How to Outwit Second Novel Syndrome

Ireland Research Photo

Ireland Research Photo

Fog has descended on Lisfenora village thus reviving the myth of Grey Man, the dark faery who festers off shore waiting for its chance to ooze inland and snatch unsuspecting victims back out to sea. So is it figment or reality, the figure that DS Danny Ahern’s son insists he saw lurking near their house? Who is the lost boy left to die in a field of grass? What’s the connection between Merrit Chase’s heirloom necklace and a mute girl’s traumatic past? Will Danny, with Merrit’s help, find the mysterious John McIlvoy before a real-life grey man snatches another soul into his deadly gloom?

That’s my next novel in a quickly written nutshell. You can see I’m still thinking in terms of questions — open-ended questions create suspense. There’s an art to writing pitches and synopses, and this isn’t it. In fact, it reflects the state of my current (second) draft. The elements are there but, man, it’s messy. I need to work on flow, continuity, some character development, and the sticky nit-picky plot stuff that comes with writing crime fiction. And, of course, I still need to stitch it all together into a cohesive whole.

A long time ago, a writing teacher advised us aspiring novelists to relish the time we had to work on our first novels. I understand what she means now, because suddenly I’m looking at timelines. We novelists are supposed to deliver novels at least once a year. After the first novel, we don’t have all the time in the world to hone our craft, our prose, ours stories. This, to me, is one of the saddest truths about the business side of authordom.

And this might be why second novel syndrome (SNS) exists. What is second novel syndrome? Namely, when an author’s second book fails to deliver what the first book did. It disappoints. This can pertain to series novels, or not, though it’s often associated with series.

I haven’t given much thought to SNS — until now. Now that KILMOON is this close to publication, I’m thinking, Oh my god, I’ve got to finish the next one faster and yet just as well–or hopefully better!

Since I can’t predict how well either novel will do, all I can do is postulate about how to outwit SNS. Here’s what occurs to me:

1. In what my teacher called the “halcyon days” before debut publication, keep writing! Write the second novel while working to land your agent, while waiting in general (because it is a waiting game). Let the halcyon days include the second novel, and maybe even the third.

2. If you’re writing a series, leave your series protagonists in transitional or conflicted states at the end of the first novel. Nothing could be more boring than protagonists with perfect lives, everything tied up in a bow, all neat and tidy, la di da. They should still have flaws, inner conflicts, and doubts. Events in the first novel may have deepened their issues or created new ones. Life is messy — keep it messy!

3. Series inhabit particular worlds. Enlarge that world. Don’t just show the same aspects of village life, or police investigations, or whatever it may be.

These are my thoughts now. Ask me again after GREY MAN publishes, and I’ll probably have a whole ‘nother tale to tell. (But at least my synopsis will be perfected by then.)

Why do you suppose second novel syndrome exists?

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

11 thoughts on “How to Outwit Second Novel Syndrome

  1. “Second Album Syndrome” used to be quite well known in rock and roll also (it may still be, but I think things work differently now). A band gets together, develops a solid set or two of songs that have been tested at a lot of different gigs, and then records the best of them for the first album. Then you have to tour in support of the album, with no time to write a bunch of new songs, so the second album consists mostly of the songs that weren’t good enough to make Album #1.

    I think your first point is the key. I see a lot of blog posts about people who didn’t start Book #2 right away, and all of them ended up regretting it.

    • Hi Anthony! I didn’t know that about the music industry — fascinating — and it makes total sense. Thought of one band that fits SAS — The Dave Matthews Band. Way back when, I LOVED their first album. But their second album didn’t grab me, so I didn’t keep up with them.

    • OH man, I hear you, Susan! I’m in the downright painful phase myself. I’m cheering for you — rah! — and I’m confident that your editor will love it!

  2. This reminded me of one of my favorite posts by Dani Shapiro, in which she talks about the importance of writing in the dark—without an audience or deadlines—and we how we later miss it as published writers. I feel a bit of a rush right now, not to completely finish this book, but to at least get deep enough into that draft to still be in the dark (so basically, before the book is out and reviews start trickling in). But maybe ultimately it’s a state of mind we have to learn to practice?

    • Writing in the dark, yes — the womb, with no outside forces knocking us about. I already miss it! Have you seen the Ted Talk by the EAT, PRAY, LOVE author (forgot her name) — I think she talks about this re: after her phenomenal success.
      Hopefully, practice will help us reclaim our darkness! (Who’da thought I’d ever think such a thing?) 🙂

  3. Great post…all very true. I remember writing book 2 really quickly just so that it could be close to finished before book 1 came out. I had a sense of a final golden moment, when there were no expectations and I could feel free to write. I guess what your teacher called the halcyon days. Personally I wouldn’t write the second book in a series until the first has sold–and so I did write an unrelated novel while I was querying book 1–but I can see how that could work for others. Good luck! I’m sure your second book will be great!

    • Hi Susanna! And thanks! I’ve heard it both ways — sure, go ahead and write the next one; no, wait until the first one sells. In truth, I did write another first draft between #1 and #2. A standalone. Oh man, what a sorry drawer that was and will forever remain! Hah!

  4. Simple. You have a first novel, something to compare it to.
    For a lot of people the second novel is also merely the gateway to the third, where all the threads get wrapped up. The second feels weaker because it doesn’t have it’s own conclusion.
    I’ve noticed quite a few second books in series that were noticeably weaker than the first, probably because the author took their time on the first, but then the publisher pushed them to get the second out quickly to build on the momentum.

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