Sunday, February 15, 2015

Should You "Send Out" that First Novel? 9 Things to Consider First

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?


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!

The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is available at all the AmazonsiTunesKobo, 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.

Chronicle Books Great Tumblr Book Search Do you have a Tumblr blog you think would make a good book? Here's the contest for you! Categories are ART, FOOD & DRINK and HUMOR. Deadline March 2nd. 

VIGNETTE WRITERShere'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.


  1. Marketing does take time, especially online.
    Continuing to write and get many potential manuscripts ready is the best way to go. What if you do have a successful book - but don't have anything else written? (Or you don't start writing it until after that first book is published, like me!)
    My first story was my first book, but it didn't happen until after I'd written a lot and then went back after many years to completely re-write that first one. By that point, it wasn't my first anymore.

    1. Alex--What you did is exactly what I'm recommending. Many first novels are great and go on to sell very well. But usually not until the author has learned a little more about the business and has the emotional distance to edit ruthlessly. So write the book, write some more stories and maybe another novel, and then go back to the first book, polish it up and launch your career!

  2. Hi Anne,
    I'm among those whose first novel-length manuscript (though submitted nearly everywhere with youthful zeal) was, indeed, a writing exercise. It taught me a lot & I feel great gratitude toward it, but it will never see the light of day. With no intention of offending anyone, I'll quote George Carlin -- "I used to be Catholic. You grow."

    1. CS--Unfortunately, most of us don't follow advice and we send that first baby out into the world too soon. Because, as you say, "we grow." But that doesn't mean that first book doesn't have value. You may be able to mine it for short stories, condense it into a novella, or give it a major overhaul the way Harper Lee did with her first novel.

  3. I still have my first book and I will go back to it. It was epic fantasy for the younger crowd. That was eight years ago. I have grown considerably since then as I've written close to ten complete novels plus four novellas with two short stories to go with it. I've also continued to write on my blog.
    I will go back to that first novel as it was meant to be a series. I agree you should write more before publishing. I have discovered I like different genres and because I chose to go Indie I can write in them. Which makes this writing gig for me very exciting. There is still lots to learn and I'm sure that will never end. But that's what makes writing fun. It's a world of discovery!

    1. Vera--That's a lot of books! It's so true that we grow and change as artists and some of our early stuff may not interest us as much as newer work. If you have the time to write in several genres, indie is probably the best alternative.

      You're also right that good writers are ALWAYS learning and discovering new things!

  4. Actually... it's my SECOND novel that will languish "under my bed" forever. Basically because I realized I needed stuff from that novel to fix the first (which was published as my second -- the third was published first). But I had also written 5 books before I even got published. You don't know how happy I am that first book was NOT published until I'd written many more. Certainly took the pressure off when I was asked if I had anything else and was able to say "Yes!"

    1. Stacy--You make a great point I forgot to mention. Most agents and editor-- if they like your stuff--will ask "what else have you got?" And your answer can make the difference in whether you get offered that contract!

      My book history is as convoluted as yours. Book #3 was the first to be published.

  5. On #6, it's really, really important to go out and learn about business. Pick up books from the library. Subscribe to business magazines. Soak up the knowledge. If your job offers any kind of training for it, take it. Having that knowledge is going to only help you.

    One of the major disadvantages writers have when they submit a manuscript is that they're often thinking about validation. They want someone else -- the publisher, the agent -- to tell them the story is good. They want their dream of being published to happen. The agent and the publisher are thinking about business and how to sell stories and make money with them. The writer's decisions are to get the dream, which leads to dumb decisions like "I know the agent has a poor reputation, but it's better than nothing."

    Your manuscript is property, just like your car is, and is worth money. Take care of it by getting smart on business.

    1. Linda--Great tip! If your day job offers business training, take it!!

      You're exactly right that if you're sending out work for validation, you're not ready. And those are the people who get scammed by bogus agents and vanity presses. Thanks for the reminder that your book is an investment and should be taken care of.

