Second Book Syndrome

Dryad-Born audiobook
Dryad-Born audiobook

My friend Jeff Wheeler‘s new book Dryad-Born just came out in digital, print and audio. It’s the second book in his bestselling Whispers of Mirrowen trilogy for Amazon/47North. So I invited him to talk about some of the challenges of writing the follow-up to a hit novel…

Some writers struggle with “Second Book Syndrome” when doing a series. If you haven’t heard of this syndrome, it’s the complaint some readers have that the second book in a series almost always fails to deliver the same emotional punch as the first. The second book is a bridge novel, connecting the initial story to the grand climax at the end, and so it is often stuffed with meandering plots to fill up word count until the reader gets to the final battle.

I’m actually quite addicted to the second books of some of my favorite authors, and I don’t look at the second book as filler at all. In my worlds, book one is meant to introduce the main characters, develop the setting, and thicken the tension. Book two is where I save some plot twists that really ratchet up the tension, introduce new characters that throw the lead characters off their game, and position some revelations that hint at things to come in the final book—just cryptic enough to keep readers guessing.

This month, 47North has launched my newest “second” book: DRYAD-BORN, Book 2 in the Whispers from Mirrowen trilogy. The story begins with an entirely new character and an entirely new subplot before reconnecting with the heroes from Book 1, FIREBLOOD. I love the suspense that comes with writing a second book, when the enemy seems to be winning on every front and the danger builds. That’s why The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite Star Wars movie. It’s not just a bridge. It’s where the story really begins to emerge.

Happy Endings Can Be Hell

Change of Heart

And they lived happily ever after…

That may be a satisfying, romantic ending for a book…but it can be living hell for an author who wants to write a sequel, as New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jenna Bennett (aka Jennie Bentley) explains in this guest post. She writes the “Do It Yourself” home renovation mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime and the “Cutthroat Business” mysteries for her own gratification. Her most recent book is the just-released Change of Heart, book six in the “Cutthroat Business” series. 

Once upon a time, I wrote a five book series of romantic mysteries.

More accurately, I wrote a very long romance novel in five parts, with a dash of mystery thrown in for good measure.

It had all the usual things you usually find in a novel: three high points of escalating stakes, a dark moment towards the end, and a climax and resolution.

The only difference was that each of my high points was its own book, the dark moment was a separate book, and the climax and resolution was yet another book.

And then I stopped, and started working on other things. The hero and heroine were together, after all. The story was over.

A couple of months went by, and people started asking when the next book was coming. I had to tell them that there would be no more books. There was nothing more to say.

“Oh, but…”

After I heard that enough times, I realized two things.

One was that although the hero and heroine were together, the story wasn’t necessarily over. When the fairytale ends, it doesn’t mean that nothing more happens. Life goes on. Life went on for my characters, too. I didn’t kill them, after all.

The other thing I realized—and call me mercenary—was that people wanted to read more about those characters. Like in the movie: if I wrote another book, they would come.

It was a no-brainer, really. We all want devoted readers, right? My readers were devoted enough to ask for more books. So why not come up with another story arc and write another few books? And make everyone happy. What could it hurt, after all?

Famous last words.

Come to find out, there’s a reason the fairytale ends with ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

It’s the same reason why, in romance novels, the book is over when the relationship is settled.

Happy, domestic, everyday relationships are damned hard to write.

Or maybe I should say that they’re damned hard to make interesting.

Who wants to read a book with no conflict, after all? No romantic tension? No stakes? Just page after page of cooking dinner and taking out the trash and going to sleep together and waking up together.

Even the sex becomes boring.

So the new book became about tossing wrenches into the works. I’d played the jealousy card before, but I played it again. I came up with a secret one party couldn’t tell the other. I threw in some extended family unhappiness about the relationship. I made sure that one party’s efforts to show the other party the beauties of domestic life had the opposite effect.

I did my level best to make trouble in paradise. And then I crossed my fingers and threw the book out there, holding my breath to see whether I’d succeeded.

It’s been a couple of weeks, and so far things look promising. The consensus seems to be that the series didn’t hit bottom once the hero and heroine were in a settled relationship. In fact, some people even said it was their favorite book in the series so far.

Of course, it’s early days yet. And I do have a few more books to write. And you can only play the jealousy card so many times before it becomes old hat.

But it turns out the story isn’t actually over when the curtain comes down. Life goes on behind the curtain. And the prince and princess don’t always live happily ever after. At least not every moment.

It’s more like they live mostly happily, with a little tension and a few arguments and some excellent makeup-sex, ever after.

And that isn’t so bad either.