Wednesday, July 23, 2014
The Flawed First Novel
Show me the aspiring author who hasn’t, at some point in the writing of that first novel, imagined it being instantly recognized by the critics and selling like hotcakes with the general public. I don’t believe such an author exists.
The fantasy is as universal as it is elusive. The author who writes the occasional first-book best seller is like the guy on unemployment who wins the lottery. Sure, it in fact can be done, but the odds are beyond astronomical — Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding.
Then there are the authors (think Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison and Margaret Mitchell) whose first novels were terrific and are still read today, but who never wrote anything of consequence afterwards. I have a little theory about that, and it begins by imagining that To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, and Gone With the Wind weren’t their first novels, but rather their third.
The Path to the Masterpiece
Suppose they had written their masterpieces after first producing a couple of good but flawed books, from which they learned a great deal about themselves and the craft or writing. That’s the curve for most good authors, and I would submit that it’s a beneficial thing in a number of ways.
For starters, publishing a flawed book (and nearly every book is flawed) teaches an author the value of realizing that at some point you have to say, “This is as good as I can get it. It’s time to let go and move on to the next one.” Like any artist or craftsman, an author wants to get the work right, but right is a relative term. Bad Shakespeare is still better than almost anybody else’s best.
Having a sense of perspective is essential to avoiding writer’s block and demented perfectionism. When your first book is a hugely successful masterpiece, you probably feel (I’ve never had the pleasure myself) that the second one has to be at least as good, which can be setting the bar too high. If the third book is the masterpiece, you know there are two others out there that were worse, and that knowledge is likely to make the writing of book number four a lot less daunting.
Working on a Series
I write mystery novels, which by definition aren’t going to be masterpieces, but I see some of these factors at work. The first book in my Quill Gordon series, The McHenry Inheritance, was flawed, and I probably see the flaws more than most. But it told a pretty good story in a brisk fashion, and I felt it accomplished four things a first book in a series has to do: Establish a character, a premise, a tone, and a style.
Doing just that much wore me out, but showing myself I could do those things freed me to concentrate on other elements of fiction in the second book, Wash Her Guilt Away. In it I tried to focus on improving three things: character development, dialogue, and atmosphere. Some of the feedback I’m getting suggests I met with some success.
In the third book (still untitled), which I’ve just begun to write, my three goals are: Create a more intricate plot, create a stronger sense of the community in which the action occurs, and create more of a backstory for my protagonist. If nothing sidetracks the effort, the book should be out in the second half of next year, and we’ll see how I did. The way I look at it, every book I write should be better than the one before. Until I write one that isn’t.