The Sophomore Jinx
Peter N. Dudar
I have a new novel out right now. Back in February, Grinning Skull Press released THE GOAT PARADE, which is the follow-up to my debut novel A REQUIEM FOR DEAD FLIES (released back in 2012). That’s a six-year span between books, and consequently six long years that I’ve been sweating out the Sophomore Jinx.
That’s not to say that I’m superstitious or anything like that. I don’t go around throwing salt over my shoulder or avoid stepping on cracks as I wander down the sidewalk. But the Sophomore Jinx is a real thing and I’d been warding off heart palpitations and anxiety attacks all the way up to the book’s release. I’m not saying this because I’m conceited or have an enormous ego, but part of me believes that it’s because my first book, REQUIEM, got a lot more praise and success than it probably should have. That book got lots of attention and wound up being a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award (for debut novel category) in 2013. Back then, it was a weird, exciting ride for me because I’d been writing and publishing short fiction for nearly two decades and readers still had no idea who I was. It felt good to finally be read. It felt good to taste success.
But my brain is pretty complicated, and even though I was enjoying myself for the moment I kept thinking that my next novel needs to be better. It needs to have more conflict and sharper characterization and really knock readers off their feet. I need for this to happen because I need to prove to myself that the first book’s success wasn’t a fluke. I don’t want to be that writer who falls to the Sophomore Jinx, where my career starts its downhill slide right after getting that first taste of success. And I really didn’t want to see bad reviews on Amazon, where readers were claiming that the new book was nowhere as near as good as REQUIEM.
I don’t want my debut novel to be the benchmark by which everything else I write gets judged.
Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing for some of us authors. As I’ve said, I’ve been writing and publishing fiction for a long time now, and I still get nervous when going to conferences and conventions because a part of me feels like I haven’t earned my place yet. And that’s ridiculous because, even if I haven’t been putting out full-length novels, I still managed to release three novellas and a full-length collection of short stories since my debut novel was released. It’s not like I’ve been sitting around doing nothing. It’s just that part of me felt intimidated by the Sophomore Jinx, and wouldn’t commit to writing a novel until I was sure I had a great story to tell. Three whole years would pass by after REQUIEM before I started writing THE GOAT PARADE.
The new book was cobbled together from a lot of failed story ideas from my past. Foremost, it was supposed to be a screenplay in homage to Giallo films that author L.L. Soares and I talked about writing. It was going to be a very visceral murder mystery, and I had developed this idea of a hard-drinking, broken down crime beat reporter who ends up falling in love with a movie star, only she was going to get killed and the murderer was going to pin the crime on him. But both of us had other projects going on at the time, with Soares releasing his novels ROCK N’ ROLL and HARD in fairly close succession. The idea never left me, though, and that was the starting point when I sat down and began typing.
But I’d also had a story idea about an old Bluesman who’d traded his soul to the Devil for talent and success, but then never got to use it because he was tricked into committing a terrible crime and going to prison. That idea was at least a decade old, and meant to be a short story, but I always felt like there was more to “Tobacco Joe” Walton’s story than I understood at the time, so I left that one on the back burner until I could discover where it was meant to be used. And on the opposite side of that coin are Rufus and Leon Hickey, the brothers who killed Joe’s father and raped his mother when he was a boy. They are the antagonists that Joe exacts revenge on, that land him in prison. Those boys came from a failed novel I wrote years ago called AMONG THE LIVING, which was a mix between Ken Kesey’s FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON and H.P. Lovecraft’s HERBERT WEST, REANIMATOR.
That book was poorly written and dreadfully executed by a young neophyte author who has improved his craft enormously since then. Perhaps one day I’ll brush that one off and see if it’s salvageable.
The final touch was coming up with a storyline about the Omniscient Eye, which allows Svetlana Barnyck the ability to see into other people’s souls. That concept has always been terrifying to me; that someone else could see what I was thinking or somehow invade my private memories without permission. If someone were to ever have that ability, I’d hope and pray they’d put it to good use and help people rather than use it for their own power and personal gain. And, of course, they’d have to hide it so that others wouldn’t try to steal it.
Once I had all of these ideas, it was a matter of connecting dots and plot points, creating tone and atmosphere, developing conflicts, and maintaining precise continuity. Which wasn’t easy. The first draft was a mess. I’d worked without a proper outline and it was enormously evident when I reread and started revisions. I had to grab an old spiral-bound notebook and create a proper outline, where I could plot the chronology of events and organize character arcs correctly. Then I really went to work.
The time span from when I began writing to the day I got my acceptance from Grinning Skull Press was nearly two years. And that is a hell of a long time compared to some of my colleagues, who can sit down and write books with ease and precision in very little time.
I’ve mentioned Imposter Syndrome above, and that’s a great part of it. Honestly, I’ve never felt as if I was going to turn my writing into a professional career—it’s something that I do as a hobby and because I love the craft of writing. You’ve heard other authors claim, “I’d write anyway, even if nobody read my work and I wasn’t getting paid for it!” There’s a degree of truth to that, but still…it’s enormously rewarding to have people read your work. It’s even better when someone posts a 5-star review on Amazon. It gets addictive. It becomes important that readers see that you’ve improved since your last book. You don’t want to feel like they’ve wasted their time reading your book, and you really don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted your time writing it. That’s the risk you take being an artist.