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Second Book Blues

Wrangling a book manuscript through an umpteenth revision in the deep freeze of a Michigan winter is reason enough to be seeing the world through a blue filter. Something more has been at work, however, haunting the always-vulnerable boundaries of the writer safe space where an author’s sense of herself lives, and where the best work happens. Call it a case of the second book blues. A simple Google search reveals that plenty of writers have shared this experience. A second book, especially if the first one garnered some notice and success, brings with its publication a different set of prospects and concerns to its author.

Writer Shirley Marr wrote her explanation of first novels this way— “It might have been an easy write or it might have been difficult, requiring many years and re-writes, but the most important thing is that the manuscript belonged to you. And you didn't belong to anyone.” Marr goes on to suggest that once an author has readers, a publisher, a reputation, and a sales record, she contends with expectations that were amorphous with the first book, but become sharper and more insidious the second time around. No one will like this book. It won’t sell as well as the first one did. My reader fans will be disappointed.

Author Shelly Oria acknowledges that “Publishing a book, especially your first book, is an experience that can mess with your head—regardless of how your book ‘does’ in the world. Her admonition to ignore reviews, practice self care, write more, and “remember that everything matters less than you think,” somehow fails to comfort.

The worries deepen if the second book departs from the genre of the first. Will readers who became fans through a historical novel set in Germany during the whole of the 20th century make the leap to a contemporary women’s fiction novel with a dash of mystery set in northern Michigan? The new book has an edgier narrative voice. Perhaps it’s less “literary.” Does it violate the all-important writer brand that I’ve created? Experience from my first round of publication demonstrated how important it is for an author to find the right audience for her book. The savvy, commercially minded second-time novelist would have capitalized on the reader base from the first book and written the second one with similar appeal.

Oh well…that wasn’t the book that begged to be written. In all those hours alone with the story—backside to chair— an altogether different book emerged. The two novels share strong, resilient women as central characters, and a deep sense of place, but that is where the similarity ends. Even in Darkness, based on a family story, derived from a known narrative and I crafted the novel to accentuate the themes that celebrate the legacy of a great aunt. In Hard Cider while some events and characters are adapted from real life, the story is mostly fictional. Encore careers, self-determination, infertility and how we form families— and of course hard apple cider— are all important motifs.

In the end, I find I have to rely on what inspired me to write this second novel in the first place. As May Sarton said so well—and this is the dedication to Hard Cider— “I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself.” I have to hope that previous readers and new ones will find those same questions and answers of interest in Hard Cider. In the closing words of Green-light Your Book, publisher Brooke Warner’s recent volume, I found the inspiration to counter my second-book blues. “Give yourself the gifts of legitimacy, validation, and authority. If you’ve come this far, you’ve earned it.”

Hard Cider comes out in September 2018 from She Writes Press.

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