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Is The First Book We Write Usually Garbage?

Yes, I really am asking the question no one wants to ask: Is the first book an author writes worthy of publication?

I’ve said it before on my blog, so please forgive the repetition, but there is NO magic number of books we must write in order to be ready for publication. In other words, I can’t tell you (and no one can), that every writer must write at least three books (or four, or five) before their work will finally be of publishable quality.

Likewise, our writing journeys are completely unique. One writer may have a publishable book after the first one, and someone else may need to write ten before getting to that point. Many factors will come into play: talent, wisdom, critiques, edits, prior fiction-writing knowledge, etc.

While the first book might have potential, the vast majority of writers need to write more than one book before their work is ready for publication. For some, that might be a painful truth to swallow. After all, when we spend months pouring our hearts into our novels, we don’t want to hear our first book doesn’t have what it takes.

James Scott Bell, author of my favorite writing-craft books, said this in a blog post about self-publishing: “It takes a long time to learn how to write narrative fiction. I would guess that 98% of traditionally published authors paid years of dues learning their craft. That same 98% would probably look with horror at their first attempt at a novel. That novel likely sits in a drawer, or on a disk, and will stay there—as it should. Many of these writers have multiple efforts that never saw the light of day.”

Although my blog has perhaps made my journey to publication look easy, I have indeed paid my dues. My debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, was approximately the sixth completed novel I’d written after years and years of writing and studying fiction. In hindsight, I do look with horror on those first books into which I once so lovingly invested incredible amounts of time and energy.

Again, that’s not to say some writers won’t pull off a publishable book on their first attempt at novel-writing. But the large majority of us aren’t writing-prodigies.

Here are several things I would urge writers with first books to consider before deciding whether to query or self-publish:

1. How much effort have you put into learn fiction-writing techniques?

Anyone can write a book. And nowadays, literally anyone can publish a book. But to craft a book people will want to read takes an incredible amount of effort and dedication to learning and growing as a writer.

Developing a writing career takes as much hard work as any other professional career. We wouldn’t expect a doctor to practice after one year of training. Nor would we expect a teacher to step into a classroom without years of preparation. Why should we expect anything less of our writing careers?

2. How much objective and qualified critiquing has your manuscript seen?

Anyone can find readers—friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers to read their book. And likely those readers will tell us what we want to hear. First, they’re usually not objective enough—they’ll have a difficult time being honest for fear of hurting our feelings.

And second, they’re probably not qualified to make critiques on writing technique any more than I would be qualified to provide feedback on a piano piece for someone studying to be a composer. I could give my opinion, but not a detailed analysis of what works and what doesn’t.

If seasoned authors use freelance editors or qualified critique partners (other published authors or writers who are at their level), then why wouldn’t a newer writer consider doing the same?

3. Why are you in a hurry?

What’s the rush to get published? I realize it’s an exciting prospect to lay claim to having our names on a real, published book. But why not wait until we can “wow” our readers?

Sure, we all write our first books with the prospect of having someone read them. That’s natural. We long to share our stories with others. No one says, “When I’m done writing this first book, I’m going to shove it in a drawer and never look at it again.”

But, even though we want to share our novels with the world, that doesn’t mean we should rush into it. What do we have to lose by setting aside the first novel (or second) while we read a few writing craft books and write another book? Then after time away, we can go back to our novel with fresh, more objective eyes. Maybe we’ll still see potential, edit it again, and send it out in even better shape.

Or maybe you’ll end up like me. You’ll eventually relegate those first novels to a drawer or file. Because with all the growth, you’ll see (like I did), that your first novel(s) really were garbage. But you’ll also find that the “garbage” served as fuel, as growth, as inspiration that propelled your writing career forward.

Whatever the case, first books are NEVER wasted effort. Yes, the only place for them might be the trash. But they’re still good for something because they made us stronger and better writers in the long run.

What’s your opinion? Does it bother you to think your first book might be unpublishable? Do you think too many writers get impatient with their first books and maybe even rush into self-publishing because of their impatience? Do you think writers need to give their writing skills more time to grow?

