Sunday, March 4, 2007

Second-Novel Blues

Lately a number of writers have been muttering about the trials of so-called Sophomore Slump—the problem of writing the dread Second Novel. Cate Sweeney has posted on the topic over on her blog, and invited comments.

I’m not the right person to ask (but when has that ever kept my mouth shut?), since my first novel (Things Unseen) didn’t get published…partly because I didn’t try very hard to get an agent (I thought of it as a practice novel) and partly because I was well into my second novel, Tomorrowville, which—despite many admiring but puzzled comments—was rejected by every agent in the solar system. (I was told by several that they had briefly taken up the agenting profession for the sole purpose of rejecting my book, and that they were happy they could now retire with the satisfaction of a job well done.)

You may recall the faux-inspirational story Michael Palin, the Lord of Swamp Castle, tells in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“…then that castle burned down, fell over, and sank into the swamp…”). Swamp Castle stood on the third try, but my third novel, A Map of the Edge, was sent back to me by a number of agents who said they’d love to see a rewrite. Well, I’d love to see a rewrite, too, but it hasn’t happened yet (more on this in another post). Smite the Waters is my fourth book, and while it was being shopped around, I wrote a fifth book, Earthly Vessels, which is sitting and cooling down enough for me to do a structural revision.

So, I’m not sure where I fit in to the Sophomore Slump pattern—I’ve already written my second book, and even written a book beyond my first published book. (Or, rather, written a first draft beyond my first to-be-published book, but you knew what I meant, didn't you?) I have, however, considered the problem that at some point MNW will have the option to look at an additional book of mine. This presents some thorny issues for me, since none of my books fall into the same genre or tone as Smite. I mean, not even close. (Though I have first chapters of a couple of other stories that might be compatible with Smite, so by the time the issue arises the problem might solve itself.)

I know a writer whose first novel won a major prize, was published to a warm critical reception, and then showed rather disappointing sales. She felt under such pressure and up against such frustration in writing her second novel that, somewhere around the middle, she stood up and heaved her printer through the window. (Which would be more impressive if you knew her, as she’s slender, none too tall, and generally not the sort of person you expect to toss the furniture about.)

Don’t leave the theatre yet, as there’s a happy ending. I don’t think she finished that second book. But she did sit down and battle her way through her third novel, an emotionally challenging and structurally difficult book, and she published it and watched as it promptly leapt onto the LA Times Bestseller list and then jumped the pond and sold even better in Europe. Which may show that second books are a bitch, but also shows that your encounter with your second novel tells you little or nothing about your future in writing.

I just wish I could figure out which book is my second novel. Is it, like, the second one I wrote, or is it the one I just finished after Smite...? Or is it whatever I revise next? Or is it just whatever I write next? (Oh, please, tell me it isn’t one I still have to write...)


Faye L. said...

Cover the Mirrors is my first novel in every sense, but I didn't really have any trouble with the second until quite late in the game, because I started writing it as soon as CTM was finished and started out on its rounds. By the time I got the email from Will at MNW, my second book was about three quarters completed.

I have had wibbles with it - mostly relating to the absolute sense of dread at the idea of it being rejected - but I'm glad I got an early start on the first draft before such issues became realistic concerns, otherwise I might have lost my nerve altogether.

Then again, perhaps not. I'm stubborn that way.

David Isaak said...

I've never heard of 'wibbles' before (sounds like some sort of snack for pet rabbits--Wibbles: Doesn't Your Bunny Deserve the Best?), but I think your policy of forging ahead with one book while the other is making the rounds is a good one.

I had guessed you might be one of those whose first novel was really her first novel. How's your third coming?

cate sweeney said...

Hi David
thanks for the mention on your blog, sorry I haven't been in blogland for a couple of weeks cos guess what? I've finished the second novel and got it in...just gotta wait now, but feel more confident about it than before.
However, well done you for all the novels you've written I don't think you need worry about second novel syndrome with all these under your belt. What is your gut feeling for which one is the better? Probably the one you have just done, but I think there's no limit of how many you send in to MNW, but you could probably discuss with Will. Sounds to me though you're in a strong position.
Best wishes
PS I like you are so interested in people's words. I have got over my mardy mood anyhow!

David Isaak said...

Woo-hoo, congrats on The End.

"Mardy"? Wow. I looked that up, though my fave reference on such matters ( didn't list it (though it did give me the adjective 'manky' and the noun 'moggy', both of which were new to me).

A website that listed it complained that it wasn't really known south of Stratford, and that it ought to be. I'm going to adopt it myself (as soon as I'm sure exactly what it means.)

The BBC website suggests the following:

1. First, find something trivial to get upset about
2. Make a screwed-up sulky face
3. Get a bit damp (it does not matter how)
4. Fold your arms aggressively
5. Kick at things feebly
6. Mutter darkly, shouting the occasional word so that people are aware of your displeasure

And before you know it, someone will come along and say 'You mardy little bugger.'

Izzat about right? (Sounds like a bit of work.)

Charles Lambert said...

My 'first' novel is coming out with Picador next year. It's actually novel No.4 of those I'd still be prepared to recognise ownership of, and No.7 if the rest are considered. Picador also has an option to buy a second novel, which probably won't be the one I wrote after the one they're publishing (entitled LITTLE MONSTERS, by the way), i.e. novel no.5, but novel no.2 Confused? You will be...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Charles, and welcome.

What a fine description. And I suspect that many a writer's situation is about as easy to explain.

(And I'm usually confused in any case.)