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“Wasting Time” on a Practice Novel

July 23, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 23, 2015

In an article from earlier this year (Why Doesn’t My Story Read Like a Published Novel) I mentioned that a first novel wasn’t likely to be good enough to be published but would serve wonderfully as practice material, fodder for training. As a result, a writer left a comment about feeling better about “wasting time” working on her practice novel.

I’ve talked about that first novel likely not ever being ready for an audience a number of times, but it’s been a while since the topic has come up. So it’s probably time to look at first manuscripts once again. And with all the hoopla surrounding Go Set a Watchman, the apparent early draft of a story that preceded To Kill a Mockingbird and that is now a published book itself, the topic is timely.

The section of the original article that prompted the reader’s response—

But keep in mind that a first manuscript might never sound like a published book. You may have to treat your first effort as practice, a project never to be published. The first few novel manuscripts of nearly every writer will end up as practice projects.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Most writers don’t sell their first stories. Not their second or third either. Writers often don’t have the skills to weave together all the many fiction and story elements in a way that pleases a reader, not when writing that first novel manuscript. Once a writer realizes this, some of the pressure is off. And that’s a good thing. A great thing. The writer can then begin a second and third manuscript armed with the skills and knowledge he gained while working through the first story.

The reader’s comment (edited slightly)—

Your article helped me see more clearly where my writing is weaker and where it’s stronger and I thank you for that. It’s also helped me feel better about ‘wasting time’ working on my practice novel – a story I’ve just been working on for my own enjoyment, and will never see the light of day. It truly is good practice to do a throw away like that.

My reply (edited slightly)—

It really is a good idea to have a “throwaway” novel. I love your outlook and approach. If I could share one tidbit with every new writer, it would be that the first novel manuscript will not be a masterpiece. It’s necessary to a novelist’s development, it’s necessary for practice and as an eye opener regarding the process, but it’s not likely to be a great novel.

If a writer goes on to write more novels, that first one certainly won’t be the best. And it is definitely great for training. What a great way to learn how to work with dialogue, word choices, pacing, plotting, rising tension, and all the other dozens of fiction elements. The text is there, in unfinished form, and the story can go in any number of directions. A writer could even take the original and try turning it into novels of different genres to get a sense of how he or she writes those genres.

So the simple truth is that the first novel manuscript isn’t likely to be a masterpiece. This is true of every first novel of every writer. And while getting the first story written is a necessity for the writer who plans to write novels, that writer shouldn’t assume that a first novel will be good enough for an audience.

A writer who has never written a novel before can’t hope to write a masterful success the first time he fashions a story of novel length. How could he? If he has no experience in writing long fiction, how could the first manuscript be a great one? Even a good one?

Yes, there will no doubt be some wonderful elements to the manuscript. After all, most writers try writing a novel because they have some skills with either writing or storytelling.

The first-time novelist might be a journalist or historian, someone who works with words for a living.

The first-time novelist might be a poet or short-story author.

But until a writer actually writes a novel manuscript, he is untried as a novelist. He’s definitely a beginner. Inexperienced. Unskilled at novel writing.

I’m not saying that a writer can’t do a decent job with some elements or aspects of a novel. But when is a first try at something—especially the first try at something so complex—ever a success?

Even a talented musician won’t create a hit when he tries to write his first song. And a composer with his first symphony? There are so many ways to get it wrong, so many elements to have to get right, can a composer who’s never composed a four-movement symphony create a satisfying one on his first attempt?

Could a makeup artist who specialized in makeup for weddings and special social events create makeup schemes for fantasy characters (or maybe something like the characters of the famed Cats stage production) without a lot of practice? Would an individual pay someone to do that, trust the makeup artist for a special fantasy event, if the makeup artist had never done that kind of work before?

Maybe looking at an example from outside the art world would help.

If you had the choice, would you fly across the world on a Boeing 777 with a pilot who had only flown crop dusters over his farm?

Yes, I’m pushing at this example. But I’m trying to find new ways to say what I’ve said before, what new writers need to hear.

