Your first novel isn’t any good

Author and YouTuber Travis McBee said in a recent video that no one should publish their first book. At times like these, I’m reminded of those old Animaniacs skits:

Doing nothing with your novel — good idea or bad idea?

Travis argued that “if it’s your first book, it’s not good. It’s not nearly as good as your third or fourth book will be. Do not publish it — you will regret it.”

He says instead to do a rewrite and then set it aside — then repeat for at least one more book after that. His point is that your skills will grow dramatically from your first book to your second, and your second to your third. Publishing that rough, early work will turn off readers who may otherwise become loyal fans if only you had waited until your skills advanced.

I … totally agree with him. Rarely are debut published novels actually a writer’s first novel. More often, it’s their second or third — or twentieth.

The first novel I completed was crap. At the time, I didn’t realize that, but I can pretty much look back on that manuscript now and shrug my shoulders and nod my head. Yep. Terrible.

Why was it terrible? Because your first novel is often your “practice novel.” You’re going to make a lot of mistakes in it. And it’s not that those mistakes can’t be fixed — if you really wanted to, you could spend years performing major reconstructive surgery on them. But there’s only so much you can do for a body that’s badly broken.

For me, the clincher was that I no longer enjoyed my novel after writing it. I was bored by it, and I didn’t care about the characters. Not really. I didn’t believe in my story anymore.

It only took me a few years of procrastinating in revisions to figure that out for myself.

Travis’s advice is to move on — shelve that novel, at least for now, and write something new. There’s a big chance it’ll be much, much better. Your first novel isn’t the only novel you have in you — it’s not your “one and only” dream book. Trust me. Your imagination’s a lot bigger than that.

A valuable lesson Twitter can teach us about writing

Twitter Cat

Writing can be short and sweet or extraordinarily long. Either way, be concise and entertaining, and cram each sentence full of personality.

This lesson is exactly 140 characters long, the maximum for a standard tweet. The next time your sentence grows too wordy, practice making it shorter — that will force you to get your point across sooner. How many ways can you rewrite the lesson above without going over the limit? Use WordCounter.net as a guide.

Recipe for the perfect writer’s cocktail

The Kindle Daily Post recently published a guest blog by Kate White (So Pretty It Hurts), Cosmo editor-in-chief and six-time published author. According to the mystery/thriller writer, she didn’t successfully pen her first book until she was over 40-years-old.

Succeeding as a writer didn’t mean buying “a roll-top desk” or surrounding herself with “notecards, pencils, edible-looking pink erasers, and everything else [she] thought an author would need.” It meant finding an atmosphere that liberated her creativity, setting a schedule that worked best for her, and fooling herself into writing for longer stretches than she felt like.

The first component is the right desk. One day I realized that I actually I hated my roll top. It made me feel hemmed in both physically and mentally. So I bought two filling cabinets and a block of wood and began to write on that. The big surface was utterly liberating. Over time, with a little experimentation, I also discovered that though I’m a night owl, I write most easily early in the morning. And I came to see that I can’t be forced to write for big blocks of time. I need to play the trick of telling myself that I’ll write for an hour, not an entire afternoon—but then I always keep going. Oddly, it helps, too, if Carmina Burana is playing. (Perhaps that sometimes ominous-sounding music is good for creating whodunits).

The most important part may be not making excuses. Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you’d rather make time for the billion easier things in your life, like watching whole television seasons and redecorating your house and catching up on blogs every morning, afternoon, and night. But if you’re going to do that instead, be honest with yourself: You’re not writing that novel. At least not now.

If you’re going to write a book, write a book. If it needs revised, revise it. Remember that the many parts of the writing process are not always fun, and they’re definitely not glamorous. Stop procrastinating, sweat a little, and you’ll be rewarded with progress. Do whatever you need to do to get there, but don’t use the material world with its perfect pink erasers and notecards as roadblocks to actual writing. Your work doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to happen. Each step you take is one step closer than you were yesterday.

