While I was at Thrillerfest, two different authors approached me with similar tales of woe.Â Both of them had sold their first books, which had beenÂ published to great praise.Â One of the booksÂ was nominated for a major award.Â Â Yet both authors were having a tough time writing their second books.Â Â “What’s wrong with me?” they both asked.Â “What should IÂ do?”
They’re both suffering fromÂ “second-book syndrome.”Â And I know it well, because I went through it myself.Â
In 1987, my first romance novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, was published to great reviews.Â It was nominated for a Romance Writers of America award (called the Golden Medallion back then.)Â I got tons of fan mail, and lavish praise from my editor at Harlequin.Â She was excited about seeing my next book.Â
The problem was, I couldn’t seem to write that second book.Â
Everything I wrote sucked.Â I had about three chapters, but couldn’t get past that point, because the plot wasn’t coming together for me.Â I didn’t know the characters.Â I didn’t know the solution to the mystery.Â I kept revising and revising the first 50 pages until there was no life left in them.
Two years went by.Â
Looking back at it now, I remember the anguish.Â I thought I was finished as a writer.Â I’d had the leisure of writing my first book under no deadlines or pressure, so CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT was a work of sheer love.Â For years, I’d been saving up all those emotions, and I’d thrown them all into that first book.Â Was there anything left inside me for a second?Â Ironically enough, garnering high praise for a first book made it all worse, because so much more was expected of me.Â If I’d received rotten reviews, the second book would have been easier, because then I’d be angry.Â I’d want to prove to them that yes, I could write, and the words might have flowed more easily.Â But being told you’re a genius, and that your readers can’t wait for book number two, can terrify a writer.
I did manage to get that second book written, and in the process, I learned a few things.Â I learned the importance of writing all the way to the end, without stopping to revise or torment myself that it’s not “good enough.”Â Of course it’s not good enough.Â It’s a first draft.Â I learned that characters will only come alive after I’ve spent months with them — so I just have to keep writing and see what they say and do.Â By “The End,” I’ll know them.Â I learned that the only way to get past second-book syndrome is to WRITE.Â Good stuff or bad stuff, you just need to get it down on the page.Â No one has to see it but you, and you can burn the whole thing at the end.
I learned that fear of imperfection can paralyze you.
UNDER THE KNIFE was published in 1990 — three years after CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT.Â
Even though I’m now working on book #20, I’m still gripped by the same self-doubts I felt at the beginning of my career, the sameÂ fears that I won’t be able to pull this one off.Â The only difference is that I now understand that these terrors are perfectly normal for me.Â I’ve become comfortable with my chaotic method of plotting.Â I’ve gained confidence that I’ll be able to pull the expected mess of a first draft out of the fire.
If you’re struggling with your second book, take heart.Â Almost all of us have gone through it.Â Just write through it, even if everything you produce seems like junk.Â Trust me, there’s good stuff there.Â Maybe you’ll have to throw out 3/4 of it, but at least you’ll be WRITING.Â
You did it once.Â You can do it again.