Shoved in a deep dark closet, under layers of dust, are five completed novels—my first REAL attempts at putting pen to paper. Sure, I have plenty of spiral notebooks somewhere filled with adolescent aspirations. But the five novels—they’re the effort of sweaty hard work and dogged determination to tell a novel-length story.
There they sit, in the closet. Abandoned.
Would I ever pull them out and try to get them published?
Someone anonymously asked me this: “You've mentioned you wrote several novels before beginning the querying process. What about those first novels told you that they were just ‘practice?’ Any chance those early novels can be salvaged? I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea of investing so much time and energy into something and then putting it aside.”
These are great questions. I’m going to break them down and answer each one separately:
“You've mentioned you wrote several novels before beginning the querying process.”
While this isn’t technically a question, it’s a loaded statement. Here’s my thought: We shouldn’t make the mistake of putting all our time and energy into ONE story, and spend years and years polishing it, rewriting it, and trying to make THE ONE even better.
First, writers should be storytellers. When I finish writing a book, I get excited to start brainstorming for my next. In fact when I’m between books, it’s almost like my brain needs another story to spin—my mind is constantly searching for new ideas. If we only have one story, then we need to start cultivating our creativity (see this post: How to Find Plot Ideas).
Second, if we don’t keep writing new books, and we stick with our first love, we run the risk of putting too much stock into it. Keep in mind, that even if we polish our baby until it’s practically perfect, there might not be a place for it in the market. A similar book could have recently been released. Maybe the market has grown cold for that particular genre. There could be any number of reasons why the book won’t make it to publication—at least temporarily. We’re wise to have more than one book to try to sell.
Have I made a good case for moving beyond one book? If not, here’s one more reason: Writers keep on writing. We don’t keep on editing and rewriting. We write.
“What about those first novels told you that they were just ‘practice’?”
Time, distance, growth, and the eyes of a complete stranger. Weeks, months, even years away from a novel can give us the OBJECTIVE view we NEED. I could brush off the dust and open any one of my early manuscripts and look at them with the eyes of a complete stranger. Since it’s been so long and because I’ve grown, I can easily spot all of my many mistakes now—the backstory dumps, lack of tension, plot holes, etc.
If we don’t have the luxury (or patience) for putting our completed manuscripts aside for a time, then we need to find the eyes of a real stranger—someone who can look at our manuscript with a fresh, trained perspective. (And, if our critique partners have read our manuscript too often, they won’t be a stranger to it anymore than we are.)
“Any chance those early novels can be salvaged?”
Any novel is salvageable. With the right amount of work and dedication. And perhaps major rewriting.
In my case, I’ve learned so much over the years about the craft of writing and what goes into making a good story, I’d have to start each of those five books over, completely from scratch, reworking goals, motivations, plots, character development etc. I personally don’t love any of those story ideas well enough to do that. As I said before, I’ve got other ideas demanding my attention.
“I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea of investing so much time and energy into something and then putting it aside.”
Any time we’re learning a new skill we need to expect that our early attempts may just be for practice. Whether it’s drawing or cake decorating or whatever. We wouldn’t expect to sell the first sketch or the first few cakes we attempt. In fact, we’d likely take lots of time to perfect our skill before thinking we were ready to go into business for ourselves.
And writing for publication is no different. We’re going into business—we’re literally self-employed. We can’t expect a paycheck if the work isn’t saleable. And getting to the point where our writing is ready takes lots of practice, learning from our mistakes, and often setting those first attempts aside.
What about you? How do you determine when your novel is for practice? When do you decide to salvage a book? How do you know when it’s time to move on?