Monday, July 20, 2015

What Is It About Second Books?

Currently Writing:   Merlin quartet book 2
Currently Reading:  Dune by Frank Herbert
                                The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (Reread)
                                The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket (audio)
                                Daughter of Light by Morgan Busse (Kindle)
                                NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind Vol. 5 by Hayao Miyazaki

Tad Williams once wrote about the difficulties of writing second books (and sometimes third books, in his case) because they are essentially the middle of the story of a trilogy (or quartet). As such, these middle books must begin and end in the middle of the story, resolving some but not all of the conflict, if they resolve any at all.

I'm beginning to appreciate the difficulty of writing second books for different reasons – well, one specific reason. Writing a second book with the same characters, who are somehow different from their first-book selves and yet the same, is just as mind-boggling as writing the first book was. It's like Gene Wolfe said to Neil Gaiman: "You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing." So I'm re-learning how to write a novel and how to write my characters. Merlin, as usual, is the easiest to write because he's the closest to me personally. Bryn and Mortimer are giving me pains mostly because I've switched up the order of POV chapters slightly in this book, and getting their bits of the story into the right rhythm is a bit tricky.

But these troubles have got me thinking about what I tend to refer to as "second book syndrome" – that is, the tendency of a second book to seem inferior to its predecessor, regardless of its actual quality. I think this occurs, primarily, because second books are so difficult to write and present the largest learning curve of an author. This is when you really figure out if you can keep doing this thing we call writing; or if you can keep this story going for more than one book, if you've already completed others.

Some second books that suffer from second book syndrome (hereafter SBS) come easily to mind – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Prince Caspian, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, and (from all I've heard about it, all controversy aside) Go Set a Watchman. Oddly, Chamber and Caspian are two books that I liked less when I was younger but have grown to love as I've reread them. In Chamber's case, I believe the onset of SBS stems from the similarity of the plot's beats to the first book's and the extreme dislike for Gilderoy Lockhart (second only to Umbridge for characters other than Voldemort that we love to hate). However, the book gains a great deal of importance once the rest of the series is read, because there's so much of the latter half of the series that's set up in that book.

Conversely, Prince Caspian suffers from SBS because of its drastic (intentional) differences from the structure of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I think it also ends up getting short shrift because it's one of Lewis' earlier attempts at children's literature and isn't as much a classic as LWW, despite being better written. In general, the Narnia books improve as the series progresses, and that means PC ends up least loved. But, as with all the Narnia books, PC contains many signature scenes and lines beloved by Narnia fans no matter which books they prefer.

While these examples seem to indicate that SBS is most often an inaccurate assessment of a second book's worth, there are times when a second book really is a weak point in a series. Sea of Monsters is, to my mind, the weakest of the Percy Jackson books despite its honorable attempt to do something different with the books by having Grover absent for much of the book among other plot elements that Riordan uses to avoid falling into a formula. Most often, a book that deserves to suffer from SBS is a book that forces itself into the middle of the story, so that it follows what might have worked well as a standalone book and serves mostly to set up the final installment, forming a two-book trilogy.

SBS isn't widespread enough to apply to every second book. In fact, some second books are much better than their firsts (like Perelandra or The Queen of Attolia) or simply work as a companion book rather than a true sequel (like The Dark is Rising or Gathering Blue) that they don't even risk SBS.

What books have you read that suffer from SBS, whether justly or unjustly? Have you written a sequel and had trouble continuing the story, even if you knew where it was going?

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