Giving Yourself Permission to be Dreadful

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.

Share this post:

16 Comments

  1. Gabriel July 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Several authors have written successful first novels. Tom Clancy, JK Rowling, John Grisham. I know these are probably the exceptions that confirm the rule, but do you consider these books non-suckful, or successful despite their suckfulness?

    Also, your first sold book was #6, but did #3 sell afterwards riding on #6′s success (or at least the fact that it was published)? I’m thinking of Dan Brown and his published but awful novels previous to The Da Vinci Code, in particular Digital Fortress (the technical mistakes in the first few pages were so hideous I couldn’t finish it, and I don’t abandon books often)

    Randy sez: If I’ve understood Clancy’s publishing history correctly, his first published novel THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was not his first attempt at a novel. I seem to remember that his first work was a precursor to the book that was eventually published as WITHOUT REMORSE. I don’t know for sure if JKR or Grisham published their first work, although in Grisham’s case, I think he did.

    However, it is not a great idea to use the most successful novelists as a guide to what’s normal. I’ve read that 100,000 people sit down every year to write a novel. Of those, fewer than 1000 ever get sold. The rest crash and burn. The norm is for your first novel to fail.

    Note that Clancy’s first novel was one of his best. He broke in writing at a high level. Rowling’s first novel was also excellent, but she continued to improve with each book up to about the fourth, and she’s stayed consistently (and incredibly) high ever since. Grisham noted in the preface to his first novel that it had its rough spots but he was still reasonably happy with it, and I agree that it was a good book with a few rough edges. I would say that none of these authors’ first novels sucked. That is rare, and it’s a sign of rare talent.

    To answer your other question, my Book #3 has never sold yet. I hope to publish it someday. It’s a fine story, but at 160,000 words, it’s too long for a debut novel.

  2. Tammy July 27, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    How do you know your craft is terrible unless you are good enough to identify it! :) That tells me that you are savvy enough to understand, so certainly you will be clever enough to develop excellent craft.

    You’re ahead of me, I have yet to identify if my craft is any good or not! Note to self – Something I should look into.

    Until recently I was writing my novel ideas only in my head for fear of how horrible it would look on paper.

    *hat off to Randy* I was trying to find a way to get started, and discovered his snowflake method. I set about rolling up my ideas into little snowballs.

    Now I’m happily enjoying the thrilling and scary world of real words on virtual paper! I can say that I fully agree – the only way to get good at writing is to write, read and edit your writing.

    Perhaps the question we should ask the Rowlings and Grishams of the book world is this: How long did you spend working on your first novel before you published it with such success!

    Could be that we find out it was as long as it took Randy to write 5 books and get his 6th one published.

  3. Tim July 27, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    I have written to complete novels since I became serious about writing and trying to get published. Surprisingly I had a big head about being published with my first novel, which is not like me at all. Last year around this time I sat down and reread the first book because I wanted to start working on that series again, which never panned out before because I couldn’t find the continue arc for each book up the way I wanted it to end. It was awful, well awfully written, good story just need a lot more work on the writing. Hopefully I have improved with since then.

    My second novel is where I really started to learn about the craft of writing and how I need to write, working on outlines. Ironically, I have been doing that for years another completely different project, but it alluded me to use it in novel writing. I spent time creating my universe which the series would take place, kept track of all my ideas for each book, but at the same time started reading about writing studying the industry I wanted to break into. In 2008 after 2 long years of working on everything I wrote the first book. It two was horrible, but near the end of the first draft I hit a break through in my writing. I got into my main characters head. In the second draft I continued it, but again near the end of that draft I realized how much I was telling during the action scenes. Deciding I needed a break, I went back to my first novel as mention before.

    I don’t think I would be where I am if I hadn’t written both novels. Since I love the stories so much, I am willing to stick with them, however I know at some point you have to know when to move on and positioning myself to be able to do that with other ideas. A few years down the road I can always come back and improve them.

