Lessons from Harper Lee … writing that all important second novel

With Harper Lee’s second novel due to be launched today and generating unprecedented excitement around the world, many writers not blessed with a fan base who have patiently waited 50 years for their next offering are left to bleakly ponder the Herculean task of following up a first novel with another of equal attraction, particularly if the first has been in any way  successful. Having climbed the peak, it is disheartening to realise that the only way is down. Nevertheless, herein lies, perhaps,  the acid test. If a writer is to enjoy a long term career – to make the transition from hobbyist to full-time author – then a second novel is not only a must, but must be good enough to bring along the fans that the first book created.

How does one do this? What is the secret?

I have recently been learning that there are some rules of thumb one can use as a guide. I have just completed the first draft of the second novel in my series about the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency. The first in the series is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, out in August 2015. The second is entitled The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown. As this is a series, my task is made that bit easier. For one, the lead characters are the same. But it is not enough to simply reintroduce them. The characters must grow. Fans expect to learn something new about them in each entry in the series. This is not as easy as it seems, because whatever ‘newness’ you introduce must be consistent with the prior character you have built. For instance, the baby elephant Ganesha now reveals a greater emotional depth, and begins to branch out on his own, an adventure within an adventure. Secondly, there must be new characters, not just because it is a new story, but because the world you created must be fleshed out. No one lives in a goldfish bowl. The tone of the second novel in a series must be consistent – there is nothing more jarring than a series that suddenly seems to be penned by another writer (in some cases it is!)

The plot itself is the key. If the plot of your first novel was the single biggest thing that attracted your audience you have now set the bar frighteningly high. It is unlikely you are going to find another brilliant killer twist, or incredible tale to tell. But you do need to ensure that you find something that stacks up as a solid second effort. This means taking the time to allow that idea to germinate, then flower. Publishers are keen to strike while the iron is hot, ie. while you are hot. But sometimes it pays to allow a quality product to simmer to the boil before unleashing that all-important second offering upon the world.

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