For the last month, I could see the end, that moment when I’d write the last sentence of my second novel. I imagined there would be exaltation, relief, a supreme sense of satisfaction rolled into that single keystroke when I’d tap the period and put an end to this work that began on August 11, 2002.

Much changed during those nine long-ass years: my father passed away, I got married, and my first novel was published. I also wrote about half of another novel that I paused (abandoned is too harsh a word – I’m coming back for you, little book, I swear!). For seven years, I did not add a single word to this eventual second work, but I did think about it often, and when I started it back up in the fall of 2008, I knew I had to bring it home. Because if I didn’t, who would? Andy Warhol once said that he wished for someone else to paint the paintings in his head. For a long time, I thought it was a goofy quote, lazy, even, but now I interpret it differently. Sometimes, I see a scene in my head that’s so perfect that the translation from brain to the written word, no matter how accurate or graceful, will still fall short. Times like these, I understand Andy completely.  I wish somebody else would write it for me, just to take away the disappointment of my eventual failure.

Writing any novel isn’t easy, and the problems are there from the start, built into its framework. The rate at which people read is not the same as the rate at which you write the work – perhaps unless you’re Stephen King – so it’s as if you’re running a race in slow motion, constantly having to gauge the pace of scenes and dialogue and make sure they’re in balance within the rest of the exposition. Unlike short stories, whose plots and logistics can be contained wholly within a manageable slice of a writer’s brain, novels are sprawling creatures, so it’s very possible to decapitate the head of a character in chapter ten and have him bake an apple pie in chapter twenty, without any sort of Frankensteinian resurrection involved. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that you yourself are changing as the years roll by, so what you might have considered to be smart and moving in 2004 might seem smart-alecky and sentimental today.

With the second novel, there are added pressures. It’s not your first, so people expect more from you, bigger and badder and important and non-sucky. Except what few seem to realize is that you really didn’t know what the hell you were doing in the first place, that the debut novel is the result of hope and faith and persevered serendipity. It’s not as if I had a specific end product in mind while writing Everything Asian; the book formed itself during the process of writing, so there were no guarantees that things would work out the second time around just because they happened to do so the first time.

Adding to the angst was that with number one, as I came to the last couple of chapters, I sped up, excited to reach the finish line, while with number two, I found myself inexplicably slowing down. After slogging through three years of steady writing, when the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel revealed its glow, I wanted nothing more than to turn into Superman and burst through at supersonic speeds, and yet each new page came as willingly as a cat going to the vet. What the hell was going on?

My theory is that the novel had become a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where I learned to love my captor and did not want to leave its confines. Because what lay beyond this book was an even blacker unknown. What if, after slaving away for all this time, I was writing a spectacular turd? Once it was done, people would read it, and the verdict would be in. And what about book number three? And for that matter, just how many books did I actually have in me? Would I run out of things to write about at some point, and then what would I do with myself? As awful as it was to keep writing this second book, there was safety in these characters and their stories.

But last weekend, I hunkered down. With my wife out of town, it would be possible to write all day and all night, something I hadn’t done since – well, never. Three hours is usually what I can handle in one sitting, but I knew that if I made this final push, I’d be done. On Friday, I managed two sessions of three hours, and on Saturday, I started at nine in the morning and finished nine at night. Of course we’re not actually talking about twelve consecutive hours of banging at the keyboard. Staring at the wall, chatting with the cat, playing with the dog, straightening up the pile of magazines on the coffee table for the fifth time – it’s all part of the process. And yet despite all of this “writing,” I did find myself on the last word of the last sentence by the time day turned to night. Which means there was only one way to end it: the final period.

I wish I could say that pushing on that dotted plastic plateau was what I’d hoped, an orgasmic release of pent-up literary forces that transformed the books on my shelves into a hundred Nabakovian butterflies, but alas, I felt none of it. I was beyond exhausted, and all I could think was the amount of rewrites it would take to straighten out this morass of a novel.

In any case, it starts with the words His father was against the idea, and it ends with and so was he, my book number two, whose vital stats are as follows: 121951 words, 404 pages, three parts, 26 chapters plus an epilogue. If writing a book is like having a child, I think it might have been a C-section. The baby remains nameless, so I got my work cut out for me.

Related Link

Check out Taylor Antrim’s excellent essay about the difficulties of writing the second novel.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

9 responses to “Madness, Thy Name Is Second Novel”

  1. I have been there brother. Well said.

  2. JSBreukelaar says:

    Congratulations. A great description of the tough road.

  3. Mine is worse.

    After finishing the second 400+ page novel, and doing six rewrites, I realized that my first novel which I mistakenly self published needs a rewrite because I did not respect the writing process and was in a hurry to be a writer.

    If I own a gun, it would have been in my mouth a dozen times in the course of the writing process. Since I don’t trust myself with one, I am almost finish with the first novel rewrite and can’t/can wait to move on to the second novel.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Nice, Patrick — forcing yourself to complete the rewrite and using the second novel as a carrot is a great way to push through. My carrot were screenplays — right now I’m reading a bunch to try to knock one out, and it’s been totally worth the wait.

      – Sung

  4. Spectacular turds are the worst kind.

    But as agonising as it is… man, do I freaking love editing. Going back, suturing, cutting, pasting, coating bones with new muscle, giving sentences a new suit, paragraphs a new haircut…

    I’m actually pretty jealous right now.

    Also: hey goddamn man! Finished the second novel. Way to go!

  5. I faced novel number two with a recklessness that has brought me to my knees. Before novel number one I couldn’t write fast enough. Out of reams and reams of paper came a few faultless ideas that merged into plot that told a story. Not so for number two which has been “paused” ( thank you for that word) more times that I would like until finally I had to walk away. And yet I am still in it, still beating myself up, still comparing this time to the first time and learning how to let go and do it all over again. The one thing I have learned from all of this muck is that it will NOT feel the same way the second time. That is impossible. Great post, Sung.

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