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 Do not publish it — you will regret it.”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.

12 tips for new writers working on their first manuscript (aka, a letter to my past self)

writing a book

Writing a book is dang hard. And even though experienced writers know that writing the thing is the easy part, that doesn’t diminish what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish a book. A lot of people don’t get that far, so it’s pretty incredible if you do. I mean, you are awesome.

You learn a lot going from your first completed manuscript to your second. In no special order, here are 12 things I wish I could go back and tell my former self — a newbie fiction writer with a lot ahead of her.

#1: No one gets it right on the first try

Dear past self: You just finished that manuscript, wrote “the end,” and your whole body is shaking. YOU WROTE A BOOK. You’re excited and proud, and you damn well should be.

But as amazing as you think your book is, it’s going to need a lot of work — a little thing called revision. There’s a reason most writers consider their very first finished MS their “practice novel.” You’re flexing a muscle you’ve never used before, at least not so rigorously — it’s gonna take awhile before you compose a masterpiece.

So don’t feel bad if this isn’t “the one.” First drafts are never, ever perfect. First novels rarely ever are.

#2: Listen to what your gut is telling you

Dear past self: When you were writing that book, you thought that this was the hard part. But now revision looms ahead of you, and you just can’t bring yourself to get past the first few chapters. You’ve polished them each about ten times, and you still have tens of thousands of words left to go. How can you even.

Truth is, you’re procrastinating for a reason: You don’t love your book. You don’t believe in it. You think it’s boring, and that’s hard to admit, and it’s going to take you a year or two to finally concede to it. But hey. That’s okay. You can put this one in a drawer somewhere and start working on something that’s going to excite you again. Because if you don’t love your story, chances are no reader will.

writing happened

#3: Publishing isn’t the point

Dear past self: The totally delusional write to make millions. (Not gonna happen.) The semi-delusional write to get published. The realistic write because they love writing, and if publishing follows at some point, hey, that’s pretty awesome.

Every writer wants to get published, but as soon as you accept that that’s not why you’re doing this — that you’re writing because you can’t not write — then things will fall into place. You’ll become more disciplined, more serious about getting the work done in a timely manner. And that’s what counts. That you treat it like a profession. That you hone your skills. That you keep writing. Publishing is not proof that you’re a writer. Your writing habits are.

#4: Study your craft

Dear past self: You’ve got a lot to learn, kiddo, so you better study up. Start researching story structure. POV. Character development. Info dumps. Show versus tell. Internalization and dialogue. And most importantly, REVISION.

Fiction University is going to help you a lot. You’re going to recommend it to every writer you meet who’s struggling with the basics. You’re a whiz at grammar and punctuation, and that will take you far. Now it’s time to master technique.

#5: Get over your fear of sharing

Dear past self: The best revision you’ll ever do will be the product of having other writers look at your writing. No writer should revise in a vacuum — you’re too close to your work to see what needs fixing, and you have no sense of what you should be focusing on.

Without the guidance of critique partners and beta readers, you’ll be changing things that don’t need changed and making edits that don’t have much impact. Having someone provide feedback on your work will be ten times more valuable than trying to figure out revision when you have no idea where you should even begin. Revision is hard enough; don’t do it alone. The only way to get over your shyness about sharing your writing is to share your writing.

write trashy

#6: Negative feedback isn’t a death sentence

Getting critiqued is hard. You’re going to cry the first few times. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to have to train yourself not to get angry when someone thinks your story needs work.

But guess what: The more you do it, the less sensitive you’ll be to negative feedback, and the more you’ll crave it. Because this is the good stuff. This is going to make your writing better. And with time, you’ll start to realize that the difference between a bad chapter someone hates and a good chapter they love can come down to a few key edits. It’s not as a hard as you think. It’s practically magic.

#7: Revision will get easier

Dear past self: Just like getting critiqued, revising will get easier, too. Right now, you hate it. It’s so much work. You spend so many hours on one chapter. You feel like this is going to take forever and that you’ll never get there.

But listen: You will get there. And you will get used to revision. In fact, you’ll actually start to love it more than writing a first draft, because revision is how your story transforms. How it becomes everything you envisioned it to be. As the changes you make pile up, you’ll actually start seeing the forest for the trees. And revision becomes … fun. Imagine that.

#8: Schedules are VERY important

Dear past self: In order to write a book, you have to stick to a schedule. That could be anything — 300 words every day of the week, or 500 words every other day. You decide.

And just like with writing, revision only gets done when you set a schedule. And as soon as you make that schedule a habit that you follow, it won’t be so hard to stick to anymore. And hey — you’ll learn that if you plan your schedule at the start of each week, you’ll get so much done. And getting shit done is a GOOD FEELING. You’ll want as much of that good feeling as you can get.

