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Great Expectations vs. Realistic Ones

on August 7th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on August 7, 2012

In the early days of this blog, I wrote an article about the quality of a writer’s first manuscript—The First Book is Seldom the Best. I’d like to revisit some of the points I talked about then, maybe look at some other issues.

The truth—and what every novel writer should know—is that your first manuscript, if you write more than one, will almost without exception be the worst of the bunch.

If you’ve never done something, no matter what it is, that first effort is not going to be stellar. It can’t be. If you’ve never tried it—ridden a bike, painted a portrait, hemmed a pant leg, baked a soufflé—you can’t expect the product or result to be perfect that first time. Your mind doesn’t have the knowledge and your body doesn’t have the skill.

Many first, second, third and hundredth attempts at recipes are stuffed down the disposal. Drawings and paintings are torn up, tossed out, or painted over. A first bike ride might result in skinned knees and more sideways progress than forward motion.

It’s simply unrealistic to expect a first effort to be edible or aesthetically pleasing or readable. It’s not impossible to imagine such an outcome, and that’s one of the reasons we make the effort, because we can imagine what we can turn out. But we certainly don’t expect a first effort to be able to compete with the efforts of veterans in any endeavor.

So what does this mean for the novelist dreaming of success with that first manuscript? Should he or she be encouraged or discouraged? Maybe both?

The truth is, you have to start somewhere. And even if you’ve studied writing and written short stories and read eleventy million novels, your first attempt at a novel will still be your first attempt.

If you’ve got some knowledge of and experience with writing, if you know how to plot and how to manipulate reader emotion and character conflict through dialogue, if you know about rising action and hooks and foreshadowing and what makes fiction engaging for readers, then you have a lot of the necessary tools. But if you’ve never actually put a novel together from beginning to end, you’ve never done it. You’ll encounter unexpected problems or plot impossibilities that you’d never imagined back on page one.

Might you get lucky or have enough knowledge to know what to try to fix problem areas? Sure. You may be able to solve any number of issues and put out a finished product worth celebrating

Will it be ready for the public? Given what you know of first efforts at anything, what do you think? Even if it’s okay and a reader can follow, can derive some enjoyment from it, will it be the best version of that story? Will it be as a good as it could be? Maybe it will be as good a story as you can make it at that time, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth reading.

Why am I dwelling on this, even pointing out that a first story won’t be your best and won’t be the best it could have been if you’d written it later?

I certainly don’t want to discourage you. I do want you to write that first novel. I want you to be excited about it and about your career (or hobby, if that’s what writing is to you). But I also want you to look realistically at that first effort.

A painter doesn’t expect anyone to buy his first painting and to hang it in a place of honor and prominence. But many writers expect exactly that. They expect not only that they’ll publish that first novel, but that it will have record sales.

You may be thinking that this isn’t you, that you don’t imagine that history-making contract, but quite a few writers do. And if they know they can write well and tell a good story, writers have the right to imagine that anything is possible.

Sometimes that imagining is all that gets us through that first manuscript. If we’re not getting atta-boys from family and friends and from the co-workers and bosses the way we would in a day job, all we have is our own enthusiasm and determination. We have to have a goal, and a goal of wild success is a strong motivator.

But don’t let that image blind you to reality.

Your first novel manuscript will not be as strong as the second and certainly won’t compare with the fifth or sixth. You will get better as you write. Your stories will be less bloated and more engaging. You’ll start cutting out those scenes that are written so, so well but that have no place in your manuscript.

Your first novel may never sell. And it may not deserve to.

So now that I’ve bummed you out—or have you fuming to prove me wrong—what do you do? Stop writing and cap your pen? That’s no option. Not for a writer. Instead, you use this knowledge to your advantage.

You write that first manuscript and finish it with joy for a job, a big job, accomplished. Then you set it aside for a month and come back to it with fresh eyes. Can you improve it? Should you, even if it’s not likely to sell?

