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Friday, April 29, 2011

Sophomore Slump

Please welcome guest blogger Kasey Mackenzie

Sophomore Slump: An occurrence when a sophomore (or second) effort does not live up to the standards of the first.

With the release of my debut urban fantasy last year, I figured I’d gotten most of the jitters that come for a newly-published author out of the way and would be much less nervous come the second time around. Okay, not so much. Sure, in some ways I’m much less nervous than this time last year. The foremost fear, that my book secretly sucked great big monkey…bananas, was proven unfounded. Not everyone hated my book; in fact, it got quite a few positive reviews from authors established in my genre, Publishers Weekly, Romantic Times, and—most importantly in the grand scheme of things—a good number of readers. I know what to expect this time as far as the editing, marketing, and promotion sides of things go. I’m no longer in that no-man’s land of having a publishing contract but not actually being published. I have an answer for people who ask, “Can I buy your book in stores now?” (Yes, plskthx!) But with that now-established track record comes something you typically don’t even think about until it’s actually happening to you: extra pressure.

The extra pressure that comes from living up to the expectations that fans of the first book naturally have for book two. The extra pressure that comes from wanting to better please some of the readers who didn’t quite fall in love with book one. In other words, wanting to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Common sense tells you that no matter what you do the second time around, you’re never going to please everybody. You’re going to disappoint someone; trying to avoid that truth means you’ll disappoint yourself most of all by attempting the impossible. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t take the constructive bits of criticism for book one and apply it to book two. But how?

All I can do, of course, is relate how I did it. I’m one of those rare beasts: an author who can read even the harshest of reviews without wanting to curl up in a little ball and die. Don’t get me wrong, negative reviews don’t bring me pleasure, especially not the ones of the This is the biggest pile of dog crap in history I hope this author and everyone who ever knew her contracts a horrible disease and suffers for publishing this drivel! stripe. But reading them (for me) is like ripping off a band-aid: it stings a little bit at first, but once that initial pain fades, I’m able to look at it more objectively. The first thing I remind myself is that most (if not all) reviews are for readers and not me personally. That said, I also strive to improve myself whenever I can, so as long as the review isn’t of the afore-mentioned dog crap variety, chances are I’m going to find something in it that strikes a chord and I can keep in mind when working on my next book.

That’s what I did when sitting down to write the second book in my Shades of Fury series; considered the common elements I’d seen mentioned in online and print reviews. What did most people think I did strongly in book 1? I made a mental list and decided to try and play to as many of those strengths as possible in book 2. For instance: most loved the fast and furious (pun intended) pace of Red Hot Fury. Many loved even more the way I used relatively under-used (in urban fantasy) mythological creatures like Furies and Harpies. On the flip side, what complaints seemed to pop up a lot (or at least more than once or twice)? Did those comments resonate with me? Sometimes defensiveness had me wanting to discredit the comments initially; but I made myself come back to them later and consider them rationally. Was the reader complaining about something I did intentionally or unintentionally? If unintentionally, I again made a mental note to try and remember than when writing book 2. As a specific example, some readers were annoyed by my shortening full names to nicknames in Red Hot Fury. My off-the-cuff response was to think, “Well, of course my protagonist shortens names: it’s in first person POV and she refers to people by the name she thinks of them, not necessarily their full name.” When I thought about it later, I could see how some people might be distracted by that so decided to try and avoid doing that too much outside of dialogue in the sequel. Of course, I still have to remain true to my protagonist’s voice, but hopefully I can find a happy medium.

So what about the instances when readers complained about choices I made consciously? A prime example of this for me was that some readers complained that they saw who the villain was a mile away and it wasn’t much of a mystery. In this particular instance, my initial response remained the same upon later reflection. While sorry that some readers were disappointed in that aspect of my story, I told the story I wanted to. The revelation of the villain isn’t supposed to be a mystery to the reader, but to my protagonist. Readers go through that betrayal with my protagonist from her viewpoint but without being blinded by her past history, experiences, and emotions toward that person. Of course we see the betrayal coming long before she does. We’re expecting it! The story I wanted to tell in book 1 wasn’t a whodunit filled with multiple red herrings where the reader isn’t quite sure who the true villain is. The story, for me, came from watching my protagonist as she figured out who the villain was and how she reacted to that discovery. Even then, however, I did take that complaint into account when writing book 2. While I was satisfied with book 1 and the story I told, I also do appreciate a good mystery and wanted book 2 to follow that basic structure more closely than the first. I hope that fact shows in the twists and turns that book 2 take. The identity of the villain should be much more of a surprise for most readers this time around. At the same time I desire to appeal to even more readers in the sequel, I also hope readers who did love book 1 will find as much to love in book 2. Hey, hope springs eternal, right?

While I’m sure that Green-Eyed Envy won’t live up to the expectations of all readers, I do hope that most will think it a worthy sequel to Red Hot Fury. By considering criticism both positive and negative when writing book 2, I definitely think I ended up writing an even stronger book than the first time around. I’m proud of it and the hard work I put into it. When it comes down to it, that’s all any writer—published or unpublished—can do. Whatever anyone else thinks, I know I did my best to avoid that dreaded “sophomore slump.” Hopefully, more readers will agree with me than don’t. Either way, I’m on to the one thing in all this I actually have control over: working on Book 3 (the junior year)!

Kasey Mackenzie lives with her husband and son in St. Louis, Missouri; home of the Gateway Arch, the baseball Cardinals, and the world’s greatest thin-crust pizza. Kasey was one of those students who always had her nose in a book—so no big surprise when she was voted “Teacher’s Pet” in her high school yearbook. Today, she is a voracious reader of fantasy, romance, suspense, and “soft” science fiction. She adores her German shepherd puppy, two cats, playing softball, and has recently taken up knitting. So far she can cast on, do the knit stitch, and cast off. Hey, it’s a start!

Red Hot Fury

Hell hath nothing worse than a Fury scorned…

As a Fury, Marissa Holloway belongs to an Arcane race that has avenged wrongdoing since time immemorial. As Boston’s Chief Magical Investigator for the past five years, she’s doing what she was born to: solving supernatural crimes.

It’s far from business as usual when the body of one of Riss’s sister Furies washes up in Boston harbor. Riss discovers that the corpse’s identity has been magically altered, but as soon as she reports her findings, she’s immediately—and inexplicably—suspended from her job. Then a human assassin makes an attempt on her life, and Riss starts to realize that someone may be trying to stir up strife between mortals and Arcanes.

When a Fury gets mad, she gets even, and Riss is determined to untangle this case. Without the support of the mortal PD, Riss turns to the one man she can trust to watch her back—shapeshifting Warhound Scott Murphy. But since Scott is also Riss’s ex, she’ll have to keep a tight leash on more than just the supernatural rage that feeds her power as they try to solve a murder—and stop a war…

1 comment:

Sharon Hamilton said...

Your post and the jitters about your second book (which I'm sure are unfounded, but I do understand), reminds me of the story about JP Morgan. Someone once said they wished they were in his shoes, not "having to worry about money anymore."
He answered, "What do you mean? Keeping it is all I worry about now."