5 Authors On 'Second Book Syndrome' & Forging Their Own Creative Paths
As a reader, it can be very easy to ignore the work that goes into creating our favorite books. The texts we love arrive fully formed, bound in hardback, ready to be underlined, dogeared, and dissected however the reader sees fit. But the authors who craft them more often than not have fascinating and complicated creative lives, and they deal with self-doubt, writer's block, and the dreaded Second Book Syndrome in order to share their stories with the world.
Below, five beloved authors — Sandhya Menon, Karen Thompson Walker, Stephen Chbosky, Rachel Hartman, and Téa Obreht — share their own personal experiences with writing a second book and what they've learned from the publishing process. While each of their creative lives have been very different — Chbosky took 20 years to release his sophomore novel, Imaginary Friend, while Menon's second book, From Twinkle, With Love, hit shelves just a year after her debut — they have all pushed beyond second book fears to forge their own paths in publishing.
Whether you're looking for writing advice, or you're just a reader who has always wanted to know more about what goes into crafting the books you love, you'll find some illumination below:
Sandhya Menon, author of 'When Dimple Met Rishi' & 'From Twinkle, With Love'
You have spoken a bit about writing your second book on your blog, and your experience with fear and writers block. What would you attribute this to?
Writing my second book, From Twinkle, with Love was so intensely scary. It wasn't just because I realized I now had a publisher who had paid me money to write it and expected something shelveable, but also because I now had an audience who had certain expectations of me as a writer. With your first book, writing is such a pie-in-the-sky, la-di-da feeling. There's very little belief that this is a real book that will actually be read and reviewed because that has literally never happened for you before. There are no such blissfully ignorant moments with a second book, and I think that's what I was experiencing. Well, that and acute terror.
Your second novel came out only a year after your debut. How long did it take you to write your debut versus your second? For your second, did you feel any pressure to write on a timeline?
It took me about three to four months to write the first draft of my debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. From Twinkle, with Love took about three to four months to write the first draft — but that's not counting all the many, many rewrites I did. And I do mean rewrites — completely deleting the book and attempting to write from scratch because I just couldn't find Twinkle's voice.
I don't think the timeline affected me too much, as I tend to be a fast drafter anyway. But I did feel a lot of pressure to find that perfect voice because voice makes or breaks a book. It's the soul of your story. I knew that, and it terrified me that it was being so elusive with my second book. However, I'm happy to report that after many, many sleepless nights and thoughts about emigrating to New Zealand under a new name, Twinkle finally gave up her secrets to me and allowed herself to be written.
"With your first book, writing is such a pie-in-the-sky, la-di-da feeling. There's very little belief that this is a real book that will actually be read and reviewed because that has literally never happened for you before."
What was the hardest part of writing a second book? What was the best part?
The hardest part was definitely trying to live up to the pressure I put on myself about writing a stellar book. The best part was having that built-in readership of people who were so eager and happy for another story from me! I feel very grateful for that support.
Second Books Syndrome is a well documented phenomenon, but as an author who has now published three books, with another coming in 2020, what have you learned about the writing process that has helped you avoid the fear?
I learned to tune out external voices (real or perceived) that might infiltrate the creative process. There can be no pressure and no negativity when you're creating something. The process is so ephemeral and so fragile that it requires the utmost care and love. So that's what I've tried to bring to all my books since.
Sandhya Menon's debut, When Dimple Met Rishi, and her sophomore novel, From Twinkle, With Love are both available now.
Karen Thompson Walker, author of 'The Age of Miracles' & 'The Dreamers'
There was a seven year gap between your debut and your second novel, which these days in publishing feels rare. Did you experience any symptoms of Second Book Syndrome after your first novel?
I’ve never been a fast writer, but the main thing that has changed since I wrote my first novel is that I have children now. Both of my two daughters were born during the five or so years I spent writing The Dreamers. They are immensely inspiring — and I think becoming a mother has been good for my writing — but I definitely have fewer hours for work than I once did. I’d say that raising young children was a much bigger factor in how long it took me to write my second book than stress about "second book syndrome."
"Now that I’ve written two books, each written from a very different point of view, I sense that I have more tools at my disposal than I did when I started writing my first book."
Was there anything about the writing process for The Dreamers that you preferred over the experience writing The Age of Miracles?
