Second Book Syndrome

The world is on fire and it should be; if those in power will not pay attention to those asking for justice nicely and legally and patiently for hundreds of years, maybe they will pay attention to the flames. All I can give from here is money, so I’ve been doing that. For what little it helps. But while I’ve had one monitor on BLM protests, the other has been, mostly, on something else, and I’m proud of it, and I am very, very tired, and this post is about that. 


Astute readers will have noticed that on Sunday night, I posted a photo to Twitter: a sprinkle cupcake bearing a proud little candle in front of a keyboard; and the words THE END. I ordered the cupcakes two weeks ago for delivery Friday: “For a celebration,” I wrote in the order form. 


Bold of you to assume you’d be celebrating the end of the book by then, Current Me says.


I knew I wouldn’t be done, Even Further Me ripostes. I wanted the extra sugar to fuel me to the finish line and there’s nothing sweet in the house.



For the observant: this is the only book I have ever written in my entire life that was due on a deadline (more on that in a minute). It is also the only novel sequel I’ve ever written. It is also, indefinably but undeniably, the worst book I’ve ever written. Please do not send congratulations to me; send condolences to my editor.


Anyway: I believe in Second Book Syndrome now. I have written dozens of books! I did not believe it was a thing! But let me reiterate: I believe now. I believe that once you are a debut author, that second book is going to be a doozy


Let’s Review, Shall We?


‘Beneath the Rising’ was started in approximately 2000, and completed in about 2002, the year I graduated from my undergraduate degree (not, crucially, in English, which would presumably have taught me how to, you know, write). I sat on it till about 2016, occasionally opening it to tinker over the years as something struck me, but otherwise I just continued to write as a hobby. 


When I decided to start seeking literary representation (what a fancy phrase, my goodness), it was virtually the only novel, out of several million words’ worth in my folders, that was actually done. So I buffed it up with fine-grit sandpaper and tossed it into the void. 


My lovely and dedicated agent was very enthusiastic about it (thank you Michael!) and we discussed series potential. “Well,” I said cautiously, “I wrote it as a standalone.” (Because I had never written a series before. Pay attention: this becomes relevant later). He responded cheerily that many publishers in sci-fi and fantasy would be more likely to buy books with series potential, so could we pitch it as a trilogy? 


I agreed, took about a day to come up with lazy one-page synopses for books two and three, should they ever happen, and we sent the novel on submission. And then we got an offer.

To reiterate: I wrote a standalone. Which was pitched as a trilogy. Of which the publisher bought… two books. 


Well, So What? You’ve Written Loads of The Things


Correct! Yes! However, for this one, I had to contend with certain things for the first time in my entire life, never encountered while working on my other unpublished novels (which, we recall, consisted solely of unedited, unfinished, voluminous adolescentiana) or any of my published or unpublished short fiction, including ‘The Apple-Tree Throne.’ I was utterly unprepared. I thought it would just be a book like any other.


Isn’t It Though?


OKAY, LISTEN. 


The first book was out in the world while I was working on the second book. What does that mean? People were reading a novel of mine. For the first time ever, there were readers. There was a reader reception. People were reading the first book and developing likes, dislikes, preferences, complaints, fan-art, and critical analysis. Of my book. Of the words I had written. And making those things public! So that any chump could read them! Or be tagged into them! Such as I, myself! A chump!


Have You Considered Not Reading The Reviews?


I HAVEN’T BEEN. I’ve read a whole-ass two (2) reviews, of which one (1) was by someone who had blurbed the book. Everyone says not to read the reviews! What they don’t say is Don’t read the reviews because you will fuck up the writing of the second book.


However, even without reading those, I have consumed a whopping amount of unofficial reaction, and realizing what people liked were things I hated, and what people hated were things I liked. I began to do the worst possible thing you can do for the creation of a book: second-guess what should go into the book.


Oh, Come On. Like What?


Well, consider. The main question for a sequel (I found as I began to think about it) was How do you not simply rewrite the first book?


Should be fairly easy, right? Just off the top of my head I came up with:


– Write a logical followup to address everything got messed up in the first book and decide whether that’s something people want to keep messing up, or try to fix


– Take some non-main characters from the first book; spin the second into their brand-new story and include the main characters in it as side-characters.


– Stay with the main characters but let enough time pass that they have new issues, new concerns, maybe new things they want to save the world for. Maybe in the next book, I thought, Nick can be my age!


– Create new villains


– Raise the stakes (granted, it’s tricky when ‘the world’ is the stakes, but if I had written a more normal book, you know what I mean)


– Change the setting (drastically) to present new challenges


– Tell it from the villains’ POV


– etc etc etc etc


And in most of the series I’ve read, people quite successfully do one or all of these things so they don’t just rewrite the first book! 