Writer’s block is an excuse, not a reason

So this is something that was posted earlier in March, but I wanted to share it with all the struggling writers out there. Someone asked Neil Gaiman how to cope with the dreaded writer’s block, since this person wasn’t finishing any piece of writing because he/she was chronically unsatisfied with what was landing on the page. Gaiman’s answer? Writer’s block is a convenient scapegoat, but it’s more “a combination of laziness, perfectionism and Getting Stuck.”

Even if a story’s lousy, you’ll learn something from it that will be useful as a writer, even if it’s just “don’t do that again”.

You’re always going to be dissatisfied with what you write. That’s part of being human. In our heads, stories are perfect, flawless, glittering, magical. Then we start to put them down on paper, one unsatisfactory word at a time. And each time our inner critics tell us that it’s a rotten idea and we should abandon it.

If you’re going to write, ignore your inner critic, while you’re writing. Do whatever you can to finish. Know that anything can be fixed later.

Remember: you don’t have to be brilliant when you start out. You just have to write. Every story you finish puts you closer to being a writer, and makes you a better writer.

His advice echoes what I was saying a few days ago about dealing with a mediocre or downright awful blog post—or any other sort of writing: Learn something and move on. Don’t dwell, and don’t cover it up. Make the most of your writing, flaws and all.

Writers who write for a living don’t get to blame an unproductive day on a fanciful and elusive concept like “writer’s block.” We have to write despite whether we feel like it or if everything sounds wrong and ugly and miserably off-pitch. We have to type and delete and retype, planting ourselves in front of a blank screen until we finally coax words—not necessarily the right ones—out into the open. Writing is a tough gig. But when we are, as Gaiman says, lazy or nit-picky or just plain Stuck, we push through … even if it’s only for that paycheck that always arrives a month late.

Even if writing isn’t your day job, you should treat it like one. So what if the words aren’t perfect? They’re never going to be, and that’s what revisions are for, anyway. It’s more important to finish what you start than let it fester and die before its time. Finish, and you’ll learn something. Finish, and you’ll have new experience to draw from.

Write, write some more, and move on

Lately I’ve been thinking about what writers do when we have so-called “dry spells”—when what we’re typing out onto the screen doesn’t match our normal quality of writing. Say we churn out a bad post, or maybe a few bad eggs in a row. Do we click that delete button, or do we cover our mistake with a series of hasty attempts and hope the world doesn’t notice?

We do neither. Writing is not a perfect art form. We’re going to have off days just like we’re going to have days when our writing is spot-on. But we should never be ashamed of our work to the point where we want to bury it. Every effort adds up to the bigger picture: a better, more experienced you.

We are always writers in training—not even the most practiced in the trade escape self-improvement, and if they think otherwise, they’re probably not very good. Writing is one part confidence, one part self-doubt—and that uncertainty is what allows us to push aside our egos and tell ourselves, “Okay. I can do better.” We should always make room for criticism, whether it’s coming from someone else and from ourselves.

I once read, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Even people who don’t write can trust their gut—and as writers, we have to trust ours as well as put our skills and experience to good use. If a piece of writing just isn’t working out, listen to that little voice that’s suggesting that maybe your approach or topic isn’t such a good idea. At that point, either scrap it and move on or start over and try looking at it another way, as the parents of the eponymous James told their son in James and the Giant Peach. Smart advice.

Sometimes the most important lesson to learn is to learn one at all. Make the most of your mistake by remembering it and applying that lesson to your future writing. The trick is to balance knowledge of good writing practices with instinct (our natural editor and ear for rhythm). Both come with time and lots of practice. You’re not going to write anything good without writing a lot of bad first.

The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

Luc Sante wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal recently about finding (and listening to) the editor within. He hits some really good notes—like how being a good writer is not the same as being a good editor, although the two are closely linked.

