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The first versus the second novels – a writer without a box

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My second novel comes out next week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about why writing (and publishing) sophomore novels is so boring, and I think I’ve figured it out. This is because – an unbearably long drum beat followed by a sloppy cymbal crash – You now have two books. You had one thing and now you have another. And by virtue of the paradox, these two things do not simply coexist; no, now they are in comparison. This means that the whole endeavor inevitably turns into not your fault, not the publisher’s fault, or even the books’ fault, but just because of the way the numbers work: a death match.

I’m not saying that authors of multiple books don’t suffer as well. Three books? People have a favorite. Four books? People rank them. But this is not the same as the two-book problem; it is not a binary file. Binary can go eat a bee.

This anxiety is compounded by the publishing truism that debut novels are the shiny new things people want to talk about, while second novels are… well… not. If the plot and themes of my second novel weren’t borrowed heavily from my real life and career, I’m not sure anyone would want to talk about it. For this reason, I didn’t consciously write the books in this order, but I’m glad it turned out that way. This means that a new book has a chance. It might be better than my first book. And I’ll count that as a win, count my lucky stars, and keep my head down while I write my next novel so I don’t piss off the book gods by thinking it’s all under my control.

Because it wasn’t. It is not.

Personally, I naturally can’t handle it. But I had to learn.

Because of my years in Hollywood, I don’t suffer from the delusion that I can control the outcome of things that I really don’t. You have written a great script. It is literally the beginning and the end of what you can control. Do you think that means it will be done? Likewise, I never felt like I was competing with other actors. I could be jealous, of course, I could wonder why they? I might think it’s unfair that someone who didn’t pay dues got the chance of a lifetime, or a dream agent, or a nomination, but what did that have to do with me? None of their circumstances applied to mine. We weren’t identical twins with the same training applying for the same mid-level position that required a certain skill set. This is Hollywood. There are no rules. How can you control a thing that has no rules?

In publishing, I think it’s this lack of control that keeps us grasping reasons. Surely there was something that happened this time – or didn’t happen this time – that explains everything. And if there are reasons, there are fixes. You can find a new agent, a new editor, hire a PR person next time, and of course those fixes can make a difference. But it won’t matter for this book, in this particular market, at this particular time. The cake is baked. All you have to do is pull out the mixer and make a new one.

That’s why, to calm myself down, I fell back on an old artists’ adage, an age-old blanket for nervous creators: You can only control the work. It’s probably a cliché to tell writers to focus on the piece. But I honestly don’t know what else to say.

This is how I solved the problem in my sophomore year myself:

I wrote the best book.

There were several drafts where my book was not good. And where there was, there were a few more almost good And then there was a draft where I could honestly, objectively say that it was better than my first book. This was a harder book to follow on all levels. And then I realized that this is what I was aiming for. Not to write a book that others liked more than my first because I can’t control it, or to write a more successful book because it’s the same thing, but to write a book that I was more proud of.

And for exactly the reasons listed above, the reasons they do i like more, some like less. They won’t care about the meta sleight of hand, the nuances, the smaller swings that required a more dexterous hand, the bigger swings that terrified me. Because it’s nothing they are reading for. And so it is good. It has nothing to do with me.

I did my best. I did everything I could. And I tell myself that.

Still, there’s something terrifyingly vulnerable about publishing a second novel, and no amount of objective pragmatism can quite ameliorate the feeling of walking with your heart outside your body.

When I found myself dizzy last week, anxiety waking me up at dawn as sure as a rooster, it took a few days – and some fresh mountain air and no cell phone service – to remind myself: I could keep going further into those mountains next week and the book will still be published. I could have turned off my phone, logged out of social media, and walked away from all press commitments, and – while that might be abuse of office – it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The book is published. People will read. I will have two novels in the world.

And all I can do about it is make the next one better. Each book has to do something I haven’t done before. Should help i to grow

And if it helps other people grow?

Then it’s good stuff.

This is the only one the reason I need

If you’ve been here before, how did you deal with the anxiety? What did you do differently or wish you had done differently with the release of your second novel? If you haven’t published your second (or first) novel yet, how would you see yourself doing with this one?

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