When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

The learning experience continues…

Bottom Drawer FilingI read an article recently on beginning a fiction writing career late in life – you can find it here on the Writer’s & Artist’s website if you’re interested. The author, Dinah Jeffries, has some telling observations about the challenges of getting published. I noted she regards her first attempt at a novel as a learning experience. She doesn’t name this novel in her article and only cites the succession of rejections she received. With her official debut novel, The Separation, just published by Penguin, her actual debut novel remains, I presume, tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere.

For obvious reasons I keep an eye out for debut novels regarded as stunning, astounding or wildly successful. I’ve enjoyed many of them in recent years. Just a few examples: The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Monster Love by Carol Topolski and more recently The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. These are all extraordinary books with unique and distinctive voices.

What’s interesting to this would-be debut novelist is the number of debut novelists whose debut novel, as it were, isn’t their first novel. I can’t speak for all the authors above but in addition to Dinah Jeffries, Nathan Filer for one admits to having an earlier work tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere. I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone in this.

So I’ve been wondering, is Singled Out my bottom-drawer novel? I’ve certainly learned a huge amount in the course of writing it. I’m still learning too, as I’ve realised I need to work through every page again in another dispassionate, murder-your-darlings line edit. This I will tackle over the summer (which means for now, no more agents will be burdened with the task of reviewing my submission).

When I’ve dragged Singed Out through yet another edit, will it be extraordinary enough? Will its voices be unique and distinctive enough? I don’t know. But I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just accept the inevitable, finish the edit I know it needs, then set it aside and begin my second novel, armed with the mass of learning that the last four years, three writing courses, two retreats and one mentor – oh, and 330+ pages – has delivered.

There’s always the self-publish option, I know, and that remains in my mind. But if I believe my second novel could be excellent and distinctive enough to be my debut novel, should I debut, as it were, in a self-published way, with my learning experience? Or should I instead swallow my disappointment, finish that one last edit, then parcel it up and tuck it away in a bottom drawer?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I’m not looking for easy answers. I’m just sharing the thought process that accompanies the experience of rejection and the almost certain knowledge that I haven’t quite got it nailed – yet. I know not to take it too hard, as rejection is a much, much more common experience than acceptance, contracts and publication. But if I’m sincere about learning to become a good – and publishable – novelist, is it not pragmatic to bottom-drawer that first attempt – filed not under failure but under learning experience?

34 thoughts on “When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

  1. Finishing a novel is never a failure. So many people can’t get to that point. I’m actually planning on writing a novel I don’t think will get published just to get the experience of going through the process. I know what novel I want to be my debut and I don’t want it to end up in a drawer. If my trow-away novel ends up in a drawer, so be it. I know this sounds strange, but it’s working for me.

    1. That’s an interesting way to look at it – writing your ‘throw-away’ (learning experience) novel and saving your favoured idea for your second, when you will come at it with experience. I wish I’d thought of that. We hear so much about novels failing to gain traction with agents, but so many of us still hope that it might be different for us, that we might be one of the lucky ones. It’s that “it could be you” Lottery mentality. I’ve never won the jackpot there either.

      1. If this learning experience novel does make it, that would be great. I’m still going to pour my heart and soul into it, but I know my second novel (which I’ve written but am not editing) is what I want to represent me as a writer.
        Best of luck, I hope you are a lucky one.

  2. My published book is not my first. I call it my first, but I do have a “bottom drawer” novel that will likely never see the light of day. That being said, I don’t think one needs to have one. Had I spent more time reworking my first book, it might have been worthy. But work got in the way, and I grew weary of it, so when I finally started writing again, I went with something new. Sometimes a change of pace is what we need to stay motivated.

    Querying is not for the faint of heart, is it? I wish you luck with your edits and future queries!

    1. Whilst I’ve learned a great deal in the process, I can see where I would have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight and all that learning. Is it a good story? I believe so… But it might benefit from a rework and I too am weary of it, after four years and some. But the question is, if I begin again could I write a better one? I’d like to think I could. My experience seems to map your own.

  3. I paid for a critique for my ‘first novel’ and still didn’t publish it. The critique was hugely helpful – she picked up the bits that worked and the character that needed much more thinking about. I did all that, and still didn’t publish it. I can now see that it will never be good enough.

    But my second, which is almost at the submission stage, is very different – and much better. Who knows if a publisher will pick it up, but I’ll find a way to get it out there anyway. I’ve learned so much from the first one (it’s still in a file marked ‘first novel’ – I can’t quite bring myself to delete it.

    1. Your approach makes perfect sense. The critique is still part of the learning, even if you decide not to proceed with your first. But it’s a special thing, to realise how much one has learned when approaching the second. But never, never delete your first! Who knows, you may come back to it in years to come, with a different vision, an understanding of what’s needed, and the energy to commit to it. (Sorry for the delayed response, by the way… I’m not sure how, but your comment found its way to my spam folder for some reason I can’t see!)

