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...)