Second-book syndrome

While I was at Thrillerfest, two different authors approached me with similar tales of woe.  Both of them had sold their first books, which had been published to great praise.  One of the books was nominated for a major award.  Yet both authors were having a tough time writing their second books.   “What’s wrong with me?” they both asked.  “What should I do?”

They’re both suffering from “second-book syndrome.”  And I know it well, because I went through it myself. 

In 1987, my first romance novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, was published to great reviews.  It was nominated for a Romance Writers of America award (called the Golden Medallion back then.)  I got tons of fan mail, and lavish praise from my editor at Harlequin.  She was excited about seeing my next book. 

The problem was, I couldn’t seem to write that second book. 

Everything I wrote sucked.  I had about three chapters, but couldn’t get past that point, because the plot wasn’t coming together for me.  I didn’t know the characters.  I didn’t know the solution to the mystery.  I kept revising and revising the first 50 pages until there was no life left in them.

Two years went by. 

Looking back at it now, I remember the anguish.  I thought I was finished as a writer.  I’d had the leisure of writing my first book under no deadlines or pressure, so CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT was a work of sheer love.  For years, I’d been saving up all those emotions, and I’d thrown them all into that first book.  Was there anything left inside me for a second?  Ironically enough, garnering high praise for a first book made it all worse, because so much more was expected of me.  If I’d received rotten reviews, the second book would have been easier, because then I’d be angry.  I’d want to prove to them that yes, I could write, and the words might have flowed more easily.  But being told you’re a genius, and that your readers can’t wait for book number two, can terrify a writer.

I did manage to get that second book written, and in the process, I learned a few things.  I learned the importance of writing all the way to the end, without stopping to revise or torment myself that it’s not “good enough.”  Of course it’s not good enough.  It’s a first draft.  I learned that characters will only come alive after I’ve spent months with them — so I just have to keep writing and see what they say and do.  By “The End,” I’ll know them.  I learned that the only way to get past second-book syndrome is to WRITE.  Good stuff or bad stuff, you just need to get it down on the page.  No one has to see it but you, and you can burn the whole thing at the end.

I learned that fear of imperfection can paralyze you.

UNDER THE KNIFE was published in 1990 — three years after CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT. 

Even though I’m now working on book #20, I’m still gripped by the same self-doubts I felt at the beginning of my career, the same fears that I won’t be able to pull this one off.  The only difference is that I now understand that these terrors are perfectly normal for me.  I’ve become comfortable with my chaotic method of plotting.  I’ve gained confidence that I’ll be able to pull the expected mess of a first draft out of the fire.

If you’re struggling with your second book, take heart.  Almost all of us have gone through it.  Just write through it, even if everything you produce seems like junk.  Trust me, there’s good stuff there.  Maybe you’ll have to throw out 3/4 of it, but at least you’ll be WRITING. 

You did it once.  You can do it again.


14 replies
  1. J. Carson Black
    J. Carson Black says:

    Tess, you are so right. It’s something I have learned (sadly) over and over again. Even though DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, the second book in the Laura Cardinal series, was not really a “second book”, it sure acted like one. Hard. The only thing that saved me was my new way of writing – which is, write a bunch of crap. Just get to the end. Half or more of it will be good; you just have to trust.

    I noticed that John Lescroart and Sandra Brown said pretty much the same thing.

    One plug: a book called IMMEDIATE FICTION really rams that point home, and it’s a very important thing to learn.

    Doggone, I wish I hadn’t been so shy and I’d stepped up to say hello.


  2. toni mcgee causey
    toni mcgee causey says:

    Thanks, Tess, for such a helpful post. I’m busy working on book 2, and book 1 won’t be out until May (’07) and part of the problem is that there’s no real knowledge about how the general readership will respond. I kept wanting to second-guess myself and suddenly there were all of these critics (potential book reviewers) on my shoulders, tsk tsking my choices. Luckily Allison Brennan helped me see what I was doing, and this blog really reinforces that it’ll all end up okay, as long as I just write. (And don’t stick my head in an oven.)

  3. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Hi Tess,

    I’ve heard about the ‘second-book-syndrome’ but never experienced it. On the contrary, I wrote my second book directly after the first one (which hadn’t been published by then, but I had a contract) and I had so much fun! I wrote every spare minute I could find after my 9 to 5-job and I loved it. The story practically wrote itself, I just had to type it. The book was finished when the first one came out (4 months) and I got the contract for that one right after. Now … I nearly had a ‘Third-book-syndrome’ because I never quite got the feeling again I had with the second book. The fourth book was still harder to write and now I’m doubting everything I write. 😉 But I still love writing and giving good stories to my readers.



