Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Guest Blog: Jenny Brown. Second Book Syndrome

Jenny, a long-time commenter and successful non-fiction writer, has a three-book deal with a major publisher.

A long time ago, at a time when I'd written two novels that had failed to excite anyone in the great world of publishing, Alicia gave me some very good advice, which I ignored. 

She told me to write five more books before I tried to sell anything. Not just because I might learn something about writing that way—which I would—but because making it in Romance isn’t about publishing one book. It’s about building a readership, and that takes writing a lot of books.  Fast. 

It was only after I’d finally sold my astrologically themed historical romance, Lord Lightning to HarperCollins’ Avon Romance, that I learned just how good her advice had been.

Because once you’ve received an offer of publication things change in a hurry. Writing is no longer a private experience, a delicate flirtation between you and your muse that may take many months to grow into a consuming passion. Your new agent and editor will want to know what you’ll be writing next and they’re likely to have strong opinions about what it should be. Even worse, before they mail out your contract they’ll insist that you commit to a delivery date for your next novel that will range from a few months to, at most, a year from the moment they offered you the deal.  

And that’s just the beginning. Though your first book had to be very good to land you that contract, you’ll quickly learn that your next book must be even better than the first, or you’ll end up with a bunch of reviews that say, “Her new book isn’t as good as her debut.”  

If that weren’t enough pressure, not only must everything in your next book be better than the first, it has to be different from it, which won’t seem like a big issue until you start writing and realize you’ve already used this bit of juicy dialogue, that heart-tugging backstory theme, and, yes, even that luscious bit of foreplay—in your first book.

There’s a name for what happens at the moment when you realize you’ve promised to deliver a book you know little about, in a time frame that is half of what it took you to write your first book, to an editor who expects it to be far better and completely different from your first—while fitting neatly into the marketing niche she’s assigned you. It’s called Second Book Syndrome. And sure enough as I set out to write the second book in my astrology series, Star Crossed Seduction, I came down with a classic case of it. 

A large part of why was that when my agent decided to pitch Lord Lightning as part of multi-book deal in which the hero of each book would be of a different astrological sign she had asked me to give her a few paragraph describing the second book in the series before she took it to editor.

Still wrapped in a haze of excitement at having received The Call, I chose a Scorpio hero for that second book and dashed off two paragraphs. I knew Scorpios are notorious for their secrecy so I decided to make him a military man who dabbles in political intrigue. I paired him with a rebellious pickpocket—a good foil to his strong sense of duty. And since the only active war going on in my story’s time frame was in India, I decided to create conflict by having him learn that the pickpocket had been sent to steal a valuable Indian gem that the hero was supposed to deliver to England’s most powerful spymaster.

My agent loved it. My editor bought it. It was only when I sat down to write it that I realized I had described an external plot, not a love story, and that I had no idea who my secretive Captain and his pickpocket were or, more importantly, what was going to make them fall in love with each other in a way that would make my reader feel all warm and happy as she turned the last page. 

I had to write three different partials and five full drafts to answer that question, and each one was written to the accompaniment of the famous Ticking Clock, though in this case it wasn’t my characters under the gun but deadline-phobic me.   

What helped me the most—besides Alicia’s brilliant book, The Story Within Guidebook, which is invaluable to anyone trying to craft a character-driven plot—was an online course on “Crash Revisions,” taught by Holly Lisle. She taught me to print my work and edit it on paper in pencil, rather than fiddle with it on the screen. She also emphasized the importance of reading my draft for themes and revising at the thematic level first, rather than wasting my time playing about with words at the paragraph level. I also learned a lot from another online class Lynn Kerstan taught on how to tighten up your prose. 

It was only after I submitted my manuscript to my editor that I discovered the other difference between writing for yourself and writing under contract. Because my editor, it turned out, really does edit. She pinpointed several structural flaws, wasted opportunities, confusing scenes, and missing backstory that none of my beta readers had noticed. And even better, my editor made very helpful suggestions as to how to fix these flaws. 

By the time Star Crossed Seduction was in proof, I felt confident that I had written the book I’d hoped to write, but I wouldn’t wish the anxiety-laden process that got me to that book on anyone. So now, when aspiring writers ask me for advice, what do I tell them? Write a few books before you query your first agent. You’re likely to end up with a better book, and more importantly, you won’t have to start from scratch when it comes time to write that all-important second book. 

Will anyone take my advice? Probably not. But if they do, they’ll find that what follows publication will be a lot less nerve-wracking. 

Jenny Brown's sensuous historical romances feature heroes each of a different astrological sign. They are published by HarperCollins Avon. She began her career as a novelist late in life after years of publishing sober, instructive nonfiction. It's quite a change.  

Her next book, Star Crossed Seduction, was released on August 30. It tells the story of dragoon Captain Miles Trevelyan, on leave from active service in India, who is heading out for a night on the town when he rescues a beautiful pickpocket from arrest. She's the perfect choice for a few days of dalliance--beautiful, cunning, and completely disposable. But Temperance has no intention of becoming the plaything of a man who wears the uniform of the solders who murdered her lover. Disarming Trev with a kiss, she escapes. But her sultry kiss opens the two Scorpio adversaries to an obsessive attraction that neither can elude--or possibly survive.

Her web site is You can read the beginning of Star Crossed Seduction on Scribd at 


Anonymous said...

Completely makes sense. Enjoyed reading your experience.

Shawn said...

I'm there with you. I've sold my first book and a pulling my hair out with the second.