My first short story was published in a magazine last year (shameless plug), and since then I’ve been working on a follow up. It’s a difficult process, and while there’s plenty of reading material out there about the challenges of creating something good the first time around, we don’t often discuss how to maintain that quality in later attempts.
It’s a very real problem, that after you’ve finished patting yourself on the back and the celebratory drinks have gone flat, you sit down to work on your next piece only to realise that you have no idea how to proceed. Do you stick to the template that you established last time and risk creating something that feels too familiar, or perhaps branch out into unexplored territory and flirt with the danger of writing a literary turd?
The decision can be overwhelming, and so it’s unsurprising that rather than firing out a second story I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the so-called sophomore slump.
The term was originally used to describe American college students whose second, or sophomore, year failed to live up to the excitement and relative freedom of their first, causing apathy and depression. While the expression still holds, it has since broadened in scope to include arts and media, where a second effort pales in comparison to the first.
You don’t need to look far for examples. TV shows like Heroes or True Detective, where a stellar first season leads to a humdrum, directionless follow up. In the music industry, pressure from record labels or relentless touring caused bands like Weezer, The Strokes or The Darkness to release a poor imitation of their first record. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ topped bestseller lists in 1992, but when her second novel arrived ten years later it was a turgid mess.
It’s not hard to understand why people have trouble replicating their success, but what’s the best way to avoid a sophomore slump? According to psychologists, it’s all about praise.
In 2011 a study was conducted to monitor student motivation following different methods of praise—the first being person praise (“You’re very intelligent,” “You’re a talented problem solver,” etc.) while the second was process praise (“You followed the right method,” “You used a good system,” etc.). After completing an easy puzzle the students were given one of these types of praise before tackling a much harder variation. The ones who received process praise reported higher levels of motivation when working on the hard puzzle, while the recipients of person praise felt less compelled to finish it.
Positivity is great while things are going well, but the type of positivity we internalise can actually hinder us when we come up against the possibility of failure. If you believe that your previous success was the result of being supremely talented, then for you there can be no such thing as a no-win scenario. That might sound cool when Captain Kirk says it (incidentally, Star Trek: Into Darkness was another sophomore slump), but in reality everyone faces failure at some stage and that’s when it’s most important to understand why you did so well before.
Process praise is central to this understanding, as it encourages critical thinking and, like Han Solo, reminds us not to get cocky. If you think about your successes in terms of the systems and structures you used, it becomes easier to work out which of those are failing you when things go wrong, and helps you keep the motivation to fix them and ultimately come out on top. For writers, as I said in a previous post, that means dissecting your work, analysing plot structure, characters and techniques, so that you’re comfortable with the underlying mechanics and can apply that knowledge in future efforts. For films and television, JJ Abrams’ TED talk covers the mistake many filmmakers stumble on when creating sequels: “You’re not supposed to rip off the shark, or the monster, you’re supposed to rip off the character”.
If you understand what really made your first effort a success, you’ll knock it out of the park the second time around. If you don’t, then you’ll end up with a sophomore slump, a poor imitation.