Matt Gemmell

The Second Book

writing, books & kestrel 12 min read

Everyone seems to agree that the second one is more difficult. The second album, or the second film. Or the second book.

The thing is, you can only write one second book — because the next one after that is the third book. It’s dubious to talk about lessons learned from something I’ve done only once, and can do only once, but I’m going to try. By reading this, you’re just encouraging me.

My first book was CHANGER, and my second book is TOLL. They’re in the same series, which both simplifies and complicates matters. I can say now that both have been well-received, judging by every metric available to me. I’d had plenty of time to get used to CHANGER being out there, but TOLL is still relatively new to the public eye, being only two months old.

I’m delighted that it seems to live up to the expectations of the people who read its predecessor, and I’m also vaguely surprised — not because I ever thought it was a bad book, but because when you’re the one who wrote it, you can’t see it clearly. Releasing it into the world feels like a leap of faith.

I’d often heard about the nebulous difficulty of writing a second novel, and I put it to the back of my mind when I began working on mine. Maybe it wouldn’t apply to me, I thought. Maybe it was just another of those things like writer’s block, where it’s a slightly different problem for each person, and probably over-diagnosed. Maybe it’s just a lack of preparation.

I told myself all of these things, and I think they each have elements of truth — but there is a unique difficulty to doing something creative for the second time. It’s difficult to generalise, but I can at least talk about the challenges I faced, and some lessons that might be applicable to others too.

Writing the first book

For me, and I think for most people, writing the first book is a messy, improvised learning experience. The book itself shouldn’t end up feeling messy or improvised, but the process of creating it certainly was. I began writing without having a full plan, and the result was predictable: I had to do an extensive rewrite after the first draft, and it very nearly derailed the project. Lots of things changed — all for the better, I think — and by the end of it I desperately needed a break. It almost killed me, creatively speaking.

What I took away from it all was mostly lessons about the actual mechanics of writing a book, or about writing as a line of work. Not the craft, but rather the due diligence, and the management, and the practicalities. I don’t think I grew artistically — except in the sense that I learned what I was capable of at that point, which included committing nigh-100,000 words to paper — but I certainly learned a great deal about how to do this job.

I think a lot of it was luck. I think a lot of it is probably always luck, in terms of putting a story together, and finding the right cast of characters, and just being able to pull the whole thing off. There are too many variables involved. You need the right plot, and genre, and characters, and style, and even readers… but there are any number of each of those things, in so many permutations that there’s always going to be luck involved.

That can be alarming, but it’s also freeing. Writing a first book is a huge shot in the dark. When I really think about it, the most important thing to do when writing a first book is just to write the damned thing. Write it, revise it, finish it. 99% of aspiring writers probably don’t make it that far, so my advice is just to resolve to do it, no matter what.

That’s what I did, despite having plenty of reasons to quit. It was stubbornness that got me through it, more than anything else. Hardly admirable — but certainly useful.

The first book is probably the one truly free shot you get, not just because there are no expectations yet, but because you’re in the blissful state of having no real idea what you’re doing. If you can accept your wildly optimistic ignorance for what it is and still push forward, you’ll probably have the purest writing experience of your budding career.

Writing the second book

You can never go home again. Adulthood is essentially just repetitions of that fundamental lesson, over and over, and it echoes through all aspects of your life. Writing is no different.

You can’t write a second book the same way as the first one. Not because it’s unwise, but because you actually can’t. You’ve been tempered. You’ve been burned. You’ve changed. And if the first one actually did OK, then that’s all doubly true.

I’d learned my lessons, so I told myself. I would plan the hell out of the second book. I would fully outline it. I remembered the pain of that big rewrite, and I vowed to avoid a motivation-destroying repeat of it. I told myself that I’d already established my characters and my world, had started to find my voice for the genre, and already had one under my belt.

The result was temporary paralysis. I think that’s what they mean about the difficult second novel. You do it to yourself. You’re pulled in several directions at once. Your mind is saying:

  1. I should just stick with what worked.
  2. But I should also fix what was weak!
  3. What if it was already the best I can do?
  4. What if they don’t like this one as much?
  5. And what did they even like about the first one, anyway?

The problem with the second book is that you trap yourself into viewing it as a kind of performance, rather than a creative act. You become your own internal annoying guy who just wants to hear the old songs over and over again.

I found myself doing crazy things, like trying to deconstruct my first book to figure out why it apparently “worked”. The book that I had written. I made notes about where the reveals were, as a percentage of story length. I studied the rhythm of changes in point of view. I charted the distribution of conflict scenes. In my own work!