When I was writing The Age of Miracles, I had no idea if I’d be able to finish a novel at all — much less publish it. I think there’s a lot of learning involved in the writing of every new book, but when I was working through the specific challenges of The Dreamers, it was reassuring to know that I had managed to figure out how to write a novel once before.
What have you learned that you think will help you going forward to your third and beyond?
Now that I’ve written two books, each written from a very different point of view, I sense that I have more tools at my disposal than I did when I started writing my first book. I think I’ve gotten better at recognizing the opportunities in a given narrative, and the risks and advantages of certain choices.
Karen Thompson Walker's debut, The Age of Miracles, and her sophomore novel, The Dreamers, are both available now.
Stephen Chbosky, author of 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' & 'Imaginary Friend'
There was a 20 year gap between your debut novel and your second. Did you experience what many call Second Book Syndrome in the interim years?
Since most of my career has been spent writing and directing movies, I didn’t see the 20 year gap as anything other than a consequence of being busy with other things. That said, I found the time to be very freeing. I would imagine if I had written a second novel a couple years after Perks, I would have stayed with Young Adult. I’m grateful the time off allowed me to try something new.
Perks of Being a Wallflower has achieved cult classic status in the past 20 years, and many were surprised when you followed it up with Imaginary Friend. Did expectations after Perks influence your decision to write in a new genre or was a horror novel something you always thought you would write?
I loved two major genres growing up — Coming of Age and Horror. The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen King. So to me, writing Imaginary Friend was not a departure but a return home. I wanted to blend the two worlds. Heart and horror. The same themes I explored in Perks — just in a different way.
"If people give my work their attention I want them to know that I take their time very seriously. And I don’t want to let them down."
How long did it take you to write Perks and Imaginary Friend?
Perks took 4 months spread over two years. It remains the fastest writing process I’ve ever had. The words just poured out. And since I was single at the time with no kids I could afford to spend 16 hours a day on it. Imaginary Friend was a much longer process because I have so many more responsibilities now. Both personally and professionally. So my process had to change to accommodate the smaller amounts of time. In the end, both books represent my best effort. It’s just interesting how life changes our perceptions of time.
What was the hardest part of writing a second book? What was the best part?
The hardest part was the best part. It was doing it again. It was shaking off the rust, taking all the things I learned from Perks, and applying them to a new story. Challenging myself to grow. To write in third person instead of first. To write in a new genre. To tell a fiercely personal story in a unique way. Every time I write anything I want it to be the best it can possibly be. Time is so precious. The time we spend writing. The time we spend reading. The time we spend living. If people give my work their attention I want them to know that I take their time very seriously. And I don’t want to let them down. And the one thing I can promise you is that it won’t be another 20 years for another book. I’m back. And I love it.
Stephen Chbosky's debut, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and his sophomore novel, Imaginary Friend, are both available now.
Rachel Hartman, author of 'Seraphina' & 'Shadow Scale'
You have spoken on you blog about the pressures of writing your second book. Can you walk me through what that experience was like for you? How did you push through?
I got depressed, to put it bluntly. Suddenly there were thousands of people I could disappoint. It took me a while to understand I was depressed, however, because I didn't feel sad or anything. I felt stupid, like my brain had stopped working. I was actually worried it was early onset Alzheimer's. Once I finally admitted to myself what was going on, I told my agent and editor. I was scared to tell them, but it turned out to be the smartest thing I could have done. They were kind and understanding, and they basically said to me, "There's no book without you. Do what you need to do, and come back when you're ready." I took some time off from writing and took care of myself. So it wasn't really a matter of pushing through so much as stopping, regrouping, and coming back.
Your second YA fantasy novel came out only two years after your first. How long did it take you to write your debut versus your second? For your second, did you feel any pressure to write on a timeline?
It was actually three years, which was faster than the nine years for my first book, but longer than my publisher probably wished. In YA, particularly, there is pressure to write quickly. Kids grow up fast, is the reasoning, and if you take too long, your audience will have forgotten you. I am actually quite lucky in that my editor's attitude has always been, "A book takes as long as it takes." He's very supportive, which I need. However, even with him telling me to take my time, I still felt the pressure. I'm the kind of person who puts pressure on herself, and when I see other writers putting out a book a year, I start to feel inadequate. Only now, on my fourth book, do I feel like I really have a handle on accepting that my process is what it is, and not comparing myself to others.