So You… Did One Of These, Correct?


SEE THAT’S THE PROBLEM. Because of the first book. All I could think of was: Oh man, I’d better put in more of what people liked! And less of what they disliked! Or they’ll hate this book! And me! And my editor! And maybe my publisher? And they will PUSH ALL OF US INTO THE SEA. I can’t change one thing, or it will fail.


Okay, But


For instance! People loved the banter in the first book, the childhood stories, the little moments of felicity and grace the two friends shared, the rock-hard love and loyalty of a friendship that would withstand anything (except about the last twenty pages, as it turned out). Now, that’s been destroyed, along with several other things. If I made Nick and Johnny the main characters again, how can they possibly even appear in the same room together any more? Or would it be better to wait a couple of decades? Time, they say, heals all wounds; is it more interesting for a sequel to have those wounds healed, or still fresh and bleeding?


What Else Did You Freak Out About Then?


Everything. Everything. I mean, forget a time shift. There was also:


– How do you raise the stakes in the second book when the stakes in the first book were the destruction of the world?


I do not know. The world is a good stake.


– How to introduce new people and get rid of existing people in the book?


Didn’t figure that out, actually.


– What would be considered necessary exposition (as a second book) vs. unnecessary, and how to avoid infodumping, in the ‘As you know, Bob’ tradition? How ‘cold’ of an open can I have? What needs re-explaining? How much room should it be given?


I didn’t figure that out either. The draft I submitted was full of tedious infodumps.  

 

– How do you avoid pandering to readers who paid you a single compliment about something you put in the first book, and thereby simply copy and pasting it into the second book?


With a great deal of difficulty. And I really mean that: I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and grew up under the not-insignificant burden of being punished every time I didn’t please people. Why do you think I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote but never let anyone read what I wrote? That’s right. My journey into the Amazing World Of Publishing came with enough self-growth and therapy to realize that not only can you not please everyone, but you shouldn’t. Still, the tendencies are there; and they are far more prominent when people like, or claim to like, me or something I’ve done. Work needs to be done to overcome them.


– Did this little speech come with an embedded disclaimer along the lines of ‘So I went too far the other way and now people are going to hate the sequel’?


Maybe. It’s looking like a distinct possibility. Please do not push my editor into the sea.


– But if either of those things were as likely as you claimed they were, wouldn’t that result in a completely predictable book, in which all the things people loved were now stomped on and submerged with lead blocks on their feet, and everything they hated now got an entire chapter to itself?


Look, shut up.


Well, At Least You’re A More Experienced Writer Now!


ALSO A PROBLEM. ALSO A PROBLEM. When that book was started? I was approximately Nick’s age. Eighteen years old. Eighteen! I knew nothing about writing, or life, or HORRIBLE ELDRITCH HORRORS (except in the sense that I had a fifteen year-old brother whom, if you’ve ever met a fifteen year-old boy, would justify the previous hyperbole). 

Now? I’m thirty-eight, I look at teenagers and cry “Faugh! Away wi’ ye, poltroon! Absent thine carcass from mine turf!… WHAT MEANS’T THOU, ‘I HATH NOT TURF,’ ONLY AN VERANDAH OF CEMENT?! BEGONE! AVAUNT!” I went to the university a couple of months ago to visit the library and while I was there, an undergrad looked at me and I immediately turned to dust and blew away through the book return slot. 

I don’t remember anything about 2002 (when the book is written and set), about the technology, fashion, trends, slang, popular movies, major events, phones, websites, or anything needed to even remotely ape verisimilitude. Which I normally scorn in my writing, let’s face it; but you simply can’t (say) set a sequel in 2004 and have them complaining about cracked iPads or something. You can look all these things up, and of course historical fiction writers do it all the time with painstaking accuracy, but there’s nothing like immersion in the actual mind of the people you are writing. Can, to put it bluntly, someone pushing forty actually write in the voice of a teenager or twentysomething? 


People do all the time, so let me rephrase it: Can I? I fear that the answer is no. My much-vaunted experience has done nothing except separate me from what it felt like to be twenty years old, and the exact way the world treated me and I treated the world at that age.


…This is Terrible. Any Other Issues?


How long is a chapter? I have still not figured this out as this is only the second book I’ve written with actual chapters in it. I write all my books in one giant block of text. What goes at the end of a chapter? What goes at the start of a chapter? A cliffhanger, sure. Anything else? Anything that doesn’t annoy me? So many things annoy me in books I don’t even know how I can read them. 


Because There’s Something Wrong With You


I mean, yes. I thought I made that clear. 


And…How Did Picking A New Title Go?


