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Deathmatch: First vs. Second Novels

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My second novel comes out next week and I’ve thought a lot about why sophomore novels are so notoriously debilitating to write (and launch) and I think I’ve figured it out. It’s because — excruciatingly long drumroll followed by anticlimactically sloppy cymbal crash — you now have two books. You had one thing and now there’s another thing. And by virtue of paradox, those two things don’t just co-exist; no, now they are compared. Which means the whole endeavor inevitably becomes, through no fault of your own or the publisher’s or even the books’, but just because of how numbers work: a deathmatch.

I’m not saying authors of multiple books don’t suffer, too. Three books? People have a favorite. Four books? People rank them. But it’s not the same as the two-book problem; it’s not binary. Binary can go eat a bee.

This anxiety is further exacerbated by the publishing truism that debut novels are shiny new things people want to talk about and second novels are… well… not. If the plot and themes of my second novel didn’t borrow heavily from my real life and career, I’m not sure anyone would want to talk about it. I didn’t consciously write the books in this order for this reason, but I am glad it happened this way. It means this new book has a shot. It might just do better than my first book. And I will consider that a win, count my lucky stars, and keep my head down while I write the next novel lest I anger the book gods by thinking any of this was in my control.

Because it wasn’t. It’s not.

Personally, I don’t naturally handle that well. But I’ve had to learn to.

Because of the years I spent in Hollywood, I don’t suffer from the delusion that I can control the outcome of things I don’t, in fact, control. You wrote a great screenplay. That’s literally the beginning and the end of what you can control. You think that means it’s going to get made? Similarly, I never felt I was competing with other actors. I could be jealous, sure, I could wonder why them? I could think it’s unfair that someone who hadn’t paid their dues got the shot of a lifetime or the dream agent or nominations, but what did that have to do with me? None of their circumstances applied to mine. We weren’t identical twins with identical training applying for the exact same middle management job that required a known set of skills. It’s Hollywood. There are no rules. How can you control a thing that doesn’t have rules?

In publishing, I think it’s this very lack of control that makes us grasp for reasons. Surely there was something that happened this time – or didn’t happen this time – that explains everything. And if there are reasons, then there are fixes. You could get a new agent, a new editor, hire a publicist next time around and, sure, those fixes might make a difference. But it won’t make a difference for this book, in this particular market, at this particular time. The cake has been baked. The only thing for it is to bring out the stand-mixer and make a new one.

Which is why, to self-soothe, I’ve been falling back on the old artist adage, the weighted-blanket for nervous creatives for time immemorial: you can only control the work. It’s maybe a cliche to tell writers to focus on the work. But I honestly don’t know what else to say.

Here’s how I solved the sophomore novel problem for myself:

I wrote a better book.

There were a few drafts where my book was not a good book. And there were a few more where it was almost good. And then there was a draft where I could honestly, objectively say that it was better than my first book. It was a harder book to execute on every level. And that’s when I realized that that’s what I had been aiming for. Not to write a book that other people would like more than my first, because that I can’t control, or to write a more successful book, because ditto, but to write one that I was prouder of.

And for exactly the reasons listed above, the reasons that make me like it more, some people will like it less. They won’t care about the meta sleight of hand, the nuance, the smaller swings that required a defter hand, the larger swings that terrified me. Because that’s not what they’re reading for. And that is fine. That has nothing to do with me.

I did my best. I’ve done everything I can. And I tell myself this.

Still, there is just something terrifyingly vulnerable about publishing a second novel and no amount of objective pragmatism can completely ameliorate the feeling of walking around with your heart outside your body.

When I found my head spinning last week, anxiety waking me up at dawn as reliably as a rooster, it took a few days – and some clean mountain air and no cell reception – to remind myself: I could keep walking further into those mountains for the next week and the book would still publish. I could turn off my phone and log-out of social media and blow off all press obligations and – while perhaps business malpractice – it wouldn’t change the outcome. The book is coming out. People are going to read it. I will have two novels in the world.

And all I can do about that is nothing except make the next one better. Each book should accomplish something I haven’t accomplished before. Should help me grow.

And if it helps other people grow?

Then that’s the good stuff.

That’s the only reason I need.

If you have been here before, how did you cope with the anxiety? What things did you do differently or wish you had done differently with the launch of your second novel? If you have yet to have published a second (or first) novel, how would you see yourself handling it?


About Julia Whelan

Julia Whelan is a screenwriter, lifelong actor, and award-winning audiobook narrator of over 500 titles. Her performance of her own debut novel, the internationally best-selling My Oxford Year, garnered a Society of Voice Arts award. She is also a Grammy-nominated audiobook director, a former writing tutor, a half-decent amateur baker, and a certified tea sommelier. Her forthcoming book, Thank You for Listening--about a former actress turned successful audiobook narrator who has lost sight of her dreams and her journey of self-discovery, love, and acceptance when she agrees to narrate one last romance novel--releases in August, 2022.

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