That’s bonkers. It presupposes that it’s indeed those things which made the book effective — as if it’s purely mechanistic — and it further presupposes that I just happened to hit on an effective formula for all those aspects by chance, on my first try (because I certainly didn’t plan it that way). That’s obviously ludicrous, but it’s the kind of thinking that’s strangely seductive when you’re facing a blank page.

It’s a lightning-in-a-bottle fallacy. You can’t create that way. You can only imitate, and it’s a very sad thing to try to imitate yourself.

Eventually I blocked all those voices out, primarily by giving myself permission to vary the “formula” (if a single book can be called a formula). I allowed myself to make a couple of notable changes, and after that, the straightjacket fell off. I really do think that the legendarily problematic second thing is mostly due to self-imposed constraints, most of which are probably illusory.

Anyway, that’s all pretty subjective — as everything is. I want to try and give some concrete advice for those who are staring down their second thing — or indeed even their first thing, if they want to make a more coherent run at it than I did. Some or all of these points might not apply to your particular thing, but they did to mine. As ever, that’s all I can promise.

And if you’re looking for social proof as to why you should care what the hell I think in the first place, here’s what people have been saying about my own second thing.

Write for yourself

Above all, write for yourself. The first book is written for yourself, and is probably the result of years of consideration, and anticipation, and yearning, until it just about crawled out of your skin and demanded to be committed to text. The second book won’t be like that, but you can at least let it have its own form in a similar way. Let it be what it wants to be.

TOLL wanted to be a thriller that’s more conventional in format than CHANGER was, but with a big step up in terms of the three-dimensionality of the antagonist, the themes dealt with, and holding back the reveals. These were self-set technical challenges, but the biggest obstacle was just allowing myself to write it the way it wanted to be written. I had to purposefully trim out aspects that just aped the CHANGER formula, and they would have done a disservice to TOLL.

You’ll naturally want to write a story a certain way, because it’ll be most satisfying to you. Heed that voice! Don’t write for the series’ fans, or the reviewers; write it for you. Always write it for you.

Spend time on the plot

What I mean here is to really let the plot incubate. The plot isn’t something you can just allow to fall out of your writing hand (or typing fingers). If it’s not there yet, then you can’t start. This will almost certainly be a new experience when you begin work on the second book, because the first one is usually a project that’s taken shape in your mind for ages before you ever decided to actually write it.

I think that’s part of what Stephen Fry meant when he said the second book was difficult because it’s professional writing — you’re wilfully creating a new story, instead of just finding a way to write the one that’s been bugging you for so long.

Now, you can of course let small pieces fall into place as you go, but what you can’t do is set out without the overall map in place (or maybe you can, but I sure as hell can’t, and I think it’d be very unwise indeed to do your second thing that way).

The litmus test for readiness is whether or not you can answer this question: What is it about?

You can answer the question at two levels: the plot/mechanics/McGuffin, and the underlying themes. The first bit is easy. When you can answer it in the second sense too, that’s how you know that you can probably get started. The first answer is what you’d tell a friend if they were trying to remember whether they’d read the book or not; a quick spoilery summary of the main points. The second answer is more like the abstract of a book report. It’s what you want the reader to take away from the book. The cohesive framework you can build a real narrative upon.

With TOLL I had most of the basic points from an early stage, but I really struggled to find the rest of it; that’s the truth. It took a while to hit me — literally weeks. The best thing I did was to wait for it. Eventually, I had my lightbulb moment, and then it all came together within a matter of days. The real answer to what TOLL is about is something like this:

It’s about the moral questions raised by our self-appointed stewardship of this planet, as brought crucially to contemporary awareness by anthropogenic climate change. What would it take for us to expand our definition of the greater good towards its logical conclusion? What sort of a person would make that leap? And if someone else were to oppose them, who would be on the side of right?

That’s the core of it. The McGuffin (as fab as it is) is just the dressing, no matter how deliciously conspiracy-flavoured it might be. You can’t make a cake out of just icing.

Don’t start until you can satisfactorily (to yourself) say what it’s really about.

Don’t repeat yourself, unless you want to

Don’t feel compelled to repeat yourself. If the first one worked — and why else would you think you should stick close to it? — then it did so for reasons you’ll probably never fully understand. Even if you could identify those things, and you replicated them perfectly, that still wouldn’t be a good idea. Things should change, and evolve. You certainly have, and you can’t write the same book twice. The circumstances and environment and even the author herself no longer exist. You can’t ever go home again.