65 comments:

  1. My third book got contracted. That was also the one in which I got a critique partner (two, actually) and got all kinds of solid, objective feedback/suggestions on it.

    I queried my first and second book to agents, but neither ever got any bites. I didn't know what I was doing when I wrote these books. I hadn't read a single craft book. They are most definitely drawer-novels, and I'm completely okay with that. Like you said, they helped me grow.

    I completely agree that writers should not rush into self-publishing. For exactly the reasons you stated. But I do think it's valuable to query the first book. I learned so much by querying. I think if the writer understands how to query and has taken care to polish their book with the help of objective others, then I say send out some queries. Because you never know unless you try.

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    1. Wish I had the confidence, but if I have to change anything I usually have to google it first and make sure I've got it right. http://cheapestflights.to/

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  2. I don't mind shelving a novel for that reason. I look back on my first that I'd hoped would be the one - in my naivety - and I'm so glad it didn't make it!

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  3. I'm querying my first novel but am thinking about shelving my second. I've started the third, and the writing seems to flow better. I'd say I've learned a lot from the first two.

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  4. Jody, My story is pretty much along the usual lines: four years, four books, forty rejections, before getting the contract for publication of my first book. Now I'm awaiting the release of book three, and book four will follow this fall. The secret? Study the craft, apply seat of pants to chair and write, revise, lather, rinse, repeat--and be in the right place at the right time, which may be most important of all.

    My friend, independent editor Ray Rhamey, tells me that his colleagues pretty much agree that it takes writing three books before a writer begins to "get it." I looked on those first couple of books as the first waffle, the one you throw away. But I learned a lot writing them.

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  5. I def. think new writers rush into self-publishing, which can be a big mistake imo. Self-publishing isn't bad but the writer should know what it entails.
    As for a magic number of books, you're totally right that there's none.
    After I finished my first book I sent it to LI and got rejected so I sent it to their crit service. That was the best thing I ever did! I'm about to find out if that book has a chance because the full is, three years later, sitting at LI again.
    But....I've spent tons of time on that thing. Rewrote and reread so many times. Plus, it got entered in contests, was critiqued by several writers, etc.
    Good post!

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  6. Oh I know my first two books aren’t publishable. Came to terms with that a while back. As I learned more, it became more evident that was the case. I’m right there with your number three, however the more teasingly close it gets for some reason the harder it is to wait. Humans, such odd creatures we are!
    ~ Wendy

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  7. When I finished my book, I was certain it was ready to published and I immediately began querying. Then I read one craft book and decided to edit the manuscript a bit. Then I read a few more books and joined a critique group which led to intense revisions. Now that I've attended a conference and a compiled a long list of writer blogs to follow, I'm re-writing the entire book. By the time I'm finished, it may be the equivalent of a 2nd or 3rd book. Either way, I now realize it still may end up in a drawer. But I'm learning a LOT.

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  8. I'm on my third book now and I think I've finally gotten it. My first book is under the bed, but I know it has some really good things in it, so I will revise it, again. Book two was a completely different genre and well, even tho I love it, I don't think it will ever see the light of day.

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  9. I'll never look with horror on my first book because that book is brimming with all my innocent passion for writing. I just poured that story onto the page and every moment I spent with it was wonderful.
    That said, I made so many mistakes. I knew how to write, but not the craft of story.
    I'm in no rush to self-publish. At this point in my life, I write because I have a story to tell. Publication will be a bonus, but it's not what I live for.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jody.

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  10. I recently had my first rejection from an agent. It was a pretty good rejection, with constructive comments and praise for my writing. Beta readers and a couple of editors (I'm lucky to have such talented friends) have given me lots of feedback to work on. It's a long road to publication, and there's lots still to learn. I'm happy to take my time.

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  11. Great post, Jody. I love my first book - but I'm also clear on the fact that it isn't good enough. There are plotholes the size of Montana, strange jumps to the correct conclusion, odd character growth points and then nonsensical setbacks. But I still love it because it is mine - warts and all.

    I'm on book 5 now and can see how much I've grown as a writer. Maybe this book will be The One, maybe not but as long as I'm growing I'm okay with that.