  6. I enjoyed your article. I am currently writing my first genuine novel. I have many other "starts", but this one seems to be going the distance at 40,000 words so far.
    I know absolutely nothing about the publishing world so it's info like this that I glean as much as I can. I am overwhelmed at the thought of submitting and reviews and agents and all the other things that go along with trying to get your work published.
    What I need is publishing for dummies!
    Thanks for the tips.

    2015 A to Z Challenge Ambassador

    1. Jeff--Actually, I've written a sort of 'publishing for dummies' --co-written with mega-selling author Catherine Ryan Hyde. It's called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE; A SELF-HELP GUIDE. It can help you get the basics and learn how to protect yourself. Only $3.99 in ebook. Link in the sidebar.

      We wrote it exactly for authors like you. It's hard to know who to trust and where to start when you get so much conflicting information, but Catherine and I have been in the business a long time and we both are trad pubbed as well as indie. I think you'll find it helps a lot.

  7. A first novel is like the notorious "starter" marriage. If it doesn't quite work out (and there are no children), no biggie. If it does, it's a miracle. ;-)

    1. Ruth--LOL! There are always miracles, but miracles are more likely to happen if you work hard.. First novels can work, but usually they need a lot of revision.

  8. Hi Anne!
    I cut my teeth learning the craft on my first novel, which counting all the different drafts I did of it, took 3 years to write before I felt there had been a progression, but it's the one that taught me the most about the craft and my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Of course now I can say with the distance of years that I'm glad this debut effort did not go on to be published because I have the benefit of a different perspective, but I remember being so frustrated at the time because I thought that would be my "big break" so to speak until I started to put two and two together, as you did, seeing that the first novel a writer writes is usually not the first one that they sell. I know, I know, we're all supposed to have pitchforks for Dan Brown, but in my case it really helped me to read about how "The Da Vinci Code" was his third or fourth novel. Great post, and thanks on the food for thought :-)

    1. Anita--I think pretty much every mega-seller has a story like Dan Brown's. If somebody hits a hole-in-one the first time they're on the golf course, it's a "miracle" as Ruth says.

      But when we've spent 3 years on that first book, we're in love with it and we can't believe it isn't the greatest book ever written. It's part of the process to feel that way. But it's also not wise to act on it. :-)

  9. Anne, even for you this was such a strong column. WHERE WERE YOU in 2010?!?

    Oh wait, that was me who was clueless, strike that.

    But I hit straight into about half the stuff you mentioned here, and it's just dumb luck I avoided most of the consequences you warned of. I got by with a little help from my friends- getting so completely shut out when I shopped the first big novel was a blessing, made me move me towards a) shorter stories) and b) great online friends who helped me shape my chronicling career. Out came the other tales first, modest success, meanwhile polish-polish on the novel which is finally publishing this year- as a series, just as you mentioned. And always trying to write more whatever's going on in the marketing side (for example, now that my baby is getting out there, how about the damn sequel!)
    So a big thanks to the forty agents who alternated between silence and the "not for me" brush-off. That pushed me in the right direction, and the friends I've made since then have done the rest.

    Everyone, this is great advice- but you don't me to tell you that. Just check it out on Sundays!

    1. Will--Actually I was right here in 2010, writing about how we should imagine we're all bestsellers on Trafalmadore, because we have to keep writing even though nobody's reading us on this particular planet. I was still trying to revive my career with a desperate search for a new agent. I didn't know that agents will not touch a published author with dismal US BookRank sales (My first UK publisher had no distribution in the US)

      Luckily, a couple of smaller pressed picked up my backlist (because of this blog. :-) ) Otherwise I might still be writing for the Trafalmadorians.

      You make a great point I hadn't thought of before. What kept me going on the wrong path was the "nibbles" and small bits of encouragement I got from agents. If they'd completely "shut me out" the way they did for you, I might not have wasted so much time.

