Your First Novel—Keep Trying, or Give It Up & Move On?

Filed in The Writing Life by on February 27, 2014 • views: 981

book 2Author and visionary Steven Pressfield recently addressed a question from a hardworking writer. (Read the entire post here.)

In essence, the question was: “When do you know if you need to return to a project and polish or start anew?”

The writer had put years into his first novel, seeking feedback and making changes, and despite some interest from agents, had yet to sell it. It was time to make a decision. Stuff it in the drawer, or keep revising in the hopes that one day something good would happen?

I was pulled in by this story because my own “first-novel” struggles. Here’s what I’ve learned—you don’t have to agonize over this choice. If you keep writing, your story will tell you all you need to know.

Be Cautious with the Opinions of Others

Steve told the writer not to rely on the opinions of others, and that very few people are qualified to give feedback to a writer. On the whole, I agree, but I did find a way to separate the purely subjective (and often useless) feedback from that which proved to be helpful—just get a lot of feedback from unbiased readers, and see what floats to the top.

My first novel started out as 160,000 words. (Ouch.) Or it could have been more. I don’t remember now, because it’s been so long since I started it. I’m talking over ten years. Working on that novel was a long, arduous, heartbreaking challenge, but at the same time, I learned a ton from it.

I sought feedback. I attended conferences that offered manuscript critiques. I hired a professional editor. Over time, I learned that my characters were appealing, but my plot needed help. And oh, I needed to shorten it. And shorten it some more.

Looking back now, it’s hard to remember how many revisions I went through. A few times, I submitted it to publishers. One told me that it wasn’t for them, but to keep trying, because the book would be published eventually. It was enough to keep me going.

Characters That Won’t Be Silenced

I wrote a sequel—novel two—but once I finished it, I realized I could do nothing with it unless novel one sold. I was getting nowhere and needed to try something else, so I wrote a third novel.

According to the critiques, I was getting closer, but there were still some issues. When I tried to fix them, though, I got stuck. I battled with it for awhile, then abandoned it, having lost interest.

Meanwhile, the main character from novel one kept talking in my head. I started a fourth novel, but at the same time, pulled the first one back out and worked on it some more. Shortened it. Submitted it.

Then out of the blue, novel one took second place in a national contest. Talk about a pick-me-up. Maybe there was something there after all. I submitted it to a couple publishers, but had no luck.

I went back to my fourth novel, finished it and sent it out for feedback. The comments pointed out strengths and weaknesses. I tried to fix them, but soon lost interest. The story no longer held that spark for me. (I later realized I was on my journey to finding my voice, here, but that’s another post!)

Novel four joined the others in the drawer.

Consensus Reached

Meanwhile, I was gradually collecting a nice-sized stack of comments on my first novel, along with smaller stacks on my third and fourth as well. They helped me see patterns in my writing. Things like dialogue, setting, pacing, plot, character development—what was working, and what still needed work.

I learned new ways to go about the entire process of putting a novel together—ways that worked better for me than those I had started out with so many years ago.

I had no problem leaving novels two, three, and four in the drawer, reclassified as “learning experiences.” But novel one wouldn’t be quiet. It was like the noisy puppy trapped in the laundry room. Yap yap yap! So I kept pulling it out and working on it. Submitting. And in between, I started novel five.

The year 2009 came along and novel one placed in a second contest, and finalized in a third. But the economy had taken a hit, and I was working hard to bring my freelance business back up to speed. Time passed.

When the Time is Right

My fifth novel started getting some traction. Placing in contests. Receiving really positive feedback. Inspired, I sent novel one out again. For the first time, I got a request for the full manuscript. I sent it, but they didn’t take it. I was sure that meant the story would never be good enough. I gave it a proper funeral and decided that was the end of the line.

I started on a middle grade project, focused on my fifth novel, and started a sixth. Then one day, something shifted in my head. I got a little angry. Angry that I had worked so hard and had yet to see a published book out of it. One weekend, I spent hours at the computer researching publishers. I submitted novel five to a handful of them, and just for good measure, novel one to a couple, too. And suddenly, the dam broke.

I received a request for the full on novel one.  About seven months later, after hearing nothing back, I got another request. Then, a publishing contract arrived from the first publisher. While negotiating that, three more publishers asked to see the full manuscript.

The book is now contracted with a publisher and scheduled to come out in late 2014. Meanwhile, novel five is under review with a different publisher (as it’s in a different genre).

What Did I Learn?

I don’t feel like I’ve “arrived,” by any means. I still have a lot to learn. But the overriding lesson from my experiences with novel one was this: the story will tell you.

If you’re working on a first novel and are unsure what to do, here’s my unsolicited and free advice. (grin)

  • Send it out for feedback, but be careful. Like Steve says, it can leave you confused and full of self-doubt. Think of your story as your child. If one person said he was ill-mannered, you’d pay no attention, right? But if your mother, neighbor, friend, the child’s teacher, and his soccer coach all told you the same thing, you’d likely investigate. Approach your story the same way. Don’t believe every negative comment, but if more than two people tell you the plot isn’t holding together, or the pacing is slow, or the characters need work, ask yourself—could it be true?
  • Believe the comments that ring true with you. Helpful comments are those that “feel” right. We all sort of know deep down inside what’s wrong with the novel. Sometimes we just can’t see it clearly until someone else points it out. Put the comments aside, and read them again when you feel truly objective. Pay attention to those you think have merit, and ignore the rest.
  • Put it aside and work on something else. This is perhaps the most important step. A first novel tends to be an obsession with many writers. We just have to get it right. Setting it aside somehow feels like a failure, but it’s best to gain some experience on another project, and then come back—but only if you want to.
  • Go back only if the novel demands it. After you work on your second and third novel, you may find you no longer have an interest in the first one. You may see all its flaws, and decide you would rather put your energy into your new stuff. But if your novel keeps talking to you, use what you’ve learned to go back and make it better.
  • Pay attention to encouragement. One reason I kept going back to novel one was that I received positive encouragement on it along the way. Though I also got constructive criticism, it was balanced by positive notes from editors, recognition in contests, and enthusiastic comments on critiques. If you’re getting this on your project, it may be worth a second, third, or fourth look.
  • Remember that writing is a craft, and it takes time. I was a musician long before I was a writer. We all seem to understand that to become a virtuoso cellist, pianist, or trombonist, one has to commit to decades of practice, schooling, training, and performance. Yet we think we should be virtuoso writers the first time out. Give yourself half a million words, a mentor told me once. At least that many before you start putting extreme expectations on yourself.
  • Listen to yourself above all. Not the ego. Not the loud voice in your head. The quiet one. The one you have to be still to hear. Your intuition. Your inner voice. Trust it completely.

Do you have a first novel you’re struggling with? Please share your story.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Bob Conklin says:

    Thanks so much for your blog. I can relate to your story in several ways. Like you, I kept (and keep) going back to my first completed novel (140,000 words eventually got pared down to 75,000). It continues to pull at my subconscious after dozens of revisions over the past 10 years since its inception. Meanwhile, I’ve written four more novels and am working on a sixth. I’ve developed a rotation method of sending out queries about each to agents, just to keep things going. Every now and then, I’ll get a request for a partial or full, or a word of personal encouragement that isn’t a form reply. Just enough to keep me going … 🙂 But I’m finding I rather enjoy the “hunt” for publication. Not sure what would happen if I landed a deal. Probably just have a nervous breakdown!

    • Colleen says:

      Keep going, Bob. I had the best luck when submitting directly to small publishers. The small presses are great for new authors.