What it comes down to is this—the first of anything will never be the masterpiece. The inexperienced beginner doesn’t have the knowledge or the skills to create that masterwork.

Traditionally the masterpiece was the final creation of an apprentice, the piece that got him accepted into a guild or recognized by his master as a master in his own right.

The masterpiece wasn’t the first or the tenth or the hundredth piece created by the apprentice. It was the one that proved he could handle all aspects of the particular craft for which he’d been training.

A piece created while learning the craft, especially the first piece, will not, cannot, be of any great quality, no matter how good one single part of it is.

But maybe you don’t intend to create a masterpiece. Maybe you just want to put out a decent novel. But can the first effort even be a decent novel? If it’s the first time you’re carrying a plot over 300 or more pages, the first time you’ve developed a character arc, the first time you’ve strung scene after scene together, the first time you’ve created rising tension in a piece of long fiction, the first time you’ve followed multiple characters through a series of challenges and setbacks, the first time you’ve had to write scene after scene of dialogue, the first time you’ve had to write a resolution that resolves all the problems of all the characters of 90,000-word novel . . . can your first effort be a decent one? One that readers will be able to follow? have an interest in? enjoy?

My point is not that you can’t write a first novel manuscript with some awesome elements. It’s that it’s not likely that the first effort will come close to what readers expect out of novels—an entertaining read that meets the conditions of the genre while telling an enjoyable and clearly understood story with characters and situations that readers care about.

Read some of the negative reviews of To Set a Watchman. Many readers pointed out that this first manuscript was not a complete novel, not one ready for the public.

Now maybe it was also a first draft—I don’t know what draft number it was. But it was a draft that Lee showed to her editor, so I’d guess it wasn’t the first draft.

The point is, even writers who put out great subsequent novels don’t write a perfect first story.

______________________

Partial Skills vs. Full Skills

Writers who’ve never written long fiction probably don’t have every skill necessary to complete a strong novel manuscript. Why would they? Novels require proficiencies required by no other craft.

You may have skills writing dialogue, but that doesn’t mean that you know anything about writing action scenes or know how to pace a novel.

You may write beautifully in terms of word choice and rhythm, but that doesn’t mean you know how to craft a plot that readers would be interested in.

You may have great plot ideas, but that doesn’t mean you know how to write the words and scenes that string those plot ideas together.

You may know how to build a fantasy story world that rivals the best of them, but that doesn’t mean you know beans about writing characters that readers care about.

There is so much more to novel writing than any one element—it takes practice to put together a story that others will want to read. And writing a first novel isn’t enough practice. Granted, by the time you get to the end of a novel you’ll have gained experience with a lot of the fiction elements as well as with the writing skills necessary to create long fiction. But even though you’ll have written multiple scenes of dialogue and more than a few action scenes, you’ll only have plotted a novel once. Paced a novel once. Played with the order of events for one story.

You’ll have written only one beginning, one climax, and one ending.

Does completing these tasks just the one time mean that those tasks are done well? You and I both know that such an outcome would be highly unlikely. Once is simply not enough.

Writers need practice with every skill and every fiction element. And practice means multiple attempts at working a skill.

There are many tasks you’ll still have tried only once or twice after writing your first manuscript. You can’t possibly be an expert after only one attempt at novel writing.

And this means that your first novel will be weak in multiple areas.

And even if you develop skills in some areas, say in writing dialogue or crafting knockout chapter-ending hooks, if you don’t develop skills in every area of novel writing, your stories will be lacking.

The great news is that once you work through a novel and then step back and study the manuscript objectively (so you can rewrite and edit it), you’ll clearly see the weak areas in the text and in your own skill set. And you’ll know where to begin practicing your skills.

The not-so-great news is that you have more work ahead of you, both to improve the manuscript and your skills.

Let’s revisit our crop-dusting pilot. Maybe he took lessons and is now an expert at takeoffs in the 777. But if he’s only practiced takeoffs and not landings, are you willing to fly with him? What if he still doesn’t know how to handle the controls or read the cockpit instruments? What if he knows nothing about fuel needs and weight and how much runway the plane needs to land and take off? What if he doesn’t know how to talk with the control towers, how to even reach air traffic control?