  4. Amy Bearce July 27, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    Thank you for the encouragement! I’m on manuscript #3 and your post helps me feel like it’s time well-spent!

  5. Rebecca (a different Rebecca) July 27, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    I have started over ten novels, none of which panned out (yet) past the first few pages. They were more or less scenes that I wanted to get down on paper.

    Finally one story has stuck with me and I’ve become very passionate about wanting to tell it. What the other Rebecca and I share is a concern about craft. I have restarted my current WIP several times and it’s been going on for a few months now. The reason I feel that was happening to me was not just because of my concern for craft but also because I only had bits and pieces of my story worked out.

    Beyond frustration, I finally rolled up my sleeves and thought and thought and thought, making hundreds of notes, over the last couple weeks. I also read and read and read Writing Fiction for Dummies (again) while I used Randy’s Snowflake Method. Last weekend I added Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Yesterday, I sat down with a blank screen and it poured out of me and I’m well into my fourth chapter — the furthest I’ve ever gotten with this story! Today, I’m finally comfortable with my characters, story world, backstories, etc. I’m crossing my fingers that tomorrow will be much of the same.

    Although I wrote and re-wrote my first three chapters — each with completely different ideas about the characters and story world and such — I feel it was worth it because I worked hard on the craft of writing at the same time. My dialogue is getting better, my scenes are getting better, and my characters stand out much better. Now I just hope my critique group will have some good comments and great critiques that will keep my newfound motivation going strong.

    Good luck to the other Rebecca and everyone else working on their first, and continued success to all of you, too!

  6. Luke July 28, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    Can’t speak to Grisham, but I seem to recall that JKR wrote a lot in her youth (don’t know if anything was ever published.) I definitely remember reading that it took five years from idea to finish for the first Harry Potter.

    Another example of a writer that struggled (and is open about that fact) would be Stephen King. But he had been writing shorts for years. He has an excellent foreward in one of his short story collections (Skeleton Crew, which I highly recommend) about his beginning days in writing, talking about his struggles. He also talks about how writing short stories helped him grow as an author, and how he still enjoys writing them. Interesting fact I learned from the foreward: He is so self-critical that he threw the book “Carrie” away, but his wife rescued it.

  7. Kim Miller July 28, 2010 at 6:09 am #

    Stephen King, in On Writing, tells the story of how his writing started when he was only ten or twelve years old. He and his brother published a school paper – only to have every copy he sold confiscated when a fierce teacher took offense of some comment. She even made him give the money back to the kids who she confiscated the paper from.

    He tells of his first encounter writing a sports report and how the editor speed-read it and marked it in red, and suddenly the still teenage King could see that producing a good paragraph was an art and a skill, something that he could learn.

    His first published novel was a long way off and sits on top of a lot of other writing.

    Carrie was rescued by his wife. But that doesn’t mean it went to print in the same shape as it was when he threw it away.

    I like Randy’s use of statistics. Most stuff that gets written stops there. That should encourage me to improve, and improve, and improve.

  8. A J Hawke July 28, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    Back in 2008, I read something Randy wrote about achieving a marketable novel. I don’t remember his exact point, but he stated that to consider oneself a true fiction writer, one should produce a million words. I thought that was a little extreme, but I now have six novels completed and 70,000 words into the seventh. I feel confident that publication will happen. And I am more and more confident in my craft, plus I still enjoy the journey of writing a story to completion. I wouldn’t be at this point if I hadn’t been willing to risk an awful first novel.

  9. Melissa Stroh July 28, 2010 at 8:11 am #

    Back at my first writers conference a published author who critiqued my book told me that many authors never publish their first work and that hers was buried in a drawer somewhere. I knew my first novel was far from perfect, but her comment convinced me all the more that my book wouldn’t share that fate. It just needed polish. So instead of ditching the novel, I revamped it. And the story has grown with me. It’s been a little over seven years in the remaking. But in that time I’ve learned much and that meager novel has sprawled out into a full blown historical series that I hope to have published someday.

