Second Novel Syndrome
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Is second novel syndrome a thing? That’s the exact term I googled when I was in the midst of writing my second manuscript and feeling all sorts of discombobulated.
On one hand I was in a much better position than I was when I wrote my first novel. For a start, I’d already written one full-length manuscript so psychologically I knew that I could do it. A bit like those crazy people who do one marathon and then go on to do another.
Add that to the fact that I had signed a publishing deal for novel one and knew that my publishers were interested in seeing the next one and I should have been grand. I had some experience behind me now and I already had my foot in the publishing industry door.
Ooh yes, I thought, as I sat down with my laptop, shiny new monogrammed notepad and coffee, ready to embark on this exciting journey all over again. I’m an author now darling. This time around is going to be soooo much easier.
But it wasn’t. If anything, it was harder.
But what fresh horror is this? I wondered, as the doubts and insecurities that had plagued me previously returned with full force, this time telling me that I was a one trick pony and I had been a fool to try to repeat the process a second time.
As I tried to keep my head down and plough on, I was in inner turmoil. I love it. I hate it. I love it. I hate it was a constant, draining narrative in my mind.
There were times when I seriously thought about abandoning the manuscript and starting all over again with a different idea. But boy, I’m so glad I didn’t. Firstly, because after much blood, sweat, tears and heavy editing, my second-born ended up in a place that made me feel warm and tingly inside. And secondly because my publishers liked it and I just signed a new deal.
Now I’m out the other side, I thought I’d take a minute to look back at my experience and share some of the things that helped me along the way, in case it’s useful to others who are suffering from second novel syndrome too. And also because it means I can put off starting book number three.
Don’t expect the writing process to be the same
I had basically hashed out the entire plot for my first novel before I started. I mean chapter by chapter. Given that I’m a control freak this worked brilliantly for me. And throughout the writing process I didn’t really deviate from that plan once.
With the second book it couldn’t have been more different. I thrashed out the whole plot before I started writing but within a few thousand words I was already tormented. Something didn’t feel right. Well, actually, a lot of things didn’t feel right.
And I’m talking from the little things to the big things. I changed one of the main character’s name three times until I could really picture him in my head. I altered a fundamental part of the story which consequently changed the outcome of the whole book.
My sister read the manuscript and gave me some very helpful feedback which sent me back to my edits to make yet another major change to the book. And then I changed it again. And while I was there, I made a few more changes. You get the picture,
There were times when I thought that the final product was going to be so different to the initial idea I’d had that I could probably write the whole thing over and re-market it as a third book.
And for some reason this terrified me. I was afraid to let it take on a new life, to go in directions that I hadn’t been expecting. (Maybe we need to take this back to the control freak element of me).
But there was no need to fear. The changes improved the book and actually, when I did the final readthrough at the end, the overall theme and feel of the manuscript was exactly what I had hoped to achieve from the start. The destination was the same, but the journey was different.
So, two different processes but the same outcome – a publishing deal.
You may have a process that works for you each time but if it doesn’t don’t worry. Books, like children, have different personalities and need to be treated accordingly.
Stop looking at the clock
We’ve all seen those Tweets: ‘I spent three hundred years writing my first novel and I sent it to seventeen million agents and got rejected by them all. And then I wrote my second novel in two days and the top publishing houses are all fighting for it and calling me the next JK Rowling.’
For some reason this really lingered in my mind. Because the first novel was a fairly straightforward process for me but the second presented me with more challenges, I thought, is this the dreaded novel that I spend forever tinkering with but never get it to where it needs to be?
Because this novel is harder to write, does it mean that it’s shite?
I genuinely thought that for ages. As I spent weeks and weeks editing it, going though it over and over again, changing everything from single words to entire sections, I thought perhaps it was too much hard work, which meant that it wasn’t a good manuscript.
But now I realise that the opposite is true. It’s a better manuscript. It has benefited from more experience and more scrutiny. It was a labour, yes, but a labour of love.
Of course when it goes out into the scary big wide world, readers might totally disagree. Only time will tell, but at least it’s going out there at all. And right now, that’s more than enough for me.
So, whether your next book takes you five minutes or five years don’t worry. And don’t worry what other people are doing either. You’re a writer, you’ve got plenty enough to worry about as it is.
Trust your gut
Writing a book is hard. Writing the second one is especially hard because you feel under pressure for it to better than the first one.
But cut out the noise and focus on the job at hand. If you love your book, the chances are that other people will do too. If it doesn’t feel right, play around with it until it does. Don’t be afraid to send it to beta readers to get their feedback, ones who will genuinely tell you if it is shite.
And when all that is done, put down the pen, turn off the laptop and breathe. Your second novel may be nothing like your first. That’s okay. You may love it differently. That’s okay. It will never be perfect but trust your gut that it’s as ready as it will ever be. And send it out into the world.
Second novel syndrome is a thing. And there’s only one fix. Just do it.