This pilot’s general knowledge of aviation and specialized knowledge in some aspects of flying doesn’t mean he’s fit to get into the cockpit of a 777 and fly passengers around. He needs knowledge of and practice in all aspects of flying the 777 before he can fly passengers from New York to Paris.

The novelist needs practice too. And not only with certain fiction elements. Novelists need to practice writing novels from beginning to end. They need to practice rewriting scenes and chapters and sections of dialogue. They need to self-edit, learning how to enhance the elements that work for a story while eliminating those that don’t.

 

Use the First Manuscript for Practice

~  That first novel manuscript is an excellent bit of text to practice with. It can be mined again and again for sections that can be used for writing exercises.

~  The first novel manuscript can be used to pinpoint a writer’s weaknesses and strengths.

~  The first novel manuscript can be used to gain experience with writing skills that can be learned no other way, skills such as developing a character arc, writing cohesively and linking dozens of elements into a manageable whole, and building suspense in such a way that it peaks just at the critical climax.

So even if the first novel manuscript proves to be no masterpiece, it can serve many great purposes. Working on a first manuscript isn’t a waste of time. Rather, it’s a very valuable use of time. You have to finish the first manuscript to gain experience with every aspect of writing a novel. You have to write a second and a third to advance your novel-writing skills, especially those skills that are only tapped when you work through a full story and then rework it.

We’ve recently seen the evidence that says even Harper Lee’s first manuscript, just like every other writer’s first, wasn’t a masterpiece. Apparently she took a new approach with her second story, turning that second manuscript into the much-loved true masterpiece. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t a rewriting of Go Set a Watchman—Lee took a few elements from Watchman and created a completely new work. Perhaps that’s something you’d like to try with your own first manuscript, mining it for a gold nugget that you can parlay into a valuable story.

There’s no guarantee that even a second manuscript will be worth reading, but if you intend to write novels, you’ve got to at least get past the first one. You’ve got to write the whole thing once, if only to learn what goes into writing a novel. And then, even if you don’t plan to release that first manuscript, you should rewrite and edit it. Again, if only to practice that part of the experience at least once.

Practice with the first manuscript. Put the experience of writing it to work in multiple ways. Practice every element of fiction writing, not only those you’re already familiar with or are skilled with. Waste some time with that first manuscript. Get all you can out of the experience of dumping those first characters into hot water and then seeing what they do in such situations. Learn how to link the fiction elements so that your stories become whole, a single entity, rather than scattered pieces  not linked in any meaningful way.

Working through every chapter, through every fiction element, is critical for a novelist’s training. A writer will never master all the elements of fiction, all the complexities of novel writing, if he never finishes a novel. Never rewrites. Never edits. And if he never puts what he learns into a second and then a third novel.

And starting over after writing a few chapters of multiple novels isn’t enough. Practicing with the first 50 pages of novel after novel might make a writer proficient with story openings, maybe with the introduction of characters and setting, but a novelist needs to develop his skills with every element of fiction and novel writing. And you won’t find all of those in the first 50 pages.

Don’t be discouraged by me saying that your first novel won’t be your best, that it won’t be suitable for publishing. Don’t let my words discourage you or slow your momentum.

Instead, finish that first novel. Get it done. Then rewrite and edit it. Go through all the stages as a means of training. Then take that training into your next project.

Do the same with that second novel manuscript. And once you’re done with that, get ready to fly. Because once you’ve discovered how to put all the novel elements together, once you’ve developed your skills, you’ll be ready to take on that next project. And this may likely be one that’s ready for an audience.

Practice novel writing, not merely sections-of-a-novel writing. And then create your masterpiece, the one that tells the world you’re ready to join the guild of novel writers.

