What I Wish I'd Known

Your First Novel Will Probably Suck

It’s true. But think about most of the first things that you’ve attempted in your life that involved creativity or skill. Think about the first picture you drew, photo you took, essay you wrote… Mine firsts were all crap. Cute, I’ll admit, earning many “aw’s” and chest-clutching mommy smiles as she showed my hand-painted hand-turkey to her friends, but none of those grammar school masterpieces made it into a museum. And I’m okay with that.

But when I started writing my first novel, things were different. Sure, I’d heard this soundbite in podcasts and interviews. Brandon Sanderson talked about his first published novel Elantris My fellow writers would tell me, the ones that were honest, and they would always be encouraging, reminding me that while most first novels weren’t NY Times Bestsellers, that doesn’t mean it won’t be great. But in the back of my mind I heard a little voice, “But it does happen. Look at Stephanie Miller and J.K. Rowling.” I’d put so much time into world-building, developing subtle nuances into cultures and societies that no one would ever know about, but would help a made-up world resonate with reality. How could such a complex and developed milieu not be great?

After a billion edits, looked over by a professional editor, a few friends, and one of my sons, I considered the first book to the War of Ages Saga finished. This time I did marvel at my masterpiece. Over 135k words or glorious prose. I decided that I could use a break from WoA and cracked my knuckles on two post-apocalyptic pieces and some short stories while I sent the next bestseller to agents.

The first rejection was expected. But then they kept coming. How could this be? Everyone had fallen in love with the story, lauding my talent. Why was I having such a difficult time gaining traction?

As I continued writing the other stories, listening to podcasts, and reading books I not only noticed that it was easier for me to write scenes the way riding a bike gets easier with practice, but I also noticed that I could more easily identify good and bad writing.

After a good amount of time (~a year) I took an objective look at WoA…

What can I say? Naiveté has no proper age. I told my wife that it felt a lot like when I’d visited my old philosophy club, listening to 1st- and 2nd-year students. Their energy was great and their arguments were…well…novice. Most importantly, I remembered being them, feeling so sure of the same arguments they were making.

As with all things creative, there is a learning curve. My first novel was full of novice writing. What’s it look like now? Full of red highlights, cut chapters, and notes tinged with self-blame for taking so long. I think my most fundamental novice err was the proverbial square peg in a round hole. I was trying too hard to insert specific prose, scenes, and dialogue because they were gripping in their own right, i.e., a riveting line of dialogue would pop into my head at random and I would write it down because it was great, and then insert it in the book. Sometimes it would work, but often enough it’s greatness was contingent upon the specific wordage. I would be so intent on making that great line of prose and it would always come out stilted.

But the biggest lesson I’d learned was that not only do first-time authors rarely make it to the bestseller list, first books rarely get published. Just ask Stephen King. Let’s face it; sometimes your darling is the entire manuscript. Maybe you have too much emotional investment into the story as it is to look at it objectively. Maybe the part that needs cutting is the entire first quarter of the book and that sounds like a lot of work. Whatever the case, sometimes you have to be ready to trash an entire manuscript and walk away before you can see what needs to be changed. Sometimes it’s simply time to accept that it’s just a hand-painted hand-turkey and move on.

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