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?

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