Discover more from Something to Say with Abigail Bergstrom
Second Book Syndrome
Straight from the Author's Mouth
This week I find myself in the sticky middle. After finishing the first draft of my second novel, I received feedback and notes from both my editor and my agent. Completing the first draft always feels like a significant moment, it’s certainly one that pulls in a lot of outward celebration – people are fast to congratulate you: you’ve written another book! Well bloody done! But the reality feels far from that. There is no such thing as a great first draft. At least not in my experience of writing and working with other authors for over a decade on develop theirs. The first draft is also a little confused, over egged in some areas and under cooked in others. It also takes a lot from you, here’s me having just sent it off to my editor – exhausted, broken and overwhelmed (having worn this jumper solidly for a week):
I knew when I delivered my first draft that there was still a lot of work to do. But it felt like the right time to submit it because there were many different elements at play – too many elements – I knew my editor would axe some of them, so I wanted to know what wasn’t working so I could focus my attentions on better refining what was. Naturally, the one element she wants me to cut is obviously the thing I was least expecting – and my agent agrees with her. This is always a strange moment. Where you have to push yourself to kill your darling(s) and trust someone else’s judgement – trust is huge here – trust that your editor or agent can see something you yourself cannot. Of course, whenever you receive editorial notes it’s your prerogative in terms of what you take on board and what you push back on. This is certainly something I’ve done previously and we do sometimes need to be prepared to fight for a character and the decisions they make. It’s part of the skillset, to be able to balance your own judgement and sense of what’s right with external feedback. But sometimes those painful cuts really do better the book and the story arch – even if it’s hard to say goodbye.
Overall I am super excited and motivated to receive my editor’s notes. And I agree with pretty much all of what she’s said. This is what makes writing a second book so different, it’s a lot more interactive or indeed, collaborative. Whereas for a debut you don’t have a team to sense check things with. And this sense checking can prove invaluable, especially when you’re so close to the text you can’t see the wood for the trees.
For example, a crucial piece of feedback given to me was: I had pitched in a book about sisters but in fact as my editor put it, this is a book about these women and their relationship with their mother. When she said that, something clicked into place. It made perfect sense and suddenly my vision for the book and the outtakes of the character trajectories shifted – it was all so clean and so clear.
However, this also piqued some jitters and second thoughts, and dare I say the quaking of second book syndrome (SBS). In a way, your first book defines the second, it sits in the shadows whilst you’re create this new book. And whilst that’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is certainly some heat and some weight wrapped up in writing a second book. Will it be as good as the first one? Do I have as much to say? A debut is a culmination of your life’s creativity, reference points and ideas. Whereas you often have a limited time to write and consider your second book, with a lot less having happened to you in the in-between.
Second book syndrome can manifest itself in so many different ways, for some writers it leads to paralysis, for others insecurity about letting their second book be ‘the ugly sister’ to the first and for some – like Sally Rooney for example – the second book can bring with it the sort of breakout success so many writers dream off. The outcome of SBS is a mixed bag, as are its effects on a writer - but it seems to be a universal phenomenon that almost all of us experience. There are lots of approaches and different learnings to be had from this part of the journey though, so I wanted to speak to some other authors about it. I wanted to hear more about their experiences of SBS, the things it’s taught them and also what advice they might give to another writer going through it.
For this next ‘Author’s Mouth’ series, we’ll be hearing from four experienced and highly-regarded writers. First up will be the bestselling and award-winning novelist Nikesh Shukla who has also co-founded his own literary agency and literary prize; next will be Dr Soph, the Sunday Times bestselling writer working to get psychology out of the therapy room and into people’s lives; then we’ll hear from Dr Camilla Pang, an award-winning writer and professional scientist who applies scientific principles to better understand human behaviour through the lens of someone who has autism; and lastly but certainly not least we’ll hear from Taiye Selasi, the critically-acclaimed writer who was selected for Granta’s ‘20 Best Young Writers’ when her first novel published.
These are a high-achieving bunch, yet they all share their battles with second book syndrome, how it’s affected them and offer words of wisdom. I found their honesty incredibly helpful and I’m excited to share this series with you. Whether you’re writing your first, second or third book – I think they each offer something for us to think about.
The first instalment will hit your inbox next week, so please do leave your comments and share your own thoughts around SBS and the tools you’re using to circumnavigate it. As ever, I believe the more we share and exchange the less lonely and daunting the process of writing can be.