8 Tips for Writing Your Sophomore Novel
Written by
She Writes
December 2019
Written by
She Writes
December 2019

Today's guest post was contributed by Christina McDonald, the author of new release Behind Every Lie and 2019's The Night Olivia Fell.

I read somewhere once that publishing a book is the easy part. It’s staying published that’s really hard. In the rose haze of writing and then selling my first novel, I didn’t see how this could be true.

And then I sat down to write my sophomore novel.

Your first book always has a halcyon, breathless quality about it, the sense that you’re writing for you and saying exactly what you want. There’s nobody waiting for it, no real deadline, except our self-imposed ones. We write and rewrite and rewrite again, sometimes for years, not confining ourselves to what the market wants or what our editor needs. The opportunities, and dreams, are endless.

Your sophomore novel, however, is a whole other story. There are expectations, you have a sales track record to beat, a brand to build. And then there’s the pressure. If your first book was successful, you have to somehow outshine it; if it wasn’t, you have to up your game and make sure your second doesn’t flop or you fear your career is over. Those bad reviews you got on the first book suddenly take on a fiercer quality. The book reading and signing you drove an hour to reach but only had a handful of people show up to suddenly stands forefront in your mind.

Like being pregnant with your second baby, you know too much now. You’re no longer naïve or innocent. And this can sometimes have a harmful effect on writing your second book. But trust me, all is not lost. Here are a few tips for writing your sophomore novel that will help.

Take off your rose-colored glasses

We tend to look back at writing our first book like it was all buttercups and pink bubble gum, forgetting there were times we felt hopeless and frustrated and considered throwing it in the garbage.

Andrea Bartz, author of The Lost Night, agrees: "Don’t lose sight of how confused and hopeless you felt at points while writing the first draft of your debut. You figured it out and fixed it and turned it into something solid, and you’ll do the same with book two."

Don’t become complacent

Take it from me, staying published really is harder than getting published. A book contract isn’t the end of your publishing journey, but the beginning of your career, the key to unlocking the door to your life as an author. If you walk through, you should know that the hard work is only just beginning and be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Think of the hard work you put into getting your debut published as a tiny sample of how hard it will really be.

"The second book can feel like you have to prove you deserve to keep doing this and your debut wasn’t a fluke. You need to bring your better-than-A game and demonstrate you’re here to stay," says Nicole Bross, author of Past Presence.

Skip the beginning

Seriously. There are few things more intimidating and frightening than a blank page, the pressure that comes with just getting started. So skip the beginning. Start a chapter (or ten) into your story. You can come back and write the beginning later.

If you have a vague idea of your beginning, but it’s intimidating the hell out of you, write a line or two summarizing it and then move on. Start with the scene you know, the scene that is vividly sitting right there behind your eyelids. After this, you’ll have a clearer idea of your story and what you’re trying to say.

Just do it

First drafts are hard. From the first idea to the synopsis to figuring out character and plot, they just are. The thing is, you can’t edit a blank page, so get those words down so you have something to shape later. Right now you’re just creating a story, not a book. Don’t waste valuable time with silly things like proofreading and split infinitives and to use or not to use contractions. This draft is all about story. Just do it: get something on the page and worry about edits later.

"Going back to a first draft can be jarring," says Valerie Valdes, author of Chilling Effect. "You think you’ve lost all your skills and knowledge when it’s just that you’re seeing the ingredients or the goopy batter instead of the almost-finished cake. Be patient with yourself and remember that it’s a process and you’ll get to the cake eventually."

Remember the joy of writing

You went into this job because you love writing, and hopefully that hasn’t changed (if it has, you may need to rethink some things!). Block out all the unnecessary clutter and noise, from bad reviews to sales that aren’t what you wanted, and focus on what you love. Writing. Tell the story you’re passionate about, write about what you want to say deep in your heart. Everything else will follow.

"There were days writing when I felt the flow and all I wished for and wanted was a chance to do it again, to write another book. Now I have that chance. What luck!" says Elizabeth Ames Staudt, author of The Other’s Gold.

Start an email list

When I first got my book deal, I sat down to make a list of ways to make a success of it. I knew that the number of authors who don’t get published after their first book is pretty high, and I didn’t want to be one of them. My goal was two-fold: make contacts with other authors in my genre and grow an email list so I had a fanbase to sell my books to.

So I created Christina’s Book Club. People who are signed up get exclusive access to interviews I’ve conducted with authors each month and they get a chance to win a signed copy of those authors’ books. They also have chances to win copies of my books and get sneak peeks at my first chapters.

This email list means when my publisher has a sale or I want people to preorder a new book, I can email them. It has not only been invaluable for selling books, it also means I’m not leaving all marketing control in my publisher’s hands.

Celebrate your successes

It’s important to celebrate every success, big or small. There are enough setbacks and difficult moments in this industry, so celebrate each time something goes well. A good review from a fan, a spike in sales, a connection with a fellow author, an email from a reader who was profoundly moved by something you wrote. When you hit a milestone in your writing, be that 10 words or 10,000 words, celebrate it. Celebrating what you have accomplished will help you focus on the positive rather than the negative, and that’s really important.

Know your peeps

Whether it’s a book club or a writing group or an agent or editor, know who you can turn to and don’t be afraid to lean on them for support. Especially your agent and editor. These are people who’ve been in the publishing business for long enough that they’ve likely seen authors in the sophomore writing phase before. They are an invaluable source of information and experience. They know what you’re capable of and will cheer you through the realities of the sophomore novel.

"Don’t be afraid to lean on them for support," says Dan Stout, author of Titan Shade. "Chances are they’ve seen plenty of other authors go through the same struggle. Benefit from their deeper experience and make your own journey less challenging."

If your debut novel is a test to see if you can be a published author, your sophomore novel is your initiation. Making a success of it means you didn’t just get lucky. That you own this spot and you’re not going anywhere. That despite the setbacks, the frustrations and the disappointments, you are a writer. I’m not saying it gets easier after you get over this hurdle, or that you’ll suddenly become a big fish. I’m just saying it means you have a better chance of staying in the lake. Just keep swimming. You’ll get there.

About Christina McDonald

Christina McDonald is the USA Today bestselling author of The Night Olivia Fell (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books), which has been optioned for television by a major Hollywood studio. Her next book, Behind Every Lie, is out Feb 2020. Her writing has been featured in The Sunday Times, Dublin, USAToday.com, and Expedia. Originally from Seattle, WA, she has an MA in Journalism from the National University of Ireland Galway, and now lives in London, England with her husband, two sons, and their dog, Tango.

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