Here are two “facts” about writing I’ve been hearing lately that I must beat until their stuffing falls out and their non-factness is apparent to all.1
1. On average published authors write 2-3 novels before publication.
Um, what? How was such a statistic arrived at? Where does it come from? Why is everyone repeating it? Oh, who cares. It’s irrelevant.
It does not matter how many novels other authors wrote before they were published. It has no effect on you. I wrote two novels before I was published. Scott sold the first one he finished. I know of authors who wrote more than twenty novels before they finally sold one. Who knows what your path will be?
It’s like asking an agent how many authors they sign per year on average. Knowing that doesn’t increase or decrease your chances. The only thing that will increase your chances of finding an agent to represent you is writing a book an agent likes. It could be that the agent who falls in love with your book will take on no clients but you that month or year. Or they’ll take on ten. It doesn’t really matter as long as they fall for your book and your writing.
Being above or below this random number of 2-3 written books before selling first book makes zero difference to your writing career. It predicts nothing.
That stat is only useful if it helps people realise that selling your first novel is unlikely. Though, yes, it happens. In publishing pretty much everything has happened. Learning to write well is a long process. As I have chronicled it took me years to learn how to rewrite.
2. People’s second published novels are always much worst than their first.
Crap. Bullocks. Rubbish. Bulldust. Wallaroo droppings.
Yes, people talk about second-novel syndrome. But it mostly applies to people whose first novel was a huge success. Surprise! The vast majority of authors do not have a run away bestseller with their first novel. Therefore they do not have the over-the-top pressure for their second book to be as successful as their first.
Most novelists don’t have a huge hit with any of their novels. And for those that do get lucky? Well, it can happen with their fifth or sixth or tenth or whatever-th novel. Sometimes in the wake of all that attention and money raining down on them it can take a long time to write their next book.
I don’t think there is a second-novel syndrome; I think there’s next-book-after-a-huge hit syndrome.
Now I’ve cleared that up, let’s take a moment to consider what people mean by the second novel. Shockingly some authors’ second novels were written before their first novels, which is the case with Jonathan Lethem. Michael Chabon’s second novel was the third novel he wrote. My first published novel was the third novel I wrote.
Often we don’t know what order novels were written in. All we know for sure is the order in which they were published and, why, yes, there are many authors with super successful second novels whose second novels were better than their first.2
There’s Jane Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which you may have heard of. Many consider it to be her best. I love P and P but for my money Persuasion is her finest work. Scott’s second novel Fine Prey is way, way, way better than his first Polymorph. Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, is an amazing debut but I reckon her second novel, Price of Salt/Carol, is much, much better and breaks my heart every time I read it. Then there’s Infinite Jest, which I’ve never been able to finish, so not my thing, but which was certainly more successful than his first novel.
I could go on like this all day long. There are many great second novels and great third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. novels. Most novelists get better the more novels they write.3 Usually, the more you do something the better you get at it. It’s called practice and training and like that. With most of my favourite living writers it’s their most recent book that’s their most accomplished.
I would argue that amazing debut novels are the exception not the rule. I’l blurb a flawed debut novel. I expect debut novels to be rawer. I cut them more slack because they’re a novelist’s first baby, their first attempt at that impossible task: writing a perfect novel.
In conclusion: most so-called “facts” about the writing life are no such thing. Every writer writes differently. There are as many different paths to publication as there are writers.
- Or, you know, the people who read this blog. Both of them. [↩]
- In these discussions the word “successful” is usually used to mean “sold lots of copies.” I don’t think that’s the only measure of a book’s success. Quite a few of the so-called second-book failures are quite good. They simply failed to sell as well as the first. [↩]
- Yes, there are exceptions. No, let’s not name them. [↩]