second book syndrome

I stumbled over this quote the other day:

“No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You’re suddenly considered to be a professional writer, a fiction machine, but you know very well that you’re just getting going. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that’s what creates the panic.”

It’s from an interesting article, but the rest of it didn’t stick with me as much as this paragraph. This is me, right now. I’ve got the dreaded second book syndrome. 

My first book (well, second book I wrote, but first that got sold, so that’s what we’re counting here) was amazingly fun. It took me nearly a year exactly from first sitting down to agent call, which was quite a nice little germination period. I love my first book. I love my characters, my world, my villains, my pacing. LOVE. But now, as I dive into my blog post to get away from the tangled, sticky mess that is my second novel, the love is getting stretched.

Here’s the thing, though, the foundation of the book is good. It’s the same characters. The plot is tight, and I’ve already written and chucked its incredibly over-ambitious first incarnation. I’ve got a solid base here, and yet, we’re still not coming together. Still not jelling. And with each word I mess up, I get the creeping realization that the problem here isn’t the book, it’s me.

Whenever I have a problem writing my novels, be it writer’s block or scenes not working or whatever, the answer is always the same: there’s something I don’t know. I don’t know why a character would do this, or what I want the scene to achieve. I can’t write what I don’t know, but, in a lovely zen paradox, I can only know the novel by writing it. This process of bullying forward, then slinking back, the marching again in a new direction is the natural life cycle of my writing, always has been. When I was only writing for myself, this cycle was merely a frustration. Now, however, with the deadlines set and getting close and people whose opinions I care desperately about waiting for me to deliver something as good or better than my first novel, going two steps forward and one step back is suddenly a teeth grinding, ulcer producing, panic inciting experience.

When I hit a snag these days, which seems to happen every other sentence, I don’t stop and think “what don’t I know” like I should.  I keep going. I try to make it work, and by not listening to the novel, only serve to lodge myself deeper in the problem, which begins the panic. I’m fucking it up. This is my great dream. This is the goal. This is what I worked so long and hard for, and I’m fucking it up.

It’s a vicious cycle, and not a productive one, because writing is a deeply personal thing. When I’m working on a book, it’s just me. There’s no one else to blame, no muse, no editor, just me. If the novel is failing, it’s not the novel’s fault, it’s mine. When I have anxieties, they are reflected in my writing, or my inability to. Therein lies the heart of the problem, and also the solution, though I’m only now, after two months of failure and panic, beginning to see it.

All of these set backs are my fault, not the novel’s. In my desperate attempts to make things work, I’ve been blaming the novel for my troubles, blaming my characters and my scenes for not working out. But it’s not the novel’s fault. It’s good novel, as I said before, but if I’m going to do it any justice, I’m going to have to uncouple my insecurities from the prose and just write the stupid thing. When I hit a snag, I have to approach it as a writer, and not a panicked author with a book deal. I have to stop looking at the stakes and start focusing on the work again, because it is the work that will ultimately carry me to where I want to go.

To hell with second book syndrome. Today I’m letting the panic go. Today I’m going to open my wip as a writer, not an author. Today I’m going to take the first real step towards actually finishing my stupid, wonderful, horrible, cloying, beloved novel.

Wish me luck!


3 Responses to “second book syndrome”

  1. April 10, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Best of luck! I find that when I run into snags, what helps is to talk myself through it in a separate document. Literally ask myself questions, answer them, and then ask the next resultant question. Often I’ll be able to isolate and then solve the problem by simply writing a conversation about it down.

  2. April 11, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I think that might be why I change the characters in every book of a series. I know it’s not as commercially viable, but I get bored writing the same people for too long, and I think a boring story would result. I’ve got no problem pulling preceding characters in for a cameo, or patching up unresolved issues (the entire “Earth and Sky” series involves the unresolved issues of the gods from Book 1, even though different characters take over the story for books 2 and 3). But a whole book with the same person I just wrote a whole book about? Yaugh. No thanks.

    That may also be why I didn’t feel the dreaded second book panic with my Book 2. It was such a drastically different book from Book 1 that it felt like a second book 1 to me. Which may put off readers… though I hope not, because I think it’s a good book. I had as much fun writing it as I did with the first one, and I can only hope that shows through in the story’s quality.

    (I’m interested in your distinction between “writer” and “author” near the end of this post. Can you elaborate?)

  3. 3 rachelaaron
    April 12, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    The author/writer division is one I make in my head to describe the two different hats I wear (often at the same time) while writing. On the one hand, I’m a writer. I’m concerned with story, plot, nuance, what do I want to tell the reader, etc. On the other hand, I’m also an author under contract, which means I have to make this book the same but different as the first in the series, and I have to do it on time.

    My problem is that I’ve been focusing too much on the author part of this duality, and too little on the writer part, which is the half that actually writes a book.

    This is a pretty arbitrary and personal distinction, but I like it. It lets me separate my two lives into manageable boxes.

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