Second Book Syndrome

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I thought “second book syndrome” only hit on one’s actual second book.

Silly me.

I suffer from it with each series.

DAVY JONES DHARMA, the second Nautical Namaste Mystery, suffered from it, which is why its release date was pushed back. We’re getting there, thanks to a good editor who helps me navigate where it stumbled. But DAVY JONES DHARMA is far from my second-ever book. It’s my I-have-no-idea-which-book-it-is-because-some-will-never-be-published.

For me, I get Second Book Syndrome in each series I write.

I’m in the last stages of overcoming it with THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE, the second book in the Gwen Finnegan Mysteries (under the Devon Ellington name). I even tried to trick myself with that one.  We had “Myth & Interpretation” release. It’s a between-the=books novella.

“Myth” came about not just as an attempt to trick myself out of Second Book Syndrome. Part of “Myth” was originally in the first portion of THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE. What happens in “Myth” affects the way Gwen and Justin relate to each other and to the world. It sets seeds that grow and are harvested later in the series, both in BALTHAZAAR and in the third book in the series, THE SANDOVAHL SECRET.

However, those chapters were a distraction from BALTHAZAAR. They hurt the book. The book was a mess.

It suffered from Second Book Syndrome.

After a discussion with my editor, I ripped out those chapters and expanded them, creating the novella “Myth and Interpretation.” It gave the readers necessary information.  It fit between the books. It wasn’t necessary to be a novel. Putting it where it was kept it from being a distraction in BALTHAZAAR.

Yet BALTHAZAAR still balked. I finally managed to unknot it, with my editor’s help, thank goodness, and we are, at the time of this writing, in what I hope are the final galley proofs before publication.

THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY (the second Coventina Circle novel, also under the Devon Ellington name) nearly killed me to get done. I had the outline. I knew the characters and the story. And it still bucked and balked and fought me all the way through.

What is Second Book Syndrome? I’m sure there are as many definitions as there are second books and writers of second books. For me, it’s a sense of I’m still exhausted from Book 1. Book 1 in the series is always a book of my heart. All of the books I write are books of my heart, but Book 1 happens because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself. It’s the introduction; it sets things up; it builds the world. It’s the sense of discovery I had in writing it, even when it was outlined ahead of time. It’s the joy of sharing this new world with readers. Even a book set in a real location, or a mix of real and fiction (what I call “stretched geography”) is a built world and has to make sense.

Book 2 is about sustaining and expanding. It’s hard. There’s a fear that Book 2 will never live up to Book 1, even when there’s more to say about the characters and their world. I can think of many, many series I’ve read where I don’t quite feel the passion for the second book that I feel for the first. But I still like the characters and the world, so I then look forward to the third book of the series. Because I’ve experienced that as a reader, the Doubt Demons attack me as a writer.  What if I can’t sustain? What if it’s not as good? What if, what if, what if, and not in a good way. The worries about Book 2 become too much about other peoples’ response and not enough about trusting character and story, even with a strong outline. it becomes a case of trying to survive it instead of enjoying the writing. If I don’t enjoy writing it, the reader won’t enjoy reading it. Second books, for me, tend to get written, then torn apart, most of the draft tossed, and rebuilt in ways that none of the other books in a series are built and revised.

In my experience as a writer, Book 3 of a series is where I hit my stride. The world is established, I know the characters, and they have the room to grow and change and surprise me, because now I trust them. From there on out, returning to each world in the series is like a homecoming, where I can slip in and tell the next story. That’s the comfort and energy and joy I feel writing the fifth Coventina Circle mystery, THE BARD’S LAMENT. I love these people and their stories. I’m still going to test them and make them earn their endings, but being in the world is returning to a favorite location.

Two authors I admire for second books (and not suffering from Second Book Syndrome) are Theodora Goss and Yasmine Galenorn. The second of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club mystery, EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTEROUS GENTLEWOMAN is my favorite, so far, in the series. Character, plot, story, structure — loved it all. It built beautifully and differently on the previous novel, while allowing the reader more intimacy with the characters.

In her Otherworld series, Yasmine Galenorn wrote each book from one of the POVs of the sisters: Camille’s in Book 1, Delilah Book 2, Menolly Book 3, Camille Book 4 and so on and so forth. All the books in the series fit the overall arc; each of the sisters has her own arcs, each few books has arcs, and each book is satisfying in and of itself. It’s as though each sister started her own series with the first book in her voice, but by the time it reached the second book in her voice, the series had so much momentum, it didn’t suffer from Second Book Syndrome, and Delilah’s book, the second in the series, was the first in her voice, so it didn’t, either. I admit, I haven’t ever read one of Yasmine’s books that suffers from Second Book Syndrome, so maybe she’s just brilliant at not suffering from it! Nor is it anything I’ve discussed with her, so this is all my response as a reader who writes. She might see it quite differently!

DAVY JONES DHARMA suffered badly from Second Book Syndrome, even though the original outline was promising. But when written, it didn’t fulfill its promise. While the PREMISE of the book remains — the treasure hunt — a lot has changed as far as plot and characters. Harmonia gets herself into a painful situation that she knows isn’t healthy, but the fascination is too strong. Sophie tries to support as best she can, but it hurts her not to be able to help her friend who is in pain. That’s a vital subplot to the book, and builds their friendship. Some of the major plot points remain. But it also explores some of the hierarchy within the passenger/crew/staff system of the ship, and the racism and misogyny inherent in the hierarchy.

I’m happier with the way this version of the book is turning out. At one point, the series was going to focus on comic cozy mystery elements, but it’s definitely turned away from that. There’s humor, but the slapstick elements that I was encouraged to include (that dumbed Sophie down) are gone from both SAVASANA and DAVY JONES, and it’s truer, I believe, to character and situation now. AND to the way Sophie tries to live her life, with kindness and compassion of a yogic path, which is challenging in the world.

We’re getting there. I’m sure my editor will have more notes in this next draft, as we’re nearing galleys. But I’d much rather have you read this book than what it was originally, had it been pushed through into publication on its original schedule. That book made me unhappy as a reader and a writer.

I hope this book enlarges the world of the ship, and points out some of the issues in dealing with the entitlement of the passengers. I hope there’s enough love and humor and friendship among the characters. Because how they grown and change in this book leads them to where they start in Book 3, where they face new challenges, especially when Sebastian’s ex-wife shows up to make life difficult for Sophie and Sebastian.

But that book is still down the road (although outlined and in early chapters). First, I want to get DAVY JONES DHARMA right. I want the second book in this series to earn its keep and keep its promise.