Advice to writers: your first novel

Chuck it.

That’s right – throw it away. The odds are ten to one (or worse) that it will ever be published. And yes, I do know that advice is going to hurt…

I admire anyone who actually finishes a book. It’s not a simple undertaking – it requires perseverance and sacrifice. It’s time you could have spent with your family, or watching TV, or reading, or something else just as attractive. You had the required strength of character, and you finished. And now you want the world to know the result and love it the way you do.

Sometimes it even happens. I personally do know people who did have their very first book published and it has turned out to be very successful too, the start of a prosperous career. However, it is a rare occurrence, believe me. When you press most successful authors for the truth, you will find that most of them threw the first effort away, or never showed it to anyone, or never finished it.

The truth is that no tennis player gets to Wimbleton centre court first time out; no golfer wins the Masters first time around. What you don’t see is the years and years of practice that gets them to that point. Remember those hours and hours of piano practice you did as a kid? Or the band practice in the garage, or the guitar practice in your bedroom with the door shut? Your first book is that practice. And possibly so is your second, third and fourth.

Some of you are now muttering, “No one is that stupid. Write four or five books and never get any published? They should have given up! And if they did do that and weren’t published, they are obviously crap writers and idiots to boot…”

Hey, wait a moment. That’s me you’re talking about. I may be an idiot, but I’m not a crap writer. And I have been published – in five countries and three languages. I now have seven books published or on their way to publication. I’ve been shortlisted for awards. Yet my path to success is littered with unpublished manuscripts – and I’ve lost count of how many.

I finished my first novel when I was twelve, my second and third when I was in my twenties, and so on. Some I never showed anyone at all. Others were read by friends. Most I sent off just the once or twice and then gave up when they were rejected – not knowing how precious the words of encouragement I received were. (I truly was an innocent abroad…)

My advice is: don’t put all your hopes in your first effort. In fact, think very carefully about marketing it at all. Writing is a lifetime career, and you have to learn your craft first. When you have finished your first book, start immediately on the second. You can always come back to that first one again later, and either mine it for ideas, or rewrite it with a new outlook in a few years time.

Daunting? Yes. The question is this: just how much do you want to be a published writer? Are you in it for the long haul? If you know you will write no matter what, then an unpublished MS, or two, or three, is nothing. They were fun to write, after all, weren’t they?

Remember Ursula LeGuin? Asked what she would have been if she hadn’t been a writer, she replied: “Dead.” Well, that’s me, too. And most other writers worth their salt. This is not just a job we do for money, it’s a drive we have to create. It’s the journey that counts. Remember van Gogh? The only paintings he ever sold in his lifetime were to his brother. It didn’t stop him from painting.

So my advice is : Write. Keep on writing. Learn your craft, and one day you’ll probably get there. But don’t, don’t, get too hung up on the fate of your first book. After all, you were just practising…

Originally posted in Glenda’s blog on Friday, 3 March 2006 (7 Comments).


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