Chip MacGregor

November 14, 2012

Why is your second novel so important?


An author wrote with this question: “What would you say are the common areas of neglect you see in most second novels? Weak plot? Poor characterization? Underdeveloped themes?”

Love this question, since I tell the authors I represent that “your SECOND novel will be your most important.” You’ve doubtless spent years getting your first novel completed, then worked to edit it, got all sorts of advice, and went through the process of shopping it with an agent. It’s polished and ready to go after three or five years of working on it. Then you get a deal, and suddenly the publisher asks you to write another one in five months. Ack! You race through it, and it comes out disappointing. That can be a career killer, since you want your second novel to build off the sales of your first.

The biggest pitfalls in a second novel? A small idea (your first book was big; your second was hurried and not thought through as well.) Small characters (your first book contained characters you knew intimately; your second has people you don’t know as well). Less sense of place (your first novel is in a place you’ve spent considerable time exploring; your second is just a place). Less passion (your first novel grew out of a story you felt compelled to tell; your second is simply another book). You see the problem?

You see, your first novel sets a baseline in the marketplace. Retailers will be looking at your second book to decide if your audience is growing (and sales are up) or your audience is shrinking (your sales are down). They’ll take that as a sign of your future potential in the industry. Like it or not, that’s the tendency in today’s market. So you can’t scrimp on your second novel — it’s got to be as good as your first.

Someone else asked, “Should a novelist be thinking ‘sequel’ when she writes her first book? Has that become the industry norm? Should I have a story I can continue?”

Whether it’s the norm depends on the house — some publishers love sequels, others prefer not to sequence their books. But I would say the possibility for a sequel rests in your characters, not your story. Every novel needs a complete story (and aren’t we all sick to death of reading a novel that seems like nothing more than a long advertisement for the next book?). But if you have interesting characters than can continue, you’ve got the possibility of crafting a good sequel. So… no, I don’t believe the message that “you must always have a sequel.” The fact is, most second books in a series sell fewer copies than the first book in the series. So the idea that a sequel will automatically help you get established is a myth. However, you should always have another book in mind, whether it’s with these characters or others.

And someone else asked this question about sequels: “If your second novel is about the same characters as your first, how much description of them needs to occur for new readers, without frustrating repeat readers?”

Excellent question. My answer is probably, “Enough so that a reader will appreciate the characters in the current book.” Take a look at some great detective fiction for examples… You can pick up any Philip St Ives novel and feel you get to know the character, even though the author includes little description. Pull any Travis McGee novel off the shelf and you’ll see the character described in brief, then you’re quickly into the story. The same with Adam Dalgliesh or Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Too much description makes for a dull, wordy novel anyway. Get us introduced to the character, help us see what we need to see, then move us into the story.

And a friend had this follow-up question: “How far can you stray from expectations set by the first novel, before the reader feels betrayed?”

Not very far. It’s why many serial writers eventually feel trapped by their characters. You can’t have your God-fearing Priest Who Is A Weekend Sleuth With A Good Sense Of Humor suddenly transform into a Cross-Dressing Evil Genius. Readers won’t stand for it. If you create a character, you have to live with that character.

There’s a lot to say about second novels. It’s an overlooked topic, in my view. Happy to continue the discussion with your questions.

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  • Karen Fleming says:

    Thank you so much for offering such helpful advice. I follow your blog, but the posts you’ve put up recently have really helped me become more focused and targeted on what I need to in my writing and in setting my goals in order to move closer to getting published.

  • As always, Chip, love your advice. Especially the part about each book needing its own complete story. I just completed book one of a series, and though I left an open tidbit at the end to propel the reader to book 2, it was very important to me to have book one be a completed plot.

    On a side note: Go Ducks! Another exciting year!

  • Tim Osner says:

    Very valuable.

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    I have nothing to add except to say that, as always, I found this post, as well as the subsequent comments, really interesting and helpful.