***

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27 Responses to ““Wasting Time” on a Practice Novel”

  1. Ty says:

    All good points, and I took the practice novel approach on my first project. However, I didn’t just write one draft and call it a day and move onto another manuscript. No. I practiced some more on it. Draft 2, then 3, then 4 until by draft 14 I had been practicing so much that it turned into a publishable work. I think there is value in practicing on your practice manuscript, and there is no reason it can’t turn out to be something that works. Think of it in terms of the tinkerer in his garage, constantly refining his initial bit of inspiration until one day it really works. Certainly just one approach, and one that allowed me practice before moving on to my second project.

    • Debra says:

      I think Ty covered it for me. I think an author who is willing to learn will work with a critique group, an editor, and beta readers to create a good read. Maybe not a masterpiece and maybe after dozens of drafts. However, it is the willingness to learn and grow that makes the difference.

      I recently read a disappointing book, traditionally published, by a young author. It had good bones, and gaping logic holes. Those holes could have been caught and fixed, but they weren’t because as the author reported on her blog, she didn’t bother with critique groups, multiple rewrites, or any of that stuff. She had a contact, who had a contact and walla! But that’s not how most of us will get published.

      To borrow your analogy: The crop duster who has gone to school to sharpen his flight skills, and practiced until he can pass all the requirements for a commercial pilot’s license is probably safer than the pilot who thinks he can land a plane in his sleep or inebriated.

      I don’t disagree that a very first effort is likely a weak one. I just think that if it is a story you love, you should keep at it until it looks like something others can love too. That may mean building a new story on the bones of the old one, but that is the nature of revision. At least that is what I hope.

      • Debra, willingness to learn and practice is indeed a key component of improving. One more major component is knowing that there’s a need for improvement. Sometimes that one’s easy to overlook.

        I’ve heard authors “brag” that they didn’t rewrite their novels, that they pretty much went with what came out on the first draft. Maybe they cleaned the story up a bit, but they didn’t rework scenes or evaluate plot or character motivation or anything. When we see the vast improvement from the first draft to number five or so, I don’t know how anyone would not rewrite. Or brag that they didn’t. There are too many writers who do rewrite and polish for others to be complacent.

        ——-

        For a long time I’ve been of two minds about working first on that one story that you love, the one that prompts a writer to write. While it’s the love of that story that keeps a writer on track, keeps her plugging away day after day—keeps her studying and practicing—the beginning writer doesn’t have the skills that a more experienced writer has. If the writer waits to begin that favorite story, waits until her skills match her enthusiasm, it’s likely she’ll write a much stronger story, one she’ll no doubt be happier with.

        But if she doesn’t have that great love for the story helping her through the tough spots in a first manuscript—of which there are many in the creation of that first story—she might not try as hard. Not push through the tough spots and create some truly outstanding writing when she makes her breakthroughs. Thus my two minds about the subject matter of the first novel.

        I think I lean toward waiting to try the beloved story once skills match fervor. Especially if the story is complex—an epic or a historical or a literary novel. But I do see both sides of this issue.

        Thanks for adding to the discussion.

    • Ty, I love that you were able to work your first manuscript into a publishable work. That doesn’t always happen; there’s usually too much to overcome. My hat’s off to you.

      The tinker analogy is good, because sometimes the tinker does get the object to work. Other times, however, he just learns how to strengthen parts of it. Sometimes the design is so flawed that the object will never work. At least not as it’s intended to. But other times there is that eureka moment.

      Congratulations on getting published.

    • Quin says:

      Ty,
      I totally agree with you. I don’t know any serious writer who invests months or years of his/her life writing a novel thinking it’s just practice. I find the whole concept ridiculous. If a writer wants to practice, he/she can just do exercises and/or use prompts to write short pieces to present to writers/critique groups or whatever. The writers I know, have faith in their works and believe they are good enough to get published. Are they good enough? Not all of them. But they’re working on it.
      Before starting an MS, a writer needs to understand that writing is about rewriting, it’s about learning to emend and sacrifice. And yes, that requires practicing, but practicing in order to improve the writing and story and to try to make it work.

      • Quin, I commend writers who have faith in their work—they need to have it in order to not only finish a manuscript but to succeed as a writer. They have to believe in themselves. But they should also have an understanding of both their strengths and weaknesses so they can know what to highlight and rely on and what still needs improvement.

