That last post reminded me of a blog post I read recently, by author Justine Larbalestier, about writing your first novel. The post really resonated with me, because, for me at least, it was so true. The author summed it up thus:
The main thing you’re doing with your first novel is learning how to write a novel.
Now, there are lots of authors out there who successfully publish their first novel, some who even manage that without an extraordinary amount of work to fix it up from their first draft (or no more than I’d put into my fifth manuscript, anyway). But I think by and large the average writer is going to end up with at least one or two novels under their belt before they sell anything. Larbalestier compares it to learning a new skill, like baking bread (or knitting, or downhill skiing, or driving a car) – you’re not expecting to be good at it the first time you try it. Or even the second.
I think this is the hardest truth for a new writer to accept. And maybe it’s better if they don’t know that truth at the time they’re writing that first novel, I don’t know. We probably all start out with dreams of becoming Stephenie Meyer, whose very first ever manuscript sold for three-quarters of a million dollars (and we all know how that story ends). Maybe it’d kill our drive to have our dreams dashed.
And yet, it can be kind of liberating, too. If that first novel isn’t likely to sell anyway, if you’re writing it mainly to learn the tools of the craft, then you can really write whatever you want, can’t you? Unicorns in space, elves in deep-sea chasms, sparkly vampires in west-coast high schools. You can make mistakes, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re doing it right or wrong or sideways. It’s all cool. It’s all about learning and – most importantly – having fun. Just make sure you finish, and once you finish, you look at it carefully to understand how you can improve next time. (I think this is something we should do with every novel we finish, actually. I still do.)
I think I kind of expected, as I started each new novel, that it would be the one to sell. But I’m not really disappointed that they ended up being really bad, or even, in the case of my third, good-but-not-good-enough. Because from each one I learned something different and valuable, and I carried the lessons forward into my next project, and my next project was the stronger for it. So I know my debut – when I get there – will be a strong novel, and so will the ones going forward.