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  12. Right now I'm in the middle of editing my first novel (but there have been several attempts to get to that first completed draft.) The first time I heard writers talk about how most first attempts weren't publishable, my heart sank. How does that inspire someone like me who's just starting out? I have come to realize that writing is a journey and with every round of revisions, every novel attempt, I am developing as a writer so I know nothing is lost.

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  13. I have to admit, I would be absolutely gutted to discover that my novel isn't worth publishing. I think it was that fear that made me keep trying different projects over the years, all of which either remained unfinished or were truly awful, to delay working on the one I wanted to make perfect until I felt I was ready.

    I eventually took the plunge and go down to the work on Locked Within, but more out of a sense that if I kept letting the fear control me, I'd never get anything published. I don't know if it's worthy of publication - that's up to more qualified people than me to say - but I certainly want it to be.

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  14. I completely agree with you when it comes to not rushing into publication. When I look at my first manuscript, I cringe. It did, however, catch the attention of my now agent, but it will never see publication without a complete rewrite from scratch. I'm preparing my third manuscript now to present to publishers.

    I also agree with you that there is no rush - publication is a long process and we've all been there and faced our family and friends (who just don't have a clue) and wonder why that book we say we're writing isn't published yet. It's a long process, and it is so for a very good reason.

    With the new wave of e-books and publication through Amazon, etc., I think we'll have a new wave of "unready" manuscripts. I won't download anything to my Kindle unless I know the author or the publisher. That way, I know it has gone through proper channels!

    Please note: I'm not saying e-books don't have their place and no one should self-publish, but I think the "formula" must be just right. Author+years experience+outside editors and critiques+strong audience already in place... the list goes on.

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  15. Goodmorning, everyone! I'm appreciating hearing everyone's diverse experiences in their writing careers. It really just goes to show how different our journeys will be!

    And Nancy, my intention with this post isn't to discourage first-time novelists. I was actually hoping to encourage all writers to persevere. If a writer decides to query the first novel, they should go into the process with realistic expectations. If the novel is rejected, the writer shouldn't give up, grow disillusioned, or grow bitter toward traditional publication, and then decide to go self-publish instead. Rather, they should continue to write the next novels, realizing that the process of learning to write is indeed a long one for most of us.

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  16. I think non-fiction is really different from fiction... cause I'm 100% certain that I couldn't write a publishable novel right now (eek! don't even want to think about it!) but with non-fiction, I think it's a bit easier to write without as much experience. I definitely agree, though, that authors need to take their time and hone their craft if they want it to be successful.

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  17. It took me a while to be comfortable with the idea that my first book isn't ready. After all, I spent four years on it! At the same time, I wrote the book mostly for me, and I learned a lot about plotting, word choice, and a bit of editing along the way. I'm working on my second, and it may not be the right one either. I think I will query it when the time is ready so I can practice another side of the business (and hopefully get an agent, ha!).

    In the meantime, I'm still writing. Short stories, the novel, blog posts, you name it. I can't stop the urge to put pen to paper, regardless of whether it gets published or not.

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  18. My answer (as with almost any BIG question) is: it depends. I do think first books can be of publishable quality, depending on whether the writer has done the requisite work. But it does seem the more usual path is to have Book 3, 4 or etc. published first. Every book written is a learning experience. Therefore, worthwhile. I shy away from the "garbage" label which devalues the book and the effort that went into it.

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  19. I do think people should submit their first book (after using it for tons of learning through rewriting/revising and editing)...the query process itself is a learning process and developing a thick rejection skin is essential for becoming a writer. Plus, some people do get their first one published. You could have the right book at the right time, and it might not be the right time for it later.

    Still, good advice to keep writing. That's the most important part.

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  20. Well said. I couldn't agree more.

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  21. While it may be a difficult truth to swallow, I believe it's a truth, nonetheless. :-)

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  22. I particularly like your comment, "Why are you in a hurry?" Rarely is someone's first book publishable. Yes, it happens, but it's not common. (Or, maybe I just tell myself that because I sold my fifth manuscript! LOL.)

