Literature Festival, Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 09:54 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

Writer's block

Writer's block

The Literature Festival comes to Cheltenham...

It is a truth universally acknowledged... that book number two is a great deal harder to write than book number one. And it's not just a question of confidence, or finding a good story. It's all down to speed. As a publisher friend once remarked: 'You take 10 years to write your first novel, and then we want number two by the end of the week.' It was certainly true of Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility may have taken 15 years to reach the bookshops, but her follow-up, Pride and Prejudice, made the same journey in just 14 months.

It's often said that everyone has a book in them. Quaint and charming, but in no way pertinent. What today's publishers want to know is, do you have two? Or more? Given that your first book enjoys a modicum of success, pulls in good reviews and doesn't get 'returned' by too many booksellers, it's a publishing imperative that a second book is up on those shelves before a fickle reading public forgets your name.

It may seem cruel and insensitive to so belabour the creative spirit with time constraints, but no writer worth his jacket blurb should forget that publishing is big business. What is the point of a publisher investing time and money in a product if they can't keep the line going? If you want to write for a living, then that's what you have to do. Again and again. And quickly. And if you don't, there's always someone else who will.

Like Ryoki Inoue, for instance. Finishing his second book was a stroll in the park for this Brazilian writer. So was his 20th, and his 200th. Since giving up medicine in 1985, Inoue has written more than a thousand books. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal the world's most prolific author was quoted as saying: "I prefer doing a book in three days, rather than the other way round." Inoue might not be picking up a Booker or Nobel prize any time soon, but his publisher must love him.

Of course, there are certain debut writers whose initial success so tantalised their publishers that allowances were made in terms of delivery dates for number two. After releasing The Secret History to worldwide critical acclaim, its author Donna Tartt took 10 years to produce what turned out to be an overwrought and underwhelming follow-up, The Good Friend. Which is why most publishers prefer the goods sooner rather than later. They've learnt that giving a writer too much time doesn't necessarily mean they're going to get a better book.

Most novelists who've successfully negotiated that daunting second-book hurdle will tell you that, in retrospect, a 'slow burn' first outing is probably the best way to start off, thus minimising the pressure to produce a second 'international bestseller'. So it was with Dan Brown - The Da Vinci Code was his fourth book - and Sebastian Faulks, whose first three books (A Trick of the Light, The Girl at the Lion d'Or and A Fool's Alphabet) were written over a nine-year period before Birdsong hit the bestseller lists, sold three million copies (and counting), and established Faulks as an A-list publishing heavyweight.

It was never thus for Khaled Hosseini, he of the kites and splendid suns. Nor Kate Mosse, of Carcassonne. Nor JK Rowling, of Hogwarts. The downside to their first-book fanfare was having to repeat the trick. All three had massive sales figures to beat, a raft of good reviews to reprise, and that 'international bestseller' tag to safeguard. Could they really do it a second time, or were they really just one-book wonders?

That same question is probably crossing Victoria Hislop's mind right now. After the Richard-and-Judy hoopla that surrounded her first book, The Island - a Number One title that sold half a million paperbacks in the UK alone - it's all to play for as Mrs Hislop's second book, The Return, hits the bookshops. In true festival spirit, let's wish her huge sales and a sackful of good reviews...

Talking of reviews, it's maybe worth mentioning the American novelist Harper Lee. In 1960 The Observer carried a review of her book, To Kill A Mockingbird, in which the following recommendation was made: 'If Miss Lee sharpens her style and is a little more parsimonious with the sugar, her second book will be something worth waiting for...'

Readers have been waiting a long time. Harper Lee has never written a second book.

Jack Drummond's first book was Avalanche. His second, Torrent, is published by Sphere in December.

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