Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lies Writers Tell... To Other Writers (Part Two -- Your First Novel Sucks)

As I mentioned last time, we writers have convinced ourselves of a lot of untruths, and, you know, it's fine to believe an untruth if that's what you want to believe. My kids, the two younger ones at any rate, still choose to believe in Santa Claus. At least, I'm fairly certain they know he's not really real, but they want to believe in him so they choose to do so. It's part of Christmas at our house so they choose to believe and that's totally okay.

Now, it would be a different story entirely if they were out telling their friends that their families were doing it wrong if they didn't have Santa as a part of their Christmas traditions.

However, if you ever sit it on a kindergarten class at Christmas time, those kids really believe in Santa -- I mean, really really believe in Santa with their whole hearts --and they will set out to tell anyone who might happen to say that Santa isn't real just how wrong he is. And that's where we writers are with this first lie (and I think it's the biggest, most damaging lie we tell): Your first novel sucks!!!
It sucks and you should, minimally, stick it in a drawer somewhere and forget it exists. Even better, pack it in the bottom of a box and bury it in your closet, but, to be really safe, you should dig a hole in your back yard, drop it in, and plant a tree on it.

[Now I'm going to take a little aside, so just follow along. Really, it applies.]

In science, there is a thing called a theory. People not in science have taken this word and warped it into something it doesn't mean, so follow the process:

Let's say there's a scientist taking a nap under a tree, a tree that happens to bear apples, and, while he's sleeping, one of those apples falls off of the tree and hits him on the head. This, of course, wakes the scientist up as he tries to figure out who's been throwing apples at him. But, A-HA!, he has an idea: "I think apples fall to the ground when they are dropped." This idea is called a hypothesis.

Now, the scientist wants to know if his idea is correct or not, so he devises a series of experiments to test it. He shakes the tree until apples fall off. He picks up the apples and drops them from his hands and, yes, sure enough, they all fall on the ground. He takes them up on the roof of his house and drops them from there. He gets other people to test whether when they drop the apples they also fall to the ground. He goes up on the highest building he can find, maybe that leaning tower place, and drops them from there. No matter what test he tries, the apples always fall to the ground.
Also, he finds that he no longer wants to eat any of the apples he's been dropping so he decides he should, next time, test his "drop idea" with something that won't become bruised and inedible.
At the end of all of the testing, IF the idea proves to be true, at least in so far as you can test it, you have what is called a theory. If, however, just one time, the guy drops the apple and it does not fall to the ground, you do NOT have a theory. At that point, you go back to your hypothesis and modify it and start testing all over again.

An idea that is just an idea is a hypothesis.
An idea that has been tested and tested and tested and has had NO (ZERO) failures is a theory.

See, the thing about a theory is that it is still conceivable that there could be some circumstances under which it would not hold to be true, but we don't have the means of testing those circumstances. A theory could still turn out to be WRONG.

And just so you know: The stage beyond Theory is Law. If we have shown, as with gravity, that you will get the same results EVERY TIME you do something, it's considered a Law, and we have shown mathematically that gravity does exist and that EVERY TIME anyone drops an apple it will fall to the ground.

And here is where we go back to this lie that writers tell: The people who state it, state it as a the First Law of Writing: Your first novel will suck. Throw it away and never think about it again.

So, right now, I'm going to punch a GIANT hole in that law. Going back to SCIENCE, any event which shows your hypothesis not to be true makes it not a theory. If it's not a theory, it can't be a Law, and, if it's not a theory, you, also, can't use it as a hypothesis. You have to go back to that hypothesis and modify it. So, if you take "Your first book will always suck" as your hypothesis, let's look at some first novels that show that that just isn't any good as a working hypothesis.

