
Can any lessons be learnt then? Alison Layland thinks so; even if it’s that what worked for your debut probably worked for good reason. ‘I mistakenly thought that, with the experience of having a novel published as well as a couple of published literary translations, my second would come more easily,’ she says. ‘It hasn’t. One particular stumbling block came from my own creative approach. I’m not really a planner in any part of my life, and writing is no exception – Someone Else’s Conflict (Alison’s debut) went through a number of drafts and rewrites, including a substantial restructuring stage. I approached the second thinking I’d do it differently and, having had the core idea, save time and effort by planning it out meticulously. It just didn’t work for me, and rather than streamlining things, held me up by putting me off my stride, as I found I was “overthinking” things. I’ve now gone back to my original approach of having a couple of salient plot moments as beacons but otherwise diving in and following my characters’ lead, and it’s working so much better for me.’
Fleur Smithwick, who has finally got to the proof read stage of her novel number two (One Little Mistake) has learnt a similar lesson although her writing method is very different to that of Alison’s. ‘I began it during the honeymoon period waiting for the first one to be published, when I thought naïvely that I had the book-writing thing all sewn up. I learnt so much that year – the number one thing being to understand my limitations as a writer. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to plan carefully, but I’d written two drafts of the second book before I realised that throwing myself in and crossing my fingers did not work. I had to start again. Having come to the end of my two-book contract I’m enjoying the luxury of taking my time over book three. And this time I am trying really hard to use the lessons I’ve learned from my excellent editors and from listening to the Prime Writers.’
(Ah, thanks, Fleur!)
Historical novelist Katherine Clements experienced many of the second novel symptoms that Vanessa Lafaye flagged up: ‘The self doubt, impostor syndrome and the pressure of expectation were almost paralysing,’ she says. ‘As I wrote I became more and more disillusioned and disappointed with what I’d written. It wasn’t what I’d intended it to be. The writing was clichéd and clumsy. In short – I loathed every word. I felt despair. I was sure my worse fear was about to happen – I was about to be “found out”. The world would know what a fraud I was. I dreaded handing the book in. I dreaded publication. I convinced myself that my publisher was only publishing it because they were obligated by my contract.’ Thankfully what happened was quite the opposite. Katherine’s second book The Silvered Heart has been a critical and commercial success. ‘Looking back now,’ she says, ‘as I come to the end of writing my third book, I can see the progress I made between the first and second novels and I feel totally different about it. I even quite like it. I understand that I’m learning on the job.’
Fiona Cummins (whose debut novel Rattle will publish next year) compares writing your second novel to ‘being a bit like passing your driving test. Technically, you know you can do it, but you’re not quite sure which direction to take, whether you’re on the wrong road or even if you’ll reach your destination. At least, that’s how I feel at the moment. Perhaps I should plan my journey a bit more.’
However you tackle it, Vanessa Lafaye reminds us that, having done it once before, we can do it again and that ‘there was nothing magical about the first book which cannot be repeated’.
Katherine Clements says, ‘I still struggle with self-doubt. I still think my writing is rubbish. The book isn’t what I intended it to be. But this time I recognise all these feelings. I’ve been here before and I know, now, that this is part of my process. This is probably how it will always be for me.’
Jason Hewitt, who is also now writing what he calls his ‘difficult third novel’, agrees. ‘I’m only now beginning to realise that they will all be troublesome in their own way but that’s what keeps it interesting. Each novel is like having a child. Each is unique and presents you with challenges and, God knows, endless hours of worry; but at the end of the day you will still love them, you still nurture them as best you can and then, like proud parents, wish them luck and send them out into the world.’