Let’s Talk Process: The Sophomore Effort
Ah, that second book.
Your first one is a smash. Well received by critics and readers alike. Perhaps you were expecting the acclaim, perhaps you weren’t. Either way, the praise is heady and you’re dying to get that second book into the same hands, before the same eyes because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy being told she nailed it?
Perhaps you have a contract and, thus, a real deadline the second time around. Or you’ve gained some well-deserved confidence. Hell, for all I know, your friends are bugging the hell out of you and you simply cannot stand it another minute. Your daughter’s chocolate milk spilled all over your store bible in your bag and your carefully crafted outline was reduced to soggy illegibility. Amidst all of the writing “stuff” your child needs you, a family member gets ill, or life just plain goes on.
All legit reasons to write faster, to take breaks where you might not have before, to lose track of it all.
Maybe you follow the same process, have the same time frame, use the same editor.
But that pesky second book, the “sophomore effort,” as it is often termed, simply isn’t as good as the first.
Is this always the case? No. Absolutely not. Often, a writer’s second book is stronger. She had a better idea, learned more craft, realized (pointing at myself here) that she does need editors and beta readers and criticism, provided it’s constructive in nature, is a GOOD THING.
A large proportion of second books, however, and perhaps it just seems that way because the last two sophomore efforts I read were hella disappointing (and when I mentioned said to a friend, she responded, “Ah, the sophomore effort…”). And they are, across genre and gender and all other variables, disappointing one essential way:
CONCEPT(S) VERSUS EXECUTION
Both writers (and I’ve opted not to name names/titles; if you want to know the trigger books for this entry and know how to get in touch with me privately, I’ll be happy to discuss) had concepts, core plots, and subtle elements equal, or even superior, to those explored in their debut novels. Both writing styles, different from one another but both of which I enjoyed, were in keeping with first installments. One novel I had awaited for several years, the other for less than twelve months. One hard sci-fi, the other a conglomeration of sub-genres that should have clashed viciously but didn’t.
What I’m trying to express is that the only things these two books have in common are: 1) I was excited to read them and 2) they were both “sophomore efforts.”
To be honest, I’m not sure all the blame should go to the writer, thoughit is his/her name on the cover. Authors, especially authors with contracts, should receive excellent, perfectionistic editing as part of the deal. It seems many of them don’t and if that’s so the publisher owes both of the aforementioned writers, and a massive cross-section of others, a major apology.
Right, Shiri. Stay on target. What, specifically, are you bitching about?
Let’s break the weak spots down further, shall we?
Repeated words and phrases. Not once or twice, but multiple times per page or per chapter to the point of being distracting, pulling the me out of the story and setting me twitching. I will grant this is a particular peeve of mine likely has something to do with the very individual manifestations of both my OCD and post-concussive syndrome, coupled with my very auditory reading style. No, I don’t read aloud to myself, but I do hear the words bouncing around in my head and if one comes up again and again and again, you might as well drill an ice pick into my eye and leave me twitching. I have an actual, physical response. I become anxious, my heart races. Sometimes, I get migraines. No, I’m not exaggerating and yes, I know I’m weird.
People have varied mannerisms. They express themselves in multiple ways. They know what they’re doing which means, maybe, after a couple of times, we the readers can be left to use our brains and infer. There is more than one hue of the color blue. There is more than one descriptor that can be applied to a tree or a squid or the texture of a person’s hair. Not everyone is blonde, brunette, or redhead.
Books are meant to expand our world, not compress it.
Will this particular issue annoy all readers as much as it annoys me? No. Absolutely not. Some people probably won’t notice at all. It’s still sloppy. English is a complex, hybrid, bastard of a language. It is futile and ugly and glorious.
The Dreaded Character Trope-ening. People change. Characters change. Seeing as how characters are, generally though not always, people, one expects some progression over the course of a novel, and even more over the course of a series. I am thinking, specifically, of the female lead of one of the afore mentioned novels. In the first entry, she grew stronger, more independent, more autonomous only to be trope-beaten into a lame-ass Mary Sue over the course of the second. Yes, she has endured great hardship. I think it’s fabulous she’s fallen in love and learned to ask for help when she needs it (to be clear, neither of these makes a character weak). The issue comes in that she can no longer function at all when the male isn’t present. She is completely helpless without him there to bolster her.
Whyfore you do this to me author I respect and admire? Why would you do this to her? You spent so much time building her up only to break her down? With no discernible reason? Were you trying to make her more relatable? More palatable for wide-spread consumption?
And other author I respect and admire… in your first book, you twisted the archetypes such that, while still recognizable as such, they also poked satire at same. This double life lent them the unpredictability and variability that made your characters “living” people. In your second, you had the opportunity to go even further, to make your protagonist truly unforgettable and your readers got stock. Staid. Cardboard and Wonder Bread.
I really, really dislike Wonder Bread. Why would I eat it when there’s sourdough and marble rye, pretzel rolls and monkey bread? Loyalty only goes so far. Especially if the other side is offering Amish butter with their catalog.
The Rushed Ending. Exactly what it sounds like. Huge lead up, massive build-up, and then, we reach the climactic moment and… *slam* fall straight off the cliff like in one of those horrible dreams you have as you’re dropping off to sleep and somehow end up dropping over a sharp precipice onto jagged stalagmites.
What the actual fuck?
All that work and for what? Room for exposition? A page quota? Did it feel tense when you were writing it? Because reading them, I got a definite The Sparrow whiplash. And while I think we can all agree The Sparrow is a great novel, the end is not its strongest bit.
There are always things one must gloss in a novel unless one is GRRM and one has infinite word/page count at one’s disposal. But why do the sophmore efforts so often seem to gloss the big things in exchange for unnecessary tidbits that have little effect on the story and offer no insight into the characters?
Why do these things happen? I wish I knew so I could keep myself from, or at least ask Jenny to look for, such pitfalls and traps in my own second book.
How is it that such disparate works can have such similarly nuanced shortcomings? Is it something inherent to the process of the second book? Does being accepted and acclaimed once alter neurotransmitters or brain wave patterns in some subtle way we can’t even begin to understand yet? Being human, are we simply programmed a way that leads us down particular mental paths? Is is something particular to us creative types? If so, why don’t people talk about the “sophmore efforts” of painters, photographers, or video game designers the way they do about the second round of output from writers?
Do the editors assume a certain amount of progress has been made and are, thus, less thorough? Less careful? Less discerning? Do they, perhaps, simply sign off? Do they assume that readers will buy a second book because they liked the first so damn the torpedoes and by god, let’s get this half-assed word pile out there?
Are these issues not as major as they seem to me? Am I as a reader too picky? Too snobby? Too obsessive? Did I place these potential books on top heavy pedestals that were going to topple regardless?
I wish I had answers instead of more questions. I’d probably have a lot more money.
For now, I’m going to spend a bunch of time busting my ass to make sure my own “sophomore effort,” doesn’t get stuck in the line of bear traps. Or the mud pit. Or those weird fence posts. Yeah. Those. Over there. With the razor wire and the… is that… you know what, never mind, I don’t want to know.
I’m off to bust my ass.
You’ll have to let me know if I busted hard enough.