I do think you should work through a couple of drafts of a first novel. Not necessarily because doing so will allow you to sell it, though that could happen. But so you learn how to work through the problem areas. You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that most of writing is in the rewriting. And that’s true. The first draft is for getting the plot down. The next drafts are for choosing scenes that work and choosing words that make those scenes work. Second and third drafts are for cutting out what’s not necessary and adding in—threading through the entire story—elements that you left out of the first draft.

Rewriting is for shaping the novel, for turning it from half-completed events and sketchy scenes into a flowing, unified, and entertaining story.

You definitely should tackle a rewrite of a first novel, even if you know doing so won’t have it ready for the public. Consider it an education. Make what doesn’t work in terms of story or format work for you in terms of learning.

If you put aside every manuscript before working through your particular problem areas, you’ll never learn how to solve them or how to avoid making them in the future. Yes, some manuscripts should never be seen except by those who love you. And some should be dumped fairly quickly. But some should serve as workshop projects that you can pull apart and put together in new ways, teaching you new skills and giving you insights you’d never have without doing such a thing to a manuscript.

Use that first manuscript to test yourself—can I do it, write a novel? Do I have the discipline, the skills, the desire? Is this what I want to spend my free time on? Does it satisfy me? Do I care to learn what I need to to make writing work for me?

Use that first manuscript to teach yourself skills and habits that will make subsequent manuscripts easier to approach.

Use the first manuscript to show others you’re serious.

Use the first manuscript to expose your writing weaknesses. This may be dialogue or sentence construction or word choice or setting or character fit for the plot. Determine where your skills need strengthening.

Should you use that first one to gauge your chances at publication? I don’t think so. If you’re submitting that first manuscript—and do carefully consider whether you should or if you should just hide it away and begin the next—don’t bet your whole writing career on it. The chances that you’ll (traditionally) publish your first novel are slim, slim, slim. Don’t allow success or failure with that first one determine if you should write another and another.

I’ve read that many writers don’t find success until novel number three (and that’s in terms of publication, not sales). So what does that mean? Write numbers One and Two and make them the best that you can. Work out the problems. Submit only if they’re actually worth submitting. And get started on the third.

This doesn’t mean you don’t make an effort with the first two; in order for Three to be that much better than One and Two, you’ll need to learn from the mistakes of both One and Two.

But if you’re going to write for a career and not merely try to be published one time, you’ll want to work on craft. That means you’ll be figuring out why something doesn’t work. And that means study or classes or workshops or a critique buddy. That means putting the strengths and weaknesses of the first manuscript to work for the second and then drawing from what you learn from both first and second manuscripts to make the third a story worthy of readers.

This means taking time to learn craft without assuming that you already know everything simply because you’ve read a lot. Or without assuming that studying literature is the same as writing it. Both readers and critics of literature bring different skills to a novel than does the writer—knowing this before you begin to write will save you time and errors.

Yes, you’ve got to start somewhere. And there’s great value in that first manuscript. But if it doesn’t get published, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it as a writer. It does mean that you need to write a better story. (Of course, even great stories are rejected time after time. But that’s a different issue altogether. Sometimes your manuscript does have to be in the right hands at the right time.)

But what if, for your first manuscript, you used that story idea that burned a hole in your heart for years? What if that story is the one you really want to tell and you don’t want to wait to write it?

You have a couple of options.

~  Save that story for your third or fourth effort. That’s hard, however, when it’s that one plot or character that’s been your encouragement for years, the carrot you’ve dangled in front of yourself. You may truly ache to start your writing career with it. But if you know ahead of time that you can’t possible do it justice until you’re more experienced, try waiting just a bit longer to move it from your heart and to the page.

~  Write some version of that story as your first manuscript and come back to it for a second attempt after you’ve got some experience with writing full novel manuscripts.

~  Accept that it did its work and got you writing and now come up with another as equally compelling project for you to love and spend a year of your life with for a second or third novel.