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  23. So, that comment above was accidentally posted under my daughter's yahoo account. Didn't know she'd logged on on my computer! I'm the one who sold my fifth book. kabdraws is 15!

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  24. I loved this Jody. I think it's hard not to get our hopes up, because every book takes so much time, but it is so true that writing is like any endeavor, we need practice. I always feel sad when blogging friends go through their first sub and then decide to give up.

    My first book was practice, my second got me an agent, my third was more practice, and now I'm working on the 4th (and I do hope this will be the one).

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  25. I laughed out loud when I read this: “When I’m done writing this first book, I’m going to shove it in a drawer and never look at it again.”

    I do say that! I want to be published, but I know I'm not anywhere near as good as I can be. I recognize I'm improving, but my novels are practice novels for now. I'm writing, writing, writing, and learning A LOT as I go along!

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  26. I believe my first three were teachers. I don't even have the desire to pull them apart and fix them because the plots were all over the place, and the jury is still out on whether they actually contained them.

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  27. My fourth novel was the one to sell. I'm so glad at the time I had no idea how long it would take and, at the same time, am so happy none of those early attempts sold.

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  28. I've written "things" all of my life. I finished my first novel last year, and it is terrible. The words are great; I stand behind the words all the way. Solid concept. The characters are beautiful and accomplish their purposes. But it's the structure. The structure is horrid.

    Still, I let that MS sit on my desk underneath a lot of other useless garbage to remind myself that I did it once. I finished and some of it was tolerable. The next one will be better. So what if it takes 3 or 4 or 12 tries? You've done it one time. Keep going, I say.

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  29. What's the rush ...? Well, being totally skint is quite a good incentive, to be honest ;)

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  30. This post is exactly what I love to hear from published authors. I'm working on my first novel. It's horrible. It's also a huge learning experience. It's nice to hear that people don't just know how to write a publishable novel, it's a learned skill to some degree.

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  31. So glad you wrote this post. At first I was horrified the my first completed novel would never see the bookshelf. But then I realized it's all part of the process, of learning and growing with my writing. And I have to admit sometimes I find myself saving my really good plot ideas for later in my career, to make sure they make it:)

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  32. This post, bared repeating:)I'm still polishing my first novel, and I do love the story and characters tremendously. I've just sent it off to my first contest, and I'm anxious for the critiques.

    The past two years, have been filled with reading writing and agent blogs, devouring craft books, writing my own blog posts, and developing this novel.
    I like Katie's comment- that sending our first novel out into query world may be good for even just the feedback and experience you glean.

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  33. Jody,sometimes it might not be that the first book is unpublishable, just unpolished. There are probably plenty of good books resting under beds and in bottom drawers because the author feels that the writing is horrible. Yet, with more work, that manuscript might become publishable.

    And, yes, some writers do rush into self-publishing unpolished manuscripts. However, I've noticed some traditional publishers do the same thing, unfortunately.

    It's a good thing Stephen King's wife pulled the manuscript for Carrie out of the trash and made him finish it. That same manuscript that he thought was a piece of garbage freed him to write fulltime.

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  34. Excellent point, Linda! Sometimes we are able to go back to those earlier manuscripts and find the potential in them. I tried once with one of the historicals I never completed. In fact, I wrote up a proposal for it for my publisher, did a little polishing, and sent a little off to them. They came back to me with the verdict that it was not as "mature" as my current writing (particularly plot-wise). I'm not saying it can't be done, but when we grow so much with each book we write, often those earlier manuscripts will need extreme makeovers. :-)

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  35. True that, Jody!
    ...forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, we press on toward the goal to win the prize...
    Write forward!

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  36. Excellent post. My first novel was never completed because at first draft stage I realised I had made a big mistake in...well, everything. The second was good, but not wonderful. I hope one day I will go back and make it what it could be. The third...well the third I am really proud of, and that will be my first published novel.
    You are so right - there's no hurry. Relax and write.

