by Anne R. Allen
We are always hearing about authors who have phenomenal success with a "first novel." I'm sure most writers fantasize about being that author sometime in our early careers. I sure did.
But here's what I didn't know back then: the novels that are published first are rarely the first novel an author actually wrote.
Most successful authors have several "practice" manuscripts in their files. They also may be successful journalists, screenwriters, editors, feature writers, or ghostwriters who have been writing for a living for a long time.
In November, we had a guest post from NYT bestseller Eileen Goudge, who revealed that her bestselling "first novel," Garden of Lies was written after she cut her teeth writing dozens of YA novels in the Sweet Valley High series.
There's much buzz right now around the "debut" book by Katherine Heiny, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but it turns out she's been writing teen romance for years and had a story published in The New Yorker twenty years ago.
And last week we heard that even To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't Harper Lee's first (or only) novel.
A lot of people reacted to the Harper Lee story with shock and anger. It's hard to let go of the lovely myth of the genius who created that one perfect novel on the first try and lived on its proceeds for life.
Other people—mostly born in the post-typewriter era—could not believe a novel could be lost for 50 years. Speaking as somebody who once lost a novel for 15 years, I can say that back in the days when we only had one or two copies of a manuscript, it was scary-easy to lose them. My second novel, which eventually became The Lady of the Lakewood Diner (many revisions later) only exists because a friend remodeled his house and found an early copy I'd given him for safekeeping. It had had fallen behind some drywall.
Why did I lose track of it? Because early rejections convinced me the book was unpublishable. I hadn't built up the soul callouses or objectivity to see what worked and what didn't.
What I found most fascinating about the Harper Lee story was the revelation that her original manuscript contained the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird in flashback. Her editor at Harper and Row rejected her first novel and asked her to write the flashbacks as a separate book, then compose a second book, and publish the rest of the original novel, Go Set a Watchman as the third in a trilogy.
Obviously, Miss Lee never wrote book #2, so book #3 languished and was presumed lost until a copy was unearthed a few months ago in her lawyer's safe deposit box.
My first thought on hearing this story was to wonder if I would have been humble enough to let an editor make me rewrite my first novel so completely at that stage in my writing life.
A first—and even second—book can feel like our "baby" and many of us turn into mother bears trying to protect them. We often forget that publishing is a business and feel devastated when we discover the entire world has not been waiting in breathless anticipation for our baby's brilliant debut.
1) Throwing your "firstborn" into the unforgiving marketplace can have devastating psychological consequences
Recently I saw a Facebook post by a writer who said, "I've finished my book! Everybody says I should start sending it out there so I can find out if it's any good. But I'm scared."
She was right to be scared.
If "sending it out there" means querying agents and publishers, she was hearing some bad advice.
And if "sending it out there" means self-publishing, she was getting even worse advice.
Querying or self-publishing your first fledgling effort can make a writer give up on a perfectly good book…or end a career before it starts. It can also be a huge waste of money and time.
Publishing a book because you crave validation is likely to backfire.
Agents and publishers will not tell you if a book is any good.
Agents will only tell you if your manuscript is what they're looking for today.
Getting those rejection emails—or worse, silence—is not going to tell you a darn thing. And it can keep you from going any further with your writing dreams. Getting rejection early on can be traumatizing.
We're usually sure it has to do with the quality of the work… or worse, our lack of "talent".
But there are 100's of reasons for rejections, most of which don't have anything to do with your book. Rejections often come from the author's inexperience—a clunky query, an overly detailed synopsis, or amateurish formatting.
And even more often, rejections spring from business reasons that have nothing to do with you or your work: the agency has just sold a similar book, some marketer thinks your genre is waning, or somebody's just having a bad day.
It is not an agent's job to critique your work, and very, very few will do so.
I know that doesn't stop fledgling writers from expecting it. I admit I did.
That's one of the reasons that you're lucky to get a rejection letter at all these days (most agents only reply to queries that interest them.) If they do send something, it will be a carefully worded generic message about how they're sure your project will find a good home, but it is not right for them at this time.