  10. CarrieLLewis July 28, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    Amen, Randy!

    I just retired a novel I wrote the first time around the turn of the century and have finished at least a dozen times since. The story was almost old enough to vote when I finally decided to move on.

    I’ve finished six manuscripts so far (the one above is #3 and it’s companion, #4, was finished about the same time the first time and about the same number of times since) and they range from Purple Prose to fundamentally unsound. I still enjoy pulling them out and reading them for my own enjoyment and encouragement, but they’ve all been retired.

    But every word I write improves my craft, so I don’t consider any of those six manuscipts to have been failures. They’re just not publishable in their current state. Who’s to say I won’t some day strike upon the correct solution and they will become publishable?

    That is part of the reason I continue learning about writing.

    Carrie

  11. Charlotte July 28, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Hello Randy and Loyal Followers!

    I am currently in the process of co-writing my #3, if I count the one I began to write the day Grade 2 ended when I was 7, and my sister’s #1. I set aside #2 to work on this project. It is different writing with a partner. We had to figure out our roles and work through some mild conflicts, as well as consider the elements of our novel and focus on our craft.

    My attitude toward the work in progress is not consistant. Sometimes I am sure it is brilliant; other times I am amused by my sister and my shared delusion. I will need some time and perspective to get a true impression of the finished book.

    I can hardly wait. My major goal in continuing this writing venture is to complete the process of writing a novel. I think that in itself is a worthy goal. If anyone else is interested in reading/publishing it, I will be elated, but I am not pinning my hopes on that.

    I am good at beginning stories, essays, novels, and even poems. I want to learn to be good at finishing. That said, I also understand that it can be futile to continue a project that I know is too flawed to rescue. But what if it is just my current mood or unwillingness to work through the tangles that prevents me from completing a project?

    Randy, what do you think?

    Charlotte

  12. Kevin (novice teen writer) July 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Ah, this is the one where I continued with a bunch of uneeded and pointless rambling. Thanks for the advice, Randy!

  13. Kevin (novice teen writer) July 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Wow, I just read through all of the comments and have been seeing so much of myself and what I can expect I will be! While it’s obvious that there would be many similar cases, seeing all of these oh so similar struggles hands on is truly heart-lifting. I’ve been developing my actual idea for many months now, but barely getting to the writing part (it’s a complicated conspiracy plot. I adore it so much!). After reading this, I honestly feel the will to finally sit down and finish that first chapter that I’ve been redoing and frowning at forever, and starting up on the second before I send the first to my critique group. Knowing exactly what will happen but being unable to write it, now that is truly frustrating!

  14. Michelle July 29, 2010 at 8:33 am #

    I’m glad to read that my first book will fail. I had such plans for it! There have been first books that sold, made a movie, and more! Do I spend $2000 getting this published and getting the web page and more? And then it will do nothing?! Please, Randy, give me some faith!

    Randy sez: I didn’t say that most PUBLISHED first books fail. What I said was that most first books fail to ever get published in the first place because the author is still learning the craft. Occasionally a first novel does get published, but that’s rare. Usually the first novel is a necessary learning experience. If my memory is correct, Stephen King’s sixth novel was the first one he got published. If a first novel actually gets published, that’s not a failure, that’s a success. A rare one.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe an author should spend $2000 getting a book published. Professional authors don’t pay to get published. They get paid by publishing companies who buy the rights to publish the book. When a “publisher” asks you to pay to “get published,” they are usually vanity publishers who have no distribution channels, which means that no copies will get sold other than the ones you buy. There are exceptions, of course. I know some reputable self-publishing companies who do a good job partnering with writers who want to self-publish their work. But if you’re going to go this route, you need to have a strong marketing plan in place, and most novelists don’t.

  15. Robert Gerton May 8, 2012 at 7:46 am #

    Randy, I would love to hear more about your other novels that are either unpublished or fatally flawed. Have you written about it in the Ezine or in a blog post? Please share? As you know, we learn through failure, and I would much rather learn from your failures than make my own!

Leave a Comment