24 February 2023
Novelist Julietta Henderson explores managing fears and expectations after publishing your debut novel
'Second book syndrome' is often talked about by critics, readers and authors themselves. Because when a debut novel comes out, even to modest success, something called expectation enters the room, which, for most first-time authors (celebrities aside), is not something they’ve had to deal with before – except maybe from their mother.
But once the dream comes true and you’re finally a published author, those expectations can manifest in some very real fears. What if the first book was just an accident? What if you never write another decent word? What if you really are the imposter every writer feels like at some point?
Dealing with comparisons is inevitable, but I think if you want a career with longevity, you need to see your debut for what it is: a great start. My goal is to get better with every book, because that’s the goal that will stretch my creativity (and anxiety) to the limit, and because how else will I find out how good I can really be?
My debut, The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman, was much more successful than I’d ever dreamed, in big part due to being selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. But even as I teared up over the sight of it in WH Smiths, bookshops and airports, that niggling earworm had already started: 'how do I live up to this?'
Because I had a two-book deal, I got to write my second under contract (huzzah!), but the flipside was… I had to write another book. The first took me the better part of five years (although at least three of those were spent procrastinating), and very few people knew I was writing it. This time around I had an agent, an editor, a publisher and readers – I had people waiting. And it was terrifying.
Norman Foreman came out during the pandemic (definitely not huzzah!), so after the initial excitement, without being able to visit booksellers or events there wasn’t a lot for me to do. I’m sure lots of writers were subject to the same comments I got, about lockdown being the perfect scenario for them, with all that time and no distractions. Although that’s true in theory, for me at least, the mental challenges of that time weren’t always conducive to creativity. But I already had an idea germinating (no difficult second novel syndrome in that respect!), so I just started writing…
I’ve had to get used to being asked about my writing process in book chats and interviews, but after only one book, I wasn’t even sure I had one. It seemed I did have a process for book two, though, and that was to throw everything at it and see what stuck. At the end of those long, dark months of lockdown, I had a pin-sharp knowledge of my characters (courtesy of all that thinking time) and 140,000 words in disjointed vignettes and scenes. After a very surprising read through (during which I had literally no memory of writing large chunks), to my huge relief I felt the plot emerging and I set off on a new draft – which turned into many, many more.
That brings me to the biggest difference between writing a first and second novel: an editor. The first person who ever read a finished draft of Norman Foreman was my agent, and I’d been working on that for five years, remember. But with this one, I had to submit a draft to my editor that was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, and as a die-hard perfectionist that was very difficult.
Having other eyes on it at those early stages was nerve-wracking, but it also made me realise the huge value of the collaborative relationship that develops between writer and editor. My editors’ insight gave me massive clarity, but they were always clear that it was my book, and their suggestions were just that. I think it helped my confidence enormously that they loved that first draft, though, and for the record, the suggestions were always spot-on.
Several people (including my agent) have said they think my new book, Sincerely, Me, might be even better than the first, and even though that evokes mixed feelings in me (it seems somehow disloyal to my old characters!), I remind myself that’s what I’m striving for. I want to be doing this wonderful job forever, and my motivation is not only to get better, but also to keep surprising readers – as well as myself.
So, how did I deal with the publication nerves for my second book and the pressure of the response from readers? Getting on with book three, of course… and I’m finding out this one is a whole different process again!
Julietta's top tips
• Remember why you write. Everyone’s reasons will be different, but for me it’s simply what my heart and mind want. When I lose my way, I try to remind myself to write for the beauty of words, the thrill of the plot and that unbeatable feeling when everything comes together.
• Comparison kills creativity. Don’t compare your second book to your first, or to other authors' books. Be patient and allow your characters and story the time, space and respect to develop. Follow your intuition and never forget that you’ve done it before, so you can do it again.
• Write the right book. Don’t try to second guess your readers, your agent, or your editor – write the book that wants to be written. Of course, if your first novel was a thriller it might be risky to follow up with a romance, but at the end of the day, you’ve gotta do you! If you try to force something, it will show in the writing.
• Trust the process, but also ignore the process. Don’t try to force yourself into a method of writing just because that’s how some other wildly successful author does it. There are a million different ways to get from Chapter 1 to The End, and you have to do what works for you. If that turns out to be writing 140,000 words before you really work out what the plot is, I say go with it!
• Listen to the right voices in your head. Concentrate on the voices of your characters whispering the story, not the negative ones saying it’ll never live up to your first novel. In my book two characters never wavered, they just kept on talking to me, and whenever doubt crept in they shouted it down! I took that as a sign I was writing the right story.
• Embrace your editor. Editors are just as invested in your book as you are. They want it to be the very best it can be, so embrace them. I’m talking figuratively, but also, in my case they (I had two!) are so lovely it’s very easy to embrace them literally, as well!
Sincerely, Me by Julietta Henderson is published by Bantam Press (£16.99)
Are you writing your second novel? Or hoping to? Here's more insight into what the process felt like from Lightseekers author Femi Kayode.