Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Guest Post: The Training-Wheels Novel

I was mid-way through reading an interview with Amy Bloom in The Guardian when I ran into a line that stopped me short. I had to read it twice.

She was in her mid-30s when she started to write, her 20s having been spent raising three children and working fulltime. She would write late at night and first produced a mystery novel, which, after it was accepted for publication, she bought back because she didn't think it was good enough.

Let me repeat that in case you didn't catch it the first time, either. She bought it back. From the publisher. Because she didn't think it was good enough.

I dug a little deeper into this anecdote, and might have even tried to interview Amy Bloom myself if I were not raising children and writing and, let's be honest, if this were a paying gig that justified the further reporting time.

Instead, I googled for an earlier interview that might mention this bought-back book. I found one in 2000, in the literary magazine identitytheory.com. The book she'd yanked back had been a mystery novel, titled Them There Eyes.

She had this to say about it: "It was my warm-up... It wasn't anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed. But it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print."

This fascinates me.

So many writers talk about the proverbial novel in the drawer, but like many clichés, it's there for a reason. It seems everyone has a novel in the drawer.

When I first started writing fiction and heard writers talk about the one that got (put) away, I couldn't imagine it: all that creative energy, the characters trained to say just the right thing, the heartache and carpal tunnel syndrome, moldering somewhere in a computer file and chalked up to experience. Those years of late nights and middle of the nights and early mornings, all just training wheels for the big ride to come some other day.

Those are the phrases I hear to describe these first novels: Warm-up exercises. Limbering stretches. Training wheels.

Just the other day, I was talking to my husband about this from the slough of revisions of my own first novel, which my agent plans to sell soon. I was comparing it to the bike my daughter rides, pink and white with Dora the Explorer on the side. In a prolonged metaphor that amused only me, I told him I'd tinkered with this manuscript for so long that I'd pushed it to the starting line through the sheer force of my stubbornness. Whether or not it was the soundest vehicle, my Dora bike was now lining up for the Tour de France, its tall plastic flag flapping in the wind and little metal bell going brring-brring-brring all the way.

Is there something wrong with publishing your first novel? Should I have stood up after finishing it, cracked my knuckles a few times, then sat back down to a new blank document? All writers want to come out of the gate with their strongest work. So I suppose the real question is, how do you know when you're doing your best work, and since that's an ever-changing benchmark, can you embrace yourself as a work in progress? I once read about a well-known author, someone quite old and established, who said he never went back and read his old work because the desire to change it was too strong.

We are all so critical of ourselves, we writers. Though it seems to me the greater danger would be to keep pulling back, always measuring your work against some elusive voice you dream someday to express, which may not in fact be your own.

At times when I'm spinning my wheels, I wonder to what extent it's possible ever to be completely satisfied with your work. To hand it over with a confident Fini!, and maintain that certainty all the way to publication and beyond.

And I wonder too if Amy Bloom ever reads her old work and hears a little brring-brring-brring herself, and can love it anyway.


Nichole Bernier is a Contributing Editor (and former staffer) at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and a member of the literary blog, Beyond the Margins (beyondthemargins.com). Her first novel is soon to be submitted to editors by her agent, and according to her kids, a bajillion people will buy it.

16 comments:

  1. I've never heard of anything like this happening but I suppose I can understand it. What I can't understand though is why the revision period with an editor didn't improve the novel enough for the author's satisfaction. The publishers themselves were obviously okay with it.

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  2. Wow, I cannot buy imagine buying it back. I mean, of course we want to be proud of our work and hold it to certain standards, but ditto what Thomas Taylor said: if an editor thinks it's good to go for publication, I don't see how it could have been so bad to merit buying it back.

    Additionally, I read a lot about how writers shouldn't let anything get published that isn't their best work, but I think that's... well, silly. Do you want it to be good? Of course! But EVERYONE gets better at their job as they progress in their career, so why shouldn't writers? Why shouldn't our first (published) story look amateur compared to our stories 10 years later? Growth and improvement is nothing to be ashamed of.

    And how could any writer expect to grow and improve if they never take the risk of putting their work out there?

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  3. I just put my first one away for good. After seeing how much I improved with the second (a novella, now published) it seemed silly to push forward with something that was sapping so much energy with little hope of being half as good as my first published work.

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  4. Funny this should appear today as I've finally made the decision to stop querying my first novel. As wonderful as I think it is, the rejections on the partials are doing me in. I need to step back and re-evaluate, work on something else for awhile. Thanks for this Nichole.

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  5. This was good to read. I feel the same way about my first novel. Don't get me wrong; I love it but I do feel it could be better. Now, it's out there. I will offer it up for second publication one day with some serious editing. It's always good to see that I'm not alone in my thinking.

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  6. Thank you for this.

