On Writing the Dreaded Second Novel – An Interview
An interview with Ian Sutherland on the launch of his second full-length novel.
Ian, congratulations on finally publishing your second novel, Taking Up Serpents, today.
Thank you. I’m feeling very proud right now. Look, here's me being proud:
Launch day is always a day to celebrate. When I first—
Let's get on with the questions, shall we? It’s been just over two years since you published Invasion of Privacy, your debut full-length novel. Don’t you think that’s too long a gap? Call yourself an indie author!
I thought this was going to be a nice interview! But okay, you do have a point. Yes, I agree, two years is far too long a gap. In a world where some authors are releasing a new book every few months, two years is definitely too long. There are some mitigating factors. I’m not yet a full-time author as I still have a day job to make ends meet. I also wrote and published a non-fiction book in-between aimed at other authors. But, most importantly, Invasion of Privacy is a very complex book with lots of twists, turns and reveals. Replicating that takes a lot of effort to construct and then write.
The prequel novella, Social Engineer, illustrates this. While it's an interesting character study of Brody Taylor and has a twist or two, the short length of the novella format prevented me achieving the same level of depth, complexity and suspense as readers experience with Invasion of Privacy. That said, readers generally like the novella and read on, which is its main purpose.
So, to be totally honest, Invasion of Privacy was so well received that I didn’t want to let my readers down with something that didn’t hit the same high standard. That takes time.
Do you think you’ve achieved the same level?
I hope so. Certainly, my wife, my two daughters and my father-in-law say it’s good, better in fact.
Come on Ian, you can’t palm us off with family members. They’re hardly objective!
Fair enough. Well, one of the benefits of having grown a readership and a mailing list over the last two years is that I’ve recruited a team of advanced readers. About seventy of them in fact, none of whom I know personally. Many of them have been reading advanced review copies over the last two weeks, ready to post reviews today and over the next few days. The first reviews have already started coming through and so far they’re all incredibly positive. It looks as though Taking Up Serpents may even be better than Invasion of Privacy.
Was writing your second novel a different experience to writing your debut?
Yes, I would say so. The first was written over many years, with lots of false starts, iterations, and always with me in that beautifully blissful state of naive ignorance because, until I published it, no one would ever know if it was any good. Finally, I did publish it and that introduced new concerns. Would people read it? Was it actually any good? Was I fooling myself that I could be an author? But Invasion of Privacy slowly found its audience, the reviews were incredibly positive and I began to believe I could do this for real.
That was, until the day I sat down full of enthusiasm to write the sequel and stared at a blank screen. At that point, I experienced different doubts. Could I really do this again? Could I match the quality of the first book?
But this time I had much more going for me. I was writing a sequel and so I knew the characters intimately. I had a better understanding of the craft of writing, although I still push myself to improve every day. And with cybercrime being in the news all the time these days, there’s hardly a shortage of stories to tell.
So I got on with it.
Stephen Fry once eloquently proposed a theory for second novel syndrome, which I completely agree with. He said, "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."
"The problem with a second novel is it takes no time to write compared with the first." Stephen Fry
Is there anything you learned from writing your first book that you’ve changed about your style and approach in writing the second?
If you read the reviews of Invasion of Privacy you'll see there are two main camps. Those that love it because of the technological elements of the story and those that read it despite the technological elements, carried through by the well-developed characters and the page turning suspense. Fortunately, both groups loved the book.
But, what I really learned from reader feedback and these reviews is that some of the technical explanations were far too detailed and, in some cases, distracting. Readers want to be told enough to know it’s realistic and plausible, but don’t want to be given an instruction manual. In Taking Up Serpents, I still have the trademark tech-based storyline, but this time I’ve slightly toned down the detail of the explanations. Hopefully, I’ve got the balance a lot better.
About a year ago, I was approached by a film director interested in optioning the film rights. Nothing’s actually come of this yet, but something he said stuck with me. He pointed out that although the book was a real suspense filled page turner, he reckoned it would be possible to film Invasion of Privacy on quite a low budget as the majority of scenes were set in homes, offices and coffee shops! His passing comment influenced my approach to Taking Up Serpents. This time, there’s no way this book could be filmed cheaply. I’ve definitely amped up the locations, action and suspense. After all, there’s no budget constraints in a novel, other than words of course!
Last time, Invasion of Privacy was set around the cool high-concept of hacked webcams. What’s the angle this time?
There’s definitely a Hollywood level, high-concept tech-based storyline in Taking Up Serpents, but it’s shrouded in mystery and revealed slowly. I don’t want to give it away here, but it’s big. And, sadly, very plausible. I hope it never comes to pass, like the events of Invasion of Privacy did six weeks after its publication in 2014. (You can read about that here). If this one happened for real, hundreds of thousands of people would die. I wish that on no one.
Will your readers have to wait another two years before the next one?
No, definitely not! And to prove it, I've already booked my editor for the same time next year.
Where can readers buy Taking Up Serpents?
The book was published today in eBook and paperback formats in all major bookstores. Here's the link to Amazon:
Anything final thoughts, Ian?
I'd been keen to hear any thoughts from readers or other authors on this interview. Do second novels usually live up to the first? Are my experiences common ones? Are you looking forward to reading Taking Up Serpents? Am I schizophrenic, interviewing myself like this? Anything really!
Please leave a comment below.