Writers Ask Writers: The ‘Difficult’ Second Novel

It’s been a long time between drinks for the Writers Ask Writers gang but this month our friend and writing colleague Dawn Barker is launching her second novel Let Her Go and to celebrate the release we’re sharing our experiences of producing our second books. But first, a little about Let Her Go:


Confused and desperate, Zoe McAllister boards a ferry to Rottnest Island in the middle of winter holding a tiny baby close to her chest, terrified that her husband will find her or that her sister will call the police.

Years later, a teenage girl, Louise, is found on the island, unconscious and alone. When she recovers and returns home she overhears her parents discussing her past. Their secrets, slowly revealed, will shatter more than one family and, for Louise, nothing will ever be the same again.

Let Her Go is a gripping, emotionally charged story of family, secrets and the complications of love. Part thriller, part mystery, it will stay with you long after you close the pages wondering … what would you have done?

My Second Novel: Whisky Charlie Foxtrot

You often hear talk about the ‘difficult second novel’ and I could imagine how it might affect those authors whose debut novels are world-shaking successes. But it didn’t affect me, because when I started writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, my first novel, A New Map of the Universe had not yet been published. It had not even been accepted for publication. So I did not fear that I would disappoint millions of readers worldwide if my second book did not live up to the promise of my first. I didn’t worry about boring my readers by writing something too similar, or alienating them by writing something too different. I didn’t think about my readers at all, because at that stage, I didn’t have any. This was a great blessing because it allowed me to write with complete freedom; simply to capture the idea that was inside my head.



When I was writing A New Map I was frequently paralysed by doubt about whether I could even write a book. I had so much more confidence the second time, because I had already proved I could write a book; I only had to solve the problems associated with this book. 

I wrote A New Map as part of a PhD which meant that I treated writing as a job; a great privilege that sometimes felt like a burden. When I wrote Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, I was working four days a week in my first ‘grown-up’ job, developing and delivering accredited training to the retail sector. Writing was my hobby, something I only had one or two days a week for, and it became a pleasure and a treat rather than a chore.

The other factor that made the writing of my second book much easier was that I had a structure in place from the get-go. It was based on the phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo charlie etc) with one chapter corresponding to each letter. I still had no idea of the plot, but whenever I got stuck, I had a springboard…Okay, this chapter’s called Lima, someone needs to go to Peru. Which of my characters might go there? And why?


People always talk about how difficult it is to get a debut novel published; no one ever talks about how difficult it is with a second. But it was really really difficult. Partly this was due to massive industry changes between the books: in addition to the GFC, E-books had become a thing, both of which threatened publishers’ profit margins, making them more risk-averse across the board, inclined to plump for dead-certs rather than little-known authors of literary fiction. 

Despite these challenges, I had higher expectations the second time around: I wanted to be published by a larger publisher with stronger distributing networks and bigger marketing budgets. To this end I sought an agent which took two years of my life, and resulted only in a string of rejections. Then I sought a publisher which took a further year. It was a horrible process. I lost confidence in myself as a writer, in the industry, in my chance of ever making a go of this writing business. 

But somehow, through all this I never lost my faith in the book. I kept sending it out, again and again, and this persistence eventually led to it being published by Fremantle Press, as well as being piked up by US publisher Sourcebooks, who will publish it stateside in April 2014. Yay!


Perhaps the biggest difference between my first book and my second was the marketing. When A New Map of the Universe came out, authors weren’t expected to have a ‘platform’ – the term hadn’t been invented. My publisher set up a few interviews, and that was that. By the time Whisky Charlie Foxtrot came out, Facebook and Twitter had exploded, ‘blogging’ had become a buzzword, and authors had suddenly become responsible for their own marketing. I did a crash course in online marketing, reading a gazillion articles and setting up profiles for myself here, there and everywhere. Many writers complain about having to market their own work. And there is no doubt that it is time-consuming. But I find it empowering that there are so many things I can do, as an author, to help readers find my books.

In a few months, my third novel The Ark will be published, and that experience has been different again, but perhaps I’ll write about that in another post.


Want more? Read how other writers tackled their second books:

Dawn Barker found that compared to writing FracturedLet Her Go ‘gave me far more of those moments that I love while writing, moments where everything seems to just work, filling me with excitement and a conviction that this book could be good.’ 

Emma Chapman is currently completing an edit of her second novel; she reflects on how much more difficult it felt to find her protagonist’s voice this time around, but how, perhaps as a result of that struggle, she feels more connected to the character.

In Amanda Curtin‘s second novel Elemental, she had to learn ‘how to structure a long novel covering a life of more than eighty years, how to pace past and present, immediacy and reflection, and how to create an unfamiliar world through memories not my own.’ 

For Sara Foster, her second novel Beneath the Shadows ‘brought fresh experiments in plot, structure and narrative goals, and [she] found the experience of writing it as exhilarating and excruciating as every other book.’

Your turn: WRITERS – Are you in the process of writing a second novel? What challenges are you facing? READERS – have you ever been disappointed by a second novel, after loving a debut?

You might also like:

Journey to a Book: The Ark

6 Degrees of Separation: The Luminaries

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Writers Ask Writers  The ‘Difficult’ Second Novel   ANNABEL SMITH

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