Write On!: Why “debut novel” isn’t synonymous with “first novel”
You’re writing your first novel and dreaming of publishing success. It’s hard work and you’ll take encouragement wherever you can get it. You go online and see an article about the great success of a new author’s debut novel. “Yes!” you think. “It IS possible for a new author to have publishing success. Just look at that person. If they did it, so can I!” You get back to writing, the headlines about your future debut novel playing in your head.
While it’s good that you are feeling motivated to keep writing, there are some hard truths about that successful author’s debut novel that aren’t immediately apparent. And if you aren’t aware of this, it could lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment.
The thing you need to know is this: When we talk about an author’s debut novel, we’re talking about the first novel they’ve had published. This is not necessarily the first novel they’ve ever written. As a matter of fact, it is unlikely to be the first novel they’ve ever written. If you are working on your first novel and comparing it to the debut published novels of other writers, you are likely to feel as if you are coming up short. If you are expecting that kind of success, you are likely to be disappointed.
A few years back, the website Writability conducted a poll of published authors, asking them how many books they had written before their debut. Over 84% of them had written at least one novel before they got published. Seventeen percent debuted with their second novel, but a similar percentage of authors debuted with their fourth novel. You can check out all of the results here, but the average was 3.24 books written before debuting. That’s quite a bit of practice.
Maybe you’re thinking that those authors were nobody special, that really talented writers wouldn’t need so much time to get it right. OK, so let’s take a look at some authors who have had very successful careers as novelists. Stephen King’s first published novel was Carrie, quite a successful debut. But he had written five novels before that. FIVE! As he says in the intro to The Bachman Books: “I wrote five novels before Carrie. Two of them were bad, one was indifferent, and I thought two of them were pretty good.” Those two did eventually get published after some reworking, but the first three never saw the light of day. They just weren’t good enough. He’s not the only one.
Another author with a very successful debut novel is Nicholas Sparks, whose first novel, The Notebook, was a huge success and was even made into a fantastically popular movie. But he had written two other novels before The Notebook. Mr. Sparks says on his website: “I regard the work on those novels as an apprenticeship of sorts, one that showed me that I not only enjoyed writing stories, but that I had the ability to finish a novel once I’d started. However, I don’t feel they are well-written enough to be published.”
Now, no one wants to think about the hours and the energy they put into their first novel as “practice,” but we don’t have any problem realizing we need practice in other new pursuits. Would you pick up a guitar for the first time and expect to play it well? Would you grab a tennis racket and a ball for the first time and expect to be able to play with people who had been playing for years? Of course not! Well, writing is a skill too and, like all skills, it takes lots of practice to get good.
I don’t tell you this to be a Negative Nelly or to discourage you from writing. And I’m certainly not telling you to slack off on your current work in progress because the road to getting it published is steep. To the contrary! You should put everything you have into writing your first novel. If you get lucky and get an agent’s or a publisher’s attention with it, you’ll want it to be the best it can be. If it turns out to be a “practice novel,” you’ll want to learn everything you can from it so you can make the next novel you write even better. That won’t happen if you just phone it in. But if you know going in to writing your first novel that chances are good that this is your “apprenticeship,” you just might enjoy it more. It takes some of the pressure off and allows you to go with the flow a bit more. If you don’t have a laser focus on how successful your book is going to be after you finish writing it, you might have more focus and energy to give to the actual writing now. And knowing ahead of time that learning to write a novel is a process, you might be less inclined to compare yourself negatively to published authors. The only author you should be comparing yourself to anyway is the author that you were yesterday.
So, write that first novel. Give it everything you’ve got and learn as much as you can from the process. Most of all, have fun! If you don’t enjoy writing a novel, those 80,000 words are going to be quite a slog. If you’re one of the lucky and talented few who get published right away, good for you! If you’re not, know that you’re in good company and dive on into the next book.