  • GiantsFanSince52 says:

    Chip, you may have left out one of the most common sources of second novels–one of the three novels the writer wrote before finally selling one–the second novel that he/she presents as “new work” that was previously only available in “their room.” I daresay there are an awful lot of second novels that were really the first one written that they couldn’t sell because… well, because it was bad. How often do you suppose that happens? I daresay a lot…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! You’re right, Les. Happens frequently — and it’s why so many of those second novels suck.

  • simmerartist says:

    Always great stuff, Chip, and this is a perfect example of the kind of questions that come to mind, probably for every author (and aspiring), especially those of us working on harcover series fiction. Thank you! 😀

  • sally apokedak says:

    What a great post. Thanks. Lots of good advice here that is worth thinking about even for those of us who haven’t published a first novel.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Love these questions, and sincerely appreciate the answers. They provide nourishing food for reflection. Thanks for taking the time, Chip.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    For those of us who like Chick Lit, Kristin Billerbeck did a fantastic job with her Ashley Stockingdale series. I started in the second book and picked up enough of the first book from her bits and pieces that I never felt like I was missing something. In the third book, she introduced new extended family members that added to the conflict. Of course it’s been written that good second books can increase the sales of prior books, but it’s still a daunting prospect for us newbies. Thanks, Chip, for more terrific advice.

  • Katie Ganshert says:

    This is such good advice….and a frightening reality. My 2nd book comes out in March and the insecurity and second-guessing is brutal!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And how much time did you have to complete it, Katie?

    • Katie Ganshert says:

      I’m actually one of those lucky ones and had both book 1 and 2 complete when they were contracted. So I don’t even have the excuse of less time. I’m just plain nervous because a precedent has been set and I don’t want to disappoint readers (or my pub house!)

  • This supports the idea of having a “series” with different
    characters from the first book in the same setting. This seems to be a trend
    with many publishers. It’s not a continuation of the old story, just focusing
    on different characters. The reader can sort of get a follow-up on the
    characters they loved while enjoying a whole new story. No new setting to
    research. No new character development. Just delving a little deeper into ones
    already created as secondaries. Readers who enjoyed the first book will come
    back looking for what they loved, yet it may attract new ones hoping for
    something different.

  • Karen Morris says:

    Thank you for the list of common “second book pitfalls”, Chip. I’ll be sure to refer back to them often…for any WIP, not just #2.

  • Melissa says:

    You aren’t kidding about the quick second novel turnaround! Thanks for the advice, good luck to those that need to live up to it!

  • My first book is done, and the sequel is half done. I brought my darlings to the edge of death in the first one, (as in, Colt in mouth) and then in the second, we have, literally, the ultimate sacrifice. Instead of adding too many extraneous characters, I add one or two and suck the life out of the main characters, yet again.
    There’s something rather familiar and surreal about crying your eyes out while typing the soul crushing grief of people who don’t exist.
    Some people call that insane, I call that a career!

  • Keli Gwyn says:

    Great points, Chip. I totally get how important a second novel is. What advice do you have for an author who embraces that truth and is working to implement your sage counsel but encounters the pressures to perform manifested in that deadly disease known as Second Book Syndrome?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      My advice: Good is better than fast. Again, the problem is usually that writers (often pushed by publishers) want to hurry through that second book. But your second book is your most important book. So take your time, Keli. Make sure you’ve got a strong story, strong characters, a strong sense of place. If you can raise the stakes on your second book, it will be stronger.

  • Richard Mabry says:

    Good stuff, Chip, and very true. Incidentally, happy to see that you like (or are at least are familiar with) the St. Ives books by the late Ross Thomas. He and John D MacDonald are favorites.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ross Thomas was one of the best storytellers in America, and I read everything he wrote several times. John D MacDonald has long been overlooked because he wrote paperback thrillers — a fabulous storyteller, with great characters and a nice sense of place. Nice to meet a fellow fan.

  • Fantastic discussion. What about second books that are non-fiction?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The same principles hold true, Leanne. Retailers are waiting to see how the market responds to your second book — growing or declining? So make sure, as a nonfiction writer, you’ve got something to say, that you’re offering strong answers/solutions, and that you are the one who needs to be saying it.

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