    I've written two practice novels. They aren't right for publication, but they are still precious to me and they taught me a lot.

    They weren't a waste of time. I proved that I could finish a long work---two of them. I discovered that my skills lie in a different genre than I thought. I can take criticism and learn from it. I'm learning how to edit and revise. And according to my betas and first reader, my stuff is getting better.

    Submitting to agents and publishers isn't the only way to get feedback--in fact, it appears that agents and publishers are too busy to supply much. Rejections aren't solid feedback---there are too many variables.

    When my work is ready, I'll send it out. In the meantime, I'm going to improve my stories by writing more of them.

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  7. I think about Cezanne, who painted for years until he was ready to show publicly, rather than Picasso who began as a fully formed painter. Yes, there will always be Picassos. But most of us lean closer to Cezanne. By the time he arrived, he was none too shabby.

    I'm pretty sure it was the New Yorker that put that in my head.

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  8. I'm sure I could improve any of the books that are out but ... I don't know if it would be worth my time and effort. At some point, it is "good enough" for others to read. I count on my editor to help me get it there, if needed. I try to do my best work, but I'm sure it could be better. that's why I keep writing & keep publishing.

    Although I wonder ... can anyone tell the difference between my 1st book and my 16th (which released today)? I wonder ...

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  9. Wow there is something you don´t hear everyday! Perhaps she is an ultra perfectionist?

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  10. Bear in mind that writers, who are usually an insecure bunch by nature, are usually the worse judge of their own writing. Didn't Stephen King literally trash his first novel Carrie? Luckily his wife dug it out of the trash and rest is history. Actually that was his fifth novel, but the first that sold! That's my inspiration.

    But if you have something better of your own to compare it to as csmith wrote, then that makes sense, too.

    I trashed my first novel and a few others because my later novels became so much better. But are they (got three more of them) still good enough to get published? Who am I to judge? That's why I enter them into novel contests and see how they stack up (love those deadlines, too!). Two were almost finalist in 2008, 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom contest and one a semi-finalist. Then a fourth was "almost-finalist" for their 2009 novel-in-progress.

    The judges imply that I'm getting closer so long as I keep improving them, so I've rewritten (overhauled) them for the 2010 contest.

    I did buy out all of my copies for a collection of short stories in Malaysia in order to switch publishers, then re-edited them, added two more stories, and the new collection won an award and some of the stories are now being taught in several universities and colleges and in high school. Sure glad I did that!

    They do say, a first novel that doesn’t sell well these days may hurt (kill) your chances for a second novel, so the rules are changing. Make sure that first one out the block is ready in a big way! Good luck with it too!

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  11. I stopped sending out my first a good while back, and have just started reading it to see whether it can be fixed. Of course I would like to salvage it, and I think I can; but I do have lots of other things I'd like to work on. New stuff. Shiny!

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  12. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」....................................................................

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  13. I know the feeling exactly in regard to a first novel - that sense that it really was just a training ground and probably not what you want to be remembered for. However, if the publisher liked it well enough it is surprising that she didn't go with that. Now that took guts! I wish i could be so lucky!

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  14. My first novel was a pretty personal story. All my first ideas are something that I loved but never seemed right for print.

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  15. Thanks so much for all your comments. It's such a personal choice, knowing when your writing represents the top of your game, even while knowing and accepting that your abilities are going to change. I wrote this post a few months ago in the depths of novel revisions, and am happy to say that just this week it was sold. THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D will be published by Crown/Random House sometime next year.

    If you're interested in a great piece on the value of putting your writing "in the drawer" temporarily to gain distance and perspective, this was written by Kathy Crowley (another guest poster to Pimp My Novel) whose own first novel will soon be offered for sale:

    http://beyondthemargins.com/2010/06/what-happens-in-the-drawer/

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  16. Nichole, many congratulations on the sale of your book! I can't wait to read it.

    As someone who's worked with authors for years and years, first as a marketing director at a book publisher, now as a reviewer/librarian, I can say that many feel their work is never good enough. I give all published authors tremendous kudos for letting their "babies" go off into the sometimes-harsh world of publication!

    Authors: I know the whole process seems so competitive (first to get published, then reviewed, then BOUGHT, then reprinted, etc.) it feels like you must be perfect, but you don't need to be perfect. You need to be memorable and unique; at least offer a fresh take, or a fresh voice, or a fresh, new, SOMETHING. You don't need a new idea; you need EXECUTION that stands out from the crowd.

    Don't we all have favorite authors whose early works are still in print, and to which we as readers often return? I know an author's first novel may not always be the first *published,* but still. Over the course of a writing career, the early ones can stand out.

    I was a member of the 2010 Newbery Committee, and more than one book we honored was a first or early book published.

    Courage, beginning authors!!

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