        While exercises and short pieces are great practice for many of the writing and fiction elements, they aren’t sufficient for every element, which is what I was pointing out. Unless a writer actually finishes a novel, there are some novel-writing tasks he or she will have never tried. And unless the writer works through those writing tasks multiple times—which would require writing multiple pieces of long fiction—the writer will never master those tasks. It’s impossible to master a task you don’t work on. And for novels, practice at every task is necessary. Otherwise a novel will be grossly lopsided. Or at least lacking in some respects.

        And while some writers might not think that they’re practicing with that first novel, the truth is that most are. Even when writers do get published, the vast majority of them don’t publish the first novel. And those who never get even one book published obviously don’t see their first novels in print—so most first novels, no matter how long a writer works on them, will not be published. At least not through traditional publishing routes. That’s not true for everyone, as we’ve seen in the comments here. But it is true for the majority of writers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be self-published, but that’s a different animal.

        Many of the writers I know recognize that publishing that first effort, especially right away, is not likely to happen. That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen one day, especially as the writer gains skills and experience and can therefore go back and rewrite that first story. But most also know that the wise course is to begin a second novel using all the skills gained with writing and rewriting the first.

        I did a quick internet search and saw that many writers find success with novel number two or three, though some don’t find that success until the fifth or sixth story. That doesn’t mean a writer should be discouraged—after all, those writers are being published. It does mean, however, that writers should be working on the next novel, especially if they’ve only completed one or two manuscripts.

        A good discussion—thanks. And thanks for prompting me to read up on stats for first novels.

  2. Pat Garcia says:

    Good Morning,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article because it gave me so much encouragement. I have been working on my first novel since 2009. It has gone through many drafts and edits and now I am working through an another draft of it with a writing coach whom I met in 2013. She’s very tough and that is one of the reasons why I chose her. So now we’re looking each chapter and she’s analysing each them pointing out its weaknesses in in all of those skills that you’ve mentioned in this article.

    So, thank you. This article has confirmed to me once again that I am on the
    right road for my development to become a novelist.

    Shalom,
    Pat

    • Debra says:

      Keep at it Pat. All your work will make it a better book.

      • Pat Garcia says:

        Good Morning Debra,

        Thank you so much. You have no idea what your view words of encouragement did for my ego this morning. Greetings out of good old Europe.

        Shalom,
        Pat

    • Pat, I wish you great success with your writing. Keep at it. There’s nothing more enjoyable than having a story come together.

      • Pat Garcia says:

        Good Morning Beth,

        Thank you. You’re so right. I am getting a kick out of seeing my story come together. I knew I had a good story but the problem was all of those wonderful technics that one must learn to put a story on paper, and these techniques take time to learn. Every time I start revising another draft, the story becomes better and better. I am watching my first book become a book that even I want to read.

        I have to admit that if I had known the hard work that goes into putting a story on paper, when I started rekindling the flame within me to write, I probably would have put it out immediately. Now I am hooked. A fire burns within that will not let me give up until I have written all the books that are inside me.

        Shalom,
        Pat

  3. Great article! And good luck, Pat! I wrote my first novel shortly after college…well over 20 years ago. The feedback I received was positive but overwhelming in that 1) it was simply too long to be published by a new author (240,000+ words) and 2) splitting it into two volumes wasn’t an option since few publishers would be willing to publish a cliffhanger from an unknown author.

    Instead, I chose to write a prequel. But even that took a lot of work to fix up. Finally, more than a decade after I wrote that prequel, it looks like I’ve spruced things up enough that a publisher has taken an interest and these should be going to print.

    My point is, don’t give up – keep refining and editing!

  4. Pat Garcia says:

    Good Morning Michael,

    Congratulations! It is so encouraging to hear some of the hardships that you have had with getting your first book in the hands of publishers, and it is great to hear that it took you 10 years or so. Your news confirms what I have thought about my own writing and has helped take the pressure off of me about my timeframe to be published.