_________________________________

We all have dreams for our writing, and that’s as it should be. We should have confidence in our skills as well. But we should also think realistically about our manuscripts, about their quality and their fit for the market.

We should know before we start what is realistic and what is dream. We should go into any endeavor with knowledge. That way we’re not blindsided and needlessly delayed or dismayed by what we discover.

A first manuscript is like first steps—exciting and wonderful, especially for the one experiencing either. But as a baby who walks across the room can’t be compared to a sprinter, neither can a first manuscript be compared to the fifth novel from a writer. The quality is so different that they could have been created by two different people. And once you’ve written a handful of novels, the writer you are is truly no longer the one who penned your first one; the difference is that great. And it’s a difference worth working toward.

I hope you’re encouraged rather than discouraged by these words. Actually, I hope you’re so encouraged that you go right out and get to work on a new project and/or start studying craft issues.

I hope you look at the first manuscript not as a do-or-die road to publication but as in-depth training for a career in writing.

I hope you write with new purpose today, with fervor and with not only great expectations, but realistic ones as well.

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19 Responses to “Great Expectations vs. Realistic Ones”

  1. Grace says:

    Thanks for this post–so many good points that I will try to take to heart.
    I’m currently getting a novel ready for publication (my first publishing attempt), but it’s the fourth novel-length book I’ve written. I hope that I’ve learned a few things about the craft with those other books and the classes I’ve taken, but I guess critiques and editors will tell when I start submitting this book!

  2. Grace, I wish you great success with the current story and all those to follow. What do you think of the differences between your first novel manuscript and the current one? Do you find you made significant changes in style or approach?

    • Grace says:

      I am learning how to show my characters’ personalities and thoughts through more dialogue and action now, rather than the long periods of thoughts I put characters through in my earlier stuff. I’m also learning that the reader does not need to know EVERY detail about EVERYTHING right away–pages and pages of description and exposition are about as exciting as pages and pages of a character’s thoughts.

  3. Grace, that’s a great lesson to have learned, about not overburdening a story with exposition and thought when action and dialogue can do a much better job of engaging the reader. Sounds as if you’re on the right track. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. Holly says:

    In the process right now of writing that first one. I’ve been at it for two years, started again four times and cut about two books’ worth. I give up at around 5pm every Sunday.

    My dream is not to sell anything, but just to be able to hold the manuscript in my hands and tell people that I’ve written a novel. It’s a convenient dream because I know, if I want to, I can do it.

    Been getting your posts by email for a while now. I just want to say thank you for all the work you put in. This website really was a gem to stumble upon. I found this post thought-provoking, and also strangely motivating, in the way that now I feel like I’m at the beginning of something amazing. I have so much to learn, so many books to write, and one day, one of them will be good.

    Grace, I wish you luck. Those flaws sound familiar.

  5. Dawn Dix says:

    I’ve been tirelessly working on editing & re-editing my first novel for the last five months. It makes me think perhaps I should just stop toiling over it and start submitting.

  6. Dawn, it may be time for that.

    Have you had feedback on it from beta readers or a critique partner? What do they say? And are you still making major changes or are you only changing a word here or there?

    The next step may be to put it away for a few weeks and get it out of your head. Don’t look at it or think about it or change just that one bothersome section. Simply ignore it. Then after 3 or 4 weeks, print a fresh copy, find a quiet place to read, and see what you’ve got. You should be able to tell where it stands at that point.

    And then, if it’s ready, start submitting. And meanwhile, somewhere in there start work on the next story.

  7. Lisa says:

    This really is encouraging, thank you! I’m working on my first novel, and occasionally I catch myself answering imaginary interview questions in the mirror, recounting how this incredible story just dropped into my head one night. And although that’s fun, I know it’s completely unrealistic. It’s nice to hear someone else say that my optimism-covered pessimism is really realism, that my story really is not good enough for publication, and that that’s okay. Trying to write a masterpiece is too much pressure. Just writing something is good enough for now, I guess.

