I’d like to talk a little about my first novel. I don’t mean my first one published, but the first one written. The one I wrote about in this post.
I started writing it right around my eighteenth birthday. And, like many young writers, I didn’t know anything about writing book-length fiction. I’d been writing (bad) short stories for years, had one aborted attempt at something longer when I was a sophomore in high school, but this was the first serious attempt.
Well, I should say that it became the first serious attempt. Because at first, it was just something to pass the time. Next thing I knew, I had a hundred pages. That’s when I knew it was serious.
As an unforgivable curse.
And I was serious about it. As the post I linked to above describes, I had some very lifelike characters on the page. The book was set in New York City, and I did my best to research the place. Given that this was a decade before the World Wide Web, this meant books. It meant talking to people from there. At one point, I even managed to score an interview with a lieutenant of the NYPD. That’s pretty heady stuff for a kid who really didn’t know what he was doing.
Now, that earlier post mentioned that this book is still in the “unpublished” category. What the post didn’t mention is that it’s likely to remain there. It hurts to say that, because I have such wonderful feelings about the book. But the truth of the matter is that I was never quite able to make it work. Not to my satisfaction, anyway.
The entire first draft of the book was written longhand on loose-leaf paper in a three-ring binder. As I recall, it took me a year to finish the first hundred pages, a single month to finish the second hundred, and another year to finish the last hundred.
My second draft was used for my final fiction writing class at Penn State. I’d really progressed as a writer over the previous couple years and this was evident in the first draft. So this new, second draft was basically a total rewrite, in order to have a consistent voice throughout. The problem was, the writing wasn’t very good. My professor told me that it essentially read like a screenplay, rather than a novel. He suggested I take a stab at writing a chapter or two in pure script format, just to get it out of my system.
Instead, I wrote the entire thing as a screenplay. And that really did get the screenplay out of my head. (But since I didn’t know much about screenwriting, the end result wasn’t all that good.) The new third draft was right on target, as far as voice, structure, etc. I was very happy with it.
But not happy enough.
There were problems. And I had no idea how to fix them. But it would take several more years before I admitted that to myself.
The long and short of it is that I worked on this first novel for a total of ten years. And by this point, I was actually growing tired of the characters, tired of the plot, tired of the setting… everything. I was burnt out on it.
So I started writing Wish You Were Here. This one was much longer and in a completely different genre. And this one would be the first one published. That was followed by One Nation Under God, a few years later.
And then… well… I didn’t have anything in mind. So I returned to the first novel. And I started from scratch, only rarely referencing the original version. I was a much different writer by this point. It wouldn’t be right to just try to “fix” the work of a much younger version of myself.
But it didn’t take long for the new version to morph into something too similar to the first version. And there was one major issue with the book that was the kicker. I couldn’t fix that problem without having to change my entire concept of the story. And the truth was, not only didn’t I wan’t to do that, I didn’t think it would be a very powerful story if I did.
Ultimately, I put it aside. To this day, it resides only on a CD-ROM, in a sealed envelope, tucked away in a rack somewhere, just so I’m not tempted to waste more time on it. Because the truth I finally had to accept was that, no matter how much I loved the characters and the story, this first novel was my practice novel. It’s the one I cut my writing teeth on. It’s where I found my voice, where I learned pacing and how to write action scenes. I learned so, so much during that time. But what I learned couldn’t save the work itself.
I suspect many beginning writers out there would be much happier in the long run if they approached the first novel as practice. Sure, there are some first books that are fantastic and totally worth publishing and reading. But they’re quite rare. Most are mediocre, some are outright terrible. And unfortunately, a lot of them are being published, anyway, now that self-publishing is so easy.
Being a good writer is not just innate talent. It’s learned skills, practice, and hard work. It might feel wasteful to spend years writing a first novel that’s ultimately only a practice piece. But time spent learning is never wasted.
Especially in the Restricted Section.