To put it another way, if these following authors had listened to the advice (the very common, spoken-everywhere-among-writers advice) that their first novels were no good and had junked them, here are some (just a few) of the novels we would not have in our world. [By the way, all three of the novels I think everyone should read are on this list. All three of what I would say are the most significant novels I have ever read were first novels by the author.]
Oh, and let me clarify: When I say "first novel," I don't mean "first published novel" (meaning they had a few practice ones that they did throw away); I mean "first written novel by the particular author." Sometimes, in fact, these were the ONLY novels the particular author EVER wrote.
Here's just a few:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien -- Sure, you might say that he wrote a bunch of other stuff before he wrote the The Hobbit, but he had never written a novel before, and that's a very different kind of thing than other types of writing. Oh, and if he'd never published this, there would be no The Lord of the Rings or anything else by Tolkien.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell -- This novel won a bunch of awards, too.

Watership Down by Richard Adams -- It also won a bunch of awards.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley -- I can't even summarize how influential this book has been. Imagine if she'd just tossed it.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens -- Probably nothing else needs to be said, BUT it was also the first book ever to become a "publishing phenomenon" (think Harry Potter except that didn't really hit it big until the third or fourth book), his first book.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte -- The only novel she ever wrote.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- His second novel took 40 years to write.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- She said she would never be able to write a book to top Mockingbird, so she never made an attempt at a second novel.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Neuromancer by William Gibson -- Gibson had written a few short stories prior to being commissioned to write a novel. The idea terrified him, but he wrote it. It changed the landscape of both science fiction and reality. It won both the Nebula and Hugo awards as best novel of the year when it came out.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling -- Because you can't keep her off a list like this. And, beyond that, I'm not going to say anything else about it.

And, really, I could go on. I could go on for a long time. I mean, I've only covered first novels that have gone on to become significant works of literature, but there are plenty out there that have been more than adequate first novels. This idea that "first novels" should be tossed in the trash is a myth. It's not even an adequate hypothesis.

Granted, some first novels will suck but, then, some of the authors even on this list never wrote anything to equal the greatness of their first work. Harper Lee wouldn't even try again. I'm not saying that your first work is literary genius puked on a page; I am saying don't listen to people that tell you to just put "that one" away and never let anyone see it. To me, that sounds more like, "My first novel sucked; therefore, all first novels must suck." Don't judge your work by someone else's failure.


  1. Truth. I don't even have my first novel anymore and I'm glad of it. With your first novel, you're just trying to figure out the form and just finish the thing. When it's done, you can start working on being good. The novels you listed are the exceptions that prove the rule

  2. I loved my first novel, but it was really, really horrible. However, after writing a couple more novels, I went back to it. Many long and painful rebirths later, my first novel grew up, and I love it all over again.

    Watership Down is one of my all time favorites!

  3. I think the first novel-sized thing I wrote was in 7th grade so it definitely sucked.

  4. Some authors, yes, are exceptional and have the intelligence and skill to write something wonderful with their first attempt, but my hypothesis would still be that that is not generally the case for most. :)

  5. You're right Pat, it seems like a lot of writers first novels suck. They're still learning.

  6. I think my first novel sucked. But it's nice to know that others are more talented than I. However, I've gotten better at writing over time and that's always the point, right?

  7. I think first novels tend to be rough, and structured oddly - and authors probably don't want to so all the work necessary to make them as good as they want them to be. I've rewritten my first novel several times and I think I like it. I don't think it's a masterpiece, but I still think it's pretty readable.

    Your point is well stated. I don't think a scientific law takes precedence over a theory, however. I've just stolen a moment here and can't really explain myself - but going back your falling apple parable, Newton's description of gravity is a theory, as is Einstein's.

    A law might describe how a thing behaves - usually with mathematical precision- but a theory is the interpretive framework about what is happening. Closely related, but a law shouldn't trump a theory in the level of confidence arena.

    And I love it when people nitpick me about asides or tangents and don't even comment on my main point. So, I'll say again. - point well made.

  8. Nigel: There's no such thing as an "exception that proves the rule;" if there is an exception, there is no rule. Period. These few books that I listed were only a few. Ones that I have read (mostly). I had a list of over 50 first novels, and those were just famous ones. I can't even begin to imagine how many non-famous high quality first novels are out there.

