Way back when I wrote a guide to writing novels aimed squarely at first time novelists. It was very practical and kind of silly. Remarkably, many people have found it useful. But yesterday Ksenia Anske reminded me that I neglected to say the most important thing about writing your first novel:
The main thing you’re doing with your first novel is learning how to write a novel.
Think of it like making bread. The first loaf I made was rock hard. Seriously I could have killed people with it. My next loaf was inedibly salty. The third kind of bland. But slowly each loaf became better than the last. I started to learn what the dough should feel like as I kneaded. How much salt was enough. How long to prove for. And so on and so forth.
The bad news is that novels are way more complicated than making bread.
But that’s the good news too. The lessons you learn writing your first novel will definitely help you write your second but it’s likely you’ll find you’ll have to learn a whole bunch of new lessons. My first novel was set in twelfth century Cambodia with a cast of millions. My second book was an urban US contemporary. Many of the things I learned writing the first novel: about plotting, pacing, characterisation etc. were very useful. Others about how to indicate different dialects being spoken while only using English and how to incorporate historical research without sinking the plot were less useful.
Neither book has ever been published. But I learnt so much writing them. Mainly that every novel is different and you have to learn new skills for each one. Yes, even when they’re the next book in a trilogy.
When you’re writing your first novel write whatever you want to write. Don’t worry about “the market.”1 Most people’s first novels don’t sell whether they tailored it for “the market” or not.
That doesn’t make the first novel useless. If it hadn’t been written than the second one wouldn’t be that much better. And the third even better. That first novel needs to exist—not necessarily as a novel to be read—but for the process of having written it.
Think of it as an experimental lab where you don’t have to take any safety precautions. You can blow stuff up. You can kill all your characters. You can set it in a white room with no doors or windows and no characters. You can do all the things you’re not supposed to do. Have it be all dialogue! Write it from the point of view of the ceiling! Ignore the rules! Maybe you’ll reinvent the novel. Who knows?
Whatever you want to write you can. Novelists have no budget they have to stick to. Not like writing spec scripts where you have to keep costs down. There are no costs to a novel. You can write stuff that would take a trillion dollar budget to film.
Of course, it’s not just your first novel, which is about learning how to write a novel. I’m rewriting my ninth novel. I’m still learning.
- Honestly, no one knows what “the market” whatever that is truly wants. Worrying about it at any stage of your career will just do your head in. [↩]
Thanks for this! When I finished my first, I said to myself “I know I can do it.” That’s what it was about for me. Just knowing it really was possible. I’m so happy I wrote it–and rewrote it. And I LOVE hearing from more experienced writers that rewriting still happens, because I think A LOT can be learned from rewriting. It’s scary to do but also quite fantastic.
Thanks for this. I don’t think nearly enough emphasis is placed on the learning process of writing. We’re inundated with “overnight successes” & it’s so easy to get discouraged if that myth isn’t you.
I want to make a list of published writers…. how many stories/novels they wrote before they sold something & how many agent/publishing queries they sent out to make the sale (or, if self-pubbed, how many hours of marketing). Those numbers are never “one”, & aspiring writers should know that – full disclosure!
Dayana Stockdale: And I LOVE hearing from more experienced writers that rewriting still happens, because I think A LOT can be learned from rewriting. It’s scary to do but also quite fantastic.
Rewriting’s where the real writing happens. Someone once said “There is no writing only rewriting.” SO TRUE.
Gretchen Ash: I want to make a list of published writers…. how many stories/novels they wrote before they sold something
Tobias Buckell once did something like that. Had a bunch of writers fill out a survey. That was definitely one of the questions. It was modelled on a survey of romance writers. From memory the overwhelming majority did not sell their first novel.
Most every interview I’ve read leads me to believe that at least a few novels must be trunked before your writing is of a publishable quality. There’s certain concepts of pacing and arc that are really hard to grasp when you haven’t written out 90,000 words before. (Provided you’re not a preternatural talent.) It’s pretty thrilling actually to see one’s progression–reading the stuff I wrote 4 years ago is horrifying but encouraging.
Then I wonder how bad I am now! I’ll know in 2016.
Twelfth century Cambodia? That sounds kind of interesting. There probably aren’t a lot of books out there set in that time period!
I really enjoyed this post. The bread making analogy makes so much sense.
I was just in Cambodia three weeks ago and there is mass construction going on…big hotels, skyscrapers…you may have a market for that book yet.
I will always remember my first novel fondly. I still go back to it from time to time, and even re-writing it always teaches me something new.
I’ve learnt so much since then. But of course, still have so much to learn! I don’t think it ever stops.