The day the first-ever review for my first novel, The Dogs of Babel, came in, I heard from my agent at about 10 in the morning. "It's not very nice," he said, as if a bad review were a matter of etiquette, as opposed to any kind of substantive criticism of my work. He didn't tell me what it actually said; he made the right kinds of reassuring noises and offered to fax me the offending document.

Since we didn't have a fax machine at home, I told him to send it to my husband's office; in due time, I heard from my husband, who confirmed the review's lack of niceness and told me he'd rather not read it to me over the phone. So by 10:30 I knew I'd gotten a bad review, but I didn't know the specifics, and I wasn't going to be able to read it till seven o'clock that night. It was excruciating. Then at 2 p.m., the doorbell rang; it was a bouquet of flowers from my husband. Wow, I remember thinking. This must be one hell of a review.

It was; and after that there were plenty more—some good, some bad, some mixed.

My point isn't to complain about book reviews; I realize they're part of the deal. You show your work to people, they're going to have their own ideas about it. But there's something very strange for a new writer about seeing your book take on a life of its own. You write more or less in isolation, and when you do seek out advice and criticism, you choose your readers carefully. And then—fingers crossed, if everything goes right—you release it to the world. Suddenly, it's not your book anymore; it belongs to anyone who's nice enough to pay the cover price and take the time to read it. It's both thrilling and disconcerting to discover how varied readers' reactions can be and, after going through it once, I'm not sure I'll ever approach writing in quite the same way again.

The difficulties of writing a second novel are legendary, and since The Dogs of Babel was more successful than I ever imagined it would be, the pressure was on from the minute I opened a new file on my laptop and gave it the tentative title "New Novel?" Mostly, I tried not to think about it. I know how easy it is for writers to worry themselves into paralysis, so I tried to look at this new project not as a second novel per se. I told myself it was just one more book in the series of books I hoped I'd write over the course of my career. Still, it was clear pretty early on that that long day of the fax and the flowers had left its mark. Every chapter I wrote, every character I created, I'd wonder, What are people going to say about this one? What flaws am I missing that are going to be obvious to everyone else? I don't want to shape my work according to some idea I have about what people want from me; in the end, I wrote the book I wanted to write. But at the same time, I'd like to be prepared for what's coming. Now that I've published one book, I can't help but look ahead to the day when this new novel lands in readers' hands and I finally get to hear what they think of it. And I don't want to be taken completely by surprise.

Strangely, though, the time I spend thinking about the people who didn't like my first book is nothing compared to the time I spend thinking about the people who did. Writing a second novel has reminded me that readers and writers don't always have the same goals. As a writer, I want to evolve, to write something completely new each time; as a reader, when I find an author I like, what I want most is some level of consistency. I've had the experience of feeling slightly suspicious when my favorite authors release books that don't look anything like what they've written before. Wait a minute, I think. We were doing just fine before, weren't we? I liked that last one—why don't you do something like that again? Maybe I'm just not good at accepting compliments, but when someone says to me, "I liked your book" and then tacks on "I can't wait to read the next one," my primary response is low-level panic. Because the next one isn't going to be the same, and there are bound to be people who like one and not the other. And even though it was never my goal to write the same book over and over again, there's a part of me that thinks, Well, why not? It worked the first time.

On the other hand, what is there to complain about? I like writing fiction, and it's a privilege to be able to do it for a living. Since Little, Brown signed me to a two-book deal right out of the gate I had the good fortune of writing this book without the uncertainty that attended the first one; I don't know how it will be received, or whether anyone will buy it, but I don't have to worry that it will never see a bookstore shelf. And, as with anything else, there's a level of confidence that comes with having done something once before. I had plenty of doubts writing this book, but whether or not I'd finish wasn't one of them; even when I had no idea where the book was going, I had a sense that somehow the plot would work itself out, that somehow I'd know how to bring this story home to its conclusion.

It's been about a month now since I wrote the last pages of my new novel, Lost and Found. The day I thought I would finish, I went back to the coffee shop where I wrote the ending of The Dogs of Babel, someplace I hadn't been in more than three years. But it wasn't the same. The day I finished the first draft of The Dogs of Babel was exhilarating. For about a year, I'd known how the last paragraph was going to begin—"I remember my wife in white"—and the day I got to type those words, to see them in black-and-white, occupying their proper place in the narrative, was one of the best days of my life. This time around, I felt more subdued. I took my coffee outside onto the sunny terrace, and wrote until I was finished. And then I just sat there. Is that really it? I thought. Am I really done? I reread the last few pages; yes, that did appear to be the ending. I liked it; I was happy with the book, overall. But for some reason, I was reluctant to let this one go, maybe because I had a better idea of what was going to happen to it. I had hopes for this book, and fears, just as I had the last time, but now they were all more concrete. I knew that before too much time passed, it would be out there in the world for everyone to see; in a little while, it wouldn't belong to me anymore. So I didn't get up right away. I just sat there in the sun, my computer open, my words on the screen, and watched the traffic go by.

Parkhurst's second novel, Lost and Found, will be published by Little, Brown in July 2006.