Sat 19 Dec 2009
Google analytics is a wonderful thing. It provides statistics on how my website is used, including letting me see what search terms have led people to my site. One browser got here after entering “Under Siege 3” and was no doubt disappointed to find that, no, Steven Seagal has not begun filming the long-awaited third chapter of the Under Siege saga. But my favorite so far: “Beautiful full breasts.” (Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks “full” is the best way to describe breasts.) That search called up my third blog—“Beautiful, smiling breasts”—but apparently this browser also didn’t find what he (I’m assuming this was a guy) was looking for. He spent zero seconds on my site.
Now just to be clear, when I wrote my third blog, I wasn’t planning on attracting guys with an interest—aesthetic, lascivious, or otherwise—in breasts. But any writing is apt to produce unexpected consequences, which brings me to today’s topic: the curse of the second novel. So often authors’ second novels are a let-down when compared to the first, and this is especially true regarding genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction. I will refrain from naming names (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), but I will say that dozens of second novels have left me wondering: how did this happen? What went wrong?
Well, now I know. Writers can spend years (five, in my case) working on their first novel. No one pays you, but on the other hand, there are no deadlines. You have time, and time is wonderfully helpful when it comes to straightening out plot and developing characters. Just to take one example, Aravind Adiga—author of one of the best books I have read in some time, The White Tiger—completed his first draft in 2005, took over a year off, then finally finished in 2007. Time made his book great. In my case, the first draft of Siege had only a vague resemblance to the finished version. Some characters and plotlines were dropped, others were added. The back stories of Longo and William—two of the main characters—changed dramatically. The initial battle scene shrank by sixty-five pages. Five chapters disappeared. And all of that happened because I had time.
Then, I sold Siege. During negotiations with the publisher, my agent asked me how long it would take me to write my second novel. I suggested two years. Too long, he said. A year and a half is the maximum. The second book needs to come out soon enough so that the paperback edition of the first novel can include advertising for the second. In the end, I signed up to write my second novel in one year. I was beginning to understand the curse of the second novel.
Now, one year is in fact plenty of time to write a wonderful novel. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that first time novelists have not yet learned how to write a wonderful novel that fast. With their first novel, they had time to work out any kinks. They could pick up the novel and put it down. They could go through dozens of drafts. With the second novel, they have to learn to write and edit much faster, and they are learning on the fly. This is a good problem to have: I can still hardly believe that I’m getting paid to write. And it’s a challenge that I’m having great fun tackling. But it’s also a problem that many authors fail to solve, at least on the first attempt—hence the curse of the second novel.
Will I be able to overcome the curse? So far, I think I’m in good shape, but there’s only one way to find out for sure: buy Eagle: Book One of the Saladin Trilogy, coming in May 2011! Now that I’m done with that piece of shameless self-promotion, allow me to put in a plug for next week’s blog: What exactly do editors do?