#9: Stop worrying about word count

Dear past self: Okay, so you’re an underwriter. While other writers can churn out 130,000 words and then have to spend their time trimming, you’re stuck adding to your novel more than you need to take away. You basically have to flesh out every scene — paint in the details.

But for the love of god, stop obsessing about word count. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Sure, publishers expect certain genres to be within a certain word count range. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy with this one, trust me. Focus on the story now — word count later. Story matters more, and oftentimes in filling out and also tightening your story, word count will take care of itself.

word count gif

#10: Stop comparing yourself to other writers

Dear past (and present) self: On your worst days, you’re going to hate every word you write. Don’t look at your novel on these days. Don’t go anywhere near it. And above all, do not compare your writing to someone else’s.

Your style is your style, and trying to be like That Author You Love isn’t going to change that. In fact, trying to emulate them won’t get you published. A fresh voice will. A unique voice. Your voice.

Every writer’s journey to success — and to publication (which are separate things) — is different. Some take longer than others. Some are harder than others. So a published author you admire is just a writer who’s been at it longer. Who’s practiced more. Don’t get down on yourself because they’re far along in their own story and you’re just starting yours.

#11: You will get better

Dear past self: When you see how much better your second manuscript is going to be than your first, you’re going to flip. It’ll be so obvious in the writing, structure, and characters how much you’ve grown. You’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You’ve gotten better. And of course, you still have more to learn.

But when you go for your third time around, you’re going to use that new knowledge and write an even better story. All stories involve work — involve rewriting. That’s how it’s done. And even if novel one through novel four don’t get you published, the experience of writing them — of revising them — will make you stronger. So much more than you think.

#12: Never give up

Dear past (and present) self: Never give up on your dream.

Writing is hard. It’s a thankless job. It takes years of your life. And sometimes you’re going to wonder if it’s even worth doing.

But in your heart, you know it is. Because you love this. Because this is who you are. And because you’ll never be truly happy until you see your first book on the shelves — and then your next book, and the next. Writing stories makes you happy. And when you don’t write, you’re anxious and grumpy and restless, and you know it.

So keep writing. Keep going. Whether it takes you two manuscripts or ten to get published. Write to write. Write because you want to. Because you can. Because you’re unstoppable. Because you’ve got a story to tell, dammit. And never let anyone else tell you otherwise — especially yourself.

When you feel discouraged about your writing

writing hard

Last week, I was feeling overwhelmed by the writing process. Finishing a book takes a long time. First, you have to write it and take a pass at editing. Then you have to enlist critique partners to point out the problems you can’t spot yourself, which also requires that you devote time to their manuscripts. Then, before you begin the querying process, which can take months, you should probably show your novel to some beta readers to gauge how regular readers (not writers) would react to your book if they picked it up in a bookstore.

It’s easy to feel like all of this is too much of an investment. If you might have to write three, five, ten manuscripts before you get published, then why waste so much energy on a single book?

You can get caught up in thinking it’s going to take forever before you get good enough to publish, and then what if you never do?

Here’s the thing. Writing isn’t about getting published. It’s not even about talent. It’s about hard work and persistence. You should write because you love to write, because you don’t ever want to stop, not because you care about whether a group of people believe your work is “marketable” or whether it’s the next New York Times bestseller.

I know that’s a hard thing to hear because, holy shit, does writing take a lot out of you. I’ve been working on my current WIP for over a year. For a lot of that time, I didn’t necessarily keep to a strict writing or revising schedule — although I’m doing a lot better than I did with my first completed novel, which took me over three years to revise and even longer to realize that I was procrastinating because I didn’t feel passionate about it (a good sign that it sucked and I needed to move on to a new project).

Now I’m setting my writing/revising schedule at the beginning of the week using Any.do and planning out my goals per quarter. Because I want to finish this thing, no matter how long it takes. Even if it doesn’t end up being my debut and attracting an agent and publisher, that’s okay. Because just going from my last manuscript to this one, I can see how much my skills have grown. And I know that I’m going to get even better — so it won’t be quite so much work the next time around. Hopefully, my next story will be even more enjoyable to read, too, because I’ll have gotten better at all the things I’ve been struggling with.

So if you’re feeling down about your writing, tell yourself to shut up. Then pat yourself on the back and treat yourself to some chocolate or beer or whatever makes you happy. Because even if you can’t believe it right now, one day you’re going to get there — to that wonderful moment of seeing your book on somebody’s shelf. You just have to stick with it.

believe in magic

Fifty Shades of Grey is bad news for the bedroom — and cars, apparently

Fifty ShadesIf your nose is in a book these days, there’s a good chance it’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold 32 million copies in the U.S. Either that, or you’re reading Twilight, which inspired E. L. James’ novel and its sequels.

We can talk bedroom dos and don’ts until the handcuffs come off, but what about cars?

