How to Transition from a First Book to a Sequel.
by Emily Rooke
Ever since I was a teenager, on the first page of every notebook I have ever owned, I have copied out the same quotation. Epigraphs often resonate deeply with me, and none more so than this one. If you were to open up any one of these notebooks, you would find, written in my neatest handwriting, the words of Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst: “Whether people praise or criticise, it's only going to make me more self-conscious.”
At the time of writing this article, I have been a debut novelist for two days. However, my novel has been complete, patiently waiting for release day, for almost three months. In that time, I have struggled badly with a strange combination of perfectionism and imposter syndrome, which has been blocking my progress as I attempt to begin drafting the sequel (the second book in a planned trilogy). When interviewed, published authors often share that the second book is the most challenging to write. But some kind of magical thinking kept me from believing that this would apply to me.
Before continuing, I think it is important for me to emphasise that I have not yet found the answers to these questions. I do not know what I am doing. Right now, I feel as though I am stumbling along a dark forest path, desperately seeking solutions that seem as though they are just beyond my reach. By writing this article, I am trying to process my thoughts. It is one piece amongst many that I am moving around the chessboard of my mind, in an attempt to find balance and make progress.
My novel is about trauma. It is dark and challenging, and I had made peace with the understanding that not everyone would like it. I do not expect five-star reviews; I do not believe that I am entitled to anyone’s attention or praise; and I do not want anyone to be dishonest for the sake of sparing my feelings. However, I had not reckoned with the challenges of coping with reviews and feedback from readers – regardless of whether they were positive, constructively critical, or negative. Especially while trying to write my sequel at the same time.
I should emphasise that I recognise this is my problem to work through. It is up to me to draw healthy boundaries and to maintain them. The difficulty for a perfectionist like me is that any criticisms (real or imagined), any suggestions for improvement, bury their way beneath my skin and worm their way into my head. I find myself unable to focus on writing my sequel because my heart is full of doubts about myself and my writing abilities. At my worst moments, I just want to give up. It wasn’t perfect, so it was a failure. Perhaps I was wrong to even try.
I want to shield my characters and my books from what feels like an onslaught. My first novel, of which I am so proud, and its sequel, which is still essentially in my creative ‘womb’, only just starting to develop, are like my children. I want to protect them and apologise to my characters for not doing a good enough job, for failing them in my limited artistic expression. If I had been good enough, if I had been a better writer, could I have avoided those words?
Yet, even as I write this, I recognise the faults in my thinking. Here is the hard truth that all writers who aspire to be published must accept. It is impossible for every single reader to love every single thing about your book. That’s your role as its creator. You get to have that joy, and you alone.
It can be difficult sometimes to know when it is the ‘right’ time to publish your book, to know when it is ‘ready’ to enter the world. For me, it was when I felt in my heart that I had told the story I wanted to tell, in the way I wanted to tell it, and that I could (at least in theory) reconcile with the idea that – although it would not be for everyone – I had created something I was proud of. I had no regrets about any of it, and I still feel that way today, despite these challenges.
Do you want to know the secret of how I went from one sad chapter of my sequel, sitting alone for months, to 50,000 words in a matter of a few weeks? I sat down and wrote. I let the characters tell me their story, allowing them to be bitter, fragile and frightened. I allowed myself to lean on as many adverbs as I wanted. I skipped whole passages of description, leaving reminder notes telling myself to come back later and fill in the blanks. I chased the excitement of the story, and fell back in love with my characters. As my fingers flew over the keyboard, I left my editor glasses and my inner critic both far behind. I embraced my heart draft.
If you are feeling like me, feeling stuck, I would encourage you to set reasonable expectations; dedicate yourself to writing for a specific amount of time each week that works for your schedule; and commit yourself to showing up for your story, knowing that you will be further ahead than you were before. In my friend Rosalyn Briar’s words, focus on progress over perfection.
None of this should have been a surprise to me, bearing in mind my personal history and private struggles. I always seem to charge in to face whatever dragon needs slaying, having forgotten my armour. In all honesty, I am feeling overwhelmed. I am so grateful for all the support I have been given, but I have no energy left to cherish it. Part of me knows I should slow down, step back, take some time to process everything that has happened, everything I have achieved. To allow myself to feel proud.
But I am terrified of stopping, because I do not know what would be left for me at this point. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen: “If I look back, I am lost”. I am responsible for marketing my book, and that means I must interact and engage with readers. In introducing my characters to the world, I am committed to seeing their story through with the rest of the series, and that means I must seek constructive feedback. I want to grow, not stagnate, and to do so I must allow myself to be vulnerable. To find my story, I must tear through those parts of myself that are overgrown with thornbushes, and cast a light into the shadows.
Ultimately, I have to believe that with kindness, compassion, and courage, I can do it. I will not allow self-doubt, anxiety, or shame to hold me back. I have a voice, and I will use it.
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