Toward the end, Sante offers what is arguably his best advice:

One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn’t just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

In the time I’ve worked as a writing tutor and copy editor, I’ve learned two undeniable tenets of the trade: Ripping other people’s writing to shreds is easy. Doing as much to our own happens far less frequently.

The key is a balanced approach. Take a little space and time to let the writing simmer and breathe, no matter whose it is. Reread not only for flow, but to concentrate on various aspects of the piece and allows yourself to catch different sorts of problems. Keep the voice, cut the excess, and dispose of words that hinder effective communication—no matter how enamored you are with a particular phrase. Most importantly, trust your gut. If something feels wrong when reading a sentence, it probably needs work. This instinct applies to whole paragraphs, too.

Be gentle with other people’s writing. As much as you might want to because you’re a Grammar Nazi or the Best Writer Ever in your world, don’t take sadistic joy in tearing another person’s efforts apart. I learned this through experience. The best method is to look for weak openings in grammar, punctuation, and style while keeping a close eye on readability and clarity. Don’t overload sentences and make sure, whatever you do, that the author’s voice is intact. Have a firm, irrefutable reason for changing anything.

Voice is important for our own writing, as well. Sometimes when we edit we’re tempted to iron out any hint of personality for fear that it might sound too informal or risky. But often a little flavor can elevate even the most perfected writing, taking it from flat to extraordinary! Like Burrito Kitty here.

My first blog award!

Thank you so much to Amy Marie, who runs a wonderful and very helpful writing blog called The Literary Mom, for giving me the Liebster Blog Award! As someone who greatly enjoys writing and building relationships with readers and fellow bloggers, this is an honor, and one that I deeply value. So thank you again, Amy! :D

The Liebster Award (as stated on Amy’s page):

The guidelines for the Liebster Blog Award are:

  • Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
  • Reveal your top 5 picks for the award and let them know by leaving them a comment on their blog.
  • Post the award on your blog.
  • Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the blogsphere – other bloggers.
  • Most of all – have fun and spread the karma.

I’m extremely excited about the chance to point out some of my favorite blogs! If Amy hadn’t just received the award, I would definitely nominate her. (PS: She’s also critiquing the first twenty or so pages of my novel, so she’s twice as awesome.) Anyway, be sure to follow her and these other amazing bloggers:

1. Sarah’s Place: Embracing life in the northern lattitudes – No other blogger has welcomed me to the WordPress.com blogosphere quite like Sarah, and for that I owe her a great deal of thanks and appreciation. Not only that, but her blog is fantastic! She has (in my humble opinion) one of the best cooking sites on the net. I’m pretty picky about recipes—they can’t involve an excess of rare, needless ingredients or be too difficult to make—but Sarah consistently provides ones (complete with personality and great step-by-step pictures) that are easy to understand and make and look absolutely delicious. Keep up the great work, Sarah. No pressure or anything. Just keep being you! :)

2. Yo Mama: ‘Cause there ain’t no yo daddy jokes – My favorite women’s advocate and gender blogger who—brownie points for her—also has me listed on her blogroll (she’s also listed in mine, see the sidebar). She’s one of the smartest and most talented bloggers around.

(FYI, I’m totally open to blogroll exchanges, if anyone’s ever interested. Just send an email to wita [dot] blog [at] gmail [dot] com.)

3. The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say “Shhh” – Oh my goodness, I could say oodles about how wonderful Miss Anderson is. She has one of the most fun book blogs out there, and she adds layers (I’m talking Shrek layers, like an onion, only more awesome) of personality and charm to everything she writes. Plus, she doles out letter grades to the books she reads. Nice!

4. Sometimes Bailey: A non-fiction writer’s blog about making a literary life while balancing work and family – I haven’t pinned down Veronica yet—her blog entries are always refreshingly varied in my feed. Her posts about literature, life, and writing are always a pleasure to read.

5. Kristen Lamb’s Blog – Kristen is an author and a social media and publishing whiz, and her posts constantly brim with wise and insightful advice. Check it out!