The Sophomore Slump: Writing That Second Book in A Mystery Series

Jul 6, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Jill Amadio

How often have you read an author’s first book in a new series and been disappointed in the second one? After eagerly devouring that debut mystery, you can’t wait to read the next book and the one after that–and the one after that. Discovering and falling in love with an amateur sleuth or a police captain is a satisfying moment for thousands of readers. Bring on Book Two!

But then there can be that let-down feeling. The next book lacks excitement, the plot falls flat and the characters seem shallow. What happened?

There’s no mystery to the answer. Fortunately, only a few authors experience what writer Dennis Palumbo, creator of the Daniel Rinaldi thriller series, aptly calls “the sophomore slump.” The affliction is usually caused by the publisher who has contracted for a three-book deal and is anxious to receive the second manuscript as soon as possible to capitalize on the original book’s success. There’s a deadline–often a tight one–and the author, who has probably spent a few years perfecting that first effort, now has to write not only to a timetable but to a higher standard, usually self-imposed. No longer working with the luxury of limitless time, the urgency from the publisher to write another book quickly and benefit from the clamor from fans after a triumphant debut can bring on writers block. Or brain fade. Even making the deadline is not the end of the story because if the publisher rejects Book Two, the contract is void.

How do authors handle the challenge?

“It’s a serious problem because anyone launching the second in a series is under intense pressure to produce it faster and better,” said Peggy Ehrhart, president of the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime and who writes the Maxx Maxwell mystery series. “I think once you’ve mastered the trick it gets easier, but that second effort can be difficult.”

Palumbo, a psychotherapist and writing coach, agrees and adds, “Some authors try to write the second book too similar to the first, to be a mirror image, to have the same type of crime because it proved to be a success. Big mistake. You have to have carry the characters through, but should have a different approach. I was lucky enough to avoid the sophomore slump until the fourth book in my series. That’s when I worried that the story would not be big enough. Happily, that didn’t happen.”

Sheila Lowe, creator of the Claudia Rose mystery series, said she had the same experience. “The only thing better than having your first book published is having a second book published, but when Penguin bought books three and four after a small house had published the earlier books, that’s when I felt the pressure.”

One author, Terri Nolan, launched her first mystery, Burden of Truth, this year after tweaking and editing it over a lengthy period of time, then found herself rushed into writing a sequel by the publisher. “I was given a seven-month deadline,” she said. “That second book was extremely hard to write. I became overwhelmed with insecurity because I wanted to deliver a novel that was better than the first. So many people were anxious for it and I didn’t want to disappoint.”

Some authors discover that writing their first book becomes, surprisingly, a learning experience for the remainder of their series. Nolan, now on her third book, admits there was a steep learning curve to find her rhythm. On the upside, she discovered she loved being back in her character’s world, writing with a fresh pair of eyes that weren’t jaded by time, finding the heartbeat of the story, and working with the curve instead of fighting it.

Not all writers fear the sophomore slump. Lily Sampson is the fictional character in Aileen Baron’s archeological mystery series. Baron found that, like other series authors, once she learned the rules after writing her first book, her second was easier to write.

The solutions to the challenge, say the authors, include taking advice from their publishers’ editors, finding a great critique group of their peers, being open to the opinions of beta readers and doing the hard work of revising and editing.

Like some authors, Judy Hogan took a circuitous route to having her mystery series published. Her first Penny Weaver book, Killer Frost, was the sixth one she’d written – talk about sailing persistently right along! –and was picked up by Mainly Murder Press as the first in her series. It was a finalist in the 2011 Malice Domestic’s Best Traditional Mystery contest. “I was exuberant when the publisher chose it and that debut was so rewarding,” she said. “The second was already written and I can’t say it was difficult at all!”

Jeri Westerson, whose medieval series detective, Crispin Guest, is a disgraced knight turned detective, decided on a similar if convoluted course of action. “As soon as I finished writing the first book in my series, I sat down to write the second one because I’d heard from other mystery authors that sometimes the first one doesn’t get picked up and the second becomes the first. And as soon as I wrote THAT, I wrote the next, which became the second, so at that point I really had a handle on my characters.”

Whether writers experience the sophomore slump or not, readers love mystery series and authors love writing them!

More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in this issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section.

Jill Amadio is working on her second book in the Tosca Trevant mystery series and experiencing the same challenges as all second-book authors. Her debut mystery, Digging Too Deep, will be out December 1, 2013. You can learn more on his website.


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