I think we’ve all heard of it, in relation to books and follow-ups to incredible debut albums from promising musicians and movie sequels–that fear that the second just won’t be as good as the first. The magic will be gone, the spark extinguished. Not everyone gets it (I say this because I know people who didn’t) but it does exist. An author friend once told me it nearly destroyed him–but a mutual friend of ours told me his second book (which isn’t out yet) is the best thing he’s ever written.
For a lot of us, writing the second book comes at an interesting time; we have an agent, maybe even a book deal. And for the first time, we’re writing while we know someone is going to see it. Agents, editors, hopefully the public someday. We’ve gotten a glimpse into how the publishing machine works and we watch every word we type drift down the conveyor belt into an intricate system of cogs and wheels and terrifying gadgets covered in pointy things.
CODA was the first book I completed, the first I queried. I got an agent, it got a book deal. I was lucky and I knew it. And then the lump rose in my throat.
What if I couldn’t do it again? Was I that dreaded cliche, the one-trick pony? Would my agent regret signing me? Would I slink away into the darkness with a single book under my belt, not even remembered as that person who couldn’t write a second book, but simply forgotten?
And then I realized the answer would always be a resounding YES if I didn’t try to do it again. Still, those doubts followed me for months. They made my fingers freeze in the middle of words and kept me awake. They made me tear up huge chunks of Magic Bird Book and rewrite them, throwing out tens of thousands of words and starting again even though writing more was mostly the last thing in the world I felt like doing.
Like a a lot of people, it’s easier for me to give advice than to take it. Sometimes, I don’t even know I need that advice until someone else asks me for it. Well into the writing of Magic Bird Book–in fact, as it was nearing completion–I was speaking to an author friend who worried whether it was “wrong” to think that they could do better than their debut, a book which has rightly received a huge amount of praise.
I said it wasn’t obnoxious, it is our job to think that. If we think we’ve already done the best we’re ever going to do, what’s the point in ever writing another word?
And then I looked again at Magic Bird Book, and I started to fight harder than ever for it. I was going to finish this book if it killed me, and I was going to make it great if it killed me twice. Sacrificing for art and all that, you know.
I had an interesting bonus layer to the knowledge that an agent was going to read Magic Bird Book–it wasn’t going to be the agent who signed me for CODA. The pressure I felt to make my new agent feel justified in having taken me on just after CODA sold was intense. This past summer, after I’d showed him several chapters, I saw him in New York and confessed this.
“Hey,” he said, laughing. “You have no idea how much pressure I was under to like it.”
He was right. I didn’t have any idea. Selfishly, I’d never considered that. And strangely, that might be the most helpful thing he’s ever said to me.
Publishing can be a confusing and unpredictable business. As authors, especially new ones, there’s really not a lot we get to control. But we do get to control the writing. For that time–however long it is–that we’re drafting a new book, it’s ours. The fear might be there, and it’s definitely real, but the book belongs only to us. I know now that I have to believe there are an infinite number of rabbits in the proverbial hat, and I had to write a first book if I wanted to write a second, and a second if I wanted to write a third. Defeating Second Book Syndrome can only be done by finishing the story, and it’s like defeating Bowser in Mario. Congratulations, you just leveled up at BOOK.
I also know that fear is my friend. Call it artistic temperament or anything else you want, but most writers (and other artists) are always going to worry they can’t do it again, whatever “it” is. This is a GOOD THING. Knowing you can do better isn’t obnoxious: believing that you’re already perfect IS. I don’t think I want to read books by people who don’t believe they need beta readers and critique partners and editors, that everything they write is already perfection.
The fear that I can’t be great again is the best inspiration I have to try to be great again. It makes me look at every word, every sentence, every character, every conflict, and really think about whether I’ve done the right thing for the book.
Bye, Second Book Syndrome. I won’t miss you, but I’m glad I had you. If I can kick you to the curb, I can do anything.