      Thanks for the shout-out :-)

  10. Anne, a lot of food for thought here. I just heard a first time writer say, "This is gonna be big," referring to that first novel. So unless that first novel is a fluke, this post is an important one for ALL writers. I never thought I'd end up writing a series or finding a publisher or having an agent, yet all of those things happened BUT none of it would have happened if I hadn't written so much before: short stories pubbed in very small lit mags and tried out lots of different genres: mystery, contempt lit, and finally LGBT where I finally feel like I'm home. It was a long, long road of over 20 years, but I got there. Not to say it takes everyone that long, but for me, it did. Thanks again for a terrific and timely post. Paul

    1. Mindprinter--You said it exactly: none of those things would have happened without all that inventory! And while you were building the inventory, you were also networking with people in the business who could help you with your career.

  11. Thanks for another great post, Anne! So much to think about. Still working on my second full-length manuscript, but glad to see I've at least done the right thing in shelving the first. I got so tired of editing it that I just put it on hold and started a new one and it's been a vast improvement in terms of style. Still a long way to go, but better than the first! Good to know I'm at least doing something right! :)

    1. Anna--I think most people send out that first book because they're "tired of editing it." But you did the right thing to shelve it and work on the next instead. I edited my first book to death and couldn't make it work for at least a decade. But finally I found the right editor and it's been steady seller ever since. So don't give up on #1. After #2 is done, go back and look at it with fresh eyes.

  12. Great column as always, Anne. I, too, have a trunk novel, although I'd like to publish it some day. And I agree with you on marketing taking a lot of time, but personally I love all the non-writing/authorpreneur work I do. Works out a different part of the brain, plus the tasks are all concrete with measurable results. My writing days don't always have that same level of focus and completion :)

    1. Maia--I havent heard the term "trunk novel" but it's great. So many books spring from that first one--even if the first never gets published in its original form.

      Some people love marketing and some people hate it. But either way, it takes a lot of time from creative writing. For the majority of new writers, who are working full time at a day job and caring of a family, marketing can really cut into precious writing time, which is why I think it's better to do your "apprenticeship" writing before you have to worry about marketing.

  13. Great advice, Anne... I've done the experimenting with genres, the endless edits, and the 18-month writing hiatus thing when you fall out of love with your story half way through. There was a bizarre moment when my first novel, which I didn't love, came close to winning a competition a friend had to force me to enter. The first novel is an invaluable learning experience, and I love it for that, but could never be confident enough about it to sell it.

    1. Tara--You're a gifted blogger, and I imagine your fiction is great, too. But it may need to marinate a while before you have the distance to see what it needs to live up to your expectations.

      Everybody: follow Tara Sparling's blog! She's funny and wise. (And Irish, so she's always entertaining.)

  14. My first novel, my memoir, did work, but only after a lot of revision that was prodded by my publisher. I could be a Harper Lee, if I make it to her age, which isn't that far away, as I do have two novellas that could become one. But, as you know, writing does A LOT of energy, and then there's the marketing. Kudos to you and others who have done it SO well. At this point in my life, I decided to come back to blogging to re-connect with old blogging friends (I just plan to enjoy the ride) You have always been on my list, though I haven't always commented. You do indeed have a prize winning blog for writers. Cheers! Ann

    1. Ann--It's fantastic to see you here! Welcome back to the blogosphere! I hope you get back to those novellas, but blogging is an art form too, and we should remember that.

      There's nothing magic about having your work between covers or on Amazon. We bloggers are writers, too. I think I do some of my best writing here, and you're a fantastic blogger, too!

  15. In regards to Harper Lee, some scuttlebutt being bandied about is that Ms. Lee is being controlled by her lawyer, who happens to be the daughter of her original lawyer, who found "supposedly" found this lost manuscript. Another odd thing is that her publisher has not talked to Ms. Lee directly, but only through her lawyer. Also, none of this would've happened (including making her book an e-book) without her sister passing away.