  8. Julie says:

    I recently attended a novel writing workshop hosted by a novelist who was about to get their ninth (or tenth) book published, in a literary genre rather than a formula novel. They advised that they have anywhere between seven and twelve re-writes and that each re-write looked at a particular area e.g. character connectivity/ holes in the overall plot etc. After picking myself up off the floor in defeat at the sheer workload of writing a novel, I scrolled through a number of texts that gave me an outline of what aspects of a novel could be looked at when you’re in the re-writing process.

    I’d be interested to see what areas people concentrate on as they re-work, add to or delete after they’ve written their first draft manuscript.Or a list of aspects a structural editor looks at when viewing a manuscript.

    • Julie, some novels need more rewrites while others can use fewer. Part of the reason is due to the complexity of the story. But each novel needs more than one pass. There’s simply too much to a novel to complete it in only one draft.

      I’ve got a couple of articles on editing. Try the Checklist for Editors to get started.

  9. Holly, if the writing satisfies and challenges you, don’t quit. If your main goal is to simply see a novel through to completion, maybe entertain yourself and others along the way, that’s a valid goal. I think that’s one that spurs on many first-time writers. The challenges of creating something from nothing and finishing a long-term project are worthy goals. And I wish you success at meeting and exceeding them.

    Thanks for letting me know the blog’s been helpful. Providing practical suggestions and encouragement are two of my goals.

    • Holly says:

      No, absolutely. I will not be quitting any time soon. My ‘giving up’ sessions only last for a few hours at a time, just enough to keep me sane…
      It is hard, but I’m enjoying every minute. I’m in love with the story and, even though it’s my aim to finish, I think I’ll be sad once it’s over.

  10. Lisa, that dreaming is sometimes all we have to keep us writing. And it can be fun. But looking realistically at that first effort is necessary if we want to advance as writers.

    I think setting aside that first and second and third manuscript is probably the toughest tasks for a new novelist. We’ve lived with our stories for so long, agonized over plot and word choice and character for so many hours that we don’t want to imagine what we’ve produced isn’t great. And while a first manuscript might be great as a first try, when compared with better written stories, it just doesn’t compare.

    The good news is, we can always write the next story and the next. But we do have to start somewhere, so that first one has to be started and finished. You’re right—sometimes just simply writing, getting the story out of the pictures in our heads and into words on a page—is indeed good enough for the moment.

    Here’s hoping you will be encouraged to finish not only the first, but many more novels. And that you’ll find success with all of them.

  11. Rachel says:

    Thank you so much for this, Beth. I’m writing my first novel and am often asked (mainly by non-writing family members) why it’s taking me so long. I’ve started my book, scrapped it, then started again several times over the last few years, and I try to explain that just as it took me many years to earn my law degree, so too will it take time for me to get there with my writing. As you point out, never having written a book before means I’m on a steep learning curve, but with each round of revisions my book is getting better and better. I’m not holding out too much hope that this book will be the one that gets published, but I’m not putting it aside to move onto another until I know I have done all I possibly can to make it as good as it can be, and that I need to move on and try something new in order to learn some more. I still get strange looks from the relatives, but that’s life! Thanks for the validation that I’m not completely mad in my approach to this strange and wonderful beast called first novel writing. :-)

  12. Katy says:

    This is very helpful, thank you so much for adding this. I am currently a high school senior and am working on my first book for publication. After graduating I plan on getting an MFA degree in fiction and poetry writing so I’ll be better prepared to be an author. This gives me hope that even if I can’t get published NOW, there is still a lot of hope for the future :) Thank you again :)

  13. Heather says:

    Wasn’t it Hemingway who said “The first draft of anything is sh*t?”

  14. Katy, I wish you great and long success with your writing career. I hope writing brings you joy and provides a living.

  15. He did indeed, Heather.

    First drafts often resemble notes and ideas more than they do finished novels. If we looked at them that way, maybe they wouldn’t seem so bad. And maybe we’d realize they need a transformation—something that happens in rewrites—to change them into novels.

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