    My own book had two many words. There was a lot of blah, blah, blah that was not necessary and did not enhance my story. I’ve learned through some of the resources that have been recommended on Beth’s website, and a few other books that were recommended to me by others.

    One thing I can say for sure is there is no short cuts to good writing. It takes time and effort because the writing tools needed to write well demand it of you.

    So, thank you for sharing some of your experience. All the best with your prequel and please let me know when it is published.

    Shalom,
    Pat

  5. I think this a fantastic site. Thank you Beth Hill for sharing your experience and wisdom.

    My linked questions are :

    1) How does the writer of a first novel decide to move on vs. continuing the editing and refining process?

    2) Is the process of improving a novel, which necessitates understanding its weaknesses, great writing practice?

    Thank you.

    • David, your first question seems simple, but the answer is definitely not simple. I think that almost every writer will have a different way to determine when it’s time to move on.

      For the writer who isn’t intending to seek publication of the first novel, working through several drafts is probably sufficient. That way the writer can get practice at both putting together a story from scratch and rewriting it. If the writer edits as well, he or she gets experience with the full process of putting a story together.

      For the writer who wants to try to publish the first story, there is no standard allotted time to bring a story to publication. But to increase the chances that the first story will be published, the writer should plan to work through at least three or four drafts.

      For the writer who’s unsure, even after completing the first draft, I still suggest working through multiple drafts. The writing, as several famous authors have said, is in the rewriting. And often you can’t tell what a story will turn into after writing only the first draft. Rewrite and then edit. Learn the craft—gain knowledge and experience. And then put the manuscript aside for a few months, if that’s possible. Begin another story. And then go back and read the first manuscript cold, as a reader would. Have a few beta readers and/or your critique partner read it. Evaluate it yourself and gather feedback from others. What’s the consensus? Is it worth submitting? If not, is it worth reworking, or is it about as strong as it’s going to get? If you decide it still has promise, devise a plan to rework the story and have at it. And when you’re done, evaluate again. By this time you should be well into a second or third manuscript. Compare the new ones with the first—are they so much better that the first, even after all the rewriting, looks like the work of a beginning student? If so, it’s probably time to retire that manuscript.

      There are exceptions. If this first manuscript is the book you wanted to write, the only one, then you could rewrite as long as you wanted before submitting it. Some novels do take 10 years or more. But if you intend to make writing a career or intend to write at least several novels, a more efficient use of your time would be to move on if you’ve reworked the story multiple times, if you’ve decided not to submit it, or if you’ve begun the submission process.

      The writing of the first novel manuscript is a learning process that may or may not result in a product worth the attention of others, but the learning is invaluable. If writers recognized the education they get from writing and then rewriting that first novel manuscript, I think many would be less concerned about trying to publish it. It’s not that some writers don’t publish the first novel, it’s just that most don’t. So if more focus is put on writing the first story as a learning experience, if writers try to glean all they can from that experience, they might turn to the second manuscript sooner and might find themselves published authors that much sooner.

      I stress working through the first manuscript to completion and then reworking it because that’s a way to learn all the dozens of skills that go into crafting a novel. A writer won’t learn all he needs to by starting and quitting and starting and quitting. But a writer who’s already written multiple books or manuscripts could toss a story aside at any stage if he discovers it won’t work. So practice is good, especially in a writer’s early days. But once you’ve written several manuscripts, you should be able to tell when a story’s going to work.

      So that’s the long answer. The short answer is . . . well, there really isn’t one. Don’t call a manuscript complete after only one draft. Don’t call it done after prettying up that first draft by only correcting for basic grammar and punctuation—that’s not enough. Beyond that, you’ve got to make the call yourself. Or solicit input from a colleague. But if you knew nothing about writing fiction before you began your novel, it’s likely that you could rewrite and refine a bit longer and still gain new insights.

      I feel like I’m talking in and around the topic and without zeroing in, but this is a complex issue.