Let the book be what it wants to be, just like the one before.

Challenge yourself

This is another example of freeing yourself from the strictures of (what you see as) how the first book worked. Play with it a bit. Set goals that will stretch you creatively. These are the fun variants of pain-in-the-arse writing problems. I had three of them for TOLL:

  1. Try to actually surprise readers with the plot twist, but make it retrospectively kind of obvious. I wanted people to get to the 70% (or whatever it is) mark, read the second big reveal, have not seen it coming, but then to think damn, he’s been slapping me in the face with this for the whole book so far. That’s hard! Maybe it worked, and maybe it didn’t — but it’s what I aimed for.

  2. Make readers cheer for the antagonist and protagonist. This involved creating an entirely different kind of adversary. I wanted my main character, Greenwood, to face a profound moral quandary, and I wanted the reader to share it. No moustache-twirling villains here, because they’re too easy to dismiss. I wanted to set up a baddie who surprised at each turn, reacting like someone you’d be drawn to and would empathise with. Someone with their own particular sort of nobility.

  3. Make it as real as it can be. This was a massive pain in my arse too, but beyond the obvious elements of fiction, TOLL is wholly grounded in our own world. The statistics, the historical events, the various environmental happenings alluded to regularly, the places, the vehicles, travel times and distances… all of it. It involved a load of research, and it was a big hassle, but I think that the reader can smell the authenticity. It was a great pleasure to assert the basic truth of so many parts of the story in the acknowledgements section afterwards.

You don’t have to do any of those things, but I think that pushing yourself to grow creatively is a sort of stealth tactic to avoid repeating yourself. It’s a sneaky way to give yourself permission to change things, and it’ll make you a better writer, plus it’s also just fun.

Give your readers credit

This is an extension of not assuming that only a carbon copy of the first book will work — because readers are more sophisticated than that. They don’t want the same thing all over again, and they will adapt to the tweaks you make as you go.

By all means acknowledge what they enjoyed (let the reviews, emails, tweets etc be your guide), and always develop your characters, but don’t be afraid to challenge the reader as well as yourself.

We live in an age where people are able to feel curious instead of stupid. Information is readily available, and looking things up is just a matter of a few taps — so give the reader some stretch goals. Let them fill in a bit of the background on their own, if they want to. Don’t hand everything to them. Let them bring their own knowledge, whether existing or newly-acquired, into play.

My books deal with a variety of countries, nationalities, and languages; lots of interesting places, and people speaking their native tongue. I don’t translate everything, instead leaving a few parts to be interpreted by context. I don’t spoon-feed readers the science, and I make an effort to ensure it’s right. My recaps are brief. I treat readers like the people they are: intelligent human beings who read 100,000-word technothrillers for fun. They’re interested in the genre already, and they’ll willingly participate in building the fictional world for themselves. Let them.

Wrapping up

Your own thing is your own thing; anybody else’s advice is ultimately just an opinion, to be considered and scavenged to whatever extent you feel is helpful. My situation is as unique to me as yours is to you, and it’s a virtual certainty that we don’t write exactly the same kind of stuff. Even if we did, our experiences won’t be the same.

I’ve had it easy, comparatively speaking. I’m still an unknown author, but my first two books have done well and been pretty universally enjoyed. Most fortunately of all, thousands of people have actually read them — and making that happen is the most difficult part.

I want to reassure you, though, that it’s still been painful for me. I want to comfort you by confessing that I struggled, not just with the first book and its epic nightmare of an about-face halfway through, but also with the second-guessing and over-analysis when trying to get the second one together. I agonised. I went back and re-read the first one in a mood of weird, despairing self-envy, which is kind of hilarious to me now. I said aloud to my ever-patient wife, while clutching a copy of CHANGER, “I don’t think I’ll write anything this good again” — and it was in a tone of dejection.

The thing is, I’ve also said the same about TOLL.

It’s an improvement on the first one. It’s tighter. More sure of itself. It has a hell of a lot more art to it. The plot is punchier, and both more concrete and more economical, while keeping the high-stakes, fast-paced quality that I hope has become a series hallmark. It’s just a better book, because I learned a lot of things from writing the first one, and I channelled those into the next project.

Now I have to do it all over again, with book three. The third one isn’t generally associated with particular difficulty, though there’s the ever-present risk of staleness or repetition, of course. I’m still worried about those things, but a bit less so than before. I hope it’s a trajectory I can continue to follow.

If there’s a single lesson that you and I both need to keep in mind, I suppose it’s this: you write well when you’re writing for yourself.