Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.