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 Another Australian author, Venero Armanno, estimated he had written a million words in unpublished novels before his “first book”.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 Too many unpublished writers obsess about getting their first novel accepted and are so wounded by the failure of their beloved that they forget to write a second or a third one.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.
- 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. [↩]