Newbie authors often suffer from separation anxiety with their first book. I speak from experience because I am a newbie author and have been utterly twitterpated by my first masterwork. Imbrum, my 300k post-apocalyptic noir, was it. It was the book that was going to boost me to the stars, hook me all the agents, land me a three-book, multi-million-dollar deal and then a Netflix series.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. (If it had, do you think I’d be writing this blog?) All the effort I put into that behemoth came crashing down on my wide-eyed, slack-jawed face, and I learned a very cold, cruel lesson:
You are the only one who cares about your baby.
And that’s just it. Or, to quote, Joanna Penn, “Nobody cares that you wrote a book.” You can sweat, strive, and strain—rage, scream, and edit until your fingers bleed—but most authors write multiple books before they see a cupcake sprinkle of success.
If you’re a newbie author, this is not what you want to hear. If you’re a newbie author sitting on an unfinished, unedited manuscript, you can’t even begin to imagine what it’s going to be like to write the next two, three, or even five books in the series. But this post isn’t about leaving babies in the snow; it’s about taking a wider view.
If you’re anything like me, you are fiercely attached to that first manuscript. After all, that’s what started everything—the spark that kindled the fire. I understand, and I certainly don’t want to diminish the preciousness and importance of that first book, but here are a few reasons why you should really consider moving on.
Separating yourself from your darlings gives you room to kill them.
Admit it. You’re a helicopter parent. The moment that chapter concludes, you’re convinced it’s the best thing ever written and bound for a Pulitzer.
Let’s get real.
As brilliant as your first draft may be, seldom (if ever) will it be the final draft. Often, we get so tangled in our own heads we start filling in words and forget to finish our
Writing take so much time and soul, looking at a freshly-birthed excerpt with anything but pride and lovingkindness can be far too much effort. Chop it up? Holy guacamole, I just brought it to life! You want me to change this scene? Restructure my whole plot? Change it to YA?!? It’s only a child!
This is why I recommend letting the book sit, completely untouched, for at least six weeks before you start the editing process. Six weeks is about the time you need to forget what you’ve written—to really detach yourself. When you come back, you’ll do so with fresh eyes, and it will be so much easier to see where the story needs improving.
The prize goes to the prolific.
Big authors rarely boast one book. Of course, there are the exceptions, but just look at the majority of household names/series and tell me I’m wrong. There’s a reason for this, and it really is two-fold. Firstly, an author who writes more than one book has more than one chance of succeeding. Maybe the right agent isn’t open for queries. Maybe the market just isn’t quite there. Whatever the case, writing a second book essentially doubles your chances of hooking an agent, finding a publisher, or making a sale.
Take Stephen King. The man is a living typewriter. He writes for four hours a day, has published hundreds of short stories (He has a collection of tales that he sells to film students for $1. They’re called his “Dollar Babies.”) and more novels than I can name. He’s one of the greatest writers currently living because he’s put in the time to get where he’s at. He didn’t do that by obsessively clinging to his debut novel. He kept writing.
And if you’re an independent author your back catalogue is even more important. The self-published authors who are making bank have 20-30+ novels available, and they’re cashing in on one very important fact: Human beings are creatures of habit. When we find something we like, we go back for more of that something. Again. Again. And again.
To summarize the second of that two-fold factor? In a world of Netflix binge-watchers, more books = more $.
An author’s first book is rarely what starts their career.
The statistics and facts are out there. Ask. I dare you—go on Twitter, Facebook, to your local coffee shop—just ask. “Was your first book the book that ended up being published? Was your first book the one that hit it big? How many years were you writing before you finally found traction?”
I think you’ll be shocked by the responses. I won’t be because I’ve already done the research.
This is not the only book you will ever write.
And do you really want it to be? It may take some time (mourning) and some space (acceptance), but if you are serious about this career, another idea will come to you. Perhaps you need to get over your first book to let yourself move on.
You’re showing that you’re serious.
Do you think there would be any success for an actor who said, “My role is Captain Kirk. I will play Captain Kirk, and that is the only role I will ever play. I can and must only be cast as Captain James Tiberius Kirk.”
But which actors do we celebrate? The ones who get pigeonholed or the ones who give meaningful, lifelong performances in diverse and challenging roles, daring themselves and defying their audience’s expectations—truly embracing the art of emulsifying character and refusing to be limited by one finite perspective?
