Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Authorial Slump

Have you ever taken on a writer that had a great first novel but went down hill from there? I'm only curious because I keep reading most authors never sell their first work because they get better at the craft the more they work. I'm just curious if you have ever come across the opposite of that. Thank you for doing this. It's a huge help.

Let me clarify as to how I understood your comment: The author has a first book, but the second tanks, is hard to sell, or we can't sell at all.

We see this all the time with fiction authors. It occurs in film as well, where it's called the "sophomore slump." Directors have been planning a film their whole lives, they make it, it works, and then they have to come up with a film in a much shorter span of time and they don't have it in them.

In fiction it's not always a question of time (since we can't make our authors writer) but ideas. Some people only have one good book in them. It's not a bad thing - most people have no good books in them. They had an idea, a story they wanted to tell (similar to their own or their own with some window dressings) and they told it. Now what?

Generally the author will get a second chance and make it to the third book, unless the second is really terrible. The second-book clause will kick in, and the publishing company will think the second book is worth a chance because it will ride on the name of the author, which is now an established name. It does, to some extent, but people notice it's not quite as good. Then we get the third manuscript in, and it's become even more obvious that the author has really mined his/her brain for ideas and come up dry. They have another story, but it's got very similar themes and the same general message, only it's less interesting. Or it's a departure from form in an attempt to escape that, and it's terrible. We try to revise it, we shop it, and generally advise the author to take the highest amount offered, which is far lower than the previous books. Sometimes we end up selling it to a small press simply because it's been rejected everywhere else, or have an honest session with the author and tell them to try again.

(Note: This does not refer to books that are part of a series. Once a series gets going, the books get bought in bunches or generally just get bought as long as they look basically the same because there's an established storyline and fan base. This has resulted in a lot of bad books being published, but I'm for it because I have a series, and the first book sold. If it does well, the second will be picked up. If I make it to the third, I might be in the clear for all 10, even the ones that are weaker than others)


Anonymous said...

Harper Lee, one book, one classic, and she has been eating out on it for the rest of her life.

Anonymous said...

Begs the question, what makes a good story? Is there any story, no matter how expansive, worth telling in ten volumes? What's the point of it all? From the perspective of an inspiration addict, I don't see how I, as a writer could sustain my own attention long enough to tell write ten books about the same characters... It doesn't sound inspiring at all. Where's the fuel? Where's the purpose? I think that's the most important thing.

Honest question, though: Do they make you write a second book a year after the first one? You can't write a good book if you don't have the time to concentrate. And what makes a good book? The only "genre" fiction I've ever read was 1984. Right now I'm reading Dead Souls.

If this is about the author's character, having the will to create another book sufficiently original and interesting, yet entirely different, how do you cultivate that?

The Rejecter said...

Harper Lee had a whole writing career, just not as Harper Lee. On the other hand, yeah, she's still getting checks in the mail over To Kill a Mockingbird.

Rick Bylina said...

Ten books! I'd give my left nut for someone to pick up my first book in a series of seven. I'd figure out someway to write the last three. :-)

That sophomore slump is tough to overcome no matter what the venue is. That long slow build-up for the first one just sucks the juice right out of some people. It's sad, but one great book (movie, season, whatever) might be worth more than ten so-so books.

Sandy said...

Truth be told, I think this is why I haven't touched my book idea for six years (yeah, I've had the idea for a big longer than that, even T_T ).

I'm so afraid of having the "beginner's luck" that I don't know how to do things. I've written a lot since then (letters, songs, poems, and I maintain a journal) but this book I wanted to write so desperately is in Author Limbo, so I think I'll wait at least a year or two before considering the possibility of doing anything about selling it.

Heidi Willis said...

The idea that someone could have only one good idea in them is fascinating to me. I have a hard time concentrating on finishing the book I'm working on because I have a box full of index cards of more ideas I think might make good books. I think of them all the time.... it usually starts out seeing something in the news or overhearing a conversation and thinking, "what if..." Sometimes I will think of several a day. Of course, not all of those are good! :)

This is not to say I can write those stories well. That remains to be seen. And time is sparse for me. But ideas.... those I have plenty of.

