Lessons on debutism and the ‘difficult’ second novel
“It took 17 years from typing the first word of the first manuscript to finally being published.”
These were the words of Southport-born novelist Helen Monks Takhar shortly before her first book came out in 2020. Now, two years on from That Woman (previously Precious You) and just weeks before Such a Good Mother is available to buy, she shares ten tough lessons learned on the way to publishing her second thriller.
Don’t believe the hype
“You do know this is going to be huge.” On the surface, you demurred when someone you respected said this about your debut, but you knew they were right. You have deals with two of the world’s biggest publishing houses in the UK and US, blurbs from incredible authors and great reviews. In 2020, your dreams have a habit of coming true.
Your debut hardback will publish in the middle of a pandemic. Still, first-time authors will miraculously cut through, selling instantly and at volume.
This will hurt more deeply than it ever needed to because you allowed your expectations to inflate wildly. Don’t do this again.
In publishing, if you don’t believe you’ve written something worth reading by many people, why expect anyone else? In the end, your UK publisher will pull your debut’s paperback publication long enough to repackage it and try again. Precious You/That Woman will not be quantifiably ‘huge,’ but it will sell in good numbers because of their persistent faith. When others believe that your work can find its readers, do as they do. Besides, while imagining wild success remains psychologically dangerous, it’s too delicious to resist.
Nobody knows anything
William Golding said this about motion pictures, but the same is true of books. You will see debuts sold at hotly contested auctions for huge figures burn out before making an impression and witness small books with zero marketing blaze into bestsellers powered by the sheer love of readers. No one can second-guess what will catch fire, least of all you. Write what you write and get better at doing it.
Being edited hurts, but not as much as not being edited
Editing the debut was demanding but will feel like a sneeze compared to the malaise of editing your second book. It will require wholesale rewriting. Twice. On March 31, 2020, your editors will set out the scope and depth of your edits. You will ugly-cry and, on this day at least, not because of home-schooling. In time, however, you will write a much better book than you ever would have because your editors cared enough to push and pull you until you did.
You’re going to run out of money
Your US and UK advances buy you the full-time writing life for three years, but you won’t out-earn your advances and generate the royalties required to maintain this. You will be temping as a copywriter when book two publishes. This is not failure, but the reality of a writing life for most authors. You were more than lucky to have three years to yourself.
Debutism is a thing
You’re not as attractive as you were when you were new in town. The Covid-cancelled events interested in your debut won’t invite you back to talk about book two. Had it not been for the pandemic, you would have ridden the debutism wave and enjoyed it. But you got to write a second book. Focus on this, not the sometime short-termism of publishing.
The author Matt Haig wrote that selling the foreign rights on your book equals free money. You’ll secure some of this from many territories before your debut even publishes. You’ll think this is standard. It isn’t. It may happen again, it may not.
You’re going to meet many wise and generous women
Your agents, your editors, their maternity cover, the publicists, marketeers, the book bloggers, reviewers, the many authors who say kind things about your work in public and wise words in private when your work is a struggle – they will join the majority of your existing champions and friends in being busy, brilliant women. In darker moments, remember just how fortunate you are to know them all.
The answer to all publishing woes is the same as it ever was, even before your debut
No matter what, you still have best job in the world
In 2020, as the hardback tanks and lockdown begins, you’ll write an unsolicited and unpublished sequel to your debut. Because you want to. Because while stellar sales of your work would be satisfying, entering a world of characters you alone have conjured and pushing them through a story of your own making remains its own reward.
By Helen Monks Takhar
Main image by Adam Peter Thorpe
Helen Monks Takhar’s debut That Woman is out now. Her second book, Such a Good Mother, will be published in the UK by HQ on August 4, 2022 and on August 2, 2022 by Random House in the US.
To visit her website, click here.
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