Or, put more simply: How many roles did Leo have to play before he got his Oscar?
As an author, I have far more respect for those who dare to be diversified. By coming out for that second punch, you’re showing everyone that you’re not just in this for the book—you’re serious about a career. If an agent asks me to rewrite a book, I don’t mind doing it. If he or she ends up passing on one of my works, it’s really not the end of the world. When you’re more than a one-trick pony, you have confidence and assurance beyond one project. You start to believe in yourself as an author.
You will get better as you go.
Oh, and you will. Start reading authors chronologically and you should be able to see it. Every time you write something, you’re practicing. Every moment you practice is a moment spent improving your craft. So your first book was good. Let me get you in on a little secret: The second will probably be better. And the third. And the fourth. And so on.
I can’t even begin to describe the progress I’ve made from that first draft of Imbrum. The difference is night and day—a dabbling tenderfoot to a dedicated, armored contender. I just started my seventh full-length novel (Three chapters in! Woot-woot!) and could sit here and write you a list of everything I’ve learned from the first six.
They say it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert in something. I highly doubt that you want to spend all that time on just one project. The more you write (And read, for that matter. Make sure you’re also reading good writing!), the better you are going to get at writing—ergo your chances at achieving your goal (being agented, published, a multi-millionaire) will also be better. Nothing written is ever a waste of time. It’s simply an hour stacked up to your 10,000.
You need something else to work on while you query.
One of the first things my mentor told me was to work on another book while I was querying. I wish I could print that on a t-shirt and mail it to all of you.
Querying is a long process. A heart-wrenching process. But if you’re working on another project, you may be able to peel your eyes from your inbox for at least a few hours to hack at your work in progress (WIP). If your first book is met with a long line of rejection, it can be comforting to look down and your computer and say, “Yea, this is rough, but it’s not the only card up my sleeve.” You trim that baby up, draft another query, then hit back with a harder, stronger pitch.
At the very least, you’ll feel like you’re moving forward. I may have lost my publishing deal, but I am writing my seventh book. Gold sticker for me, right?
If you give yourself the chance to grow, you can always come back stronger.
Fortunately, books are not like children insomuch as you can completely abandon them then return later on with little to no consequences. After you’ve left your darling to simmer for a bit, you’ll come back fresh and maybe even wiser. Have you ever gone back and read your old high school essays? Go ahead and try it. It’s a laugh. In two or three years, after you’ve written and read and learned and honed your craft, don’t you think you’ll be in for another good chuckle? I highly doubt that you’re a perfect author, and the odds are that you just don’t know what you don’t know. I know that back in the day, I had neither the skill nor the experience to acknowledge the weaknesses in my story. I couldn’t accurately assess it because I hadn’t learned how. Certainly, I’m still learning, but at least I can look back at that first book and say, “Well, Hannah. It’s something, but you’re going to need a lot more under your belt before you tackle this kind of subject matter.”
Starting another project can feel an awful lot like bringing home a second baby. Your firstborn will probably be hurt. Jealous. Not understand why he/she is being replaced by this pink, jabbering little idiot draft. However, having multiple babies is simply good biological practice because we live by the Laws of the Jungle. To put things rather harshly, not every one of your babies may make it.
Looking back at my first book, I’m wrenched with shame, pride, and a twinge of hope. Shame because it’s absolutely not what it should be—and that I defended it so fiercely not knowing that. Pride because I can look back at how far I’ve come and take comfort in the potential. Hope because I know I’m a much better author now than I was then—and still getting better.
That first book is going to be special to you; it’s special to everyone. However, don’t let a helicopter parent mentality hobble your writing venture. Go. Dare. Write—and keep writing until something hits. No effort is ever a waste, for it is through those words that we learn and grow. When you begin to see this as a long game rather than a one-and-done, you’ll begin to appreciate writing for what it actually is: an art.
Stephen King is still writing. J. K. Rowling still hits up the books. Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan—heck, Dan Brown just cranked out another symbology thriller. That’s the cool thing about this gig…
You’re never the best writer that you can be, and you get to keep doing what you love until you get there.
So take a leap of faith. Let go. I think you’ll be glad you did.