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Beating the Book Two Blues
I just got my second book into my publisher, which gives me a fresh perspective on that thing that people have written whole tomes on— the second book. The dreaded sophomore panic. Book two blues. It goes by many names, but the feeling is the same.
So common is the feeling that there have been whole books dedicated to writing second books, along with many articles all around the internet. But recently I was talking with someone in my debut group and I was giving out advice (we, as writers, are like aunties in this way and we love giving out advice). It's a piece of knowledge that helped me and it's a piece of advice that helped her. So I'm going to pass it along to you.
But first, let me back up.
I think it would help if I start by describing the inherent problems of the second book. The first of which is time. In the best case scenario, most people have about half the time to complete their second book as they did their first. They usually have about two years on their first project and one year on their second. Because I was unable to quit working on my first book and pick up a different project, I personally went from six and a half years working on my first book to ten months working on my second book.
It's a steep learning curve for all of us. And Jodi's written a great post on what this professional timeline looks like in real time, if you're looking to learn more about this.
The second problem is the change in motivation. For your first book, the question was if you'd ever be published. You use a kind of boundless, internal optimism to generate a narrative that says that this if is just a when in disguise. You tell yourself this to keep going.
But with a second book, the if isn't, "if I get a book published." It's "if I can write on a professional writing timeline." You're proving this to yourself, yes. But you're also proving this to your editor. To your agent. To your publishing house. That internal push has just become externalized in a super real way. That doesn't make this a worse problem— the countless hours worrying if you can ever get a book published is truly not for the faint of heart— but it is a different kind of problem and one that produces a huge amount of discomfort and growing pains.
Though, all of the best kinds of problems produce growing pains, I think. More on that in a moment.
Because finally, the third problem is guilt. You've worked so hard to get to this point. You've got not one but two books in the pipeline! Your past self would have committed up-to-and-possibly-including-murder to get here. But here you are, terrified and not having fun and wracked with guilt that you aren't having any fun at the job you're supposed to love above all things.
I promise, my solution is on the horizon.
In my interview with Jodi, I likened writing to working out. So I will use this working out and running metaphor again. When you're building a solid running base— say to race in a half-marathon— you start with a lot of long hours at a pace that you can feel the effort of, but that you can essentially do forever. These workouts suck. They are hard. Not physically, but mentally. They grind away at you. And they worst part is, they aren't sexy or fun. They aren't even part of your training for the actual race. These are the hours that you put in so that future you can train for your race.
There is no glory in a reasonable pace. It's not the kind of workout that anyone thinks requires guts. Just a personal determination and an unrelenting focus as you hold on to that edge of discomfort as you run. It wears out your body. It wears out your concentration. And nobody will congratulate you for doing any of these efforts. They are the baseline requirement for being able to race at all.
This is the second book.
Not all out sprints. Not speed work. Not race pace. Just the everyday, show up and push yourself just past your comfort zone. In writing, this is keeping in bounds of what you need to get done to fulfill your contract while also pushing hard enough to grow as a writer. In writing and running, it's knowing that if you do your job right on this one, you will only reap the rewards in weeks, months, and possibly years.
The problem with the second book is, we expect to love the process the way we loved the process of the first book. We expect that we will feel glorious and victorious the way we did after that first book crossed the finish line. But the second book feels nothing like this. Book two is deeply unsexy work. Book two is a grind— it is supposed to be a grind— and we worry that we've done something wrong when we feel this.
But the thing about these runs, all these low-level but unyielding encounters with discomfort is the satisfaction of finishing it. It's the knowledge that you felt that discomfort, that dislike, that grind— and you pushed through anyway. An unsexy victory, yes, but a bone-deep, viscerally satisfying one.
So if you are in the throws of book two, know it is okay to be uncomfortable. It is okay to not like the process. You can hate a particular workout while still loving to run. You can love your work as writer and dislike the process that you must undergo to get through book two. You can love your second book— your world, your characters, and your story— and you can dislike this particular moment of your work. You can dislike it and do it anyway. Because you want to see book two finished more than you'd like to be comfortable.
Because you love your second book and your writing more than you need to love any individual day of writing. Because there is little glory in the second book, but there is the opportunity for something even greater— pride in yourself and satisfaction at a job well done. Because with the second book, as much as the pressure is external, the sense of fulfillment is all your own, all from within yourself.
Keep writing, babes. You've got this.