      ———–

      For your second question, my answer is yes, yes, yes. Understanding weaknesses helps you correct those weaknesses and helps you avoid them the next time the same circumstances come up. Delving into weaknesses helps a writer understand what doesn’t work and makes him look for what does work.

      ———-

      Great questions. Thanks for getting us all thinking and pondering.

    • David, I cover some of these same issues in the book I’m finishing up. It’s a guide for fiction writers, but with a decided focus on rewriting and editing. I hope to have the PDF version ready in August.

  6. Rio Henson says:

    While your point likely holds true for the majority of writers, I feel the article is a bit too unyielding in application of the principle. For example, I read an article by Tobias Buckell in which he revealed the results of an informal survey conducted on the same subject. He reported that over 30% of the authors who responded had their first novels published. Writers such as J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison and Joan Didion come to mind as authors who had their first novels published.

    You mention that even professional writers with backgrounds such as a journalist and historian should expect similar difficulty with a first novel. I am curious if you think this also holds true for someone with a background in screenwriting? A good script has all the same qualities as a good novel with the exception, perhaps, of being mostly dialogue based, with non-dialogue discription minimized so as to not interfere with the director’s artistic vision. Do you believe that a successful screenwriter would be in the same situation as a journalist or historian?

    Thank you for your many wonderful articles. I have found them to be very instructive and helpful.

    • Rio, I certainly don’t mean to be unyielding. I’m assuming you’re referring to the part about a first novel not likely being good enough to be published. But even your reference to Buckell’s survey bears that out. As does another informal survey done by Jim Hines. In this other survey, it seems that about 24% of the authors who responded had their first manuscripts published. That’s a very small percentage. If writers truly want to be published, they should realize that they’ll have much more success with their third or fourth projects.

      No, this obviously doesn’t hold true for everyone, but for the great majority of published novelists, it’s apparently true that their first efforts aren’t ever published. And published authors are only a subset of writers who write a first novel. There are thousands and thousands more first novels also never published, those written by writers who haven’t been published at all. So the number of first novels not published is very great in comparison to those that are published.

      Still, my contention isn’t that a first novel can’t ever sell (because some obviously do), but that it can and should be used for practice and learning. That is, even if it never sells, the first novel has other invaluable purposes, and it’s never a waste to practice all the novel-writing skills with that first novel. For some writers, what they gain from practice and learning via that first story will be much more valuable than what they’d earn from publishing the same story. And education in novel writing is priceless for the writer who intends to make a career out of it.

      ———

      A screenwriter, even one new to novel writing, definitely has an advantage over others without any experience putting a piece of long fiction together. Screenwriters already know how to write dialogue, they understand pacing and rising tension, they understand scenes, and they definitely understand story structure.

      On the other hand, while novel writing and screenwriting share some elements, there are differences.

      The screenwriter doesn’t include in a script many elements necessary to novels; the reason is that others take care of those details in films. Directors, costume designers, set designers and many, many more professionals provide the details that fill out movies. In novels, the writer is responsible for all of that. And the novelist has to learn how to balance every single element, learn how some elements work together while others have to be independently tweaked.

      Novel writers must write out the details of action scenes. They must include setting and character description in a way that fits the flow of the story, not as detail that sits outside the story. They must advance the plot through thoughts and narrative, not just dialogue. The must create mood through word choice.

      They can’t rely on a camera, so they must create a sense of movement with words. They have to include colors, objects, sounds, and scents and show characters responding to them.

      Novelists can’t rely on an actor’s facial expressions—the writer has to show facial expressions through words, has to make them clear so that other characters respond and readers can understand.

      A novelist switching to screenwriting also has disadvantages when compared to the professional screenwriter. A novelist is used to moving characters around, writing out their movements, describing those movements. In film, those details are reserved for the director.

      The novelist describes the setting, sometimes in great detail. Again, the screenwriter doesn’t get to include those kinds of details.

      Still, like the screenwriter taking on a novel for the first time, the novelist taking on a screenplay for the first time would have some advantages over total beginners. Fiction, no matter its presentation method, does share elements and similarities.

