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The Sophomore Slump

In September, I had the privilege of presenting on a panel about realistic YA at the Northwest BookFest. During the Q&A part of the presentation, an audience member asked about writing second books. It was a particularly relevant question for me because I’m currently in the process of writing my second contracted book (though in no way my second overall book).

Second books aren’t necessarily easier to write than first books. A number of factors go into that second book, all of which can contribute to frustration and slumpiness, but which can also push a writer to expand and explore the boundaries set by the first novel.

Possibly the case in which the second book is most directed is when a writer sells a series. In this case, the series world has been developed, the characters are placed within and the forward momentum of the plot, often with an idea of the series conclusion the plot will lead to, in hand. The publisher's and author's ideas about author branding tend to line up well. That doesn't mean the second book is easy to write—not at all. The difficulty with these second books is developing more: deeper characters, a bigger world, teasing out nuances to make the story feel fresh and new problems to face while keeping the overall series arc in mind. And there may be a lot of feedback from readers of the first book that cause an author to question or reexamine ideas.

Books that sell as stand-alones, but still in a multi-book deal, go through a slightly different process. Or, at least, the author faces a difference process. In this case, the author is figuring out her branding, how to follow one book with another that doesn't divert too far from the themes of the first book, but far enough to be unique and to bring new readership to her stories. And it’s not just the author making that decision. The publisher plays a big role in determining how they want to market an author and may find the author’s ideas aren't in line with their vision. Once settled on, a second book requires new characters, new settings, new plot. The book is hoped to be as good as the first, but is usually written in a shorter period of time as the first and the author may feel rushed. Still, there is the comfort of knowing the publisher believed in the author enough to offer for two books.

Authors who sell in single-book deals have second book experiences that are all over the map. Some have an option, where their publisher gets to see and offer on their second book before another editor at a different house can see it, while others hope to expand their first book into a series and have to wait for the numbers—sales figures—before getting the go ahead. There is some uncertainty here, and that can make finding and writing the best possible next book difficult.

No matter the scenario, second books are rarely easier to write than first. I would hazard that, in most cases, they are harder to write. One of the interesting things about the writing process is that the more you learn, the harder you have to work to write to the standard you, and your readers, hold yourself up to. The second novel process comes filled with new expectations and a creator with new insights and wisdoms. That can make the sophomore effort feel slumpish, but also affords opportunity for added growth and talent.

Have you written a second book? How did you find the process?
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. Oh, yes, definitely harder to writer! My second book, TMI, comes out 2013 and was infinitely harder to write than the debut novel, SEND. Debuts are special; by the time we've queried and sold that novel, the manuscript's been revised a dozen times.

    Not so with the next contracted project. Now I had to meet deadlines and not stray too far from the original pitch, which meant more outlining, more plotting.

    Also, I'm marketing the debut novel, and writing a third ms, so trying to shift gears and get into my characters' minds is much harder than it sounds. I've learned that my characters are like moods and it often takes some time to get me 'in that mood' so I can write a specific character.

    Strangely, I find this comforting. :)

  2. Great post! I'm not up to my second book yet, but I will be one day and I can only imagine that they're harder to write!

  3. This post is SO... good, accurate, on the dot, etc. The second novel was MUCH harder for me to write.

  4. I have been trying to write a second book for two years. It's a stand alone, just as my first book was, but I keep second guessing myself. Is it going to be as good as my first? Is it going to be as long as my first? Mostly this came from researching how to edit my first book, and the now every word of my second sounds forced. I've started over with different ideas so many times.

    Attempt 10,094 will begin on November 1st. I'm hoping NaNoWriMo can get me to write a second book. I failed the past two years, but three years ago, I wrote my first book.

  5. Well, I'm finishing up the sequel to a novel now—it's in the copyedits stage—and I'm not sure I found it a whole lot harder than the first one, but that first one was written when I was still figuring out my writing process.

    Okay, so I'm still working on that, but the most difficult thing about this novel I'm finishing has been that it's a different narrator. In the first book, I thought this gal was a nice, reasonable, common-sense person. I kept getting stuck on the sequel until I realized I'd completely misunderstood her. She's pragmatic, yes, but…she's a lot less sane than she thought she was.

    Then I got paralyzed for a while with "What if my readers don't like it?!"

    Then I got kicked in the pants from several different areas and am working to get the ARC done today, and the book out by the end of the month. (I'm self-publishing this series.)

    I also have an in-progress sequel to another novel, and that, I'm having trouble getting words on the page, but I think that's another case of writer panic that I need to kick to the curb—so I'm also trying to get that first draft done by the end of the month.

    It's possible. I know my writing rate. I know it's possible. I just can't let myself get overwhelmed.

    If I succeed in my plans, NaNoWriMo will involve writing book 3 after the book I'm working to get out by the end of the month. :)

    1. Hi! I found it very interesting that you're self publishing your series! How have you found this process to be? Is it really difficult to execute your writing and editing? How about sales and self-promoting?

      I was just curious about your experiences with it.

  6. For me, my first book was a mess. A lot of things happened that didn't move the plot along at all. My second book was about 20,000 words shorter and much tighter. My third was even shorter (too short, actually. it's being rewritten) but there's room to add more to the plot to make the story deeper. My fourth book, which I just finished earlier this month, is by far my best yet. The plot is deep and complicated (in my opinion, anyway. But we all love our own books, right?) the characters are more complex and grow through the novel, and it's a nice length for a YA (sitting at a little over 81,000 words). I'm working on my fifth now and I feel like maybe I'm starting to get the hang of this.
    I guess what I'm saying is that, for me, each book is a little better than the one I wrote before it stylistically.

  7. Wow. This is something that I definitely had not considered. Thanks for writing such an insightful and informative post!!!


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Item Reviewed: The Sophomore Slump Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook