The Sophomore Effort

Oh, that debut novel! The thrilling realization that the book you’ve been laboring over for two, five, ten, twenty years is finally going to be published. By a real publisher. It will have cover art and reviews and – wait for it – readers! People will talk about it. Book clubs will devour it. Libraries will have waiting lists. The possibilities are endless. The sky is the limit. You will take the literary world by storm. Your name will be on everyone’s lips. Truly, there is nothing quite like the ride of your first novel.

But then what happens? Publishing adores a debut so what about book number two? What does that feel like? For me, it was part panic over whether I had more than one book in my head, part relief that I knew what was coming, and part discipline in that I had much less time to produce the follow up. And while we’re at it, lets not forget the fear of potentially disappointing readers, too. Complicated!

In 2018, two of my favorite middle grade authors have released second books. Sally J. Pla’s Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and Elly Swartz’s Smart Cookie.

I adored both of these books and, of course, was curious about their sophomore writing experiences. Elly and Sally were kind enough to answer my questions and share their wisdom.



Was book two more difficult to write than your debut?

ELLY: To answer this question, I need to go back in time a bit. Finding Perfect, my debut novel, was actually the fifth book I wrote. As I share with the students during school visits, those first four are fondly known in my house as practice. They taught me how to be a better writer. And for that, I am grateful.

So Smart Cookie, was really the sixth book I wrote. At the time I wrote it, Finding Perfect had not yet found a home. And, I didn’t know if it ever would. It had been eight years. That was when my agent suggested I start something completely new. Enter the big-hearted and feisty Frankie. I fell in love with Frankie almost immediately and found her easy to connect with.

Each book I have written has had its own set of hurdles, but none of those challenges stem from being first or second or sixth. They stem, instead, from the words and characters that fill the pages of that particular story.

SALLY: From a writerly/craft point of view, it was easier – I had more experience and know-how. But from an emotional point of view, it was harder. I felt personal pressure to try to equal or surpass the first effort, and an anxiety in trying to please a new support team of editors, publicists, agents, and readers.

There is some stress in trying to manage this new, weird thing known as your writer’s reputation. One book in the world = a unique story; two books in the world gets you thinking about platform and market… And this can be daunting! Ah, the sophomore’s life! And even the word “sophomoric” smacks of trouble – the very definition is “pretentious and juvenile” – so it’s no wonder that anxiety can ratchet up around a second book. Which is maybe why my second book, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, was actually ABOUT anxiety.

How was the publishing process different the second time around?

SALLY: There were some real positives. I stayed with the same publisher, and that was a plus, because I love working with them. I did end up with a new editor for book two, but that transition went well, thank goodness – I loved editor #2 just as much as editor #1. And the same exec-editor read and oversaw both books, so that was good.

The hard part was that my publisher put book two under a tight deadline. Usually I love deadlines – they help me structure my writing life much more productively. But these deadlines came very fast. I felt as if I didn’t have enough time to make the story shine as brilliantly as I wanted. In retrospect, maybe I should have asked for more time. I felt too shy and intimidated to speak up about this. I felt as if asking for more time would be admitting failure. I should have asked – even if they said no, at least I would have self-advocated.

My takeaway from this, is that if you are respectful and reasonable, you should have the right to communicate what you’re thinking/feeling. I didn’t have enough self-confidence to feel I could even allow my voice to be heard, or my concerns to be aired. That is slowly changing as I am gaining a bit more confidence and experience.

ELLY: Smart Cookie was published by Scholastic and Finding Perfect was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux. While each house approaches editing and marketing in their own unique ways, in both instances, I was grateful to work with two incredibly smart editors.

Did your expectations change from book one to book two?

ELLY: My expectations of myself changed from Finding Perfect to Smart Cookie. I was honored that readers had loved Molly’s story in Finding Perfect. So, it was incredibly important to me that my readers equally loved Frankie and her herd. I didn’t want to disappoint them. So, during the drafting and revision of Smart Cookie, I worked hard to be a better writer, a better storyteller. I demanded more from myself. On all levels.

SALLY: With my first book, I had no clue what to expect. It was all new territory. With my second, I felt much more confident of what to expect in the timeline to publication. It helped to have a few established connections, now — people to call on for advice, bloggers to guest-post for; etc. But in terms of expectations “for” the book? Hmm. Nope. For book two, just like book one, I have no expectations. Only hopes. You just do the best you can, and you hope.

What lessons from your debut experience helped with the launch of book two?

SALLY: I would say: during your debut year, try to connect with fellow debut authors, whether online or in person at events, as much as possible – good people you can turn to for mutual support. Don’t try to go it alone. And ask all your questions! Use your agent. Develop a good professional relationship with your editor. Always be polite and professional with everyone. Read emails three times before hitting send. If you’re feeling emotional, DON’T hit send – wait 24 hours first. Ha ha.

ELLY: I felt like I had a better understanding of timing, the editorial process, and marketing. What it meant and the efforts it took to get a book to the readers who need it most. I discovered the value of social media and the many different ways to connect, create and sustain authentic relationships with authors, educators, and librarians across the globe. And I learned, like Frankie, everyone needs a herd!

What advice would you offer to authors working on a second novel? 

ELLY: Find your herd. Embrace the process. Cherish the moments. Ignore the noise. And remember, you’ve totally got this!

SALLY: Forget about everything except the story itself. Don’t get distracted by the peripheral flurry of business stuff. Just write. Make it the best you can, then let it go.

Please add anything else you found interesting from book one to book two!

SALLY: Our online debut group led to such lovely connections and online friendships (and even in-person meetings and friendships) with other authors going through these same things at the same time. One needs mutual support on this journey.

So, current debut authors, my advice is to definitely forge those supportive connections, and be generous with your fellow authors at all times. Lift up and help each other, and be positive. Don’t fall into any bad traps of competitiveness, unless it is the mutually-helpful, jovial good-sportsmanship kind of competitive spirit where you quietly use it to spur yourself to do better. Support each other.

This is about more than the first book. This is about planting seeds for a career with colleagues you care about through the long-haul, through many books, good books and bad. Through many books, may the fates be willing! So value your wonderful writer community!


Elly Swartz’s debut novel, FINDING PERFECT (FSG 2016) is about twelve-year-old Molly, friendship, family, OCD, and a slam poetry competition that will determine everything.

In her second book, SMART COOKIE (Scholastic, 2018), you meet the spunky and big-hearted Frankie. Frankie’s all about family with a dash of mischief and mystery!

And then in 2019, say hello to Maggie in GIVE AND TAKE (FSG).

Visit Elly at:


Twitter: @ellyswartz

Instagram: @ellyswartzbooks

She is also half of the #BooksintheKitchen webseries with author Victoria Coe

Sally J. Pla’s debut THE SOMEDAY BIRDS (HarperCollins 2017), is about Charlie, a bird-loving boy on a life-changing journey across the country to see his injured dad. Charlie’s stuck in an old camper with his annoying siblings and a mysterious stranger at the wheel. The book is also the winner of numerous awards including being named a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book of 2017.

In STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE (HarperCollins 2018), Stanley, a comics trivia fanatic, grapples with anxiety. But he’s bravely entered Trivia Quest — a giant comics-trivia treasure hunt — to prove he can tackle his worries, score VIP passes to a big comic fest, and win back his ex–best friend. Along the way, he invents an imaginary superhero to help him cope. A 2018 Junior Library Guild selection.

BENJI, THE BAD DAY, & ME, a picture book, will be out in September 2018 with Lee & Low.

Visit Sally at:


Twitter: @sallyjpla

Instagram: @sallyjpla

Facebook: Sally.Pla





Beth McMullen