Oh Lord. So, for about thirteen years, that book was titled ‘NJvers12’ or whatever. Remember when you couldn’t have spaces or punctuation in filenames? That’s what the book was called. Eventually, to query it, I generated a title from my Terrible SFF Novel Title Generator (which was an Excel spreadsheet back then), modified a couple of paragraphs to make sure something pointed at it, and sent it in. 


However, I must emphasize: The novel was done. I title 99% of my stuff at the end, because I am bad at titles, and it’s just easiest. In this case, though, because it was a sequel, purchased by the publisher at the same time as the first book, they must have thought I had one planned. I did not; so when I was asked for one a few months ago, when the novel wasn’t done, I panicked and… went back to the title generator. 


My editor liked it (phew!) but if the marketing department asks to change it, I won’t be too upset. (In my files, it’s been ‘BtR2vers12’ or whatever. Because old habits die hard.)


Look, Just Give Us The Gist


Listen. The greatest pleasure of the first book, for me, was writing and reading, and inhabiting the head of, Nicholas Prasad (no middle name), a fundamentally decent, serious, loving, courageous, and trusting young guy with a) anxiety and b) a tendency to put his body between danger and his loved ones first, and ask questions later. Unfortunately, by the end of the first book, he’s quite a different kid. 


Any book set after that presented something painful to me: He’s been through so much and it’s wrecked him up so badly; he’s full of anger, his loyalty’s been shattered, the people in his life don’t trust him any more and he’s miserable about it. The whole world has changed, and not for the better. Now, thanks partly to his own actions, he has to navigate an emotional, physical, and even magical landscape that runs counter to everything he thought he was. 

I had to ask myself: How can he return to what he was? Does he want to? How can he be tested? Under these horrible conditions? How can he resist becoming like… some other characters? What if, when you get right down to it, he fails the test?


Oh No!


I promise nothing.


Is There A Silver Lining to This Whole Experience?


Yes actually, there were two, and I’m delighted about both!


  1. That it got done at all: I wrote and nuked a lot of words at various points. I’ve always been a big writer/nuker (in some cases from orbit, i.e. deleting the file or tossing the notebook) and I’ve never regretted it; but I’ve always been nervous about regretting it, if that makes any sense. But the truth is, once I get to the final version of something, I do sometimes look back (files of twenty or forty or seventy thousand words, even more sometimes) and feel a small surge of gratitude that I did abandon those words specifically. They were not the right words; they were not the words I wanted. They were not fit for the story I wanted. 


In most cases I did not even cannibalize the old words to put into new versions. They were just wrong enough to be gone. And that happened this time. I nuked, nuked, nuked. I will not even confess, here, at what point I started over completely from scratch. Let’s just say that it was pretty unrealistic for me to expect to finish a novel during that time period, what with the other demands on my time. (No, I am never, ever, ever doing that again. It only happened this time because of Second Book Syndrome, I swear!) 


Anyway: I allowed myself to feel a tiny bit of pride in what I had done. In my willingness to give up the broken, and to start fresh; in my ability to feel hope that the new would be better than the old, which I often don’t have; in my typing skills (ha!); and in my writerly intuition, which (and I keep reiterating this, I know, I am a tedious insect) always repays trust in exact proportion. The more you trust your voice and your process, the more powerful it becomes. 

(This assumes that your intuition also lets you see when something isn’t working. Trust it the most then, I tell people. Trust it the most when it says ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’ Trust it a little less when it says ‘This is great!’) 


  1. Who likes Easter Eggs?: I do, I do! My most ardent fans (me, mostly) may have noticed that many of my short stories contain references to things that either happen in ‘Beneath the Rising,’ or to names from the novel, such as ‘Chambers Labs.’ What happened there was that my first forays into short fiction started in about 2016, when I started polishing the novel. I became agented in 2017, and the novel was on submission for most of 2017 and part of 2018. Then, we were told it would come out in 2020. So that’s about four years… plenty of time to wonder whether the book would come out at all, and so in the meantime I just started sticking Easter eggs into my short stories. 


Teeny, tiny references in most cases; bigger in others, referencing the end of the novel (‘No One Will Come Back For Us’ is the most obvious example there). One of these days I’ll round them all up, probably. But it did meaningfully amuse me, and keep me going, that I could do that with short stories, even if the novel never came out; there would always be a little shared universe either way. In that way, the stories are linked to a particular time and place (reminder: it’s an alternate history as well as all the other genres it’s in! And why is that, one wonders? Well, stay tuned). 


So that’s the roundup! This is more for me than for my readers (sorry, readers!). A reminder that Second Book Syndrome is real, and severe, but not terminal; and in the future, if I write more series, I’ll be vaccinated for it, having gone through this!     


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