"I've learned to take joy in what I'm doing in the moment, and letting that be my focus rather than deadlines, word-count, or other people's successes."
What was the hardest part of writing a second book? What was the best part?
The hardest part (besides getting depressed!) was the fact that everything in the first book was basically set in stone, and it was too late to change my mind about any of it. Apparently I solve problems by throwing out things that aren't working and coming up with a whole new idea. Now, I had to honor every ridiculous commitment I'd made in the first book. Seraphina had seventeen other half-dragons to find, for example, and it was too late to decide that was way too many to fit into one book.
The best part of that particular book, weirdly, was what I learned about myself. I need art therapy to be happy. Writing had been my therapy, but it was now the source of pressure. I took up singing, and it has made a huge difference in my life.
As an author who has now published multiple books, what have you learned about the writing process that has helped you avoid the pressures and fears you felt with your second?
I've learned to take joy in what I'm doing in the moment, and letting that be my focus rather than deadlines, word-count, or other people's successes. I've learned that I need to be doing some kind of art that my ego and income are not bound up in (in my case, singing). And I've taken to heart what my agent and editor tried to tell me, something all writers probably need to hear occasionally: there is no book without YOU. Publishing can feel like you're being put through a machine, but you have more power than it sometimes seems. Be kind to yourself. Burnout is real. It's ok to step away for as long as you need to.
Rachel Hartman's debut, Seraphina, and her sophomore novel, Shadow Scale, are both available now.
Téa Obreht, author of 'The Tiger's Wife' & 'Inland'
Your second novel was released eight years after your debut, something that's unusual in publishing these days. Can you tell me a bit more about your experience writing Inland?
I wrote and put away two other books before I finally found my way to the true story that inspired Inland. Because the second of those attempts was also set in the American west, I had already done a tremendous amount of research by the time I learned about the Red Ghost of Arizona and the failed experiment that was the United States camel cavalry; without all that previous groundwork, I’m fairly certain Inland wouldn’t have seized me as suddenly and firmly as it did.
Because of the gap between your first and second, Inland became one of the most highly anticipated books of the past eight years. Did you feel any pressure while writing to live up to readers' expectations?
Of course, but I think the most challenging pressure was in the tension between being keenly aware that time — and lots of it — was passing, and that I hadn’t yet connected to a project in a way that felt familiar or personally vital. Eventually, so much time passed that the first consideration fell away, and all that remained was this search for the right story. I was lucky to know it the moment it came along.
"Becoming a published writer doesn’t suddenly relieve you of the process of trial and error."
How long did it take you to write Inland compared to The Tiger's Wife? Were there any similarities in the writing processes?
This is where the illusory nature of book-time comes into play. Technically, both books took about three years to draft. However, as is often the gift — and curse — of first books, the reservoir of material that fed The Tiger’s Wife, despite it not being autobiographical, consisted of my entire childhood and young adult life, every emotional and psychological turn I had ever experienced. That Inland was eight years in the making seems slight in comparison; but 1400 pages of work had to precede it before the reservoir filled up enough to bring anything real to the surface again. As for similarities, my revision process tends to take the same shape regardless of material: a lot of visual aids, illegible scraps, and very late nights go into producing a final draft.
What advice would you offer a writer dealing with the Second Book Syndrome, especially one who is worried about taking a "break" between books?
I would say, “if necessary, take a break between books.” That doesn’t mean “stop writing” at all; rather, remember that publishing and writing are not the same thing. Remember the countless drafts and projects you started and put away before you found the material that would eventually become your first published book. Becoming a published writer doesn’t suddenly relieve you of the process of trial and error.
I was frustrated, sad, and often quite afraid during the years between finishing The Tiger’s Wife and starting Inland. They were some of the most personally challenging of my life —particularly because, at the time, it was impossible to feel certain that I would ever end up connecting with a project the way I did with my first book again. But looking back now, I’m able to acknowledge how necessary those frustrations and false starts were to putting me on the path to Inland. The waiting was what made it happen.
Téa Obreht's debut, The Tiger's Wife, and her sophomore novel, Inland, are both available now.