Friday, June 12, 2009

First Books and Growing Pains

I once had a conversation with a recently-published author who said airily, "I think every writer should throw their first book away."

To this day, I think of him as an evil human being.

Why? Because Mr. Recently Published knew darn good and well that I was in the throes of pouring my heart and soul into my first book. He knew I'd be horrified at the very idea that my cherished efforts might never see the light of day.

Was he right? In my case, maybe. But he didn't have to SAY it.

You see, I believe new writers are to be encouraged. If there's bad news to be told, you break it to them gently. I've heard it said that every writer has to write a million bad words (gee, I didn't know there were that many profanities!) before they get to the good stuff. Me, I don't think any hard-and-fast rules apply. It's probably good to know, and accept, that the vast majority of us start out "bad," to one degree or another. But there's always the rare chance that a new writer could be another Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose first and only book was brilliant. Who are we to say?

To try to give Mr. Recently Published the benefit of the doubt, perhaps what he meant was simply that I should be prepared to spend some time in the trenches. That's good advice. But it sounded more like, "My first book(s) were wretched -- YOU should suffer, too!"

Ahem. Now that I've finally gotten those 25 years of resentment out of my system, let's look back on some of my early writing efforts.

When I was about nine, I started working on my very own "script" for Dark Shadows -- remember, that afternoon soap from the '60s and early '70s, with vampires, ghosts and witches? I wish I still had it. It would be a hoot. To my recollection, I had people screaming and fainting on every page, and falling in love with whatever member of the opposite sex they found themselves in the same room with.

In high school, I wrote short, "cute" pieces with dreams of being a teen Erma Bombeck. One of them sold to Seventeen for $15.00, a modest sum even back then. In my 20s, I started to play with actual short stories, finally making a sale here and there. Eventually I decided it was time to tackle My First Book.

It would be the great American vampire novel (see how that devotion to Dark Shadows carried over?). It would be romantic, like the Frank Langella film version of Dracula, and funny, like the Chris Sarandon movie Fright Night. In my head, the hero became a physical composite of the two actors. For the heroine, I wanted someone as far from myself as I could imagine: an athletic, beautiful blonde aerobics instructor (I figured she'd make great vampire bait). I made her the whopping age of 29, to my mere twenty-six.

Trouble was, I didn't know how it ended. I couldn't make up my mind whether my vampire was good or evil, whether he would live or die. I went through six months of ecstatic rough draft before I stalled. Then came the agonies of trying to figure out where I was actually going.


It was painful, but it taught me some valuable lessons:

1) If you're writing your first novel, I beg you to plot it out first. Some professional writers are what we call "pantsers," but I say if you write your first book without a plan, chances are there's a big brick wall ahead of you.

2) No book is wasted. I cut my teeth (ba-dump-BUMP!!!) on that vampire novel, and the next thing I wrote was a short story that blew my previous efforts out of the water.

3) I would NEVER tell a fledgling writing to throw his or her first book away. But I would tell them this: No matter what, don't think of your FIRST book as your ONLY book. When you finish the first one, start another. Because if you don't sell, guess what? You're gonna want another one to send out there. And if you do sell, guess what? The publisher is gonna want another one!

You're in this for the long haul, baby, unless you want to gamble on being the next Harper Lee.

What about the rest of you out there? Was your first book your first sale? I'd love to hear some stories about some of those false-start first novels lurking under the bed!


Anonymous said...

Hi Sierra,
Great post. Brings back lots of memories...not all bad. LOL

Trying to become published was a real 'shocker' for this school teacher. After spending YEARS encouraging students to do better, to improve their skills, form rejections sent me reeling.

Thanks for reminding us...what is it you say..."Never Give Up" ?

Carol Hutchens said...

It me...don't know why name didn't appear.

Carol Hutchens said...

That's my comment...for some reason my Goggle ID wouldn't work...

Sierra Donovan said...

Thanks, Carol! Google can be cranky sometimes.

That line I love is from the movie Galaxy Quest: "Never Give Up! Never Surrender!"

Sandy Cody said...

Love this post, Sierra. My first book didn't sell, but after years of letting it "ripen" on my computer, I just got it out, re-read it and know (or think I know) what to do to make it a really terrific book. I don't believe anything you write is ever wasted. It's all exercise for that creative urge, just like walking is good for your body, even if you don't have a known destination.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Ha! Nice post. (I'm so glad you're not bitter) LOL!!!

Sadly, I was totally clueless on my first book and it is dreadful. Embarrassingly so. But I agree and do not call it a wasted effort. Not everybody hits a homerun their first time up at bat, but like you said, it doesn't mean it can't happen. :)

Elisabeth Rose said...

They might be cringemakingly dreadful, out first books, but at least they were finished! I periodically pull out my first effort and think --not bad. The characters have potential they just need a decent story to go with them--plus a setting transplant.

Sierra Donovan said...

I didn't even finish mine, and I still learned a lot. Some of it simply involved discovering what NOT to do! But the amount of time I spent addictively writing it definitely sharpened my craft.

And as Sandy and Elisabeth pointed out, some abandoned first efforts are even worth returning to!

LaVerne St. George said...

My very first novel was a collaborative effort in middle school based on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E" TV series (dating myself, here). I still have the manuscript--and the nice rejection letter. But I went through the process, learned how to submit, asked the school librarian to edit and at no point did anyone say "Throw it away!" or "Don't submit it." Years later the next novel landed 40 rejections. Finally I had to agree. I have that manuscript, too. The next sold to Avalon. Yes, Sierra, persistence and practice is the name of the game. Thanks for the post!