It’s impossible to write a second novel

The first novel was born when a whiff of inspiration met the deadline for a Masters in Creative Writing. But Sharon Lam found everything from self-doubt to Adam Sandler to get in the way of the second book.

It is impossible to write a second novel. After all, you just published your first novel, then realize that “just” is actually three years ago, and you haven’t done anything. That doesn’t mean you haven’t thought of another novel. Not during the first year, of course. The first year after publishing a novel, you can rest easy, you owe the world nothing, that’s 365 days of long-haul flight mentality. More Pringles please. Yes, an Adam Sandler movie sounds good right now. A little known but very true fact is that with every ISBN in your name, you get a judgment-free year where you can watch as many Adam Sandler movies as you want and your credibility won’t diminish. Even if you don’t like Adam Sandler movies, you might as well watch them now while you can, so you do.

The second year, you stop reviewing Grandpa and learn to read again. Looking for literary seeds. While you’re looking for your phone, you’re also looking for your new novel. Is it in my bag – it’s not there, she thought, she had to find it…before the others found it. On the Floor – it’s about surfaces… the surface of life. In the residual glow of the delirium of the first novel, every idea seems good. The best you have is for a government development that gets delayed after the construction site gets infested with birds, so the government makes the birds illegal. Yeah, you think that’s great. It will be written. Another year passes. He did not write himself. And while it’s not exactly birds, the government has made boars illegal. You procrastinated so much that life imitated art even before you did.

So now you’re here in third grade. You feel like your only published novel was a fluke, and you’re worried that if you try to write a second one, you’ll prove right. After all, you arrived at your first novel taking the path of least resistance at the time — you didn’t want to get a job, so you applied to writing school. It worked, you were accepted and you bought yourself another year, another Master’s, two in a row, which unfortunately you didn’t get for the price of one. You don’t have a tertiary sanctuary now, there’s literally no outside reason to write another book.

Wellington novelist Sharon Lam, probably on Reddit. (Photo: provided)

“The obvious difference is that all the warmth, light and pressure of our Masters year at IIML is missing,” Clare Moleta, author of Homeless (2021), writes to you. You worked on your first drafts of your first novels together in the same cohort. “The community, the deadlines, the constant exposure to craftsmanship and ideas…without that collective engine, a book is just one more thing that you try to fit into your life, by yourself. A writer whom I admire recently told me that he considered, after the first one, that writing novels was above all a matter of willpower.

That’s the thing with a second novel – you’ve already done one. Who has climbed Everest twice? “And when you finally get to the end, you think, OK, now I know how to write a book. But actually, what you know is how to write this book. He doesn’t care about the next one,” Clare writes. She also mentions that she started her second novel while revising her first novel and finished the first draft a few months ago, a process of four years versus eight months.

You ask other novelists who have written and published not just a second novel, but thirds, fourths, sixths. Brannavan Gnanalingam, most recently of Slow down, there you are (2022), tells you that his second attempt was a “failure”, and a “failure in all respects”. And so he “threw it in the trash.” Moved to Paris. Chatted with writers. And I wrote my second novel in the second person with much more finality and precision. It would become You should have come here when you weren’t here (2013), which Brannavan says is also his favorite. His abandoned second novel, “Never to be seen/read again, and if anyone tries to publish it the Harper Lee way after my death, I firmly and officially declare it, disavow it.”

Murdoch Stephens, most recently of From the top of the highlands (2022), wrote her second novel under a pseudonym. He writes that it “took me out of the traditional novel structure and allowed me to write through a character’s voice. Just to be clear: I wasn’t hiding behind anonymity, but creating a world through the voice of a character-author.” Murdoch also wrote “a Ph.D., an academic book, tons of articles, including for The Spinoff, and then a popular nonfiction book that really helped me think about writing as a broad calling.”

Everyone’s words reassure you. You realize how disconnected you have been from people and how important that is to writing too. Writing a second novel isn’t impossible, it just takes time and work (ugh!). But the false starts, the crossing of other mediums, a change of tools, are also part of the process. Maybe in your three years you have already started without knowing it. And now you have some solid advice. You’ll first knock out that “modern” (see: unsellable) children’s book you were sitting on, move to Paris, and start writing under the name “Adam Sandler.”

Then all you need is a new idea, since you ditched the illegal bird idea because illegal boars aren’t as fun in reality. It’s hard to come up with an idea when nothing has really happened to you. You’re Charlie Bucket’s grandparents who stayed in bed, Holden Caulfield’s unnamed cousin, the not-so-hungry caterpillar. Of course, it’s fiction, everything is made up. But there must be a greater truth behind what you’re making up, otherwise everything you write is an episode of the Big Bang Theory. You are aware that whatever truth you have gathered throughout your cushy life has already been extracted and reprocessed for your first novel. Maybe you really need Direct more first? But how do you do that when you have no incentive to steal a high-profile government document, or some sort of cursed locket, and you’re not an Italian popstar lookalike either?

Big Daddy, big movie.

Whichever way you come up with an idea, you can then start writing. You originally wanted to finish another novel in your twenties, but time is running out, so maybe you should just wait until your thirties. Or quarantine, so it starts with an even number? Maybe you’ll be out of TV and sleeping by then. You also have to go through what they call “severe depressive episodes” where for weeks you can’t even see tomorrow. And maybe you should also clean the toilets and do the laundry first so you don’t have distractions later. And then once you’ve done that all you have to do is sit down for half an hour each day to work on it and wait for the rhythm and the habit to set in and soon you’ll be writing for a hour or two a day but not now because you’re a bit sleepy and need to catch up on post-episode discussions about your shows on Reddit.

Above all, it always seems impossible to write a second novel because the sieve responsible for collecting water from the well of potential is once again there to sabotage you. You think they are protective, preventing your failure by preventing your attempt. That person is of course you, and you can’t just go and kill them because you’ll kill yourself too – wait! It could be a novel! And then you realize that it already is, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote it 176 years ago.

Irene B. Bowles