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  37. Sometimes new writers simply don't know what they're called to write. They write books in an attempt to figure this out. I started out writing mysteries, and that was my big mistake. I didn't have the passion to carry through with edits. When I was writing my first book, I met an older writer who read my first few chapters and told me I hadn't found my focus yet. I almost slapped him. Just kidding--I was mad, though, because I couldn't see it at the time.

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  38. As a first time novelist, I don't find this post discouraging at all but rather realistic. When I really got into my novel and surrounded myself with driven and "tell it like it is" people, it was the best thing for me because it brought me down to earth. I'm honestly not expecting things to take off until my third book. If it happens sooner than that that would be totally awesome but if not, this first one will be the stepping stone for the next one!

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  39. I'm finally entering other WIPs in contests, in order to branch out from my baby. It's not easy, but I know it needs to be done.

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  40. I'm working on my first book while also reading books on craft. I wrote the draft during NaNoWriMo 2010, so one can imagine how rough it is. I decided to turn it into an educational opportunity. :)

    I doubt this first effort will be publishable, but it's turning into an incredible learning experience as I apply what I'm learning from my reading to the draft on my computer. None of this is a guarantee that the 2nd, 3rd, 10th novel will be published, but at least I'll have given it a shot.

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  41. It would've bothered me to know my first TEN novels were practice, yes, but I didn't know it at the time, so I'm good with it. LOL Like you, I am SO glad I didn't get any of them published!!

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  42. Thank you Jody I appreciate your honesty on writing - no worries, as a newbie I'm still keeping the faith :-)

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  43. I'd worked as an assistant editor, so when I began writing, I didn't expect my first efforts to be publishable. I knew it would take time to grow as a writer. I had a degree in journalism, but that training was far different than what I needed to know to craft a novel-length story.

    I wrote five-and-a half novels and rewrote one of them three times before my agent sold it. And it wasn't my first. That one is hidden on my hard drive. =)

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  44. WHAT.

    I just discovered your blog (alternately, your gold mine of information) and have devoured it.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and, yes, expertise.

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  45. My first book was actually a feature-length screenplay, and it was my "Mary Sue" story! So, yes, it was garbage, but I got that out of the way, so now I can stop inserting my wannabe speshul-self into my own stories.

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  46. One should probably admit that Stephen King's _Carrie_ was, mechanically, atrocious as published -- but STORY conquered all.

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  47. I totally agree (as usual, lol). My third book is the one that got me the agent and the book deal--although now the second book I wrote has some interest from a publisher too. But I can say without a doubt that book one will remain under the bed FOREVER. It was my practice novel for sure. Totally worth the effort, but definitely not fit for anyone to read.

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  48. A wonderful post, Jody, and I couldn't agree more. The novel that we are just going on submission with is the 5th novel that my partner and I wrote together. I wrote a first novel on my own, only meeting her at the end of that time. I have a lot of respect for that manuscript as I learned a lot while writing it, but it absolutely needed a lot of work and will never see the light of day. The next novels taught us how to write together and what our respective strengths are. But we knew during the writing of that last 'practice' manuscript that we were finally at a place where we could consider looking at publishing our next one.

    Writing the perfect early novel might be possible for some, but I needed more time than that, and that's okay. I look back at those early works as giving us a rock solid base for what came afterwards and what is still to come. Writing is a skill like any other and, as such, you need to practice to perfect it. And there's nothing wrong with any learning curve that shows progress.

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  49. Believe me, I am feeling this. It is very hard to write words that you know no one will ever see. The way I look at it is, plan on it going in the drawer but if it gets picked up then I am pleasantly surprised. :)

    Love the honesty in this post. As an inexperienced writer, it is hard to hear but hearing the truth now makes it easier to accept later.

    Thanks for being such a great pioneer, Jody!

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  50. I love this post. My first feature script was a completely self-indulgent piece of garbage. It had some lovely bits, some very clever dialogue and very funny moments... all tied together with a string of yuck.

    But it was my first, so it took me a long time to realize it wasn't very good.

    Similarly, my first book manuscript is one I wrote many years ago. It has nothing in common with that feature... except for the fact that it's also wildly self-indulgent and overall really, really bad.