  4. Have you had some feedback of any kind from any agent to whom you’ve already submitted Singled Out? And if so, was any of it positive and encouraging? I should think that reworking a manuscript of 330+ pages that you’ve already mentally consigned to the bottom drawer would be both dispiriting and somewhat of a waste of time. Whatever learning experience might still be derived from it will also emerge from your efforts with a new, more personally exciting idea.

    1. I’ve actually had some encouraging feedback, but it might all be classified as ‘letting me down gently’. As for my manuscript, my attention has been drawn (not by agents) to a few places where a line-level edit could improve things, and it’s worth doing because I can see that it needs doing, and I know what to do. If I can see something to improve, then I’m letting myself down by not attending to it. But beyond this, I wouldn’t know where to go to improve the story. Until or unless an agent returns with something tangible – such as, ‘if you rewrite this or that chapter or add an extra dimension to this or that character, we could be in business…’ – I’m stuck. And however else I tamper with it at that stage, I’m just as likely to damage my manuscript as improve it. So I need a fresh project and a fresh injection of energy.

  5. I’m sorry to see you feeling like this. You have been following your dream for so long that it can be hard to maintain the motivation and belief you sometimes need.
    It might be time for the hard questions. Are you losing confidence in your book because you believe in your heart it’s not very good or is your self-belief being worn down by the process?
    If it is the former you may be right and it is better to cut your losses, but it is a hard question to answer on your own. My personal advice would be for you to send it to a some people you trust but have no emotional attachment to you. I was encouraged to self-publish by my editor’s comment of being pleasantly surprised by what I had written (quite a compliment from him). It gave me that little bit of self-belief I needed to carry on, even though I chose not to go down the traditional route.
    Don’t forget, to get picked up by an agent you need to produce a piece of work that makes you stand out from the 1000’s of others they see each year, that they believe had commercial merit, and that they personally love. It is not easy. Being rejected does not mean you have written a bad book.

    1. I would answer (b) I’m losing confidence because my self-belief is being worn down by the process. I believe I’ve written a good story. I’d go so far as to say that, another conscientous line-edit notwithstanding, I don’t know how to make it any better without informed/professional guidance. But you know too, that writing a good story isn’t even nearly enough these days. A debut novelist needs to have written an astounding, distinctive story, the like of which has not been seen before, in order to win the confidence of overwhelmed agents and profit-conscious publishers. I think you’re right though – my readers have all been friends and although I believe them to have been honest and frank, I may not be receiving the hardest of hard truths, if there are any. It might be time to deploy a more dispassionate reader or two. Two agents still have the full m/s as well, and whilst they don’t appear to be beating a path to my door waving contracts and fountain pens, I’m hopeful of more than a line or two of feedback in due course. That might give me something to work on. I understand the numbers game, I do, I do… I just hoped I’d be able to crack it, first time out.

  6. Well, it can be a learning experience and see the light of day, can’t it? And then the learning experience continues. Whereas if it’s in a drawer, the learning curve ends.
    I received so many nicely worded rejections I thought I might publish those as my second book. 🙂
    Then an agent read my novel in three days and said she loved it. Suddenly the others meant nothing, didn’t care who they were or how important their names were. They were dead to me. I love my agent. We were unsuccessful in getting a traditional publisher’s interest, and so we went into cahoots with Amazon and their agent-assisted publishing arm called White Glove. My novel on Kindle sells exclusively on Amazon for the first year. Meanwhile my agent has been working away in the background and just sold our first translation rights (hopefully first of many!) to Turkey.
    The learning curve continues. As I work on my second…
    Just a thought.
    Good luck with whatever path you take!

    1. That’s a great story, thanks so much for sharing it. Gives me some hope back. I’d love to sell translation rights to Turkey too, seeing as that’s where my story is set. I’m just taking it day to day, disheartened one day by a rejection, a realisation that there is more work to do… and cheered the next. I appreciate hearing the positive stories of people like you. We all need to remember that we only need one ‘yes’.

      1. It’s a tough process, sending out query letters and getting nos. I have since learned that the gatekeepers to your novel could be an intern unsure of her opinion: they might have only one slot for your genre and it’s been filled already; it comes down to financial liability and they’re unwilling to take a chance on a first time author…any number of inside circumstances that have nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Some don’t even read your submission…
        One word of advice: I would make sure I trusted the reader before chopping and changing my novel as everyone will have a different opinion. Trust your gut.
        And you’re right, it does just take one…

        1. Good advice indeed and you’re right about the gatekeepers. As for the story, I’m only aiming to lose the surplus words I didn’t spot last time around. What comes next? If an agent sees things that need revision, all well and good. But I am coming round to the idea that one or two more readers might shed some useful light.

