The Fallacy of Second Novel Syndrome

Lately, I feel like driving past my current work in progress, winding the window down and mooning it with my hairy wog arse while simultaneously flipping the bird.

(This is assuming someone else is driving the car, of course, or maybe that I’m an octopus.)

Seriously, writing can be a bitch sometimes. There are times when you’re on a luxury river cruise of creativity, soaking up the sunshine, knocking back a refreshing beer and chortling at how fucking amazing you are.

Other times you’re standing on the river bank, watching all the writer-boats sail past while you get sunburnt, spill your beer and step in day-old duck shit.

And for the last few months, I’ve been stepping in duck shit the way a kid jumps into a puddle of mud.

puddle
Yay, I suck!

I’m working on the first draft of my next contemporary YA novel, but my progress has been staccato from the start. I know it’s not unusual for writers to have issues with producing their second novel, but since Invisible Boys was my second novel written and this current one is my third, I figured I’d already managed to break the curse of the second novel.

WRONG.

With my first two novels, the first drafts were written very quickly. My YA fantasy novel was written in three months; Invisible Boys was even faster, barely a two-month timeframe.

But the wheels kind of fell off with this third novel, and as I sit here today reflecting on why, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

Both my first two novels were written in total obscurity, and that is what gave me the license to write in an unfettered way, without considering the audience or market. All I had to consider was what I wanted to say, and then I gave myself total permission to say it.

With Invisible Boys in particular, I gave myself more freedom than I would give myself on this blog, or on social media, or in conversation. I told myself firmly, “there are no sacred cows: write whatever you feel like writing, what hurts, what burns at you, what you desperately wanted to say fifteen years ago but the words died on your tongue, and to hell with anyone having a problem with it”.

The freedom I granted myself writing Invisible Boys was spectacular. It sounds geeky to admit, but writing like this is one of the best feelings ever. The sensation of total liberty infused me with a general enthusiasm for living more boldly. I woke up each morning feeling like I had power; like I was able to say more than usual, because I was giving myself permission to not give a fuck about the consequences.

But a lot changed last summer. Invisible Boys won the Ray Koppe Award; I signed with an agent; and I undertook my residency at Varuna. Suddenly, I felt like other people were watching me, and this loaded a barbell of expectations onto my shoulders: a wordless and ineffable process, but nonetheless real.

My prevailing thought was:

If I’m an agented, award-winning author and also a friggin Varuna alumnus, I’d better be writing amazing works of staggering literary genius and if the next thing I produce isn’t amazing, people will realise I am an untalented turd and Invisible Boys was just a fluke.

As we know, first drafts are unequivocally duck shit. So, applying this kind of thinking when you’re drafting is capital-N Not Helpful.

And as it so happens, I started drafting this version of my third novel while I was at Varuna last January, so the soil this story springs from is kind of neurotic and self-doubty, reflecting the pressure I was putting myself under at the time. I only produced one chapter at Varuna, which I was disappointed with, and the quality wasn’t fantastic.

I returned to the manuscript between July and October, but my progress was staccato again. The last time I worked on it was late November. Life got in the way: I had edits and promo for Poster Boy, Hungerford promo, other writing events, day job, Christmas, and finally the structural edits for Invisible Boys (which are now finished, yay).

But this week, I am not excessively busy: I have time to dedicate to writing for the first time in two months and so I am forced to face my manuscript again. I don’t have the get-out-of-jail-free card of being ‘busy’. It’s just me and the novel.

And I realise those expectations I felt last summer at Varuna are still weighing on me now, perhaps more than ever, post-Hungerford.

And those expectations, really, are born from fears.

I am scared of this novel not being powerful.

I am scared it won’t impact upon people as much as Invisible Boys.

I am scared of being a one-trick pony.

I am scared people will be disappointed in me.

I am scared people will roll their eyes and say, ‘Really, he won awards for writing, and that’s the best he can do?’

I am scared readers will give up on me.

I am scared of losing everything.

I’m experiencing classic Second Novel Syndrome, only for me it’s Third Novel Syndrome. The number doesn’t really matter. If someone wrote six unpublished novels and their seventh got published, they’d go through Eighth Novel Syndrome.

The truth is, it’s not the second novel per se that gives writers more grief than any other; it’s whatever novel we write after experiencing some kind of success for a previous novel; the first novel we write when we are no longer working in total obscurity.

The fears I listed above are mostly centred on what other people think about my writing, which isn’t something I used to worry about. Prior to 2017, I felt no external pressure, only an internal desire to express myself.

I can’t go back to that state of obscurity – and nor would I want to. I worked hard to get to where I am, and things like the Hungerford Award are incredible gifts that I am deeply grateful for.

However, my response to this recognition has been one of fear, which is now holding me back. I know the only way I can complete my third novel is by setting fire to my fears, giving them a good roasting and then plating them up and swallowing them.

fear toasted
Fears: Extra delicious when roasted over an open fire.

So, here I go.

Firstly, I have to accept that my fears are beyond my control. Even if I write an amazing novel, people might still not like it. Ultimately, I have no power over how other people receive and interpret my work, and I never will.

Secondly, I have to remember how I began this journey: with nothing. I started out as a seven-year-old boy from Geraldton with an exercise book and a pen. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or support to write. I did it on my own because what I wanted more than anything was to express myself. It’s easier to risk losing what you have if you remind yourself that you coped just fine without any of it.

Ultimately, the only thing within my control is the writing itself. All I can do is get my arse in the chair, open my laptop and express myself one word, sentence, page, chapter at a time, until I’m done. Writing unabashedly has always brought me incredible joy and fulfilment. I can’t recreate the obscurity I used to experience, but there’s no reason I can’t write just as honestly and freely as I used to: it’s within my control, and so I will choose to do it.

And hell, maybe I’ll fail. Maybe all my fears will come true and everything will go tits up, but I can’t control that.

I only own my process, and my words, and that starts with my attitude.

Novel number three, prepare to be finished. No sacred cows. Duck shit ahoy.

Holden