The Sophomore Slog
I did it. I typed “The End” on the second Greg Salem novel and sent it to my editor. I am relieved this version is done, stressed out about whether or not it’s good, and just guzzled an entire pot of coffee. I feel like punching somebody and then smothering them in hugs.
The second book, Grizzly Season, is currently at 71,000 words. That’s about the length of my debut novel, Bad Citizen Corporation, which was published by Rare Bird Books last October.
I worked on BCC, on and off, for five years. That includes the usual stopping and starting, self-doubt, self-loathing, rejections, and internal threats to self publish—or never publish the damn thing at all.
I tell you all of this because Rare Bird will be publishing Grizzly Season in September of this year. The clock’s ticking. I also have a standalone novella, Crosswise, coming out from Down & Out Books this February, but let’s put that one aside for this post.
What’s on my mind a lot these days is a phrase I learned in my music industry days: “Sophomore Slump.” In that context it refers to an artist’s follow-up to a previous hit. Let me be clear: BCC was well-received in the crime/mystery community, had incredible blurbs from talented authors, enjoyed some great reviews, and made a couple of amazing year-end lists. I was thrilled with how 2015 turned out, but the book obviously wasn’t a “hit.”
So let’s call it the “Sophomore Slog” instead—that heightened sense of pressure a writer feels when diving back in to a character for the second time.
For me, writing BCC—creating Greg Salem and populating his sun-soaked, punk rock world—was a blast. It was just me and him for a long time, playing gigs, getting into fights and solving mysteries. Then a miraculous thing happened, we got published.
Suddenly Greg Salem wasn’t just my friend anymore. He also belongs to the people who have read the book and developed relationships of their own with him. It’s a beautiful and terrifying thing.
This weighed on my mind over the last year as I chipped away at Grizzly Season. I had to make the entire cast of returning characters consistent from book one to book two, while considering that other people now had expectations about what that meant.
Part of me was all, “Well, fuck them. They can write their own book.” But a much more rational, non-asshole part of me realized I wanted the same thing they did—a little consistency. Easier said than done.
For me, writing the second book in the trilogy was a totally different challenge than writing the first. Mainly because I wanted the characters to evolve in response to the events in book one, while also letting them go on crazy new adventures.
So here’s what I did. I wrote an entire first draft of Grizzly Season, including a horrific hard drive crash in the middle of it all that almost put me back at word one. Then I went through a couple rounds of edits until I was at a reasonable stopping point.
The first version of the story was complete, research was done, plot points and beats were more or less in place, new characters were evolving, and the ending mostly made sense.
Then I re-read my first novel. It should give you some idea about my state of mind at the time that this seemed like a radical idea.
I imagine this will make some writers cringe—who the hell re-reads their own books?—but it was the only thing that made sense. And it definitely helped, once I got done kicking myself for all the little things about my own writing that I hate.
From there I tweaked book two according to what I’d learned. Just went back and forth between the two for a few days until things made sense from a continuity perspective.
Next I sent Grizzly Season to three of the same beta readers who gave feedback on early versions of BCC. Some of my fears were realized in the notes I got back, but at least I had a little perspective when sifting through the thorough, insightful and occasionally ridiculous comments.
After that, it was a only 20 more hours of editing and adjusting before I reached the point where I could finally send a draft to my editor. My Sophomore Slog is a long way from being over, but I’m good with where I am right now. Isn’t that what slogging is all about?