Monday, March 23, 2009

Second Novel Syndrome

With Tash launching his second novel and a number of others working on theirs, it's timely to ask whether the second novel harder to write than the first?

Definitely yes.

With the news that The Time Traveller's Wife author Audrey Niffeneger getting a US$5 million deal for her second novel, Luke Leitch looks at the pressure successful authors are under to complete their second novels.

The Times also has a list of authors (including Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Anna Sewell and Arundhati Roy) who found it so hard to write a second novel ... that it never happened. (I also blogged about this here.)

And there were, of course, the second novels which did nowhere as well as the first.

But then, by way of compensation, there were the second novels which were truly great ... including James Joyce's Ulysses, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Jasper Rees in The Telegraph also writes about the dreaded second novel syndrome. He quotes Stephen Fry's theory about second novel syndrome :
The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. ... If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course. ...The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.
But as Malcolm Know writes in The Sydney Morning Herald :
... true SNS can only exist where the first novel has been hugely successful. All writers know that if you haven't had a big bestseller, it's harder to get published next time, no matter what you write; and if you have had a big bestseller, you will be published, no matter what you write. There's a catch both ways.
The difficulties are not just about writing the book, they are also about promoting it. Jan Dalley, literary editor of The Financial Times and a judge of the Encore Award for Second Novels says:
The second novel is well known to be much more difficult ... Even those who have had success with their first novels - sometimes especially those who have - find second novels very hard. Nobody is interested in them any more as brilliant young things. They are now launched on their careers and they've just got to get on with it.
Dally also thinks :
Relative neglect of the second novel is a consequence of the overpraising of first novels, and it's partly because of the cult of the author in our press ... Far more attention is paid to authors than to their work. That is catching serious writers in a bad trap.
Whatever the reasons, the second novel tends not to be an easy ride, so our thoughts are with our friends who attempt this particular high-wire act in the public eye.


BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks, enjoyed the links! Of course I'm working around this little problem. By the time my first novel gets published (in it's 20th draft!) I'll have at least two (about 10 drafts each) or three novels completed. So they'll be less pressure, just rewriting what I've already written.

Of course, I'm assuming that my first novel, The Lonely Affair iof Jonathan Brady which is actually my third, will get published before the other two, and two of these novels will also be the first book of trilogies, while the other one is a potential series (the fourth novel that I'm working on is the second book of that series).

Confused? Let's just say that in the last 20 years I've written a ton of stuff and very little, other than Lovers and Strangers Revisited and another book of narratives and essays, tentatively titled Twenty Years in Malaysia due out this year with MPH, has been published.

So I'm expecting big things from me in the next twenty years, all these novels that are patiently waiting for novel number one to finally get itself published!

I'm hoping the wait will be worth it, and I have to admit, I'm so glad that these novels weren't published years ago when I had hoped they would be, because now I know, they were not ready. I think it takes courage to admit that, and it'll take even more courage to see them through to the end.

But that's what writers do; it's all about perseverance. So for all of you who have published a first novel and are writing a second, I'm cheering you on! And for the rest of us, who have one novel or a bunch of them, keep working on them and get them published. If others can do it...

bibliobibuli said...

good for you, Robert! and that is a point made somewhere (!) in these pieces - for many authors, their first novel may not actually be their first - they may have actually written several before one gets published. and getting on with novel 2 immediately, even before manuscript 1 is sold is a great insurance policy.

great to hear about your long-term plan!

Lydia Teh said...

Impressive amount of work, Robert. You are prolific. I wish you every success in your novels. I also have one first novel in the drawer... but unless I rework it extensively, it will never see publication :)

Anonymous said...

Don't think it's fair that Arundhati Roy's name should be on the list of those struggling to come up with a second novel. She has continued to write, coming up with many, many trenchant essays since the publication of her novel.

Long before the current economic maelstrom stoking everyone's anger, she has been consistently highlighting the devastating impact of neoliberal economic policies, particularly on rural communities, the nexus between politicians, and unscrupulous bankers. Check out her "Cost of Living" on dam buildings, where our own Bakun dam makes a guest appearance..Infact her essays have been collected and published.

Her last few pieces were "Azadi" calling for an independent Kashmir, and "9 is not 11 (And November isn't September)" on the Mumbai terrorist attacks which has received a strong rebuke from Sir Rushdie...The lady has been busy writing.


bibliobibuli said...

rajan - yes, very true she is a prolific writer and an activist. but we are talking about novels here. she apparently has a second novel in the pipeline so lets wait and see if the fictional rabbit can be pulled out of the hat again. but even if she never does complete another novel, the one she's written already stands as a classic. she doesn't really need to prove anything, right?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if Harper Lee continued writing but just never published ... and has a trunkful of stuff lying around somewhere ...

Dunno why I wonder that though :)


BorneoExpatWriter said...

Sharon and Lydia, thanks. That's what I've been doing lately, extensively rewriting, rethinking two novels that's been shelved for about 5-6 years. I figure each rewrite brings me one step closer to publication. Of course I have a couple more novels that go back even further, some over 400 pages, that I may never get back to, for good reason. They are early works of someone learning his craft. But all that work does pay off, especially the editing.

Someone once said the writing never gets easier, but the writing does get better.

Anonymous said...

Are there any statistics on the relative success of second novels?