Matt Johnson on ‘Writing a sequel – Second Novel Syndrome’



Stephen Fry put forward an interesting theory about second book syndrome. “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel.

“If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course.

“The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”

As true as it is for ‘one hit wonders’ in the music industry, the challenges of writing a second novel are huge, particularly if the debut has received critical acclaim.

Have you ever read a series or trilogy and found that, despite how much you enjoyed the first book and, perhaps the third, the second one didn’t quite cut it?

The Harry Potter books, for example, are said to have dipped in The Chamber of SecretsCatching Fire was said by some to be a bit of a disappointment after the pull of The Hunger Games.

I’m 94K words into writing a sequel to Wicked Game. At the moment I have a target of about a 110K, which will, no doubt be reduced after editing. The sequel even has a working title, Deadly Game. The outline for the third book, End Game, is also drafted and sitting safely on my PC.

In the case of a trilogy, it’s only natural that the second book should be a bit of a plateau. The author follows a story structure, the one that holds all decent narratives together, the progression from Orientation to Conflict to Climax to Resolution. Of course, within these steps a whole bunch of ups and downs can happen, but basically the average story structure follows that progression.

The first book is the ‘getting to know what’s going on’ and the first conflict, the third is the build-up to the climax, the tying up of loose ends and the finale that you may, or may not expect. The second book falls in that middle bit and will feel, naturally enough, feel like the middle of a story, only over an entire book.

And then there is the additional question. Is the story going to be told in just three books, or is Finlay, the main character, destined to feature in a series? It would make sense, I like him, and it seems that readers do as well, so it would be great to have him prevail and live to fight another day.

Like many debut authors, I was initially bewildered by the success of Wicked Game and so my hands were a bit shaky when it came to doing it all again. Will readers like the sequel as much as the first? Should I change and evolve the style or stick with the same formula that made its predecessor popular? These are all worries (and fair enough ones too) of the sequel-writer, and especially for someone like me, who is only creating their second novel ever.

I am not a trained writer. I have never studied the art of authorship, read about creative writing, or even learned about the English language beyond the standard of ‘O’ levels. I write from the heart, what I see, feel, perceive, and I use the words that I use in my every day conversation. I don’t write to impress, I write because I enjoy it and I gain pleasure from receiving feedback that tells me other people have enjoyed the fruits of my labours. And so, having ploughed the history of my life into my writing, I find myself wondering if it was a fluke, or is it a talent?


Looking at the experience of others, it occurs to me that it could be that the dip in quality or enjoyability of book two is due to the author getting their act together and still getting the hang of their craft.  Did they tread too carefully and follow the exact same pattern they did in their book one?

Is book two destined to suffer ‘Middle Child Syndrome’, leaving poor old ‘Book Two’ to feel caught in the centre? Book one demands all our attention with its intrigue and introduction to the new world, and book three blows us away with its shattering conclusion (well it might if I get that far). Book two is stuck between them,  sadly sighing at the metaphorical dinner table while the readers fuss over the other siblings of the family.

I’ve now discovered that the challenge I face has a name. It’s called ‘Second Book Syndrome’. I also learned – and you’d think I would have known this already – is that writing is hard.

My future plans have also been thrown into a state of flux. With retirement looming, I wasn’t planning on starting another career. The way that Wicked Game has been received has surprised me. To learn that people enjoyed it and for so many to write praising my ‘talent’ for writing, has been a humbling, yet enjoyable experience. The media interviews, radio appearances and the growing readership have been a surreal experience. I have likened it to being a novice surfer, riding the perfect wave and not knowing how to make the best of it or when it will end, crashing down in an explosion of froth.

And at the risk of sounding like a whinger, I have to admit that for a while, in the middle of writing Deadly Game, the realisation that writing is hard has hit home. There are times when I experience periods of serious doubt. Every time a new review appears on Amazon saying how great the debut is and how much the reviewer is looking forward to the sequel, I suffer. Don’t get me wrong, I relish the praise, but every positive review raises the bar. The second book must NOT disappoint.

Sometimes, I wonder if I will ever finish it. At first, I set myself a target of a few months, that soon went by… and then a year. Again, I didn’t make that deadline. The reason? Self doubt. I examined every paragraph, every sentence, every word and ask myself if it is good enough. This writing-stories-for-a-living idea is proving to be a bit of a dream! I’ve now reached a point where I am just writing, getting the story down, and have decided to look at the quality during the ‘proof-reading’ process.


One thing that I am really grateful for is that no reader or reviewer has suggested that I am letting them down by taking my time. Nobody has ever suggested that I am failing.

And I’ve learned something about me in the meantime.

‘I love writing,  but I especially love having written.’

7 thoughts on “Matt Johnson on ‘Writing a sequel – Second Novel Syndrome’

  1. Gosh, I am as yet unpublished and suffer from a number of insecurities … we should all take comfort in the fact that all good writers do …VIrginia Woolf said “It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others”. My strategy is to just keep writing.


  2. I am about to embark on my second novel, as my first is just coming to the end of it’s final edit. As I strode out on my daily dog walk today, it dawned on me I had no idea how to go about the task in hand…I have my characters, a great plot, conflict and a climax but my concerns are how to balance the book for people who haven’t read the first one and the readers who have….such a fine balance of patronising explanation and leaving people in the dark. I’ve decided the best thing to do is just START it and see what happens 🙂


  3. First off I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.

    I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out.
    I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to figure
    out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips?


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