Why First Novels Aren’t Publishable – A Ramble

Well, although I’d planned to write about the horror genre, I thought that I’d talk about first novels today.

This is mostly because, during the 2-3 months before preparing this article, I tried to write my first proper full-length novel ( apart from this old thing. Although that was technically a novella, still it felt like a novel at the time. But, I digress…).

And, yes, the full-length novel project was a horror novel. Well, technically, it was a post-apocalyptic alternate history dark comedy heavy metal zombie thriller with romance elements. But, “horror novel” is shorter.

Anyway, I ended up with a finished 63-chapter, 54,800-word second draft. But, after trying to improve the first draft for a couple of weeks, I realised that it wasn’t even close to publishable quality.

It was a hell of a lot of fun to write, but after looking over it for a couple of weeks, I noticed so many faults and flaws (eg: unresolved plot points, crappy pacing, cardboard characters, bland dialogue, a confusingly non-linear timeline, very bland/repetitive narration in some parts etc..) that even the most extensive editing probably wouldn’t salvage the thing.

Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t something I thought was worth splashing out on a proper editor for or spending time trying to get published. Yes, I was amazed that I actually wrote the thing, but I didn’t have the confidence in it that I’d expected.

This, of course, made me think of the classic writing advice about first novels. You know, the one about how they are never publishable. Of course, like I did, you’ll think that you’re the exception to the rule. That the manuscript that you’ve spent months on will break this gloomy, miserable rule. Well, after testing this rule out for myself, I thought that I’d offer some explanation for why people say this about first novels.

But, let me say this right now, your first novel isn’t a “waste of time”. Even if you are the only person to ever read the whole thing, it isn’t a waste of time!

Your first novel is a way to practice writing a full-length novel. It is there to show you that you can write a novel (seriously, actually finishing it is a real confidence boost 🙂 ) and, more importantly, to show you what you need to improve for your second novel.

I cannot stress the importance of this second point enough! Your first novel is a way of revealing things about your writing that you might not have known before you wrote it. It is there to teach you what you need to do differently in your second novel. It is a dry run, a test, a practice project. When it fails, that failure shows you how not to fail the next time.

After all, if you were trying to learn any other skill, then you wouldn’t expect instant perfection. You wouldn’t expect your first cookery project, musical performance, online multiplayer match, craft project etc… to be the pinnacle of perfection. So, why is it any different with novels? With all of these things, you need to fail and learn from it before you become good at it.

You also need to do your research in order to know how and why you’ve failed. In the case of writing, this mostly involves reading lots of other novels. When you read a lot, you’ll compare your first novel to the books you’re reading and, chances are, you’ll think “It isn’t as good as them“. The trick is to ask yourself why. Is it the characterisation? The writing style? The pacing? The structure?

If you do this, rather than just thinking “I’ll never be as good as these other writers“, then your unpublishable first novel won’t be a waste of time. It will be an important step on the path towards your second novel. After all, you can’t write a better second novel without writing a bad first novel beforehand.

So, yes, your first novel is important. It is very, very important. Because it won’t be good enough to publish, not despite it. If you’ve actually finished your first novel, you are already better at writing novels than most so-called writers. If you think “I can do better next time”, then you probably will.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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