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The First Book is Seldom the Best

on May 25th, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 13, 2013

Should a fiction writer’s first manuscript come from the story that’s been rolling around in his mind for the last twenty years? Should that first novel be the tale that’s burning to be written, the one the writer is sure will be a bestseller?

I’ve wondered about this for a while, and my first response is no.

The first novel, in craft terms, will certainly never be a writer’s best work. Why take that story, that one that keeps you up at night, and subject it to a beginning writer? If the story’s that good, wouldn’t you rather see it in the hands of a craftsman instead of those of a novice? If it’s the Great American Novel or next NY Times chart topper or the top pick in the Book of the Month Club (nothing wrong with dreaming big), shouldn’t it get the best writer, or at least the best effort of any writer?

Yet . . .

It’s often that first story itself that drives a writer to write. Just knowing he can mold his idea into a compelling read might be what keeps him writing and learning and working into the night when he could be doing so many other activities instead. The dream of what he can create may be the impetus for writing in the first place. If the writer is discouraged away from one story and asked to work on another (to him) less compelling story, will he lose heart, lose interest?

My first manuscript was one of those burning to be written. And the story and the adventure of writing kept me on track to write. Yet I know that manuscript is far from a masterpiece; I could do much better today. But of course, you must begin somewhere. Now I’ve got another story that plays around in my mind, teasing me with glimpses of what it could be. Yet this time I know I’m not ready to write it. So I work on other projects and hold this one manuscript in front of me as a tease, a goad.

But do you tell a new writer that his pet project will most likely be his worst work? Do you share that reality before he’s even begun? At the best it’s an eye opener. At the worst it could put the brakes on a writing career before it’s begun.

So . . .

Is it fair to ask a writer to hold off working on the story that moves him until he’s good enough to do an outstanding job on it?

Is it fair to ask a beloved story to put up with a writer not up to the task?

I’m still pondering . . .

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10 Responses to “The First Book is Seldom the Best”

  1. A thought-provoking question! Speaking for myself, My first manuscript will always hold a special place in my heart, but I’m hoping it’s not the best I can do. It makes me think…is it time to pull it out and revise it again? It makes you wonder!

  2. Beth says:

    The first is special to me too, Sherrie. But it’s definitely not my best. Like you, I wonder if it’s time to revise the manuscript or to just accept it as a stepping stone toward other projects. No one wants to abandon that first one, but most probably deserve to be left alone after they’ve served the purpose of setting us on the writing path.

  3. Beth says:

    Hmm. My pretty new gravatar didn’t show up. Please indulge this test to see if my gravatar shows itself now…

  4. Sia McKye says:

    I think a first in a series book can be good, even for a beginner. But the more writing skills you have the better your books. I like watching and reading debut authors. You get to see their growth as a writer.

    I’ve held off writing a story I felt I didn’t have the chops for at the time. What I’m writing now is stretching me as a writer but I will say it’s a fun story for me but it is taking oh so much longer than my usual writing style. I’ve taught myself to be patient–not always easy.

    Nice post.

  5. Other Lisa says:

    Hmmm…I actually think that for the most part, your ideas about your dream novel change as you become a better writer too. Meaning that when I was starting to write, the novel near and dear to my heart was one thing. As I continued to write and improved as a writer — and mature as a person (or so I hope), my novel ambitions changed and grew as well.

    (I can only think of one exception to this, and it’s a non-fiction work that I stared and realized that I didn’t have the chops or the knowledge base to do it)

    Every book I’ve ever tried to write was a stretch for me at the time I was writing it and forced me to grow as a writer.

  6. These are great thoughts to ponder. I’ve just completed a first novel that I first noodled around over thirty years ago. I should hope that it will not be my best, but it surely has been a learning experience from which I hope future, better, work will evolve. Without the inspiration of this first story however, I can say with assurance, I would have never taken the leap to write a novel. Good, Bad or somewhere inbetween, I am happy to have had the experience of completing a novel. I will forevermore write, for it….jim

  7. Beth says:

    Jim, isn’t it exciting, that leap? Here’s hoping you’ll be published and very happy with everything you write. And may each story be better than the last.

  8. Beth says:

    Lisa, I agree about the stretching. I think if it was easy every time, we’d get bored and that boredom would show in our writing.

    I see that several of us have put off a project, knowing we weren’t ready for it. I think that shows great restraint and wisdom.

  9. I’d like to think I have more than one great novel in me, but the first I finished was definitely not the best. Nor was the second. The third and beyond? Good stuff, imo. I do often wonder if I could salvage those first two with some devoted editing, but the stories simply aren’t exciting to me any more, so I’d rather focus my time and energy elsewhere. Thus, I have moved on to new things and consider those first few novels practice. It doesn’t bother me that they’ll probably never be published.

    Would I tell someone not to write their “great novel” just because they’re a newbie author? No way! There are too many authors out there who wrote only one novel and if they’d never thought they were good enough to write it, we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it.

    So I say: Jump of the proverbial bridge and just write it. You can always fix it later if need be.

  10. Beth says:

    Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird are two prime examples of hits by authors who never published another novel.

    No, I wouldn’t ever tell anyone they couldn’t or shouldn’t. But I will definitely suggest writing aids if someone is serious about their writing. There’s just too much competition. If you want to compete, train and improve and keep at it.

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