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.



The Fun of The Holiday Romance

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I’m not actually focusing specifically on my own work today, but I’m talking about how much I Iove a good holiday romance, especially one set around the winter holidays.

I love to see the novellas or anthologies appear on the holiday tables in bookstores and gift shops. Or in displays in the library. I gobble them up, even in the years where I’ve sworn off romance (either reading it or living it). I don’t watch a lot of holiday romance movies — I often get too far ahead of the plot and get impatient waiting for the characters to catch up. A good one will get me (I love WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING).

Yes, it’s often an unsustainable ideal. But I don’t care. I love snowy holiday romances, where people discover that love and hope still exists, and that there’s still good in the world. I don’t care that they’re unrealistic. I want the fantasy.

I do have criteria. The protagonists need to be smart and have a sense of humor — or at least grow into their senses of humor. They need to have kindness at their core, even if they cover it up at first. One partner too alpha and overbearing? Turns me off completely. If the only measure of a woman’s worth is child-bearing — goodbye, you’re not the story for me. Romance demands an HEA, and I want that even more during the holidays. But if one character demeans the other, or the ONLY goal is to land a partner in order to have kids, it’s a turnoff.

I also don’t want a lot of religion in the books. I realize that Christmas is a religious holiday, and a great time for religious inspiration in stories. For people who love them, good for them. I’m not trashing those storylines; I’m saying they’re not for me.  But there are more holidays in the winter season that Christmas. I enjoy Christmas-based romance, but I’m always happy to find books with other winter holidays, too, especially the Solstice.

I love a sense of magic, of possibility. That the season can inspire a moment of inspiration that is the catalyst for the protagonists to take actions that will lead to a happier life.

Holiday romances don’t have to be around the winter holidays: Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any of the others. But that’s when I like to curl up in my chair by the lighted tree, bundled in my plushy throw, with a glass of wine, a good book, and a cat or three on my lap. Yes, the beasts can make reading difficult, but they’re worth it.

One of the plans for the Twinkle Tavern Mysteries (which have stronger romantic elements than a lot of my other work) is to use holidays that aren’t always used. Which is why “Plot Bunnies” focuses on Easter, and “Labor Intensive” focuses on Labor Day.  (Yes, I did some shameless self-promotion there).

I often write a short holiday piece in the newsletter (Devon’s Random Newsletter, which covers all the noms de plume). They are early-draft pieces, usually second or third draft, not yet ready for further publication. But there are a couple that I want to expand, especially one I wrote a few years ago that took place in a snowed-in diner. That will, eventually, be a book.

When it comes to writing, I write best about the winter holidays in the midst of them. Since submissions need to be made a good eight months ahead of a holiday, that means I submit a holiday piece usually two or three years after I’ve actually written it, so I have time to work on it. I sometimes thoroughly enjoy EDITING a winter holiday piece in the middle of a hot summer, but I prefer to WRITE it when I’m in the midst of the decorating and baking and card writing.

I’m first-drafting a new winter holiday romance this year. A genuine romance, not just a novel “with romantic elements” — although that could change, and it could switch back. I’m creating one of my fantasies of a perfect stretch from Solstice through the New Year — but not without sadness and conflicts.

One of my favorite parts of writing these stories is that I can build and decorate houses and create meals and party menus. I don’t necessarily use all of it in the final draft, but I love creating them.

Do you love holiday romances? What draws you to them? What’s your favorite?

One of my favorites is Rosamunde Pilcher’s WINTER SOLSTICE. My mother has all her books, and is the one who encouraged me to read it. I love the way the relationships grow in the book.

The journey is what I enjoy with these holiday romances. I like the security of knowing there will be a happy ending. I like to take the journey with them, and see how the characters make choices so they can CHOOSE to be together and create an optimistic future.

Next week, I’ll be talking about one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written, “Just Jump in and Fly.” Which is set on Christmas.

Have a joyful season!

Writing The Book I Wanted to Read

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about different aspects of writing SAVASANA AT SEA, the first Nautical Namaste Mystery. I’ve talked about why I made choices I made for the book, and how it differs from a typical cozy mystery to earn the label I call “Not Quite Cozy.”

What does all that add up to?

It adds up to me writing the book I wanted to read and couldn’t find. I wanted a book with a smart, fun, ethical protagonist struggling to live her path. I was tired of the clichéd depiction of yoga practitioners, especially in cozy mysteries (even, though, in some cases, I suspect it was the editor or publisher pushing the cliché and dumbing down the protagonist).

I wanted a large, international ensemble cast.  The staff, crew, and passengers on a cruise ship are perfect for that. I wanted to contain the characters, yet also mix in gorgeous locations. A cruise ship fit that.

I wanted my character to have a healthy love life, but not necessarily be monogamous. At the same time, I wasn’t going to tolerate slut shaming. We’ll see how successful I am over the course of the series about that.

I wanted it to be both realistic and imaginative. I wanted to spend time with characters I loved in interesting situations and beautiful locales. I wanted to grow the ensemble of characters through the series, not just bring in a totally new cast for every book.

I started by challenging myself to write a traditional cozy mystery. As I worked on draft after draft after draft, I realized that wasn’t really want I wanted. So I trusted my instincts, and also the advice of professionals around me. I didn’t take all the advice, but there were elements that made sense, that made it possible to make the book better and yet keep its heart and soul.

