Today the Writers Ask Writers group comes together to celebrate the launch of a new book by one of the group: Dawn Barker’s second novel, Let Her Go. Fractured, her first, was a page-turner, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Dawn will be talking about Let Her Go here next week, the first in the new series 2, 2 and 2 on looking up/looking down.
The topic today is, well, topical: the so-called ‘difficult’ second novel.
If you google difficult second novel syndrome you’ll find pages and pages of angst and counter-angst from writers who have suffered from it, writers who haven’t, those with advice and those with analysis. Causes are multifarious, but most seem to fall generally into two camps: exhaustion (the first novel has drained the imaginative life from the writer) and expectation (the first novel has to be ‘bettered’—whether in terms of sales or critical reception or self-defined success).
I don’t remember feeling exhausted of ideas or energy for writing my second novel—possibly because I knew it was going to involve a lengthy research phase before I entered the writing phase. I began that before my first novel was published, so there was a period of overlap between them, in which I was editing The Sinkings and researching Elemental. One seemed to balance the other.
As for expectation: I wasn’t conscious then of specific ‘second novel’ pressure; I was too busy coming to grips with what I was trying to do conceptually and narratively with Elemental. Danielle Wood summed up this distinction brilliantly when it was put to her that, having written one novel, she now knew ‘how to do it’. She responded that all she had learned was how to write the novel she had written; she would now have to learn how to write the next.
Among the many things I had to learn in the early stages of Elemental were how to write a sustained work in the first person, how to structure a long novel covering a life of more than eighty years, how to pace past and present, immediacy and reflection, and how to create an unfamiliar world through memories not my own. And I learned in the way that works for me: through immersion in the past, through instinct, through questioning, through trial and error.
If you’d asked me then if I knew what I was doing, I’d have shrugged, I’d have shaken my head. There are times I might have cried, but there were not too many of those. Frequently I reminded myself that I had felt the same when writing Little Jock and Willa in The Sinkings, and somehow I’d managed in the end.
In retrospect, I can see that some of the pressure associated with publishing a second novel was circumvented by Inherited, a collection of short stories published between the two novels. That came about more by stealth than design—a gradual accumulation of material through a felt need to actually complete a few sprints during the marathon of the novel!
However, I’m prepared to rewrite history and call it a smart move.
You can click on the links below to read my friends’ views on the difficult second novel:
Annabel Smith found that the first gave her confidence to write the second. The biggest difference between them, she says, was the marketing.
Emma Chapman is still in the process of writing her second novel, and is finding it more relaxed but full of challenges.
Sara Foster was a new mother when she wrote her second novel and found the former more scary than the latter!
Dawn Barker found inspiration for her second novel from such disparate sources as Florence and The Machine and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.