Yeah, my reaction exactly: What in the name of sparkly vampires and bondage does Fifty Shades have to do with automobiles?

According to Haynes Publishing, which largely prints sought-after car manuals, just about everything. The firm is complaining that retailers are rejecting its books in favor of hotter titles.

“There is little doubt that…retail purchasing budgets were tight and that much of those available budgets went towards the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades series,” the company said in a statement, as reported on The Telegraph.

“Our books, in the most part, appeal to automobile and motorcycle enthusiasts. They are probably oriented to a male audience, and I am not sure that Fifty Shades is the kind of thing they would enjoy, but that phenomenon is impacting general publishing budget,” said Haynes’s chief executive officer, Eric Oakley.

“Many bookshops have spent so much money on these titles that their resources [for buying other books] has been stretched to the limit.”

I’m not sure I can sympathize — especially when Haynes is acting like it deserves special treatment. If the company is correct, than wouldn’t sales of fellow competing books be suffering, as well? Popular is popular — there’s not much anyone can do about that. Haynes’s statement sounds like old-fashioned whining to me.

Of course, it isn’t fair that one series of books can hog the spotlight, but the reality is, that fame won’t forever. The true battle is remaining relevant and interesting despite the constant surge of new and flashy competition. Just look at J. K. Rowling’s just-released The Casual Vacancy, which sold 375,000 copies in its first six days — an underwhelming number when you consider the predictions: more than 2.6 million on day one, which would exceed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That didn’t exactly happen, but The Casual Vacancy still bumped Fifty Shades of Grey from the top spot on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list, which it held for 21 weeks.

But then again, maybe Haynes has a right to complain. Its sales have fallen 9 percent recently, which could be a result of popular contenders…or maybe they’re just convenient scapegoats.

What do you think?

Encouragement in unlikely places: a review of The Forest for the Trees

“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one,” explained John Updike in an interview reprinted in his collection Hugging the Shore. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy LernerYou’d think a book subtitled “An Editor’s Advice to Writers” would be about useful editing techniques, right? Wrong — at least not in Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, which views the process of writing and and publishing through a literary editor’s lens. This is an insider’s look at the business, with juicy secrets from within the publishing house, from an editor who fearlessly bares her soul and, by way of it, encourages her readers to do the same.

As someone who discovered the world of copy editing only a couple years ago, has made mistakes and learned what the editor-writer relationship means and should be, and has since filled both shoes at once, I expected pages of wisdom about good, hard editing. What Lerner provides is much different: I knew it wasn’t going to be Strunk and White, but I wasn’t prepared for a collection of experiences throughout the years. Lerner reveals the beautiful and the ugly sides of the industry — and the bitterness and optimism that comes and goes for editors, agents, publicists, publishers, and writers alike. These people must all work together for a common goal, but their perspectives and priorities couldn’t be more different from day to day.

First, Lerner tackles the needs and neuroses of the writer, who is simply someone, of any walk of life, who must write. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad, chronically unpublished or successful. A writer is someone who writes against all hardship and commits to whatever amount of work is necessary to improve — even if that means rewriting an entire book from a different character’s perspective or surviving a storm of criticism that never seems to clear.

And as far as the phrase, “Write what you know”? Lerner says it’s redundant — all writers, by fault, write what they know.

Lerner also urges aspiring authors to write like they don’t care if their mother will read it. You’re not going to shock, awe, or inspire any other sort of emotional reaction unless you’re fearless in what you put down on the page.

But to editors, agents, and publicists, writers are like children. So easily can they stray from the well-lit path into any manner of darkness: writer’s block, desperation, jealousy of peers, an insatiable need for attention, and even drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. They’re naive and impatient, and so often the rewards of publication are built on hopes and fantasies that, once shattered, can never be repaired.

Getting published isn’t an instant miracle. Sometimes it makes the struggle harder, Lerner tells us, and she backs up what she says.

She also explores all angles of the book world and shows how the people caught up in it interact with one another. Publicists get little love. The inside of a publishing house is a brutal environment where discouragement and thrill go hand in hand. And the business is always changing — with the growth of social media and the constant yet unpredictable threat of competition. No one ever really know what’s going to sell.

But Lerner shares the little joys, too — those rare, literary wonders that you fight for, and the ones that are runaway hits and a fleeting source of euphoria for everyone who made them happen. What’s even more amazing, though, is how safe the author makes readers — and writers — feel despite the hostility and enormous chance of disappointment. She holds in her hands not a pen, but a little flame of hope that refuses to go out.

Bottom line: Not for practical applications, but contains invaluable insight into the publishing industry that any aspiring writer should take the time to read.

What I liked: The author’s swift use of language and her bravery.

What I wasn’t expecting: No concrete editing tips and advice to speak of.