  7. Interesting comments all and there is no right answer. However, agents and publishers aren’t interested in one hit wonders so start writing the next novel. Worry about their sequencing later!

    1. Good point indeed. But first I have to deal with that latest layer of surplus and stray sentences… which ‘someone’ drew to my attention. 😉

  8. You could hire a professional editor, even if it was just to read your stuff and give you a critique. Might be worth a go. I’d do it for you. (But I would have to charge.) On the other hand, you might get some decent feedback from a writing group. Or, as Jackie suggests, you could try self-publishing. I think you’re probably right to start on a second book, though, because you will use everything that you’ve learnt from writing the first one (no matter how subconsciously). Good luck, and keep going!

    1. I will think on an editor or professional critique approach – it could be a worthwhile step. Thank you so much for putting yourself forward too. My writerly friends have already been so helpful with feedback. Whatever else, I will keep going!

  9. It doesn’t have to be either bottom drawer and second novel or push on with this one. And having requests for the full MS is a good sign. Until you’ve submitted many more queries, it might be premature to give up on Singled Out at this stage (think ‘Kite Runner’ – 30 odd rejections and ‘The Help’ – 60 odd). I think you’re right to keep revising it – that just might make the difference. But it may be that it has not hit the right agent at the right time YET. Starting a second novel might energise you and if at the end of the process you have two, or more, ‘debut’ novels to submit to agents, that is no bad thing and something that I’ve read can increase your chances overall.

    1. You’re right, it’s not either/or. But it seems to be a common experience, that a first novel is still very much part of the learning experience. If it hits its mark, then all well and wonderful, but that would make it the exception. Meanwhile I do indeed need to begin another novel to revitalise my writing experience. I’ve written little except exercises and blog posts for the last few months and my fingers are getting itchy! So it’s one final pass through Singled Out whilst I get to grips with my ideas for Novel Number Two. I’ll be road-testing a few of those ideas in the next couple of weeks. 🙂 And I like that idea of having two novels lined up!

  10. I’ve actually got three in that drawer lol. And now the ones I’m working on are soooooo much better. I learned a lot about writing and seeking representation. One of those three hidden novels is not yet officially dead if you will, but the other two… Yup dead and buried lol. Each successive novel has been easier to write too, if you take out research. anyway happy editing and writing and try to have fun and live whatever you do.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad that each successive story has been easier to write than the last – it gives me hope. And who knows, one or two of those bottom-drawer tales may find their way out into the open one day.

      1. Haha who knows. I just think I learned a lot from each one about plotting and maintaining tension and writing dialogue and characterization and all that. It also really helped to get professional critiques and find good writing groups 🙂

        1. I can certainly appreciate how much one learns in those early months and years of writing. I already meet with a group of writers, but I haven’t ever had my work professionally critiqued – unless you count working with a mentor (writing tutor and published author) for almost two years. I found that an immensely valuable experience.

  11. And you know what? You have to draw the line somewhere and just get on and… write something! If you have ambitions to write novels, there are many, many ways to spend money: creative writing courses, retreats, critiques, editors, classes on how to craft synopses and submissions, insights into self-publishing, sessions with hard-to-reach people like agents and publishers, literary events where published authors tell you how they did it…. and much, much more. It’s all valuable, it’s all worthwhile, but without a Lottery jackpot win in our back pockets, most of us can’t do it all. Best we can manage is… a selective ‘some’. But then… to the writing!

    By the way, I’ve just found and followed your blog – great fun and some fierce insights into the differences between Yanks and Brits. Love it!

  12. I enjoyed reading your post and everyone’s comments. I am not quite as far along in the ‘following the dream’ path of becoming a writer. Writing is happening. I loved your line where you ‘murder your darlings’ in a line edit. I take comfort that most writers suffer these same struggles. We may all work individually and have our own method of approach, but we all face the editing nightmare. We all face the suspicion that we aren’t quite the writer we’d like to be. I read a book entitled: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, by Meredith Maran (someone could have edited that title, by the way.) Almost every writer mentioned doubts and disasters in their writing. I don’t remember a single one saying they regretted doing it.

    1. Doubts and insecurities are par for the course for anyone seeking to put their work into the public domain, by whatever means. I thought I’d finished with editing, but another pair of eyes on my work persuaded me to take another run at it. And I wonder, will I ever get to ‘enough’… All part of the fun, I guess.

      As for the comments, I’m lucky in having a lively community of readers bearing a wealth of experience, advice and perspective. Comments on a post like this one are, I know, a real help not just to me, but to many other would-be novelists.

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