I wrote a first novel. I spent years on it, and, when it came out, it was just a book. I had worried about its cover, but it was just a cover. When I went into a bookstore, I saw it was just a book among many others, or it wasn’t even there. Its dwarfed presence or absence made me think: Why add another book, I haven’t even read all the books here? Or, narcissistically: Why publish a book if even I can’t find it? When it was reviewed, the reviews were just words, often the wrong words. I spent months in bed, overwhelmed by my naïveté and folly. All my suppressed hopes acted like a tsunami and reduced me to nothing; my wishes were too big for any book, especially a first book. Later, I discovered it was the book that readers knew, if they knew any of mine, and no others. It was also the book whose existence made me realize that writing before publication was sweeter. Then I could think about my work the way I wanted: It didn’t exist for others, and nothing about it could be disputed, including its presence.
Write your first novel, put everything you know and don’t know into it, and stow it in the back of a drawer. Do this with your agent’s cooperation. Ask her or him to spread the word in the industry that your first novel is explosive, revealing, scandalous, so brilliantly written that you are the new Pynchon, Morrison, Austen, Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, Burroughs. You have created—no, invented—an entirely new novel, whose time has not yet come; it cannot be exposed to the public. Instead, the manuscript on offer is your second novel, which is even better, as it is more mature.
Your second novel is not roman à clef or a bildungsroman, not thinly disguised or outright autobiography. It is not based on your terrible past, whose egregious trials mock the reality of childhood innocence. The protagonist is not you. If the secondary characters appear to be you, they are cleverly achieved. The reader will not look for you, the author. You have skipped all the troubles of the first novel by presenting your second, first. Let others wonder about the first. Someday, you suggest, you may allow it to be published. But only after everyone, including you, has died.