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Sophomore Slump or Derailment?

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photo by Stuart Rankin

Nearly every professional writer I know has dire things to say about sophomore novels, and for good reason. You don’t have to look very far at both trade and informal reviews to find scathing assessments of this or that writer’s “lackluster sophomore effort” or “disappointing follow up” to their popular debut novel. The second novel can feel doomed before you even write it.

2019 was a special year for me, because it marked the publication of my sophomore novel. More accurately, one of my sophomore novels, because courtesy of the myriad and complicated layers of publishing, I am in the unusual and somewhat unenviable position of having published three debut novels, and three sophomore novels.

My first two novels were self-published under a pen name and, while the first one wasn’t a runaway success, it found its rather obscure niche. Year after year, it continues to sell in modest but reliable numbers. The second one, despite fitting squarely in that obscure niche, doesn’t sell at all and never has.

My next two novels were published by an independent press. The first one did well for a debut novel by an unknown writer from a very small publisher. It got some nice reviews and sold fairly well, all things considered. My second small press book foundered out of the gate. Unread, unreviewed, and generally unloved by readers who liked the book that came before it.

Then in 2016, what was technically my fifth novel was published by a major New York publisher. Because my first two novels under my own name had been with a small press, that first Big 5 book was billed as my “debut” novel. I got a great deal of the attending publicity and hype that comes with a well-received debut. There were times when it felt like publishing had miraculously restored my virginity, or at least made one last valiant effort to present this middle-aged redneck debutante to literary high society.

That third debut succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, but shortly after it made the New York Times bestseller list, I had to get serious about writing my next book. Hopefully my final sophomore novel. It came out last year and has generally been received in true second novel fashion. If first books are like first children, who get elaborate christenings and meticulously curated baby books, then The Reckless Oath We Made is a second child, who got a hurried sprinkling and a My First Year that is full of blank pages and blurry photos. Ah, we wanted to get a picture of the baby’s first steps, but the phone was on the charger.

There’s a common perception that a successful debut will help sell a second novel, but I don’t know any writers who believe that or who have experienced that. Part of the problem is managing expectations, because not every reader is willing to follow a writer to the next thing. I get a surprising (to me) amount of mail asking when I’m going to publish a sequel to All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. The answer is never, but it’s been enlightening to see the degree to which some readers attach to a book and don’t want anything different from an author.

Another element to the second book slump is that unless your debut achieves absolutely earth-shattering success, most readers will not be waiting with bated breath for your next book. Even readers who consider themselves fans and follow you on social media may not notice that second book. Months after the new book came out, I’m still getting messages from readers who say, “I didn’t know you had a new book out!” These are readers who follow me on social media or subscribe to my newsletter. Sometimes it’s janky algorithms that create a hurdle to reaching readers. Sometimes it’s information overload in the internet age–too many emails to read, too many notifications to notice. Other times it’s just that readers have a lot of other things going on. It’s safe to assume that for the vast majority of people who loved my previous novel, my new novel isn’t even on their radar.

If you’re anything like me, and for your sake I hope you aren’t, a flagging second novel can leave you wondering, Where did I go wrong? How did I let my readership down? What do I do to fix this? The truth is a lot more complicated than Oops! I didn’t write the right follow up book, and there’s no benefit to reading negative reviews looking for answers. After all, I know how much care and effort went into each of my sophomore novels. I know how much my writing craft and storytelling have improved from book to book. I also know that each of my books is its own thing, similar but not identical to any of the books that came before. From a sales perspective, I might wish otherwise, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s the kind of writer I am.

When you’re standing at the edge of the depressing abyss of a sophomore slump–real or imagined–it’s tempting to compare the second book to your debut novel. To see a spiral into failure and obscurity that isn’t really there. To look at your sales numbers and think, “Well, I had a good run.” These thoughts aren’t conducive to good sleep or your writing.

What’s the fix then? Well, it’s the same fix that I’ve applied after every book I’ve ever written, while I was waiting for an agent to respond, waiting for a book to sell, waiting for edits, or waiting for launch day. It’s the only fix there is: work on the next book. In fact, working on that next book is even more important when you’re trying to process anxiety about the last book. The longer you go without looking toward the next thing, the more likely you are to become paralyzed by self-doubt and uncertainty about your publishing future. Trust me. That’s the voice of experience.

The other thing I like to do, when I am testing my worry like a sore tooth, is to look at the second novels of famous writers. Take for example Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula. It rarely gets talked about as much as her first, The Bluest Eye, but Sula was profoundly important to the formation of black feminist literary criticism. It’s also the book that preceded The Song of Solomon, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1978. I don’t know if Morrison experienced a sophomore slump with Sula, but if so, she rose from her slump into glory. May we all do the same.

What are some of your favorite second novels? Do you have a sophomore slump story that you love?  

 

About Bryn Greenwood [2]

BRYN GREENWOOD is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will, and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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