Friday, January 25, 2013

Don’t Write a Second Book - Advice from guest blogger Walter Mason

My wonderful mate Walter Mason and I have many things in common. A love of travel, good food, good books, good conversations over good food about good books, and one more thing - we are both currently trapped in Second Book Hell. Forget your Nine Circles of Hell, Second Book Hell is a very particular hell. 
Read on and let Walter explain exactly what it is.

Don’t Write a Second Book
My major piece of advice to any writer would be: Don’t write a second book. Seriously. Why not just leave it at the one little masterpiece, a brief high point in an otherwise mundane life. No-one will think any less of you. You could easily waste the rest of your life, but at your funeral they are still going to say, “The well-known and beloved author...” Plenty of people stopped at the one with little or no repercussions for their literary reputation. Harper Lee seems to be doing ok with just the one. Margaret Mitchell decided to take a break between books and got hit by a car, but last time I checked Gone With the Wind is still the same camp classic it always was.
I’m writing like this because I am almost finished my own second book, a travel memoir about my conflicted relationship with Cambodia (yes, I have relationships with entire countries – I never promised I’d be exclusive) called Destination Cambodia. It’s due to come out this year some time, if I haven’t taken the Margaret Mitchell route or been arrested in a public place giving in to a fit of rage.  
Walter Mason in Cambodia. Research! The fun part of the Second Book.

But you see, it hasn’t been at all easy, this second book. Destination Saigon, my first book, flowed out of me. It was the product of a lifetime’s preoccupation. I had been toying with the idea of writing a “Vietnam book” for the best part of sixteen years. Each chapter came out almost perfectly formed, and I found it a breeze to sit down and write one at set times (many of them during a holiday in Hong Kong, where my partner wouldn’t allow me to eat or sightsee until I had finished another chapter).
But DestinationCambodia has been a very different beast. It has demanded its weight in blood, sweat and tears, and there comes a point every week where I stop and think, in blind despair, “I can’t do this.” When I actually concentrate and get writing, it begins to snake its way out, and stories and characters and amusing and poignant incidents emerge on paper. This is most likely to happen when I am writing properly, i.e. sitting down at 7.30 every morning, turning off Twitter and forcing myself to belt out 4,000 words or so. If I can manage to do this for a number of days, I convince myself once more that I am a literary genius. 
In the field for the Second Book.

But on those other days, those ones where nothing at all comes to mind and before I know it it’s 6pm and all I’ve done is watch Fail compilations on Youtube for nine hours, I begin to think I’ve been fooling myself and everyone else. Those are the days when I wonder if Red Rooster is still hiring.
What’s the big deal? I hear you ask. Plenty of people have more difficult jobs, real jobs where the stress and strain is earned. Brain surgeons, say, or bridge builders. But the writer is the most fragile creature in existence, always conscious of what Jonathan Fields describes as “the impact of fear of judgement on our tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, risk taking and creativity.” We can destroy ourselves before we’ve even written a word. It is our unique talent.
But it’s too late for me. I’ve signed the contract and someone told me they saw the book listed in my publisher’s catalogue, as though it were finished and just sitting up on a shelf ready to roll out in cartons across the nation. What’s more, I have written 100,000 words, and still there seems to be no end in sight. It’s not that I’m almost there. It’s that I went past the finish line a long time ago and have almost woven my way around to it a second time.
So stop stressing, fellow scribblers, there’s no need to do anything more. Rest on your laurels, glory in your obscure fame and think of the lifetime of free cheap wine and invitations to speak at service clubs that can be yours purely on the basis of that first, blissfully easy, book you wrote.


Walter Mason is a travel writer and academic whose first book, “Destination Saigon,” was named by the Sydney Morning Herald one of the Ten Best Travel Books of 2010.
In 2013 Walter’s second book, “Destination Cambodia,” is due to be released by Allen & Unwin, when he eventually finishes it.
This year Walter is also hosting a series of Inspirational Conversations with some of Australia’s leading authors at Ultimo Library. Details can be found here.


  1. Ha ha! I am having an 'in-between" day today - neither painful or easy.

  2. I am almost frozen with fear - deadlines incoming INCOMING!

  3. I feel your pain. I have just finished my second book after more than two agonising years and after extending the deadline several times. (And after saying, stupidly, to publishers 'yes, I'll have it finished in two months!!!) I think I must have written at least 500,000 words for what will be an 80,000 word book.
    I'm sure the third book will be a breeze though, right???

    1. Oh Rebecca, exactly! I thought for 2nd book, I'd be smart. I would underwrite it, lean, clean, no excess.

      I've since been up dead ends, taken out scenes, characters, realised I'd taken out the wrong scenes, the wrong characters ..... giving large chunks that got excised dark looks for persuading me they ever had a point.

      Yeah, that 3rd book is batting its eyelashes, cooing seductively, promising to just about write itself. I reckon you might have 3rd & 4th book lying on the cutting room floor? Re-cycle those words?

  4. I remember at a book event asking Margaret Drabble if it got easier with successive books. "Oh no dear, much harder each time," she said. Six books into my own career, I'm sorry to say I think she's kinda right. But I do reckon the second is hardest of all. Hang in there, kids. - Charlotte Wood

  5. I feel sick because it appears to be true. Sara Paretsky is in double figures and reckons it gets no easier.

    I think Iris Murdoch nailed it with her line: "Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea."

    Oh well, back to play with the wreckage.

  6. It's the 3rd book for me. Books 1 and 2 came out easily. Now, I'm doing what you're doing, Walter! ::pulls out hair::

  7. I for one feel your second book will be as wonderful as your first Walter! But thank you , I may stop at one ;)