    Now, onto the topic at hand.

    Yes, I had a first novel that was mediocre (value of hindsight) that I queried unpolished and eventually self-published it, when in all honesty it should been buried deep in my backyard. It took me about four years to recover from that novel.

    Father Nature's Corner

    1. GB--Those nasty rumors about Harper Lee were started by an unsubstantiated article in the Daily Beast. But if you read subsequent fact-checked articles in the Guardian and the New York Times, you'll see she's very much in communication with her agent, her publisher and her actual friends. She's very hurt by the rumors that she's senile and incapacitated. She's thrilled about getting her book back.

      Yeah, we all have those books that should be buried. I tried to write romances for a while...seriously bad stuff. Sorry yours took four years from your writing life.

  16. Anne ,,, yes, yes, yes ... been there and done that. And many of us to. We have that first, second ... for me it's more like six and each one different genre. Short stories and poetry, a trilogy, a stand-alone and six years of fabulous learning.

    I also love doing the flash fiction on my blog. It's fun and it teaches me to get a story told in 1,000 words or less.

    No matter how a person decides to get between the boards, the best way to learn any craft is to just "do it." The more we read and write ... the more we learn.

    Number six feels right. Then a small critique group three of my friends started three months ago gave me a chance to rediscover the first. So I am writing it again with a new perspective. Who knows? No matter ... I am still having fun :)

    PS: Don't you wish everyone would leave poor Harper Lee alone?

    1. Florence--As I said to Ann Best, blogging is writing too. And you have one of the most engaging blogs out there. You mix fiction and humor and heartfelt creative essays that take us all time-traveling.

      It's so great to hear you have a new critique group and you're getting back into your novels. You're right that it has to be about having fun.

      As I said to GB above, I agree 100% that we should ignore the rumor mongers and honor Harper Lee, not tear her down. I think there's a lot of ageism in those rumors.

  17. Lots of great advice in that post. I've really only learned to write fast in the last year. And I still days where I struggle to get even a few hundred words down.

    1. Susan--Me too. Even after 25 years, I don't write that fast. There's a reason I live in a county called SLO...LOL. I prefer life at a slower, savor-it pace.

  18. Wow. Such an intense post. I remember when I tried to publish my first ever novel (I wrote when I was 15, thank you very much for not getting published!) and I felt deflated. It's all about consistency, track-building and working on it like any other business.

    I loved this post. Thanks for the advice. I don't understand the reaction on Harper Lee. If it was held back for so long, so what? The more I get into this, the more I realized that: it wasn't ready is a justifiable excuse.

    On building blocks, the eternal question is: when am I ready? And the fun, exciting trip is finding out!

    By the way, you lost your novel for 15 years? Jeez. That must have felt weird, finding your "son" after so long. "My, I didn't remember you this way".


    1. Bernardo--How cool that you actually finished a book at age 15! All I could finish in those days were my angsty little poems.

      I agree it's not easy to know when you're ready to move your writing from "apprentice" stage to "business" stage. It's different for everybody. Your beta readers can help. but in the end it's up to what you feel in your gut.

      Yes. I'd written the novel on an old Panasonic word processor that died while I was writing the novel and the disks wouldn't work in a normal computer. I had bits and pieces of it on paper but not the whole book. I was so grateful when my neighbor found it! It was way better than I remembered it.

  19. Good guidelines, Anne. I also have a "drawer" novel that I worked on for ten years. I will go back to it, though. I like what Neil said about writing The Graveyard Book. He planned it in 1985 but didn't publish it until 2008 because he felt he wasn't yet "a good enough writer" for that book.

    You did ease my mind a little about how Harper Lee's book came to be missing. I do still worry that after her stroke she may not be in a condition to approve the release of her first book and that the publishers may have dollar signs in their eyes.