    Again though, since it was my first, I was emotionally attached to it, and it took me a looooooong time to see it for what it was. Only when I showed it to the editor of my debut published novel and saw it through her eyes did I realize that while writing it was wonderful practice, the manuscript was not fit for publication.

    For me, the hardest part was divorcing emotionally from those earliest works and the rosy dreams that surrounded them in my mind. But once I did, it was easier to concentrate on newer and better work.

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  51. Wow, great post that rang a number of bells! My first attempt at a novel was great until I realised (thanks in part to some excellent feedback) that I was writing for entirely the wrong audience for me, and in a style I realise now was unnatural and forced. Basically, it was bad, but an excellent teacher and a necessary stepping stone and learning exercise.

    Having written a multitude of short stories (some of which I do quite like), read a number of books about writing and started a writing blog (www.tolstoyismycat.blogspot.com) I now feel I am finding my footing, so am embarking on the fabled second attempt.

    Who knows how it will go? Just have to keep my fingers crossed I guess...

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  52. My first two books were "unpublishable" though I think they were good. I was able to pick the chunks of good language and storytelling and toss out the rest. Everything we write is valuable to our journey.

    I've got a few writers in my life who won't let go of their first novels even though all signs point to "this won't make it to the shelves." I guess the hardest lessons for new writers is learning to let go and keep focusing on the craft.

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  53. I turned my first manuscript into my 4th manuscript by taking the premise, which I loved, and starting over with the execution. And the story changed too. I refer to as my totally rewritten first novel. :-)

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  54. I was just thinking about my first novel the other day. I smiled thinking of a few scenes, but I have NO desire to go back to it. Some things are better left in the closet. Deep in the bottom of the drawer!

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  55. Jody,

    Oh yes, it bothers me that my first novel might not be worthy of publishing. It's painful to think about the time I've spent on it. But, your thought that each "first" (or second) book serves as fuel certainly helps.

    And, I like to think I'm actually on my third novel, since this round of writing/drafting/editing is producing a manuscript very different from the first draft.

    Either way, I appreciate, too, your suggestion that writers be patient. The last thing I want is to send a half-finished or mediocre story out into the world.

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  56. Great post. I think too it depends how much time a person is willing to workshop a book. For me, there came a time when I knew it was time to move on, but I know others who kept at it until finally it was at publishable standard.

    Angela@ The Bookshelf Muse

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  57. I especially agree with your third point. Really, what's the rush?

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  58. I definitely agree with you when you say, "What's the rush?" I've been concentrated more on short stories and reading about the craft than worrying if the book I am also writing is publishable. I like to experiment and learn from my mistakes. Great post!

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  59. Obviously, you struck a responsive chord with this great question. Congratulations!

    I have a different perspective, from a nonfiction author whose first book was a "right book at the right time" bestselling success...but who didn't fully profit from the brand the book created.

    Specifically, because I "didn't know what I know now" about trade publishing and copyrights, I lost of the book which is frequently associated with my name.

    I encourage all authors, even those who have agents, to learn as much as possible about copyright issues to avoid a similar experience.

    Best wishes to all; write that book and enjoy the process!
    Roger

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  60. I'll say this: I'm a new indie author. I worked on my first book for 3 years, going from eye-bleeding text to something worth reading.

    In its finished state, right now, it would probably look little amatuer to the everyday Joe. I've gotta work harder on improving my dialogue techniques and my story crafting overall, but I decided that it was meant to see the light of day.

    So, there it is, on smashwords.com.

    Was it worth the publish? In my eyes, and others, yes. Each book that I write and publish, myself, I will improve. And, in a way, it'll be something for me to look back on years from now.

    That's just how I look at it though. Nothing needs to be negative. All you have to do is filter it out.

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  61. Thanks for the continued input on this topic, everyone! I appreciate the diversity of thoughts!

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  62. This is one of the reasons why I have started my career off by writing fanfiction. I'm not making any money off these early works, that's beside the point. What is the point is that not only does it get you to practice writing and developing a plot, but you get fanfiction readers reviewing your work too. I've already started writing my first novel length fanfic.

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