books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Why an Aspiring Novelist Needs a Bunch of Books that are Good to Go

Most writers I meet are desperately trying to get a first novel published. Most will fail. Here’s the bleak truth: almost no writer gets a book deal on the basis of a first novel alone.

“Yeah, but…” sez you, “how come I see first novels published all the time?”

Because, gentle writer-friends, the “debut” book is NOT the writer’s first novel. It’s probably her third. Or fifth. Or tenth. It’s simply her first novel that got published--the one that finally got an agent’s attention AND could withstand the nasty scrutiny of a bunch of snarky editors and marketing people looking for reasons to reject it. (Remember: finding representation is just a first step to another set of rejections—this time of your agent’s pitch.)

So does that mean you should just toss that first novel into the shredder?


OK, a lot of us will realize, after we learn to write better, that the first novel was just a practice piece. But others write excellent beginning novels that don't get picked up--mostly because they aren't the high-concept, breakout, hits-the-current-trend-at-the-perfect-spot-in-the-curve material publishers require these days.

So what you need to do after that first round of rejections is put the first novel in a drawer and write another. And another. And keep querying. And keep getting rejections.

No, don’t jump off that bridge!

You’re not facing defeat; you’re BUILDING INVENTORY. You wouldn’t open a store with only one item to sell, would you?

I recently read an interview with agent Jenny Bent in the online zine Women On Writing. The interviewer asks if agents prefer writers with more than one book “in the works.” Here’s what Jenny said: “Absolutely. It’s pretty much essential. They want an author for the long haul, not just one book. And these days, they want to release them pretty close together because the thinking is that this is the best way to build an author.”

Think about it: writing another novel in a few months while you’re also focusing on marketing your debut book (and keeping your day job) could send you on screamy-meemy overload. So isn’t it nice you’ll have that drawer full of manuscripts?

One caveat: DON’T make all those books part of a series. (A major mistake I made.) If you can’t sell #1, nobody’s going to want to buy #3 or #4 as a breakthrough “debut.” The best thing to do is write all your books as stand-alone titles.

But DO write them in the same genre. Develop a personal style or setting that can be established as your “brand,” but don’t use the same characters or a continuing storyline.

Then, when that agent call comes, and she asks what else you’re working on, you can deliver your already perfected pitch for the novel-in-the-drawer (and all its little friends) and you might even get yourself a multiple-book deal.

Remember—to be a published writer, you have to be in it for the long haul. So, in spite of all the rejections you’re getting on that first novel, go write another and start building your inventory.


  1. So true Anne! Even though my debut novel was published last fall, it wasn't the first manuscript I wrote. In fact the first manuscript I wrote (lots and lots of years ago) - is currently undergoing another rewrite. I agree, keep writing!

  2. Dearest Miss Allen,
    Perfect. My 2nd-5th manuscripts gathering dust DO have a purpose. In my case, though, I've placed that very first full-length manuscript soundly in the category of "fine writing exercise."
    Keep up the fine posts,

  3. I can personally attest to the truth of this. I wrote one novel a year, starting in 1991, and didn't sell my first until 1997. Then, after the release of my first "breakthrough" novel, I was able to sell Simon & Schuster two more that I'd written years earlier. As a result I was able to travel, promote, and not feel the pressure of trying to create in that emotional boiler factory of voices in my head questioning what my readers would want from me next. My best ace in the hole turned out to be unsold novels.

    And here's the punch line. The very next (previously written) novel I sold to Chuck Adams at Simon & Schuster had, a few years earlier, been rejected by (among many other editors) Chuck Adams at Simon & Schuster. Just because he wouldn't take a chance on it as a debut didn't mean he would like it as a follow up.

    So, yeah. What Anne said.

  4. Friday, I went to the SLO ARt Center for David Settino Scott's 25 year retrospective. I knew David in L.A. when we featured some of his work at the gallery were I worked. He was just starting out. As gallery director, I'd regularly visit up-and-coming artists to see their work and would constantly tell them that they were not ready for a one-man show. When they'd ask when that would be, I'd always guestimate about 10 years. The look on their face was always one of horror. But it's true. I takes about 10 years of solid work as an artist to get your feet on consistent, solid ground (style, vision. language) and get to the point where you're really, seriously doing good work. And twenty five years to end up with enough good work to sustain a "retrospective." After which critics brand you an "overnight success." Right, after years of toiling in the shadows.

    Ditto for writers. Like making fine wine, it takes time as well as constant work. Not an easy calling,that's for sure.

  5. I have several little friends I keep warm and safe and ready for show and tell. Every time I finish a new novel I bring one of them out and admire how I've grown. Or not.

  6. LOVE this post. It's perfect. I've heard a lot of other writers really worry over leaving behind that first book, but this puts it into perspective so well.

  7. Love the inspiration, the humor and the concrete facts and advice right here! ("Building inventory" - so wise, and true!)

    Great post ~ I'll be back!


  8. Thank you for this reminder, and what a good way to frame the subject. Inventory. it's all just inventory.

  9. Yea, for building inventory. This is a great blog, Anne. Can't wait for your next piece.

  10. And if all else fails, one can always "mine" those manuscripts for the good bits.

  11. Thanks for the advice Anne, and the Women On Writing reference. I'll check it out.


  12. Great post! Very bracing and reassuring. And it helps me feel less like I'm abandoning the baby of my first novel to work on additional ones.

    "Don't worry, first novel, I still love you. You'll get your day eventually." :)