    (Excuse my english, I’m a german author)

  4. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Tess, thank you so much for reaching out to us unknown writers, who struggle to get published. When you let us inside your thoughts, we realize that a best-selling author with so much experience in the industry has the same fears, doubts, and troubles that the rest of us do.

    I applaud your honesty.

  5. Brett Battles
    Brett Battles says:

    Tess, it’s like you were reading my mind. I’ve been going through exactly this for the past month. I get 20 or 30 pages in, then I completely second guess myself. Thankfully, I think I had a plot breakthrough last night! That plus what you’ve said here “just write without stopping” is what I need to kick myself in gear.


  6. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    I had the same problem. Okay, I still have it. I was paralyzed for nearly two months after my first book came out. Shh, don’t tell my editor, but I really didn’t write much of anything for the longest time because I just couldn’t. Then bam, I just did it because I had to. I refuse to miss a deadline. And it turned out okay, not total garbage. But now I’m on the next book and those doubt demons are shouting in my head that I am unworthy . . . I need a bigger shotgun to defeat them.

    BTW Toni, YOU had the answer inside, you just needed a mirror to see it. I hope you’re rocking and writing now!

  7. Katherine Howell
    Katherine Howell says:

    Hi Tess and folks,
    I’m in the same situation as you, Toni. First book out in May from Pan Macmillan, and working (very) hard on the next one now. But for me it’s a huge encouragement that the publishers love the synopsis and bought the thing! I figure, if they believe I can do it, how can I doubt myself?

  8. Sharon Cullars
    Sharon Cullars says:

    Hi Tess. I had to comment because I pretty much experienced everything you recounted. Friends couldn’t understand how I could be intimidated by glowing reviews and how it almost stymied me in trying to finish my 2nd book.

    I suffered a malaise through the whole process b/c I didn’t have the joy I had with the first book. But then again, the writing experience is different when you’re writing solely for yourself as opposed to being obligated to write and with a deadline hovering over you.

    Thanks for making me feel better about the process. Hopefully, I’ll remember this post if and when I have a contract for book #3.

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    the most joy a writer will ever experience is writing that very first book, when the process is new and exciting and you haven’t yet struggled with deadlines or expectations or bad reviews. It’s a challenge to recapture the fun of writing the first book. Like trying to remember what it felt to fall in love the very first time.

  10. Kelly McClymer
    Kelly McClymer says:

    Thanks for posting this now. I really need the reminder. I just turned in revisions on last book and am beginning the next book–another departure for me (as if a cheerleading witch wasn’t enough of a departure for book nerdy old me 🙂

    I had begun to entertain the thoughts that always bind me: I’m not good enough to write this; what do I know about anything?

    Its so easy to talk myself out of writing a book that scares me spitless–and I so relate when you say “I learned that characters will only come alive after I’ve spent months with them — so I just have to keep writing and see what they say and do. By “The End,” I’ll know them.”

    I know that, for this book, I’m afraid I won’t do justice to my characters’ stories. And you’ve just reminded me, when I needed it most, that I won’t know whether I will or not until I get to ‘the end.’ And by that point, I’ll know them well enough to know if I done them proud. Thanks!


  11. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    I guess the “sophomore slump” even ascribes to writers. I’ve never been at a loss for words, especially ones I shouldn’t write or say.

    Glad you overcame your ”second-book syndrome.” So that we can continue to enjoy your writings.

  12. Rob Gregory Browne
    Rob Gregory Browne says:

    Tess, I’m probably one of the two who talked to you about this. I know I’ve expressed the fear. And I remember you telling me to just keep writing without looking back.

    Oh, if only I could do that. Unfortunately, I’m one of those idiots who has to make a scene as perfect as possible before I leave it. I went through this for years with my screenplays, and writing books doesn’t seem to be any different. Sigh.

    But it’s good to know, judging by your post and the comments here, that I’m not the only one suffering second-book-itis. I’m confident the second one will come, but it’ll be a helluva birth.

  13. alexandrasokoloff
    alexandrasokoloff says:

    Tess, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post – Book Two is due Sept. 1 and I am completely freaking out. Making progress every day but freaking out. It feels like I’ll never finish, there’s no possibility of finishing, because it’s just never going to be as good as what’s in my head. I know that everyone has this problem… but it so helps to hear again and again, from you and everyone else here -that it’s just par for the course.

    You’re right. Get to the end.

    So great to meet you at TF!


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