That Difficult Second Album …

The last few months have been exceptionally hard, in editing terms, because I have had a slew of second novels coming through, and second novels are always the most difficult to deal with. It makes sense, if you think about it. The first novel has the luxury of time, and the third has the added weight of experience, but the second …

Our Beloved Author has given the first novel everything. It’s been written and rewritten until it’s polished and sparkling. Every sentence has been lovingly worked over until it’s as good as OBA can get it. Admittedly, that might not mean it’s perfect, but it’s as perfect as OBA can make it without help.

And once it’s as good as OBA can make it, it generally goes off to what in my days we’d call ‘friends and relations’ and these days are now called ‘beta-readers’. (They’re still friends and relations, of course, but beta-reader’ sounds so much more professional, doesn’t it?)

That will doubtless entail another round of rewriting as OBA fixes all the things they hadn’t spotted themselves because they’re too close to it all. We have to remember that nine times out of ten they’ve lived with this story for years, which means that they are intimately acquainted with every single character, even the walk-on red jerseys; they know the back story inside out, and they can recite the history and background of their country/city/ planet/galaxy in a way which would have any self-respecting history teacher handing out gold stars . . . and often that’s where the problems arise. If as an author you find yourself telling your reader, ‘But it’s obvious why he’s saying this, because he went to the Galaxy Council when he was 16 with his dad, and that’s where he met The Grand Poobah, and that’s when he fell in love with Scarlatta, who is the mother of the Chief Wizard’s best friend and inventor of the Faster-Than-Light Widget—’ but none of this is actually in the book, so how on earth is any self-respecting reader to guess?

(That’s also one very important reason for having an editor …)

All this means that by the time the first book crosses an editor’s desk, it’s in a pretty good state – it’s got to be, if it has any hope of being bought, because very few editors have the time to take a book that’s almost there and whack it into shape. Potential is all well and good, but we need to see it realised if we’re to take on a book now.

But the second book is a whole different kettle of fish. First of all, OBA is working to a deadline, for maybe the first time in their life, and not everyone finds that conducive to good writing. Me, I needed the news editor standing over me tapping his fingers on the desk and muttering, ‘The presses wait for no one, Ms Fletcher!’ Give me a year and I’ll start work the week before it’s due . . . but I understand not everyone likes to work that way.

Unquiet_House_PBOSecond, they haven’t always had the second book plotted out and ready to go. Editors tend to contract two or three books at a time, for a variety of reasons. First, you’ve seen how much work it takes to get a book through the acquisition process; second, if the first book takes off you don’t want to have to wait another year before you have a new manuscript to start working on; third, it’s good for the author to see that you the editor and the publishing house are investing in you for the long term, not just for one book, and so on. But even though I might contract three books, doesn’t necessarily mean the author has two other books in mind.

Third, even if you do know how the story is supposed to go and what the characters are supposed to do, characters do not always behave as they should. With the first novel you have the time to either start again or beat your hero into submission, because it’s up to you when you submit it. With the second novel, that clock is ticking away …

And then we get to the edit. With the first book that combination of euphoria over getting the contract in the first place and complete ignorance of how the editing process works can often take the sting away. Of course it can still come as a shock to see your beautiful gem changed from a radiant to a marquise cut, but I have found that no matter how much work is done to the first book, the second edit always hits much harder, and particularly if you’ve been received well and have a shedload of good reviews. It can be very difficult to accept an editor telling you that your beloved similes are just not quite cutting the mustard, or that the Cockney dialect you’ve slaved over sounds more like it’s from the Far East than the East End. Never forget that no one has to accept the suggested edits, but if something’s been changed, there must be a reason – so don’t just change it back: look at the problem and find another way round it.

And even once we’ve got the book into production, the difficulties are not over: reviewers are often generous to first-time authors, but getting the second book space is harder – ‘Oh, we reviewed the first one!’ is a phrase I am sick and tired of! And then bookshops follow up with orders like, ‘We sold five copies of Book 1 so we’ll take three copies of Book 2’ – which is an attitude I have never understood …

But in spite of all these problems, I actually enjoy the second book a lot more: first of all, very few authors don’t grow with each book. Second, if it’s a sequel, I can’t wait to find out how the story’s progressing. And third, especially in our genre, we tend to grow slowly but surely as new readers discover OBA, and then go back and find the first book.

I love it when a reviewer says, “Book 1 was good, but Book 2 is great!’

Of course, after the second book, OBA should be getting into their stride now. With any luck they’ve been paying attention to the edit (‘Oh look: I really do use, “raising an eyebrow, he glanced up and nodding his head, he shrugged” every other line’) so the writing will be getting better, the plotting tighter, the characterisation more emotive, so by the time Book 3 comes along, OBA is on a roll*.

So here’s to the difficult second album: long may they rule!

Jo

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*Talking of third novels, look out for Alison Littlewood’s tremendously spooky The Unquiet House, coming next week: Richard & Judy picked her and compared her to Stephen King, so pick up this one and see if you agree!

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