If you’re a beginning fiction writer, you know good and well that your first novel is going to be awful. (If you don’t know this, then you have the added handicap of being delusional.) Given this fact, should you even bother to finish that first dreadful novel?
Rebecca posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m in the works of my first story but I my craft needs a whole lot of work. What ways do I work on my craft without writing an entire novel that will no doubt come out as junk in the end? I don’t want to overwhelm my brain trying to make it do something I’m not ready for. Should I try and write shorter stories or scenes for my novel? Any advice?
Randy sez: Here is a theorem which you can easily prove. You will never write your second novel unless you write your first. Even if your first novel is so awful you wouldn’t even use it to wipe up the mess the puppy made, it’s still a necessary step along the road to publication.
You learn to write a novel by writing novels. You get good by first being willing to be bad — if necessary to be dreadful.
Having said that, there are varieties of dreadfulness.
If your paragraphs are dreadful, the solution is to write more paragraphs. Lots of them. Get them critiqued. Try to improve them. And keep doing that over and over and over. Eventually, they’ll get better.
If your scenes are dreadful, the solution is the same, but here it can be helpful to also study up a bit on the theory of writing scenes, because other people have solved the problems you’re struggling with. I’d recommend my free article on this web site, “Writing the Perfect Scene” as your first place to look. That article will recommend some books you can then buy if you need more help.
If the structure of your novel is dreadful, then I don’t recommend continuing to work on it, however. I recommend that you first learn what makes a well-structured novel.
There are plenty of sources for that. My buddy James Scott Bell has a terrific book, PLOT & STRUCTURE which I have been recommending for a long time. I have long sworn by Dwight Swain’s book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. My own recent book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES is my best shot at teaching the theory of story structure.
Once you understand why the story structure of your novel sucks, either fix it or move on to a different story. My first attempt at a novel had a serious defect that I didn’t recognize for two and a half years. It was a structural problem. As soon as a friend of mine (John DeSimone, my first writing buddy) pointed out the problem, I abandoned the book.
I don’t think it makes sense to keep working on a novel that you know is doomed. Work on one that you think has a chance of succeeding. If you later discover that one is also doomed by a faulty structure, then fix it or abandon it. Writing fiction is a tough business and it’s hard to maintain your enthusiasm even when you believe your story walks on water. If you know that the main story is broken, you’ll find it impossible to keep slogging on, writing ever-better scenes and paragraphs.
That’s my opinion, anyway, but I”m always willing to hear another point of view. What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Have you ever realized that your whole novel was fatally flawed? What did you do?
A postscript: After abandoning my first novel, I worked on #2 for several months until I realized that it, too, was fatally flawed. I abandoned that immediately, grateful that I was learning how to fail faster. I worked on novel #3 for a couple of years and its structure was fundamentally sound and I finished it.
I then found an agent who worked for years to sell it while I worked on Books #4 and #5, each of which also had fatal flaws which caused me to abandon them.
Book #3 circulated for years, but we never sold it, although we had some near misses. However, the comments we got from publishers prompted me to write Book #6, which was the first book I sold. I hope to someday publish #3. It had some nice points, but it was too long for the market then, so I might need to slice it into two books.
I am sorry to say that the agent who worked so hard to sell Book #3, Ron Haynes, died suddenly of a heart attack before I completed Book #6, so I sold it without an agent. Ron thought I had talent, and he was an endless source of encouragement, but his hard work never came to fruition in his lifetime. Ron, wherever you are, I thank you.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.