Why Your First Novel Isn’t Crap

When I first started writing, I decided to launch straight into writing a novel.

It was tough. I’d never done it before. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I largely blagged it but I wrote it.

It was on the whole a bit crap but actually, it wasn’t.

If you believed what every writer and their cat has to say about first novels being rubbish, you’d never begin.

It’s time to look at this in another way.

The ‘Your First Novel will be Crap’ Brigade

I wish I’d never googled anything about writing first novels when I started. I felt defeated before I began.

The ‘advice’ seemed to tip mainly towards whatever I produced being utter rubbish. It’s hardly encouraging.

Sitting down every day and working for hours on something that will only be crap, apparently, felt like complete stupidity. Why waste my time if it was going to be so bad that no-one would read it?

I thought joining social media writing groups would help. Imagine my despair to find that my fellow writers, twenty books down the line, were telling the newbies that the manuscript they were working on would never be published, sit in a drawer for all time, and be a stinking pile of doo doo.

You Have to Start

Why Your First Novel Isn't Crap - motivational catI wanted to quit before I began then I realised something. If I didn’t make a start then I would be another person who had failed at writing. Just like with any pursuit or job, you have to learn from beginning, gaining experience, and getting better.

I am under no illusions that the first draft of my first novel isn’t great. To call it crap though is to do myself a disservice.

I made a thing. When you write a novel, it’s a gargantuan thing. Never let anyone tell you that the effort is rubbish.

You made a start, despite what your peers said.

You are a freaking champion.

Seeing the Beauty Underneath the Rubbish

First drafts are beautiful things. You scribble or type away to your heart’s content and feel like writing is a wonderful flowy thing.

First drafts are lying bitches.

Why Your First Novel Isn't Crap - criticism catAnyone who has ever returned to their first draft after a break will tell you how much they want to slay their first draft self.

The first draft is riddled with typos, grammar doozies, plot holes so deep you could go caving in them, and sentences that forgot how to construct.

Reading your first draft is a cringe fest. Reading the first draft of your first novel makes you want to crawl inside yourself and disappear.

Do not give up on the defenceless first draft of your first novel.

Diamonds are mined from dirty surroundings. Pearls come from closed shells. Completed novels are hidden within crap.

Writing is hard. First drafts can fool you into thinking it isn’t, until you read them back.

You unearth the beauty of your novel by mining for it, through revising and editing. It’s a slog. You’ll hate the writing life but it will be worth it when that gem of a novel shines through at the end, first novel or not.

The Learning Curve

Why Your First Novel Isn't Crap - moron catFirst novels provide steep learning curves. In fact, every novel or written piece you do teaches you how to be a better writer.

I am an ex-English teacher and still I can’t believe how rubbish I’ve been at formatting dialogue. So much so that in the early days I avoided writing dialogue at all. This is a bit awkward when you have a set of mute characters.

The lesson here is that if you’re not so confident in an area of writing, work on it.

Don’t run away from description just because the best you can do right now is, ‘The sun shone’. This means you’re going to have to write a short story all about that bastard sun shining, illuminating, creating a globe of warmth, having buttery rays, tickling your skin…

Bum. Maybe I need to work on sun shining analogies too.

The first novel is your learning zone. Each draft is part of the learning curve.

Make lots of mistakes. Feel free to make them in your first, second, even eleventy billionth draft. No one has the completed book yet.

Learn how to spot your mistakes, rectify them, and make your writing shine, illuminate, tickle your skin… *signs up for a creative writing degree*.

Nothing is Ever Wasted

Confession time: I never got beyond the first draft of my first novel.

You’re probably thinking I’m a hypocrite. How can she advise about how a first novel isn’t crap if she gave up on her own? Hear me out.

I got depression and I got it hard when I finished my first draft. In fact, I got it before that but I slogged through to get it done. Once that draft was completed, I retreated into a dark shell, experienced hell on earth, and gave up on writing for months.

When I was recovering I wondered what to do about that first novel. I didn’t want to join the ‘Your First Novel will be Crap’ brigade in leaving it. Equally I knew it would require a lot of work and bravery on my part.

The problem was that my first novel was about a woman’s experience of depression. Imagine how much someone who is recovering from that needs to be focusing on anything but writing about that darkness. That’s not to say I don’t write about depression when I’m in it. I’ve written quite a few posts on this blog: Mental Health and Depression and some short stories.

Why Your First Novel Isn't Crap - editing catThe novel was too close to home though. I needed to write something new.

The novel sat in a drawer and the guilt increased that I had become another ‘the first novel is crap’ cautionary tale.

Now I know I didn’t.

You may never get to read that novel. It might sit in a drawer for the rest of my life but nothing in the time of writing it has been wasted because I learnt so much when I wrote it.

I am capable of writing a novel. That’s no small thing.

I can write.

I can write a first draft.

I can write, despite being in the grips of depression.

I began being a writer with that novel.

I cautiously opened the drawer recently and read a little of that novel. My first response was to throw it away. It was self-indulgent and trite in places.

Then I forced myself to keep reading. I persevered with that novel. The least I could do for my first novel self was to read some more.

The gems underneath the rubbish began to glint through. I found sentences and ideas that I loved. I smiled as I realised that some of them had found their way into my short stories. Nothing had been wasted.

That novel may never see the light of the publishing day (or the illumination, tickling my skin or buttery rays) but it lit the way on this road of writing.

In my book, pardon the pun, that makes my first novel a masterpiece.

Over to You

How do you feel about your first novel? Was it published or not?

How do you feel about writers being told their novel will be crap before they’ve even started writing?

About Lisa Sell

Lisa Sell is a fiction writer and blogger. When not wrestling with words she can be found showing the love for chocolate, cheese, coffee, the cat, and the Husband. Not particularly in that order.

6 comments on “Why Your First Novel Isn’t Crap

  1. I love this! And it’s so true – we learn SO MUCH in writing that first novel. I guess I came to it a little differently, as I already had three and a half books in a drawer somewhere (one from when I was 16, and that is NEVER seeing the light of day), so I didn’t have quite the same first novel jitters. But I do know that when I did a major overhaul on the first of the recent books I wrote, it was so very clear how much I’d learnt since that first draft. All writing is learning. We just have to keep going. 🙂

    1. Oh how I’d love to see the novel you wrote when you were 16! You may cringe at it but you’ve kept it for a reason. That’s your little gem, glowing in the drawer, glad to have been written.

  2. My first novel was lost, sadly I never got the chance to revise that gem of a story. But, I used finishing it to fuel finishing my next. That next novel is currently revised and with beta readers right now.
    I love the saying that all a first draft has to do is exist, over the it will be crap.

    1. I would be gutted if I lost a whole novel but it sounds like writing it wasn’t wasted.

      Like you,my first novel gave me the impetus to write more.

      All the best with it. I know how scary sending a novel to beta readers is!

  3. My first novel was unfinished like the 2nd and the 3rd. It’s when I decided to write short stories or dialogues that I was able to have fun with my writing. I guess I had to try my hand at novels before being able to admit it wasn’t what I should do.

    1. And that’s fair enough. There’s no point in making yourself miserable. It’s great you’ve found a form of writing you enjoy.

      Thanks for commenting, Dominique.

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