The Necessity of the Bad First Novel

In helping to critique friends’ writing and working on Blank Slate Press submissions recently, I’ve read a lot of quality work. One thing is evident: This isn’t the first time around the block for these writers. They’ve been honing their craft for years. Many of them, I’m guessing, have a really bad novel sitting in their files somewhere.

It may seem like a waste of time, but my advice to any wannabe writer out there would be to write your first novel knowing that it’s going to be bad. Not just bad; self-centered, possibly pompous, overwritten in parts and underwritten in others. Get it over with. Put 80,000 words on paper, put it in a drawer, and then pull it out in a year and see how bad it was.

I’m not exactly sure what the life lesson is here, but it has something to do with getting all the crap out of your system so you can create something worth consuming. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive to be great the first time around, but you have to put your ego aside and realize that there is a very, very small chance that it’s as good as you think it is.

Case in point: After college, I wrote about half a novel. At the time, of course, I thought it was brilliant. It was all about me (I’m a fascinating subject to myself), it included a life lesson essay after every chapter, and I basically copied the format of every John Irving novel because that’s who I was reading at the time.

It’s SO important that I wrote this novel. Because I got it over with. And ever since, I’ve found it so much easier to find my own voice, to create characters that aren’t just like me, and to not think that every sentence and idea I wrote would get me on Oprah.

I want to repeat this real quick because I have a feeling some people really won’t understand this. You’re thinking that someday when you have time, you’ll sit down and write a brilliant novel the first time around. You think you’ll be the exception to this rule. I’m telling you that you’re wrong. Write that novel in your free time now. Then, later when you have time, write something brilliant.

Do you have a bad first novel sitting in your files? How have you grown since then?