Keep Moving Forward

By Brian Kaufman

In baseball, they call it the sophomore jinx. After a great rookie season, many players need help to repeat their initial success. In music, they call it the second album syndrome. After spending years perfecting songs for a debut album, the record company books studio time, and the band is rushed to record a follow-up—often falling short. 

Writers face a similar dilemma. After finishing a precious project, moving on to a new project can be daunting.

  • You invested time and emotion in your previous project. Your heart may still be there.
  • If your book is published, you have six months to a year’s worth of marketing ahead of you. Increasingly, that task falls to the author and can feel burdensome. Marketing is not writing.
  • If your first novel doesn’t publish or is published and fails to sell, you’ve sewn new doubts. Are you good enough? Will anyone take another chance on you?
  • A successful project doesn’t ease the pressure. It doubles down. Are you a one-trick pony? A one-hit wonder?

If your previous project was your first, you are bringing an improved set of skills to the table when you start a second book. With a first novel, you battled the question, Can I finish? With a second novel, you know the answer. That’s worth something. 

If you’ve written a few novels, you have an idea of what works and what doesn’t. And you have reasonable work habits and a sense of workflow. My first published novel took me three years to write and two more to polish. My typical project now takes eight to ten months of actual writing (not counting research and the percolation process involved when developing a story idea).

If you’ve finished other projects, you have the skills to develop a writing career. However, choosing a follow-up project is not simply a matter of skill. Your emotional attachments are involved.

I recently finished a novel that might be the best I’ve ever written. A Persistent Echo (Black Rose Writing, August 2023) is my tenth book—an attempt to write upmarket, book club fiction. When I wrote the final line, I parked the book for a few weeks and then gave it a read. Unlike past projects, this one turned out exactly what I wanted. Pre-pub reviews, including Kirkus’s starred review, increased my expectations.

Meanwhile, a writer’s gotta write. I started (and stopped) two new novels. One was fun, and I might return to it, but neither project worked the way my “important novel” worked. And I missed that finished novel. I missed the feeling I had when I wrote it. When these emotions persisted, I realized I was grieving.

In fact, the five steps of the grieving process seemed to apply:

  • Denial. There was a great temptation to keep polishing the previous novel. The characters were so real that I kept imagining new conversations and moments of great emotion. It was so much easier to return to a book already with a publisher and . . . fiddle.

  • Anger. This summer, I’ll turn 71, and it occurred to me that my best writing might be behind me. The two misfires were solid evidence of my decline. False starts had me grumpy. First, I had to give up city league football. Now this.

  • Bargaining. I’ll write half the time and market half the time. Something will click because writers write. If I keep my butt in the seat, something good will come out. I will work harder. Just give me that sweet spot feeling . . . 

  • Depression. I recently visited a Barnes and Noble, wandering the aisles, checking out titles, covers, and back matter. (Market research.) I’d already received pre-pub copies of my book. Frankly, upon comparison, my book did not seem to measure up. I found reasons to be disappointed in every aspect. My best? Not nearly. All for naught.

  • Acceptance. The book “is what it is.” (As will the next one be.)

Becoming attached to the next project might be easier if you write a series. Or not. How do you avoid repeating yourself? In book five, your protagonist goes back in time, and in book seven goes into space, right? (That’s the way it works in horror movie franchises.)

I have suggestions. If finishing a novel leaves you stuck in a rut, try the following:

  • Write a short story. The time involved is part of the problem with committing to a new novel. It takes so much effort and time to finish a book. What if the new project is a dead end? With a short story, your commitment is different, and the project itself is different. Short fiction’s pacing and economy will keep you focused.

  • Write poetry. The intensity of imagery and word choice will pay dividends when you return to a novel-length project, particularly in descriptive passages.

  • Binge read. Some authors refrain from reading other people’s work in full writing mode, lest they unconsciously acquire style elements that clash with their own natural voice. Between projects? Read. And make sure you read outside of your usual genre. Fresh voices, new tropes. 

  • Switch genres. Not ordinarily good career advice, but I include this because it’s what I’ve done. My last three books have been, in order, horror, historical literary, and near-future dystopian noir. Sometimes, change is good.

If, on the other hand, you plow ahead and reach a dead end, take heart from my experiences. I can count no less than six “novels” that dead-ended (one of them, a completed novel that I finished, discarded, started over, completely rewrote, and then discarded again). Recall Mr. Hemingway’s suggestion to “write a million words”? My missteps put me at least a third of the way home. So, if you choose wrong, don’t despair.

The view from 30,000 feet says you’ll be the better writer for the experience.

[A PERSISTENT ECHO is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]

Writing That Tricky Second Novel

Sophomore Novels

That Dreaded Second Book

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.

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