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What it’s like writing that tricky second novel

Debuts are always exciting, but what about the book that comes next? Here we talk to authors and editors on the unique challenges – and joys – of the sophomore novel.

In 1985, a couple of years after the release of her debut Heartburn, Nora Ephron explained her strategy for when people asked her about her second novel. “For a while, I decided to wipe the smiles off their faces by replying that my second novel was coming fine, and that it was about Vietnam.” Her logic, she said, was that this would buy her time.

“The point of all this,” she concluded, “is to say that not having begun my second novel and not having a clue as to what it will be about, I don't know the answer to your question.”

While Ephron went on to become a titan of writing, delivering masterful playtexts and screenplays, Heartburn remained unfollowed. Ephron joined writers such as Emily Bronte, Boris Pasternak, J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison in only ever writing the one novel. Evidently, stopping there didn’t do any of them much harm.

But it does all build into the popular notion of the 'difficult second novel'. While debuts elicit the breathless excitement of discovery, second novels only have to come next. For the authors who write them, this hold all sorts of conundrums. No wonder they’ve earned a truculent reputation.

'There was a fear of ‘do I have a second book in me? Will it live up to the first book?'

"I do think authors put more pressure on themselves with book two, which leads to the dreaded book two syndrome," says Tash Barsby, a commissioning editor at Cornerstone. While second-time authors know they've achieved something quite daunting – writing a book at all – and can, therefore, do it again, there are all sorts of things that can make a second book more challenging, from shorter deadlines to the new pressure of reader expectation. 

The struggle and beauty of writing a first novel come from a similar place: the fact that nobody really knows you’re doing it, and you can take all the time you like. Deborah Masson wrote Hold Your Tongue, her award-winning crime debut, over the course of three to four years while raising two small children. “The second one was done in six to eight months!” she tells me of follow-up Out For Blood. “That was a shock to the system”.

This unexpected haste provided its own challenges: “There was a fear of ‘do I have a second book in me? Will it live up to the first book? It’s been written a lot more quickly – is the quality still there?’”

Alexis Henderson, author of 2020 debut The Year of the Witching, had the opposite experience. “I wrote it in senior year of college and it took me three to four months,” she say. “[So] it was a shock to my system when I started writing [The Dawn of the Coven, her second book]. I realised it was going to take me a lot longer. I naively assumed that because it was the sequel it would flow from me and be easy, but I think second books are hard-won. It can be pulling teeth, an uphill battle. You have to fight for it, I think.”  

Barsby says she advises authors to give themselves a head start by filing their second book before their first comes out. "I always try and say, just deliver a first draft - even if it's a terrible first draft. Having the full script down on the page, is mentally quite helpful because they’re just revisiting what they’ve already done rather than having to create this entirely new plot."

For Emily Henry, author of 2020 debut Beach Read, the trick was exactly that: starting on number two early. “I ended up drafting [You and Me on Vacatio] before Beach Read came out and that has been such a life-saver,” she says. “Writing the next book before your first book comes out is ideal, because expectations will always shift your writing process. Eventually you’re going to be writing for an audience and know that you’re writing for an audience.”

Beach Read became a New York Times bestseller. It’s the kind of result most writers dream of, but was also, she says “a lightning bolt, one-in-a-million situation that I wandered into” that has left her “trying to manage that expectation”.

'Every single time, just convince yourself no-one is watching, no-one cares, and be true to the story that you’re trying to tell'

Already working on her third book, Henry is trying to tune out the early reviews of You and Me on Vacation, which is released this summer.

"You cannot write the same book twice," she says. "Instead I try and ask: ‘If this were my first book, what would I want it to say?’ And I think you have to do that every single time, just convince yourself no-one is watching, no-one cares, and be true to the story that you’re trying to tell, otherwise you’ll just get so bogged down.”

Henderson agrees writing your second book can mean missing the innate privacy that comes with composing a debut manuscript. “In some ways the new book feels less like mine than The Year of the Witching did, so you’re getting territorial of this world you’re trying to create because before the book is even finished.  

“You can feel like it belongs to the readers, and in some ways it does, and I think there’s a lot of beauty and merit in that. But on the creative side of things it’s difficult to write something that I know I’m going to immediately give to someone else.”

The other peculiarity of writing a second book, in comparison to a first, is that there's less opportunity to work on a draft before it goes out into the world. A debut novelist would have polished their manuscript several times before sending it to their agent, who in turn would have worked on it with them before submission. "Whereas," says Barsby, "with book two, it really is the first draft for everyone. I think authors can sometimes feel a bit of pressure for the first draft to be as good as they had to get their first draft of their first book, but I always make very clear I’m not expecting a perfectly polished first draft. Otherwise, what’s the point of editors like me?" 

Returning to work with an editor offers authors the knowledge of a safe pair of hands with a second novel, something Henderson has come to understand. She says working on book two has taught her to become a more self-forgiving author, and lean on the company of others: “I’ve allowed myself to start over if I feel like I’ve written the story in the wrong direction,” she tells me. “I tell myself over and over again, ‘right is better than finished’. Also, talking to other writers, my editor, my girlfriend: all of that has helped me. There’s a special magic in brainstorming with other people when I get stuck.”

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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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