      ————-

      Are you a screenwriter? If so, you will find that there are some fiction-writing elements that you already know how to manipulate. The best course for you, if you’re just beginning to write a novel, is to investigate the differences between screenwriting and novel writing and then begin your studies and practices there. And if you read a lot of screenplays, start shifting the balance toward novels.

      Study novels. See how writers handle setting details, thoughts, description, and transitions. Study the way they introduce new scenes—readers need to know where and when they are and when you’re the writer, you’ve got to fill in those details with more than slug lines.

      For screenwriters moving from film to novels, I’d guess the most important detail to know is that you have to include it—whatever it is—in the novel. No one is going to come around after you—no director or actor or other professional—and fill in the gaps. If you don’t include it, it doesn’t make it into the story.

      ———-
      Yours were also great questions. I hope I addressed your concerns. And thanks so much for adding to the discussion.

      • Rio Henson says:

        Thank you for your reply. Your comments are spot on. Yes, I previously was a screenwriter, studied screenwriting in film school, and worked on films in production. I then became a lawyer for twenty years. I am now crafting my first novel, and have found an unexpected synergy in the combination of my storytelling ability from my screenwriting days and my legal writing skills (which required the ability to grab the Court’s attention in a compelling way in order to lead the judge towards conclusions benefiting one’s client’s position, while often being limited to a page length shorter than one might prefer. This taught me to get to the point in a clear, concise manner. And, yes, I’m now struggling with some of the elements you mentioned which are elements absent from both screenwriting and legal writing.

        • Rio, I love that almost any profession can help with at least some components of writing. Being able to quickly grab the reader’s attention is a great skill to bring with you to novel writing.

          But writing novels is its own pursuit. Even the writing of short stories isn’t quite the same, although the two are closely aligned.

          I wish you great success with your writing career.

  7. maya says:

    I agree entirely that up to first three longer works of fiction are best used as practice pieces. I did exactly that but ended up with a different problem. Because I was posting my work online, I got an offer to publish my practice work, and I couldn’t accept because I knew it wasn’t as good as something I’d like to open with. It was literally a character study, an attempt to suss out themes and motifs that work for the audience, figuring out the pacing and how to weave in higher meaning without coming across as preachy. So that threw me off, and I’m not entirely sure whether the secret of commercial success is basically in evoking the motifs and structuring the narrative in a recogniseable way, rather than having something ‘original’ (or unique) to say. Presuming one can write reasonably well, that formulaic approach really does work.

    • Maya, did you discover why someone wanted to publish a character study? Were they intending it as a novel or did they want to use it for another purpose, perhaps as a training tool? Did they suggest that it might need significant changes to bring it more in line with genre or literary novels?

      Congratulations on being noticed. Turning down the offer was probably difficult in some ways, even though you knew you didn’t want to publish what you knew to be inferior work.

      Commercial success? There are so many factors that go into it. Familiar and unique both work. Sometimes it’s timing, sometimes it’s in making the right connections or featuring the right character. Sometimes it’s tapping into a trend or issue just as that issue is taking off.

      The most important point for writers is to focus on the factors they can control, the foremost being to write a good story. Some of the other factors, I have to say, are luck. Or they take positioning yourself in the right place at the right time. But improving the craft is the one factor writers can take care of themselves. Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t help if your stories aren’t well written.

      I’m glad you shared your situation. This is definitely something for writers to consider.

      • maya says:

        Hi Beth, thanks for replying! I think the publisher’s motivation was the popularity it had with the readers. It was a novella-length piece and you are right, they had an idea how to change it up/structure it, and there was talk of expanding on a subplot. It was really hard turning it down because it was so flattering and sudden, but it was inconvenient for practical reasons and I knew there was a lot more practicing and learning I needed to do. Since then I took two years to learn about fiction writing, and last two I’m working on a novel, and again you are right, it is a different ballgame from shorter works.

        I’m glad there are many factors to commercial success. After exploring and researching, I’m back to my themes and my stories that are what they are, somehow they can’t really be anything else. But all that practice was definitely worth it, just to be able to get my head around making a story into a novel.

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