toddler walking

How to Tell If Your First Novel is Your Practice Novel

One negative side effect from the self-publishing revolution is the tendency of aspiring novelists to rush their development process. They put books out too quickly. They don’t understand where they really are in their development and think that because they can put a book out there that they should put a book out there.

As both a writer and an editor, I’ve encountered many writers who think they’re ready for publication, when they’re not even close. They’re not bad writers. They’re just still learning.

Unfortunately, when disillusionment sets in and these developing writers discover there’s much more work they need to do before they’re writing at a professional level, they feel discouraged.

Sometimes, very discouraged.

This is hard for me to witness and I do my best to root it out, because this discouragement is unnecessary at best and detrimental at worst. Sometimes new writers can feel like they’re failing, when really, they’re just learning.

And what in the heck is wrong with learning?

Does the toddler feel like a failure because he hasn’t mastered walking yet? Does the adult watching think the toddler will never learn to walk? Of course not. Because learning how to walk involves falling. And practice. And time. It just does.

No one really freaks out about this because we’ve all been there and we all get it. This is how you learn to walk. It’s not a big deal.

It’s worth noting that the toddler doesn’t freak out because he’s too young for the emotional baggage we adults tend to carry. He doesn’t look at all the adults walking around him and feel discouraged because he isn’t walking yet. No. He looks at the adults walking around him and feels inspired to learn how to do it himself.

And he does.

Eventually he’s not only walking, he’s running, skipping, climbing, and dancing.

Learning to write a novel is no different. It’s beneficial for developing writers to understand that learning to write a novel is a long process. It takes a lot of practice. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way of things.

For that reason, your first finished novel may end up being your practice novel. Your dry run. The first full-length manuscript that allowed you to stretch those legs and see what it’s like to walk all those miles.

This is where you learn the lay of the land and get a better feel for those big storytelling elements unique to the novel.

There will be missteps and stumbles and wrong turns and dead ends. It’s your first novel. It’s pretty much going to suck. (No offense.)

“But what about all those great first novels out there?” you ask?

Well, chances are it wasn’t really the first novel the writer wrote. Just the first one published.

For those books that truly are the writer’s first novel, consider this. That writer probably took that first draft of their very first novel and revised over and over and over again.

And over and over and over.

They’re basically putting two or three novels’ worth of effort into that one book. (Patrick Rothfuss’ beautiful first novel, The Name of the Wind, is an excellent example of this.)

Writers who work a first novel over and over do so because their story is really important to them. It speaks to something in their soul. They’re willing to learn and grow as they work on this single book. But remember, that act of revising a manuscript over and over again is practice.

You don’t get out of it just because you’re deciding to put it all into one story.

But your first novel may have a different fate. Many people write the first draft of their first book, revise for a time (if at all), and then put it aside. It gets consigned to the drawer. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

If you know your book is not ready for publication and you’re just not feeling the love any more, it’s okay to put it away so you can work on something new. The time you spent on that book was not wasted.

You will be able to apply everything you learned and put those skills to use for your next book. Gift of the Phoenix is my first published novel, but it was not my first book. My first book was a disaster. It was boring. Oh my gosh, was it ever boring.

By the time I was a few chapters into the second draft, I realized I didn’t really like the story. I didn’t want to continue working on it. Those are excellent reasons to put a manuscript aside.

However that first book was very important to my growth and development as a writer. I could not have written Gift of the Phoenix unless I had written the other novel first.

So, how do you know if your first novel is something you should continue to work on or if it’s earned its place as your practice novel?

No one can definitively answer that question for you. You have to make that decision for yourself. But here are some questions to consider as you try to figure things out:

  • Are you still excited about your vision for your story?
  • Are you willing to put in the work necessary to get your story where it needs to be?
  • If you’re thinking you want to stick with it, why do you want to do so? Is it because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do? Because you’ll be a failure if you don’t? Because time is passing you by and the self-publishing revolution is going on without you and if you don’t get your novel done NOW it’s all a horrible travesty? Or because you love the story you’re trying to tell?
  • If you’re thinking of abandoning the story, is it because you really don’t love the story, or is it because you fear you don’t have what it takes to make it work?
  • What does your gut tell you? (If fear, discouragement, or a tendency to compare yourselves to other people is ruling your gut, you may need to disregard this question.)

No pressure. Seriously. If you make the wrong decision you can always unmake it.

You might think you need to keep going, then work on your story for a while before you realize, “Yep, I hate this story. I’m done.” Nothing lost. You’ll learn something from the experience, I bet.

Or you might decide to start something new only to end up returning to your first book because it keeps calling to you and you still long for it.

My parting advice is this: RELAX. Breathe.

It’s okay.

Enjoy what you’re doing. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself plenty of time to learn.

It’s okay.

Also this… one day you’ll be walking and running and jumping and those toddler years will be far behind you. Have faith. You’ll get there.

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