Thursday, January 16, 2014

First Novels and When to Move On

by Katy White

In 2007, I started my first novel.  The idea jumped into my head, took root, and within four or five months, I'd written about 120,000 words.  I loved it.  I thought it was awesome.  I sent it to a couple of friends who gave me feedback and I realized that it wasn't one book, it was three!  So I started from scratch again and wrote the first and second books, now around 90,000 words each.  I wrote an uber rough draft of the third that was around 60,000 words.  I loved this series so, so much.  There aren't enough o's in "so" to tell you how much I loved it.  

I made some connections after these new rough drafts and realized that the first book actually needed a major overhaul to incorporate all of my epiphanies (the sexy villain was actually the mentor's son?  WHAT?!), which I did.  Then I took a break of, honestly, about three years.  I didn't touch it, but I probably thought about it every day.  I came back to the story in 2011 and rewrote the first draft again, and rewrote the second book, too.  I sent it out to friends, and, after getting more feedback, I realized I started in the wrong place.  I decided to tell all my backstory through "Lost" style flashbacks (a nod to Gina for her post about the benefits of TV watching.).  I made those changes, and the feedback now from my readers was awesome.  Everyone loved it.  

It was time to see what agents thought.  I started querying.  My first batch of five queries led to a request for a partial with one of my dream agents.  HOLY COW!!  A week later when I was rejected, I reminded myself it was a number's game.  I kept submitting in batches of five every week, getting two more partial requests over the following month.  I was encouraged by the requests, discouraged by the rejections, and confused about what it meant that, after around thirty queries, I hadn't received a request for a full.

So I entered a couple of contests for my first five pages--and I even won one of them!--but after getting half my manuscript, even that agent rejected me.  Fortunately, though, she gave me very detailed, very helpful feedback.  My entry had some problems, but just as big a problem was the fact that my genre wasn't selling right now.   At a major writer's conference only a few months earlier, a panel of editors and agents explained that they wouldn't take on a book in my genre, period.  It was dead.  Over.

So was, oh, five, six years worth of my work.  At least, that was my initial thought. 

Since letting this book--this series--go in early 2013, I've written two new books.  Meanwhile, I spent a single year querying, revising, entering contests, re-querying, rinse, repeat.  But I honestly don't feel like I wasted a single second of my time with that first attempt.  Because I needed this time to research, to learn how to plot and how to avoid tropes, to learn the ropes of the publishing world.  Most importantly, I needed this experience to teach me that it's okay to move on.  It's okay to love your book and want to live in that world, and to still let it go.  If you love something, set it free, and all that jazz.  Right?

One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, explains in his book "Outliers" the rule of 10,000 hours.  He says to achieve mastery in a particular field, one must spend 10,000 hours essentially "practicing" that craft.  Now, even if I wrote two hours a day consistently, every day, for the seven years it's been since I wrote my first word of my first book, that's still only 5110 hours.  A far cry from the 10,000 I need for mastery.  But every one of those words gets me closer. 

A poll of 150 published authors several years ago asked the authors how many novels they wrote before selling their first.  The breakdown is below:

32% wrote one novel
13% wrote two
11% wrote 3
8% wrote 4
9% wrote 5
3% wrote 6
13% wrote 7 or more novels
6% wrote some short fiction first
5% wrote a ton of short fiction first
Over half of these authors had written three or more novels before publishing their first! Some of them indicated that, after they were published, they were able to understand the flaws in their first novel and revise them sufficiently to get them published.  But I hope these numbers are as encouraging to you as they are to me.  Because these tell me that it's okay to let go of your novel.  It's okay to move on--heck, it's probably essential to our success.  

We've all said it a million times:  writers write.  And sometimes, that means shelving the old to make room for something new.

Please, sound off below with your thoughts, tips, and experiences with moving on from your first novel! 


  1. I wrote one before I got a contract for my second novel. I've lost that first one now. Pity.

    On the plus side, you can hand onto that series, and when you hit the big time and fans and publishers are clamouring for anything from you, you've got it in reserve.

  2. When i finished my first book, I felt like it would be a waste as well if nothing came of it. Now that I've writen more though, I realize that you are right, I learned a ton. It isn't the end of the world if I have to walk away from it. I know I'm capable of doing more. Thanks for the reminder. Its good to know I'm not alone in this process.

  3. Britney GulbrandsenJanuary 16, 2014 at 12:37 PM

    Thank you, thank you for writing this post! I've been struggling with this. I feel like if I give up a project, then it was wasted time. But the truth of the matter is, it wasn't. I was still writing, and therefore learning.

  4. I'm glad it helps, Britney! It was definitely a struggle to accept, but now when I look back, I feel so much more confident in my writing because I've already moved past some mistakes (though there are plenty more to make). You're right that you were learning! Every hour, every word we write gets us that much closer to mastery. :)

  5. Definitely not alone! I'm always relieved and empowered to read just how many authors have moved on from their first (and second and sixth!) novels before writing "the one."

  6. Great point, Anna! Just because we put that book on a shelf, doesn't mean we can't pull it out again in the future. :)

  7. What I think is SO interesting is that, yes, the "I got my first novel published" crowd makes up the biggest slice of that pie, but then there are the same number of authors who wrote one before they were published (publishing their second) and authors who wrote SEVEN OR MORE.

    That means it's just as likely to publish your second novel as it is to not see publication until your EIGHTH novel.

    Like, whoa.

  8. We'll heck, Katy, now I really want to read that series! But thanks for this post. I am still in the trenches of novel #1, and I just recently realized I need to rewrite it. *sigh* Sometimes posts like this make me feel soooo far behind, but it's also good for me to remember I'm not alone in the journey and that it's just that- a journey. :-)

  9. Exactly. And who knows? You may be one of the 32%! 😊

  10. Seriously. So, if at first you don't succeed, try like seven more times. Or more.



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