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?

8 thoughts on “The Necessity of the Bad First Novel”

  1. Yes, of course I have a trunk novel. Wait a second. *rummages* There are FOUR unedited manuscripts in here!

    Sad, but true. My fifth complete novel was the first one I considered worth saving. Now that I *cough* know what I’m doing (like that’ll ever REALLY happen), there is one of those trunk novels I plan on revising when I have an idea lull.

    If that ever happens.

    • Are they four different genres? Although I’d hope that I’d become a better novelists each time around, it’s possible that I may have a bad first novel in every genre.

  2. I just read another blog post about past writings. I have been seriously thinking about revisiting a book I start in high school and touched on again in college. I’m taking both posts as a sign to dig that bad boy up. So, to answer your e-mail question, yea, I guess I am a writer. Mostly done in journals or on random pieces of paper, sometimes I just feel like I’ll burst if I don’t get some things out. I do have an acrostic poem published somewhere, so that was very exciting for me.

    • Well, be careful…I think that first novel helps to get stuff out of your system. You may want to start over on a new one if you’re looking for brilliance 🙂

  3. Does it count as a first novel if you completed it in your head, dictated it to your husband and then he stashed it somewhere with an absent mind where NO ONE would find it? 🙂

    • Hmm…I think there’s something to be said about actually typing out your novel yourself…but if you actually “wrote” a novel outloud, that has to count for something! Now write your second one and make it good. 🙂

  4. What about unfinished novels? The first novel I tried to write ended up abandoned very early on because it got so convoluted I wasn’t even sure what it was all about!

    My main worry is that once I write my first proper novel it will be bad. Maybe I should finish off that one first.

    • My first novel is unfinished, as is my second one, but I still consider both invaluable learning experiences. I think the key is to just keep writing 🙂


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