    1. Deb--Great advice from Neil Gaiman!

      Harper Lee had a stroke, but it did not affect her reasoning powers. These rumors come from a misunderstanding of strokes. The book was lost because it was attached to a copy of Mockingbird and everybody thought it was a Mockingbird manuscript and not the old lost "Watchman."

  20. Thanks for the post! As for me, if I hadn't sent out 97 queries for my first novel (which earned me ONE partial request, which was quickly declined), I wouldn't have found the motivation to read more (books on writing and books in my genre), intentionally work on my writing skills, and write my second book. I'm one of the those stubborn folks who needed proof that my writing needed work, and 97 rejections/no replies is pretty definitive proof. Now I'm querying a second novel and am finding much more success with numerous full/partial requests. Perhaps this one will earn an agent, but if not, it will only be more proof that I need to be even more dedicated and focused.

    I would also add that all the steps that new writers think are beneath them (putting time into a Twitter account, starting a blog, researching the dickens out of agents and what they like) are exactly the avenues that have helped me find a little success. Never too early to start those steps!

    1. Eric--I guess you have a point. Sometimes we have to be hit upside the head with rejection to understand that we need to learn to write BEFORE we enter the publishing industry. I'm just trying to give a word to the wise so they don't have to go through it. But sometimes we do.

      And you're right that networking and reading blogs is as important as starting that second book. Right after you finish that first book (or even when you're working on it) is a perfect time to put serious effort into building platform.

      Best of luck with your agent-hunt!

  21. In 2009, I self-published a cozy mystery set on my island home. My local bookstore owner told me that it was an on-island best seller. This and other positive reviews encouraged me to try to place it with a book publisher or a literary agent, but hope was drown in rejection. I did as you suggest, Anne, and continued to write. I now have a library full of manuscripts.

    1. Leanne--Congrats on your local sales of your first novel. My first published novel was actually a serial in a local newspaper, which had some success. But because it had already been published, it was rejected everywhere. I didn't have first rights to sell. That's a biggie with agents. Doesn't mean the book was terrible. I may revisit it some day.

      Congrats on building inventory! Once your new work is published, you may be able to re-issue the first book as part of your backlist.

  22. Replies
    1. Nina--The commenters pretty much all seem to feel the same way. I wonder if anybody who published their actual first novel to great acclaim will turn up?

  23. Late to the party. I thought I had commented, but maybe it didn't stick. Pesky gremlins, at it again.

    Anyway, I finally did publish the first novel I wrote The End on, after waiting five years, publishing four other books first, and grinding down the word count from 140k to a more repsectable 83k. I had actually sent that book out to query with agents and it did receive some pretty good feedback, it just wasn't the right time for my particular genre. Regency paranormal had just taken off (Pride Prejudice and Zombies anyone) and I refused to add sparkly vampires or studly werewolves to my cast of characters.

    I am glad I had the experience of querying because it led me to self-publishing and I couldn't be happier. However, it doesn't mean I still wouldn't like an agent or a trad pub deal --maybe-- I hate the way people still look at me when I tell them I'm self-published, like I couldn't make it in New York and self-pubbing was my only option. I'll get over it though. Hey, who knows, maybe someday I will write a best seller and laugh all the way to the bank.

    1. Anne--Sorry if Blogger was being difficult again. It sounds as if your first novel went through the same process mind did. You learn to write less wordy stuff and put out some other books, then you have the self-editing skills to make that first book ready for the marketplace.

      About the rejection: yes, much of it comes from fluctuations in the market. Paranormal ruled for a while. Now it's hard to place.

      Ruth Harris will be talking on Sunday about how the quality of your work often has very little to do with your rejections.

      You bring up a great point: the one thing about the query process is it teaches you a whole lot about the business. Self-publishing doesn't have the stigma it once did, but for people who are really out of the mainstream of publishing, they can still hold out-dated views. I agree it's annoying. LOTS of bestsellers are self-pubbed these days.

