Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Second Book

Throughout 2011, I posted a series of authors' "second book" stories on this blog. I was fascinated by the process of writing a second book, partly because I had just written mine, partly because sophomore books tend to be written under a very different set of circumstances from debut books. I would like to thank, once more, those authors who shared their stories: Caragh M. O'Brien, Saundra Mitchell, Rosanne Parry, Leah Cypess, Marie Lamba, E.F. (Eileen) Watkins, Ellen Jensen Abbott, Greg Fishbone, Lauren Bjorkman, and M. Flagg. Every author had unique challenges, joys, and perspectives, just as every author seemed to feel both the pressures and the opportunities present in the sophomore novel.

And here, with my second book launching in less than two weeks, I thought I would share my own second-book story.

I alternated writing The Secret Year with another manuscript, which I'll refer to here as "Problem Child," because if our books are like children, that manuscript was certainly my problem child. Problem Child had a narrator I loved and a central conflict that I thought was very important. It also had a setting based on a place in which I lived for eight years, a setting I knew very well and haven't seen much of in YA literature. Anyway, when I got stuck with The Secret Year I would work on Problem Child for a while, and vice versa. There were times during this period that I thought Problem Child would be finished first, and it might be my first novel. But it was The Secret Year that took wing, found me an agent, and got me a book deal.

I thought I had the second-book problem covered: I had a manuscript that was very far along, after all. Problem Child had already been through countless drafts and revisions. I sent it to my agent, who had comments--comments I agreed with, by and large, because something about the book still didn't feel exactly right. In revising the book, I decided I had overwritten it during all those rewritings, and I pared it down to what I thought were the most interesting parts. I did wonder if that made the book too thin, even skeletal, but by this time I had lost all perspective on it. My agent thought that hacking the novel to the bone did indeed make it too thin. I was bored with the book because I knew every word in it by heart, but readers would need more meat.

I tackled Problem Child once again. At the same time, a New Idea came to me, and I wrote a draft of New Idea very quickly, in between toiling on drafts of Problem Child. At about this time, when my agent and I were discussing when we might want to submit Problem Child (assuming I could ever get it in good enough shape), I told him about New Idea. I had been wondering how Problem Child would be received by readers of The Secret Year; New Idea seemed a much more natural follow-up. I did not tell my agent this, just summarized New Idea for him, and he asked how I would feel about working on New Idea to get into submittable shape, and put Problem Child third in the rotation. In other words, he independently came to the same conclusion I had.

I was relieved, then excited. I loved New Idea, and the thought of working on Problem Child any more made we want to puke. New Idea had its own momentum; it was a story I'd had in the back of my head for years, and it came roaring out as if it knew it needed to be the next book. New Idea became a book called Try Not to Breathe, and it comes out this month.

And what of Problem Child? One reason I didn't give up on it sooner was that something about it kept nagging at me, kept wanting to be told. After I finished Try Not to Breathe, I worked on it a bit more, to see what was there, and I reached the point where I've finally written it out of my system. It's a decent book, but it's not in the same league as The Secret Year or Try Not to Breathe, and I don't want it out there with my name on it. I've tried to figure out why it doesn't quite work. One of my critiquers says the setting doesn't feel believable, which is funny because, as I said, I lived in that setting. But since I didn't live there as a high schooler, maybe that's the trouble. There's one character in particular, the main antagonist, who I worry about "othering" on one hand, or making too sympathetic on the other. I also think I may have married this setting to the wrong plot; perhaps I will use this setting in a different work, and I will use this plot with different characters. I've come to recognize that the character of Nicki in Try Not to Breathe is very much like a character in Problem Child, so you could say I've already started mining Problem Child for its best aspects, to use in other stories. Our story ideas aren't really dead until we're dead, so there's also a chance I will someday have the Eureka moment on how to fix Problem Child, and will return to it and revise it one last time. For now it's on the shelf, along with other manuscripts I attempted before The Secret Year, and I am quite happy to leave it there.

So in some ways, my second book was impossibly difficult (Problem Child). In other ways, it was incredibly smooth and quick (Try Not to Breathe). Try Not to Breathe is the book that almost wrote itself. I put in plenty of hours on it, and in the early drafts I wandered around for a while in some early chapters that ended up getting cut, and I had to make a couple of big changes during revision. But overall, the story and the characters had a strength and a life that made them impossible for me to ignore. This is the book I can stand behind.


  1. All I have to say is TWO WEEKS!!! Must go preorder. ^_^ Seems that sending Problem Child to time out was a smart move. Let me know if there's something I can do to help spread the word about TRY NOT TO BREATHE, outside of the usual.

  2. This is great, Jenn. Congratulations and enjoy your sophomore year!

  3. Thank you, Angelina and Lee! It's a privilege to have you guys in my corner. :-)

  4. How interesting! The second book I wrote was a Problem Child, as well, and will never, ever get published. The first book I ever wrote, THE BREAKAWAY, is coming out in May. It has been a long time coming - 16 years, in fact. I'll be happy to push that child out the door.

    Thanks for sharing this story! And I'm excited for your book to come out. :)

  5. Thanks, Michelle!
    Interesting about your projects. It just shows that we never know what a book has in store for us! And congratulations on the upcoming release!