    Jean: Maybe it wasn't as bad as you think? After all, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a first novel, and a lot of people looked askance at that before it became the huge success that it did.

    Pat: Well, 7th grade is probably a little early for great writing.

    L.G.: Sure, a lot of first novels are horrible; I'm not saying that that's not true. What I am saying is that that's not true for everyone, so it's a mistake, as a new writer, to just buy into that. What if Tolkien had just thrown away The Hobbit?

    Maurice: Hopefully, we're all still learning all the time, even if your first novel is a masterpiece.

    Michael: Yes, that's the point. I would actually hate it if my first work was my best.

    Rusty: Like a theory is a hypothesis that has been tested and proven, a Law is like a theory that has been tested and proven. Gravity has surpassed being a theory and is a Law, relativity is still just a theory because we don't have the ability to test all the ramifications of it. So, yes, a Law is more powerful than a theory. By definition.

    1. I'm sorry Andrew - I want to agree with you, I just can't. That isn't how it works. Argh, I have zero time to get into this right now, but as quickly as I can... Newton's Laws are wrong. Unequivocally wrong. Einstein's is a better description of the cosmos than Newton. But Newton's laws are 'good enough' and much easier to use that Einstein's equations.

      I guess the best real life example of that is Vulcan, not Spock's home, but the planet that everyone assumed was there because Mercury's orbit didn't fit neatly into Newton's model of gravity, and proposing an additional celestial body much closer to the Sun that kept perturbing Mercury's orbit was the best answer.

      So, much the same way that Uranus (insert joke here) was discovered (by looking at an orbit that didn't fit Newton's model of what it should be) folks hypothesised that there was an additional planet close to the Sun.

      Of course, it wasn't an additional planet, but a flaw in Newton's laws, it wasn't until General Relativity gave a better explanation for how the cosmos worked that we were free to drop Vulcan from the list of planetary bodies in the solar system. The reason Newton's theory of Gravity is so well regarded today is because, again, it is accurate enough for planning intersolar missions and programming ballistic missiles. It's easier to calculate, there is no reason to change.

      But that doesn't make it right. It's less right than Einstein, not more. It's also why the GPS in my phone doesn't work if you put in Newton's equations into it, the mass of the earth warps space enough that it wouldn't be accurate enough to be usable at all. That's why General Relativity is used instead. It's better (getting a consensus in science it almost impossible, but many physicists also think Einstein is wrong, despite relativity's robust history of standing up to tests - there just isn't anything better for describing gravity that's been discovered).

      Of course, all that is a tangent to my main point, which is: Scientific Laws do not supersede scientific theories.

      Laws are more specific, they're simply observations.... but there is nothing to explain how those observations work in a larger context.... that's what a Theory is for.

    2. Okay, I don't have time, either, but:
      1. Newton's stuff isn't wrong. I don't remember how they have distinguished it off the top of my head, but they Newton's Laws are accurate 100% of the time under "Earth circumstances." When you go beyond that, you have to switch to Einstein. Yes, though, there is a division, but it doesn't invalidate Newton. If you drop an apple, that apple will always fall to the ground.
      2. I suppose a better way of saying it would actually be to say that a Law is like a Postulate (in math). It's a=a. A Theory, not to use a derivative a word to define itself, is like a Theorem. Still, a Law is a thing that IS, a Theory is just a thing that hasn't been disproven and is still subject to modification.

    3. At any rate, the statement, "Your first novel sucks" isn't correct under any model. And I chose the apple illustration because it was one that people could easily see.

    4. I hate commenting from my phone - this could get ugly.

      I'm not sure what you mean by earth circumstances. If you mean calculating the trajectory of a thrown baseball - then yes. But if you mean the already mentioned GPS systems or the accuracy of modern atomic clocks (which have to take general relativity into account) then the answer is still no.