I see lots of new writers trying to pick these apart to find some sort of critique in it. I guarantee it isn't there.
Even a book that's perfectly polished and ready to go will probably get tons of rejections. Catherine Ryan Hyde has some great examples in our book How to be a Writer in the E-Age
. She talks about how her agent said her mega-hit Pay it Forward,
"needs lots of work." Six months later another agent sold the book to Simon and Schuster and the film rights to Warner Brothers. Same book. Catherine didn't do a word of rewriting.
But if a book isn't ready—and if it's your first, it probably isn't—you're only wasting an agent's time by sending out unpolished work. They may remember you when you submit again, but not in a good way.
What you should be doing instead of sending out 25 queries a week is…write the next book!
Reviews will not tell you if a book is any good.
Yeah, yeah, I know—you just skimmed that stuff about rejections saying "I don't need no stinkin' agents. I'm going indie all the way!"
But if you've just finished your first novel, publishing immediately is even worse than "sending it out" to agents.
The advice you hear from a lot of self-publishing advocates to publish and "learn from reviews" is even worse than expecting to get an education from agents and publishers.
I have read posts by first-time indies who feel personally wounded when they get honest, unfavorable reviews. They say "these people should cut me some slack—it's my first book!"
No, they should not cut you any slack. They have taken the time to read a book for their own entertainment, not to be your private writing tutor.
And online customer reviews are notoriously unreliable. They often only tell you if the reviewer hates your genre, had trouble downloading, or is trying to built up his review numbers to get free stuff from Amazon merchants.
What a first-time novelist should do is collect beta readers or join a critique group to polish that book till it shines, plus work on building platform, network on social media…and write the next book.
Sales will not tell you if a book is any good
Sales tell you if you're good at business and marketing. See #6 below.
Yes, you should start learning about the business and this is a great time to work on building your platform...while you're writing the next book. (Are you catching a theme here…?)
2) You need inventory to start a business. Self-Publishing a first novel "to see what happens" is usually a waste of time and money.
"What happens" if you're a new indie writer with only one title generally is: you don't get many sales. No matter how good your book is. That's because the tried and true ways of marketing indie books involve discounting or giving away one book in order to sell your others .
If you don't have others, you're not going to get any benefit from the discounts and freebies.
Bargain ebook newsletters are the hot sales tool these days. You temporarily discount your book (or make it free) and pay BookBub $1000 or so to advertise it for a day. (There are lots of good, cheaper alternatives, but BookBub is the gold standard.) And it works: but only if you have other books to sell.
If you pay $1000, and sell the book at $1.99, maybe you break even, and if it's in a series, now people will be hungry for more. In fact, that hunger will make the BookBub ad worthwhile even if you make the book free. As the founder of BookBub said on GigaOm
, "One publisher who worked with BookBub gave away the first book in a series free; it was downloaded more than 100,000 times — and in that same month, more than 15,000 people bought the second book in the series at full price."
But you see how it's not going to work if you have only one book? All you'll have is 100,000 people who won't buy it because they got it free. And you're out $1000.
3) Authors often find their first book's genre isn't where they want to stay.
Last week comic-mystery author Melodie Campbell talked about how she genre-hops
in short fiction, which is a great way to try out new genres and publish in several.
But if you publish a full-length novel in one genre, especially if you land a trad. contract, it's hard to jump to another.
I've known writers who started writing YA and jumped to erotica (luckily erotica writers usually use a pen name.) And I've also known several literary fiction writers who found their groove in YA mystery or fantasy.
If they'd published those first efforts in book form, they'd have a lot of backtracking to do. So give yourself some time to explore your own interests before you brand yourself as one type of writer.
Write more short stories and experiment with genres before you publish that first full-length book
Re-branding can take a lot more time than establishing a brand in the first place.
4) The book may work as a series or a trilogy.
If so, you'll want to pitch it as a package to agents, or if you self-publish, you'll want to "brand" the series with matching cover designs. Good covers are expensive. You don't want to have to pay for a second one for the same book a year later.