I love Sophie and the ensemble. I’m lucky that my editor does, too, and yet knows when to guide me when I go too far off the scope (as I did with the next book, DAVY JONES DHARMA, which is in serious, plot-changing revisions).

I hope you’ll come on the journey with us.

Visit the Nautical Namaste website, and learn more about SAVASANA AT SEA.

Sept. 6, 2019: Building The Ensemble Part 1 — Friends From Home

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Building the ensemble around Sophie for the Nautical Namaste Mysteries was an interesting challenge.

There were three sets of ensemble characters I needed to create.

The first consists of her friends on land, the friends that stick by her no matter what happens. Because we all need that support system, and that’s one reason why we read this type of book — because the friends support each other.

The second set consists of her colleagues on the ship, the fellow cruise ship employees. Some will become friends. Some will become lovers. Some will become antagonists. Some will shift alliances. Cruise ship staffs are an incredibly international bunch, and I will talk about that in depth next week.

The third set consists of the passengers. Each book in the series covers a different cruise. I change both the cruise route AND the passengers.

On the Nautical Namaste Website, I have pages to introduce the crew and the passengers with little bios. The bios also list which book each character appears in, but I try not to give out spoilers.

Yes, there are a lot of characters. That was intentional. I get annoyed when a book is set someplace that’s supposed to be busy and there are only five or six characters. If it’s a busy setting, I need the sense of motion, teeming life, people.

But today’s post focuses on Sophie’s family and friends on land. The support system she has as she makes the transition into cruise ship life.

She lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with two roommates. The brownstone is based on the one a Broadway pal of mine used to own, in the Fort Greene section. It’s been featured in plenty of film and television shows. When I moved from NY to the Cape, I used to stay there when I visited New York. The photo at the top is NOT my friend’s brownstone — his is much larger, a sandy color, with a high flight of steps leading to the front door. The photo here is a stock photo.

Sophie doesn’t own the brownstone. Her friend Fawn Lassiter, owns it. She’s the Communications Director for a philanthropic foundation in Manhattan. Bianca Suede is their third roommate, a performance artist, tarot reader, and herbalist. Their friend Freddie Diaz might as well be a roommate, for all the time he spends there. He’s a nomadic artist, moving from art colony to residency to crashing on friends’ couches.

These three are the people Sophie depends on most. They tell her the truth, whether she wants to hear it or not. When her fiancé dumps her, partially because she’s involved in too many progressive causes which are at odds with his high-paid corporate job, they support her while still being honest with her.  When she’s fired at the yoga studio where she works because she’s not enough of a “brand” — and then finds out that her nemesis at the studio is behind more than just her firing — Fawn, Bianca, and Freddie are there.

Fawn, Bianca, and Freddie will continue to be a presence in the books, and I hope to bring them on board the Charisma in a future book. I think it would be interesting to see how they interact on the ship, which is now Sophie’s territory. The dynamics of the relationships are bound to change, and that exploration interests me.

Sophie’s family is mentioned, but in SAVASANA AT SEA, most of them are not directly involved with the plot. The exception is Gamma Batchelder, Sophie’s paternal grandmother, who lives in Florida. Sophie is closer to her grandmother than anyone else in her family, and she can hear her grandmother’s sayings as she navigates her life.

 Her mother is barely mentioned, and lives out of state. Her sister Victoria lives in London. Her sister Edwina is more of a presence in the book, due to their difficult relationship. Her brother Rick works in the intelligence community in Washington, DC. Fawn has a crush on him.

But she’s closer to her friends than her family. That’s not unusual for single people in New York City. They’re caught up in their city lives. Their families live far away. Their friends become their family.

Sophie is kind. She cares about people, and makes friends. Establishing a solid base of friendships on land sets the foundation for her ability to make friends on the cruise ship, beyond the old “you’re thrown together and have no choice.”

One of Sophie’s strengths is her capacity for friendship.

Her family is peripheral to this book, but they have an impact on future books. In fact, Edwina will be an important character a few books down the line when she attends a shipboard conference on the Charisma, where Sophie works.

Other peripheral characters include colleagues at the yoga studio, and her students. There’s also a homeless woman, Carmen, for whom Sophie buys a meal and encourages to go to a shelter. Sophie cares. She is involved with the people around her. It’s a shame that one of her greatest strength is something her fiancé sees as a weakness.

Rowena is a character with a foot in both worlds. Rowena is one of Sophie’s yoga students, and supports her when she’s fired. She also works for the cruise line

In earlier drafts, establishing Sophie on land and getting her into her new life on the cruise ship took four chapters. Along the way, professionals in the business suggested cutting it all out and starting the book on the ship. I tried this for a draft, and then salting in her previous relationships. But losing the catalyst for her journey hurt the way her character was established.  It made her feel more shallow and less substantial to me.

However, the advice of needing to be on the cruise ship earlier was valuable. I cut A LOT of material from the early chapters. I now have the firing, the breakup, get her on the cruise ship, and the catalyst for her sleuthing on the ship in the first chapter. It keeps the story moving; it gives the reader enough background on Sophie and why she’s worth the time spent on this journey.

It was good advice, even if I didn’t follow it to the letter. I took the heart of the advice and adapted it in a way that supported my story and characters better.

It took eight drafts to get it where I wanted it to be. And every draft was worth the time and energy.

Next week, I’ll talk about building the ensemble of the cruise ship staff.

Visit the Nautical Namaste website. You can read excerpts from SAVASANA AT SEA and find buy links.