  24. Great post! In fact, it is relate able to business in several ways, especiall #6-9. It takes a lot of time, practice, and patience!

    1. Thhoughtful--Yes, a lot of this is true of any business--and publishing is a business. That' means lots of work...and patience.

  25. Great post, very much needed, particularly for newbies. I'm no longer a newbie but I do hesitate and hesitate still before publishing - to me, every new book feels like my first book! Thanks for putting everything so neatly in a few easy points.

  26. Claude--Thanks. I sure wish somebody had told me this when I was a newbie. You're right that every book kind of feels like a "new baby", but I think the rejection gets easier. We start building callouses on our souls :-)

  27. Great post! I've learned so much with subsequent manuscripts. I'm glad my first book wasn't picked up when it was first out; I've since had time to revise after writing a few other manuscripts.

    1. Stephsco--That's a great point. Even if your book is good enough to find a publisher, you may not be so happy to have your beginning work out there, once you become a more experienced writer.

  28. I'm so, so glad I have a stable of books that I've written! Now that I've indie published two, I'm thankful I can get back to those other manuscripts and edit the heck out of them. But my first? That one will forever be "for my eyes only." Seriously.

    1. Julie--I love the phrase "stable of books." Yes, there's always that one book...mine is my one attempt at writing a category romance. Oh, my was that awful! I have so much more admiration for real romance writers now!

  29. Thanks for this. I write for a living and have just finished my first novel (although it is the second I've written, that that one will remain in eternity in a drawer, despite teaching me so much). As I start to work on next steps for my MS, I'm working on novel number two and it feels so much easier (in fact am feeling a slight guilt as if I am preferring one child over another). I guess what your post is saying is that we are never finished writing, just on varying stages of development.

    1. Alan--Sorry Blogger seems to have been glitchy this morning.

      Yes--learning to write is an ongoing process. As with anything else, we get better with practice. You're going to be better at playing the piano after 3 years of lessons than you are at your first recital. I think a lot of people assume writing is something you can do perfectly at the first try, but it doesn't work that way. So don't feel bad if you're liking book #2 better. You've improved with practice!

  30. Thanks for this. I write for a living and have just finished my first novel (although it is the second I've written, that that one will remain in eternity in a drawer, despite teaching me so much). As I start to work on next steps for my MS, I'm working on novel number two and it feels so much easier (in fact am feeling a slight guilt as if I am preferring one child over another). I guess what your post is saying is that we are never finished writing, just on varying stages of development.

  31. Ay, Anne, and that's the nub of it: 'most agents only reply to queries that interest them'. Agents are institutionally unprofessional. Most have no system in place even to acknowledge a submission from a debut author. Only 20% (I quote the exact results of a survey) will even come back to an author, to say 'we've received your submission. No wonder newbie authors fall into a slough of despond! Luckily, agents are going the way of the buggy whip... In 20 years, they'll be a curiosity. And not before time :)

    1. Dr. John, I'm not a fan of the "silent rejection" either, but agents do have reasons for them. 1) the equery has exponentially increased the number of queries 2) authors take even the blandest generic rejection to mean something, and with email, they're more likely to shoot off something in anger, so it's safer to say nothing. I do appreciate the agents who have an auto-reply on their query box that says "we got it."

      I don't think agents are going away. But I think their roles are changing. Check out Laurie McLean's post from January about "Why You Don't Need A Literary Agent." It's enlightening.

  32. I used to be bitter about all the unpublished books and short stories I had. Now I'm grateful no one will ever see those clumsy and awkward piles of scrap.

    1. Nigel--Yeah, I used to feel so bad that some of those stories hadn't found a home. Then when my publisher suggested we put out a short story collection, I found that only one of my unpublished ones was worth putting in the book.

      But I'm still hanging on to them. Maybe I can rewrite them or mine them for scenes. No writing is ever wasted.


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