Also, you may want to keep that character alive who dies in the battle at the end of that first novel, and you may want to leave room for the heroine to run off with Mr. Wrong at the last minute so she can continue to pursue Mr. Right in book #2.
5) Or the opposite may happen.
You may have envisioned a series, but when you get to book two, you realize you're done with those characters and you've said all you have to say. (I wonder if that's what happened to Harper Lee?)
6) Publishing is a business. If you don't know how it works, you're likely to be ripped off.
If you're like most new writers, you've been in your right-brain writing cave turning out deathless prose, not brushing up on your business skills.
You need to give yourself time to learn about the business before you dive in, book first.
There are sharks in those waters. Overpriced vanity publishers and outright scammers are lying in wait.
There are a lot more people are making money off writers these days than there are writers making money off books. You have to educate yourself, or you'll simply be offering yourself up as prey.
7) Professional writers have to know how to write fast these days. This takes practice.
Whether you self-pub or go trad, readers want you to turn those books out quickly. The only way to learn to do that is write more. Once you develop those writing muscles, your speed will pick up. Not so many dead ends, endless edits, etc.
So give yourself time to practice before you have readers and/or editors holding you to brain-frazzling deadlines and ordering you to write faster while you're also blog-touring and marketing 24/7.
8) Marketing takes a LOT of time.
No matter whether you're indie or trad, you're going to spend a lot of time marketing once you have a book out. Way more than you think.
Blogging and social media eat into every day. Giving interviews, going on blog tours, and getting guest blog gigs takes time and a lot of schmoozing. Personal appearances and conferences can take weeks to prepare for. Sometimes it feels as if the writing itself becomes an afterthought.
9) Pre-publication is an essential time for creative growth.
Pre-publication is the time when you can experience your most rapid growth as an artist. It is the only time when you can devote yourself entirely to your muse.
Don't rob yourself of that freewheeling, exhilarating time!
We will never know why Harper Lee never wrote that second book. (And the NYT reports
she's deeply hurt by the speculation she's too incapacitated to approve of the publication of her newly unearthed manuscript.) But I can't help wondering what might have happened if she'd had another book written and ready to go when she landed her publishing contract, or had been more prepared for the business of writing before her phenomenal "first novel" success.
Writing that first book is a gargantuan task that can take years of our lives. They say only 3% of people who start to write a novel actually finish it
. It's a huge accomplishment. Any author who finishes a novel deserves to celebrate, big time.
But that doesn't mean you should publish it. Not right away. The fact that it's special means you should protect it, write more books, and take the time to put together a business plan.
Don't just throw your baby out there expecting everybody to love it. Launch your career carefully so that your book (and all its little brothers and sisters) have a chance in the marketplace.
Celebrate your triumph privately and go write another book!
(Plus lots of short stories and creative essays: build that inventory! For opportunities for placing those short works, see our "opportunity alerts" below.)
What about you, scriveners? Do you have a first "practice" novel lurking in your files? Did you publish a phenomenally successful first novel without having another in the hopper and can prove me wrong? Did you have painful experiences querying or self-publishing a first novel?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Here's my second novel that was lost for 15 years and was only rediscovered when my friend remodeled his garage.
99c for This Month Only for Kindle and Nook!
|Cover by Keri Knutson|
Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job.
Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.
"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...Kathleen Keena
"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange
"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer
And THE GATSBY GAME
is finally available again in paper!
It's on sale for only $9.38 on Amazon.
And $8.14 at Barnes and Noble
. (No I don't know how B & N is underselling the Zon. Just discovered it this morning. Grab it while you can!)
This is the book that covers the same mysterious Hollywood scandal as Walter Reuben's award-winning film, The David Whiting Story. (The reviews haven't migrated yet. Still trying to straighten things out with the Amazon elves.)
The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize,
Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.
Writer's Digest Writing Compeition.
This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest
. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.
The Vestal Review
is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review
, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.
VIGNETTE WRITERS, here's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest
. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.
Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.
Labels: Book Marketing, Eileen Goudge, first drafts, first novels, Harper Lee, indie publishing, Pre-published writers, sh***y first drafts, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner