Second Time’s the Charm
We’re better at most things the second time around. Poaching eggs. Seventh grade. Guessing which hand the marble is in.
Writers might not be better at things by the second book, but at least we’re better prepared. (And I’m talking here about the publication process, the “your book is out in the world” thing. The writing doesn’t get any easier. Sorry, love.) If you’re not on your second book yet—if you’re not on your first, either—you have time to learn from my idiocy. Here are some of the things you think you know the first time around, and the things you know you know going into the second book.
Book #1: You think you pretty much know your book’s flaws. You can guess what the negative reviews will say.
Book #2: You understand that people will take issue with things you never dreamed could be issues. The setting shift you worried so much about will never come up; but the fact that your character neglects to feed his cat in chapter six—that will prompt someone to write a one-star review about how they can’t root for characters who are cruel to animals.
Book #1: You have a vague notion that book industry people are scary, slick professionals. Editors are kind of like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and agents are like Ari Gold in Entourage. When you have a meeting with one of them, you need to look extremely fashionable. In fact, you’d better go shopping first.
Book #2: Book industry people are huge, awesome book nerds. They are the people you sat behind in English and you were almost a little embarrassed for, by how into this they were, because they reminded you of yourself but were less cagey about the geekiness. And they’ve grown into lovely grownup book nerds.
Book #1: Touring is for selling books to readers. If only four people show up, your reading was a failure. But if twenty people show up, you win the universe!
Book #2: Touring is for making relationships with booksellers. It’s about not whining when they forgot to put out chairs, and not whining when no one shows up, because now there’s a stack of your books by the counter, and if you were nice to the 23-year-old bookseller, maybe she’ll remember to sell it to someone, and maybe that person will be in a book club. Touring is also for gaining ten to fifteen pounds, but that’s another story.
Book #1: Nothing sounds like more fun than spending the next six months talking about your writing process, and about yourself! Who doesn’t love that?
Book #2: If one more person asks what’s “on your nightstand,” you will start making up weird names for sex toys.
Book #1: You believe you’re pretty well read. You keep up with contemporary literature more than the average bear.
Book #2: You haven’t read a thing, and there are people out there who have seriously read every book published this year. There are people in the world who do nothing but read all day and blog about it. There are people who have reviewed three hundred new releases on Goodreads since March. There are bookstore owners who can tell you something intelligent about every single volume in the store. You are basically the literary equivalent of someone who can bench twenty pounds.
Book #1: You would be so embarrassed for people from your past to read this book. Like, what if your second grade teacher reads this? There are sex scenes. Oh my god.
Book #2: You know what? You should probably track down your second grade teacher and get her a word-of-mouth copy. Would it be weird if you put a copy in her mailbox? Would it be weird if you Skyped her book club uninvited? You don’t care.
Book #1: You assume that if people go to a bookstore reading, it is because they’ve heard of the author and have some interest in buying this book.
Book #2: You know there are people in every city whose regular evening entertainment it is to go to bookstore readings with no intention whatsoever of purchasing a book. When you have finished, they will look you up and down appraisingly, thank you for reading, ask a slightly condescending question, and then leave. You will feel, every time, like you’ve been punched in the face. And yet you will be profoundly grateful that they sat there filling up a seat.
Book #1: If you’re meeting all these amazing fellow writers at conferences and festivals, you owe it to them to read their books. It will be so awkward if you meet again in six months and you haven’t read their novels yet!
Book #2: The Guilt Pile beside your bed is going to grow taller and taller until the day you die. It will, in fact, be what kills you.
Book #1: You can’t wait to talk about all the different components of your book, all the minor characters, all the little details!
Book #2: You’re fully aware that you will end up talking about that scene on page seventy-nine, and nothing but the scene on page seventy-nine, in every single interview and at every single event. People will start questions with “This might sound strange to ask, but there’s this scene with a butter dish? On page seventy-nine?” And you will struggle not to hand them a preprinted index card in response.
Book #1: You believe you know your book pretty well. After six years of work and seven revisions and three editing cycles, you basically have it memorized.
Book #2: You know that a year out, you won’t be able to remember what scenes you cut at the last minute. You’ll refer to things that aren’t even in the book. People will ask you about characters, and you’ll look at them blankly, not remembering that you changed Harvey to Wilbur at the eleventh hour.
Book #1: If nothing else, you tell yourself repeatedly, at least your friends will buy the book.
Book #2: Define “friend.” There will be friends who come out of the woodwork—people you went to high school with who turn out to be voracious readers and buy six copies of your book and make the one person they know in Baltimore go to your reading there—and you will love these people forever. And then there will be friends who say things like “I had to go to three libraries before I found your book!” And there will be friends who apologize, every time they see you, for not reading your book yet, as if your relationship has now been reduced to English teacher and D student. And there will be friends who just never acknowledge your career. But then do you buy that friend’s handmade owl magnets on Etsy? Do you? No. Get over yourself.
Book #1: You say yes to everything, because it’s all so damn exciting!
Book #2: You say yes to everything, because you are terrified to say no to anything. Because you remember the one unpaid gig you drove five hours for last time, when there were three people there, but one of those people was this sweet grandmother who told you she’d give the book to her son-in-law, and her son-in-law turned out to work at the radio station.
Book #1: You buy a bottle of champagne the day before your book comes out.
Book #2: You buy whiskey. All the whiskey.