My Sophomore Novel (Or, How Kate Quinn Nearly Got Me Arrested On Release Day by Drag Racing Through Baltimore)

October 17, 2011

Most authors are nervous about their debut novels. It’s your first offering to the world and you have no idea if the world will embrace it or spit on it. But what most people don’t know is that it’s the second book that can make or break your career. If your first novel received a collective yawn, your second effort has to make up for it. If your first novel received critical acclaim, readers expectations are set high and critics are easier to disappoint the second time around. Also, if sales were strong for your first book but drop off sharply for the second–as all your friends and family feel beleaguered after plunking down hard cash and by god, when will it ever stop?!–your fate may be sealed.

So, in short, there’s a lot riding on that sophomore novel.

To add to the toxic stew of anxiety is the fact that while most authors get to tinker and toil for years over their first novel, the second one is likely to have been contracted right away, sometimes with a brutal deadline. A debut author may be talented, but does she have the skill to shine under pressure? While she’s writing the second book, she’s also entered the wild and wooly world of promotion. Maybe she’s a great writer, but can she manage her time like a pro?

These and other stressors contribute to many bad second books. It’s a phenomenon so prevalent that it’s even got its own moniker. The Sophomore Slump.

Every time I hear that phrase, I twitch. Because I don’t want it to happen to me, and yet, a lot of it is beyond my control.

The second novel in my series about Cleopatra’s Daughter has a darker and more adult tone because my heroine is growing older. I made some controversial choices in the novel that I knew would grab my core readership by the throat. But those choices, I knew, would also alienate some people who loved the more innocent vibe of my first novel. And I hate to alienate readers; I hate it. Still, I needed to stay true to the story I was trying to tell.

I suffered from an intense crisis of confidence while writing Song of the Nile not because of the controversial material, but because I was run down and convinced that I no longer knew how to write a metaphor. (Thankfully, beta readers helped talk me down off the ledge, and praised my prose as pretty. I’ve been very gratified by early reviews of Song of the Nile that say my writing is stronger and more polished than the first book–which just goes to show you that an author can’t judge her own work.) In the end, however, my own book made me cry, so I thought it was strong stuff. Off to the publisher it went.

As the release day drew nearer, I was better prepared for what to expect. Lots of hurry-up-and-wait. There were bookmarks to get printed up, blog tours to arrange in order to get word of mouth going, advertising to design and buy. Whereas, for Lily of the Nile, I flailed around blindly, this time I had a very focused battle plan. And one of my weapons against the creeping anxiety of “Oh My God, What If Everyone Hates My Book?” was a lunch date with bestselling historical fiction author Kate Quinn.

I’d read Kate Quinn’s excellent books, but I’d never met her before. I was super nervous to meet her for three reasons. The first reason is that I adored her gladiator-for-girls novel, Mistress of Rome. The second reason is that I’d asked her for an endorsement for Lily of the Nile and through a comedy of errors, that fell through. The third reason is that she eventually provided me with a fantastic endorsement for Song of the Nile, which I hug and treasure at night when nobody is looking.

You never know how it’s going to go when you meet an author whose work you admire. I’ve met authors whose books I love, but whose personality is enough to make me swear off ever buying another thing they write. I’ve met authors whose books I hate, but who are so friendly and wonderful that I question my judgment. I knew Kate was witty and brilliant, whereas I am a mess on a good day, so this was a meeting fraught with danger.

So why in the world would I make a lunch date with this woman on the day my book released?¬†That’s easy. I needed to be more stressed about meeting Kate than I was about the Sophomore Slump.

Unfortunately, Kate wasn’t at all helpful in this endeavor. She was so warm and down-to-earth that I was immediately put at ease. We had a chatty lunch in an Indian restaurant at which we frequently burst into giggles at the man sitting at the table across the room, literally shouting into his cell phone. Then we decided to visit the local B&N to sign the stock. (It’s always good to let your local book sellers know you in person so that they’re more likely to recommend your work. They don’t have time to read everything in the store, so it’s helpful to tell them about your book, leave some bookmarks for them to give to customers, and make sure to autograph your books because signed books sell better. This is also an opportunity for you to surreptitiously turn your books facing out so that customers can see your covers.)

Anyway, we decided to go to B&N in one car. Kate offered to drive, so I climbed into her little red sports car. It wasn’t until she revved the engine that I remembered her heroine, Diana the charioteer, who had a mad love of racing. Now, I realize that authors don’t always resemble their characters. But when Kate Quinn punched the gas pedal to the floor, I started to remember just how many of her characters were wild berserkers. Like her fearless gladiator hero, Kate had the battle-lust in her as she drag-raced through the streets of suburban Baltimore. And like her dark and twisty heroine, Thea, I think she enjoyed making me squirm.

She’d just squealed around a turn, leaving a trail of burning rubber in her wake when I saw the whirring red lights of a police car behind us and …

Ok, so we didn’t get arrested. And I might be exaggerating a little about Kate’s driving. But she certainly took my mind off my fears and reminded me that life goes by in a flash. The only thing worse than making a mistake is not trying at all. Song of the Nile is now on bookshelves and, knock on wood, nobody has accused me of a Sophomore Slump.

At least not yet.