      Which is why I said newton is good enough. But unlike Einstein, Newton's theory of gravity isn't an accurate descriptor of how gravity works - it's mostly mathematical explanations of observed phenomena. It's still genius in its insight.

      And all that is just to say that to state (or imply) that Newton's laws of gravity are better than Einstein's theory of general relativity because one is a law and the other is a theory is wrong. Theories and laws are not rungs on a hierarchy the way a hypothesis and a theory are.

      BUT - totally agree the the first book sucks belief pales when to compared to anything else we've discussed.

    5. Well, I'm going to concede the point except to say that if you look up the definition of "scientific law" it is "a verified theory that has stood the test of time," which is how I learned it in school and what I have found from a general search, though I don't have time to do anything more in depth at the moment.
      However, I don't disagree with your differentiation. I think both paradigms are accurate to a certain extent. Like light is both a particle and a wave.

  9. I'd really love to know how much rewriting, if any, these authors did before the books were published. I know Frankenstein was written during a house party as part of a contest, so I'm assuming Shelley didn't revise it much. But maybe some of these authors managed to earn their writing chops secretly. At least, that makes me feel better about my own sucky first novel. ;)

  10. Sandra: Tolkien worked on LotR for a long time and had to re-work sections of it since the publisher made him break it into more than one book, but my impression is that he didn't spend the huge amount of time fretting over The Hobbit that he did with everything else.
    Gibson re-wrote the first third of Neuromancer about a dozen times because Blade Runner came out while he was working on it, and he was worried that people would just think he was copying the movie. Still, he finished the book before his one year deadline.
    Shelley did actually spend some time on Frankenstein after the initial draft because she consulted with several of the leading people of science in her day to make sure her science was accurate.
    Dickens, I'm pretty sure, just wrote. He released Pickwick serially, so he was always under deadline.
    Paton wrote Cry while travelling. I think it was over the course of a few years.

    That's what I know off the top of my head. Well, Rowling mostly just wrote her book then began trying to sell it; however, I have no idea what kind of editing they made her do after it was picked up.

  11. Other first novels:

    "A Time To Kill" arguably Grisham's best book.

    "Carrie." Never read it, but people seem to love it.

    My own first novel was "Finding Elvis," and I threw it away 20 years ago. I bet it sucked kind of, but probably wasn't unsalvageable. If you look at my books now, the one I've published that I started working on first was "Up So Down." I wrote most of it, then let it sit a long time, while I wrote "Ecilpse" and "the After" and then I went back and published "Up So Down." But "Just Exactly How Life Looks" is the set of stories I wrote first before anything. I wrote those in the 90s, mid-90s, and then when I went back to them I liked them and left them more or less how they were.

    But those were stories I worked on a bit, too. Sandra's right: You can't just expect to throw something together your first time and have it be brilliant. Maybe it is, but odds are you need to rework it. Simply saying all first novels suck is wrong. Telling people that writing gets better with time is a better idea.

    1. Briane: I have nothing against telling people that writing gets better with time because, usually, that's true. But it's not always true. Some people produce their best work first and steadily go downhill from there.

      And, by the way, Carrie was only King's first published novel. Evidently, he did write three or four others before Carrie that he threw away.
      I don't know anything about Grisham.

  12. Man, I'd rather join the science debate Andrew and Rusty have going on. Can't stay away from that stuff, especially when Andrew throws in MATH....but I also really don't have time.
    I think saying all first novels suck is a terrible idea, as you've shown many exceptions to that idea. I think it's much better to say that writing is a craft which improves with hard work. World class athletes don't just get out of bed and set pole vaulting records. They practice a lot. Writers need to practice, too.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

    1. You know I threw that math stuff in just for you, Tina. :P

      Theoretically (heh), a writer is practicing (a lot) before s/he starts his/her first novel.

  13. I had no idea those novels were first efforts. My general experience has been on the side of suckage however.

  14. I knew about most of the ones I listed. However, there were a lot of surprises in the books I didn't list.