Why is your second novel so important?
November 14, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor
An author wrote with this question: “What would you say are the common areas of neglect you see in most second novels? Weak plot? Poor characterization? Underdeveloped themes?”
Love this question, since I tell the authors I represent that “your SECOND novel will be your most important.” You’ve doubtless spent years getting your first novel completed, then worked to edit it, got all sorts of advice, and went through the process of shopping it with an agent. It’s polished and ready to go after three or five years of working on it. Then you get a deal, and suddenly the publisher asks you to write another one in five months. Ack! You race through it, and it comes out disappointing. That can be a career killer, since you want your second novel to build off the sales of your first.
The biggest pitfalls in a second novel? A small idea (your first book was big; your second was hurried and not thought through as well.) Small characters (your first book contained characters you knew intimately; your second has people you don’t know as well). Less sense of place (your first novel is in a place you’ve spent considerable time exploring; your second is just a place). Less passion (your first novel grew out of a story you felt compelled to tell; your second is simply another book). You see the problem?
You see, your first novel sets a baseline in the marketplace. Retailers will be looking at your second book to decide if your audience is growing (and sales are up) or your audience is shrinking (your sales are down). They’ll take that as a sign of your future potential in the industry. Like it or not, that’s the tendency in today’s market. So you can’t scrimp on your second novel — it’s got to be as good as your first.
Someone else asked, “Should a novelist be thinking ‘sequel’ when she writes her first book? Has that become the industry norm? Should I have a story I can continue?”
Whether it’s the norm depends on the house — some publishers love sequels, others prefer not to sequence their books. But I would say the possibility for a sequel rests in your characters, not your story. Every novel needs a complete story (and aren’t we all sick to death of reading a novel that seems like nothing more than a long advertisement for the next book?). But if you have interesting characters than can continue, you’ve got the possibility of crafting a good sequel. So… no, I don’t believe the message that “you must always have a sequel.” The fact is, most second books in a series sell fewer copies than the first book in the series. So the idea that a sequel will automatically help you get established is a myth. However, you should always have another book in mind, whether it’s with these characters or others.
And someone else asked this question about sequels: “If your second novel is about the same characters as your first, how much description of them needs to occur for new readers, without frustrating repeat readers?”
Excellent question. My answer is probably, “Enough so that a reader will appreciate the characters in the current book.” Take a look at some great detective fiction for examples… You can pick up any Philip St Ives novel and feel you get to know the character, even though the author includes little description. Pull any Travis McGee novel off the shelf and you’ll see the character described in brief, then you’re quickly into the story. The same with Adam Dalgliesh or Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Too much description makes for a dull, wordy novel anyway. Get us introduced to the character, help us see what we need to see, then move us into the story.
And a friend had this follow-up question: “How far can you stray from expectations set by the first novel, before the reader feels betrayed?”
Not very far. It’s why many serial writers eventually feel trapped by their characters. You can’t have your God-fearing Priest Who Is A Weekend Sleuth With A Good Sense Of Humor suddenly transform into a Cross-Dressing Evil Genius. Readers won’t stand for it. If you create a character, you have to live with that character.
There’s a lot to say about second novels. It’s an overlooked topic, in my view. Happy to continue the discussion with your questions.