Truth bomb for the #writingcommunity : your first novel probably won’t be very good. Or your second. THAT’S OKAY and it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be a writer. Writing novels takes practice like everything else.— Sheila (@agiftuniverse) January 19, 2019
I said the above on Twitter, and most people seemed encouraged by it. I mean, if your first novel is supposed to suck, then nobody has to feel bad that theirs does.
But I think what I meant to say was a little harsher than just “it’s okay if your first novel isn’t good.” I actually meant that even if you think your first novel is good, it’s probably not as good as you think.
I mean, nobody’s first marathon is a first-place finish. The first essay I wrote in school was terrible. We all know the first pancake is always a bust. So why do people sit back after NaNoWriMo, eye their 50,000 poorly-punctuated words, and think “this is going to be the Great American Novel”?
Of course not everyone thinks that. Some people judge their own work much too harshly. But I know I wasn’t one of those people, on my first novel.
My very first attempt at writing a novel, I was eight. It was called Cecilia’s Journey and was about fourteen pages. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t make my story take the amount of space “real” books do, but other than that, I thought it was amazing. My mother certainly liked it, and took it seriously enough to do the illustrations for me. Her belief in me certainly helped me keep at it. But of course, that was not a novel.
When I was twelve or thirteen I wrote a “novel” called Amethyst, which was about a space empress who had a new baby every chapter. I picked a cool pen name and even wrote a bio about myself, about what a genius I must be to write my first novel at the young age that I was.
When I was sixteen, I got a lot closer. I was channeling all my grief over having been kicked out of boarding school, so I wrote about a girl who gets accepted into swordmaster training and ends up marrying a king (who was based on someone I had a crush on at the time). I was in love with this story. I thought it was definitely a winner, the one that (once I was a little older and knew how to make it a bit longer, and edit it properly) would be published. But a friend read it and told me it read like a wish fulfillment fantasy. Which it was. I mistook the feelings I had about the story for the feelings readers would have. Just because it fit my intensest longings at the time didn’t mean it was well-written.
Let’s see, then I wrote the prequel to that book, which was starting to get . . . not laughable. It was full-length, at least. The friend who hadn’t liked the previous one, liked that, because I gave my heroine real struggles and let her fail. I printed it off and gave it to my mother for her birthday, and she liked it. Then I let the guy I liked (who I later married) read it, and he said it could really use more excitement in the middle. Maybe an evil wizard? I was shattered and didn’t want to hear any more feedback. I had thought it was good, dang it!
After that I wrote one about a Catholic girl discerning her vocation to religious life. I can’t even bear to look at it now. I think one friend even read it, and I can’t remember what they thought of it. Then I showed it to a friend I had in Catholic publishing and she said it would never fly unless I made it about abortion. Again, shattered. I shoved it under the (metaphorical) bed and wouldn’t read it again.
I missed out on writing for a few years, due to kids, but when my second was a baby I had a stage with a small amount of free time, so I rewrote the swordmaster book. This one played a lot better with the people who read it. Years later, with a little perspective, I can say it’s pretty good. Maybe publishing quality, maybe not. Sometime I want to get back into it and tighten up the beginning.
After that there was another long break. I kept starting novels and then getting pregnant and not being able to finish. It broke my heart, not being able to do something I love. And worse still, when people would say, “If you were really a writer, you’d find the time.” That’s simply not true. If you are getting five hours of sleep and can’t rub two brain cells together, you probably can’t write a novel no matter how “real” it is to you.
At last the big kids started school and I wrote The Remnant, the one about the gay girl in a cult. It’s only sat for a year, but I think it is reasonably good. That’s the first book I queried. And I have gotten some manuscript requests and some positive feedback, so maybe (just maybe!) I was right to think it was good enough.
Currently I’m editing Bisection, which, again, I think is reasonably good. It didn’t feel like it was going to be good while I was writing it, but once it was finished it seemed pretty okay. Of course then my toughest beta reader made me think it was awful, and that’s why I’m editing it. But I feel more confidence now in my ability to tell if it’s good or not, because I know what I’m going for. I know that the action needs to be moving early on. I know that the stakes have to be clear, the conflict has to be unified, and the characters have to be flawed and three-dimensional. I know that I need to build the world with a ton of detail, and then only include the amount of detail that actually fits.
One thing that has encouraged me the whole time is the idea that everyone has a certain number of bad words inside them, and the first few novels are for getting those out. It’s like clearing a tap! Just because the first book is going to be bad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it. And just because it’s bad doesn’t mean you won’t someday be able to edit it into something good. But it’s going to take a lot of work and practice. It might take three or four completely new drafts. It will really help if you can learn more about the craft of writing from books or mentors or a serious critique group.
But just please, please, don’t write your first novel in a month, edit it in a month, submit it to every agent in the world, get rejected by every agent in the world, and then assume this means either that you are no good as an author, or that the publishing industry is biased and broken and can’t appreciate your gift. Don’t run off and self-publish it in the conviction it will fly off the digital shelves if only it’s given a chance. If you want to self-publish, you should. But you should do it because that’s actually what you want to do, because it’s the best fit for that specific book. Don’t do it because you’re convinced your first draft of your first book is amazing. It’s probably not, even if you’ve got the makings of an amazing author.