First novel? Second novel?

There’s a lovely little article by Malcom Knox1 that appeared in last Thursday’s Sydney Morning Herald (I discovered it by way of the lovely Maud Newton). In it he discusses second-novel syndrome (SNS). The inability to write a second novel that can set in after your first novel’s been a success.

Of course, as Knox points out,

true SNS can only exist where the first novel has been hugely successful. All writers know that if you haven’t had a big bestseller, it’s harder to get published next time, no matter what you write; and if you have had a big bestseller, you will be published, no matter what you write.

And there’s the tricky matter of whether a first novel is truly a first novel:

Many novelists’ first published work is actually the third, fourth, seventh or 10th novel they have written. Another Australian author, Venero Armanno, estimated he had written a million words in unpublished novels before his “first book”.

The second published novel is often one that was started and even finished before the first. What the critic praises as the brilliant first book, long in gestation, inspired and innocent, may well be novel No. 8 by that writer; and the condemned second book, “pumped out too quickly”, “too conscious of an audience”, “a disappointing follow-up”, is in fact novel No. 4 that took several years longer. Unless you know the novelist’s working method intimately, you can’t make assumptions.

My first published novel, Magic or Madness, was my third written novel. My fourth, Magic Lessons, which will be my second published novel, was finished before Magic or Madness came out. So whatever (moderate) success MorM has had in no way affected the writing of its sequel. Got that? No, me neither.

Many of the published novelists I know had written more than one novel before they sold one. They kept on writing until the publishing gods at long last smiled. And then they were in the excellent position of having inventory (don’t you love that word? they’re not trunk novels, they’re inventory). Too many unpublished writers obsess about getting their first novel accepted and are so wounded by the failure of their beloved that they forget to write a second or a third one.

In the end Knox decides that if you’re suffering from second-novel syndrome you’re dead lucky—it means you’re a success. And if you’re not suffering from second-novel syndrome than it also means you’re dead lucky cause you’re not suffering from over-inflated expectations—you can work in peace. (It could also mean you’re not a novelist—in which case how smart are you? Very!) It’s all good.

  1. I first came across Knox’s writing when he was cricket correspondent for the SMH. He was excellent, not just smart about the game, but smart about its history, people and politics. (I miss him!) Recently, I read his second novel, A Private Man. Okay, when I say I read it, I’m kind of lying. it was more skimming than reading. One of my many failing is that I’m completely unable to concentrate on the non-cricket bits of a book if I know there’s going to be cricket in it. I wound up skipping all the non-cricket chapters. I can report that the cricket bits were really, really excellent. []


  1. Perry Middlemiss on #

    the genre of cricket-related novels is a pretty small one, isn’t it? i seem to remember ted dexter co-wrote some cricket murder mysteries way back when, and ken bruen attempts to kill off the english cricket team in “a white arrest”. and then there was a morse novel which involved the murder of a cricketer (only saw the tv episode of that one). other than that…

  2. chrisbarnes on #

    Speaking of cricket, are you enjoying the twenty20 games? They seem like heaps of fun to me.

  3. sara zarr on #

    I really liked Knox’s Summerland, which I accidentally checked out from the library when I was supposed to be reading Michael Chabon’s book of the same title for book club. It was particularly interesting since I had in fact read The Good Soldier (and been bored stiff by it, but still).

    My “debut” novel is actually the fourth novel I’ve written. The other three remain (justifiably) undiscovered.

  4. Justine on #

    Perry: my cricket book reading has been concentrated on non-fic, but even so I’ve come across a fair amount of cricket YA. And I do plan to seek out other novels—just as soon as I’ve finished working my way through all the great non-fic cricket writing.

    ChrisBarnes: They are. Better than one dayers for sure. However, I will always love test cricket way best.

    Sara Zarr: He’s a really good writer. I do plan to go back an re-read the non-cricket bits!

    Are your first three truly, truly unsalvageable? You know we writers aren’t always the very best of judges . . .

  5. Perry Middlemiss on #

    just showing my ignorance of the ya field is all. my daughter (13) isn’t interested in sport of any kind, and my son (6) is only just starting out on “chapter books”. give me a few years and i might be better educated.

  6. sara z on #

    I don’t know that they are totally unsalvageable, but it’s been a long time and my enthusiasm for those stories has worn off. I don’t think I believed in those stories enough to push them into excellence, you know? The one that ended up selling – that was a story I would not let go.

  7. Justine on #

    Perry: When he’s old enough make sure he gets to read Ruth Starke’s Nips XI books. They’re fab.

    Sara Z: Yeah, it’s hard to go back isn’t it? And why both when you’ve other stories calling to you? Of my two unpub’d books. One is an unsalvageable trainwreck. The other I’ve been working on for years and will never let go of it. Just finished the latest rewrite last year. My hopes for it remain fond . . .

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