Anonymous said...

the rejecter: "Harper Lee had a whole writing career, just not as Harper Lee. On the other hand, yeah, she's still getting checks in the mail over To Kill a Mockingbird."

Could you provide a citation for this? She published a few short stories before Mockingbird, but no books after, nor much of anything else. Plus she is almost as reclusive as Salinger (who it is rumored has continued to write but not publish).

She's not just getting checks in the mail. She's getting big enough checks in the mail so that her one book meant she never had to work again and can afford homes in both Alabama and New York City.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Heidi! I open new text files all the time to type up ideas, beginnings of stories, research, etc. Some of them will end up as books...and others? Well, maybe there was never enough there to begin with.

But the more I write, the more developed my new ideas become.

As an add-on to this question, what if an agent takes on a writer, and that first book never sells...and the writer either can't finish a 2nd book or writes stuff that is just not saleable? What happens? How long does an agent hold on to this author? Forever? Or will this author eventually get kicked to the curb?

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all surprised that some authors have only "one good book in them" when it comes to fiction. Personally, I find it easier to maintain a constant flow of ideas for nonfiction projects. Fiction is least for me it is.

J. E. Andrews said...

Dear Rejecter,
I'm with Heidi, in a sense. I've got plenty of ideas. I've filled out several into full novels. Some of my stories I think of as going to three volumes. One I'm shopping around I see as six... where does the number ten come in? Of all my story ideas the only that could do it would be an anthology of a fantasy world that I've never polished since it's too like the Witch World series of Andre Norton.
I don't see the problem of writing a second if they like the first, you've said there's a great long time gap between selling the first to getting it published anyway, would I not be writing in that time?
I write every spare... okay, sometimes they aren't spare, but I'm writing all the time. When I'm really into a storyline then I'm thinking about it every moment.
When I read novels written by someone else (and enjoy them) I'm glad that they have a second, third, or fourth. With writing my trouble seems to be run-on length, as evidenced here.
Thanks for your blog, good luck with your books.

The Rejecter said...

Anon 7:56,

I can't, but she did work in the literary world, privately, as an editor for many years. There is some question of how much she rewrote of other people's work. What I'm saying is, she put words down on the page for a living, or edited words on the page. She was actively engaged in the literary community.

Anonymous said...

you're right on this. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that authors should plan while writing the first book what the second will be about. That way, you DO have years of development time into the second one before you even get there.

Anonymous said...

Try a different approach, so hopefully some of us can just write a book and become financially independent: Why was To Kill a Mockingbird so successful? I would say it was the monumental symbolism running through the core, coupled with all the irrelevent details, the realism, the strength of character. The memorability. We remember things that threaten the security of society. But you need all those other things. (Note: I was asleep while they made us read it in freshman English.)

Anonymous said...

"...I'm for it because I have a series, and the first book sold. If it does well, the second will be picked up. If I make it to the third, I might be in the clear for all 10, even the ones that are weaker than others."

Did you sell the series as as series? Or did you sell the first one as a standalone, with hopes that it would sell well enough to get the subsequent volumes picked up as well? I keep reading conflicting advice about whether to tell an agent that your book is the first of a series or not.

Heidi the Hick said...

People named Heidi... great minds.

I am in agreement too. I can't imagine having one book written and then drying up. I can imagine getting that first published book out there and then getting too distracted or frazzled to continue work on the next one. I'm not too worried about that because I've spent the last two years training myself to write no matter what.

I think (in my naive opinion) that the trick to not having the Authorial Slump is to have something new on the go all the time. We can't pop out that one book and then say "I'm DONE!!!!"

Josephine Damian said...

I see the sophmore slump a lot and it's really sad.

Charles Frazier and "Cold Mountain"
Dave Gutterson and "Snow Falling on Cedars"
Donna Tartt and "The Secret History"

to name a few authors whose second books bombed.

I heard it takes writing 4-5 books to learn craft, before you're ready to be published. But I see a lot of first timers who schmooze and network their way into getting their first book published, and then panic over writing the second one and making it a success without all that hype provided by their mentor on their first book.