Your First Novel Sucks (And Two Traits That Will Make You a Better Writer)

Dear Shaunta,
How do I know if the novel I’m writing is any good? I don’t want to spend all this time writing a book and have it turn out to be a flop.
Love, lots of Ninja Writers

Hey, Ninja Writers!

Okay. I’m going to be very honest with you here. And I’ll tell you up front that if you make it all the way to the end of this answer without throwing up your arms and deciding to just go be a — whatever your Plan B is — then you’ve got one of the most important traits a writer needs to be succcessful.

I’ll tell you what that trait is at the end. (Actually it’ll be two traits.)

So let’s start with the honesty. If you’re writing the first draft of your first novel — it sucks. It’s bad. It is.

“People think that writing is writing, but actually writing is editing. Otherwise, you’re just taking notes.”
— Chris Abani

Writing is editing. Editing is what makes the difference between someone who wants to be a writer and someone who is. You have to be willing to get the first draft down and then polish it and polish it and rework it and revise it until it’s as good as you can make it.

And then? And then you have to be willing to take what you learned on that first book (the drafting and the editing) and apply it to your second book. And write it. And edit it.

And then? And then you have to willing to take what you learned on that second book (the drafting and the editing) and apply it to your third book. And write it. And edit it.

And then?

Do you see a pattern here?

Chances are excellent that your first book will not sell. That it will live it’s entire life in a file on your hard drive or maybe in a binder or a box somewhere.

Your first book’s job, probably, is to teach you how to be a better writer. That’s it. It’s job is not to make you a phenom that makes other writers feel like losers. It’s job is not to make you rich or famous. It’s job is not to prove your brilliance to the world.

Trust me, if you’re that writer, you’ll know. You won’t be asking this question.

Your first book’s job is to make you a better writer for your second book.

Some people are born storytellers. Some of those people spend their early years absorbing stories and learning the art of telling them via osmosis. And some of those people come up with the right story at the right time early on.

Maybe they don’t need four or five trunked books before they get to one that sells. It’s still highly unlikely that what you’ve read and fallen in love with is their first draft. And if you could read that first draft, it’s just as highly likely that you’d see it’s a stinker.

Every published novel represents a writer who stuck with their story through the stinky first draft, edited it, and probably wrote at least one and probably more than one book before they wrote the masterpiece you’ve fallen in love with.

So — yes, Virginia, your first novel probably sucks. But you can make it suck less with editing. And even if it’s not the one that sells, you can learn from it and write a better next book.

Here are those two traits I promised you.


If you made it all the way through to this point without telling me to go jump off a bridge because your first novel is amazing and it’s going to make you famous, then you’ve got something that will serve you very well as you do the work of becoming a writer.

Courage and resolve; strength of character.

If you want to be a writer, you have to have the grit required to keep writing (and editing) even without proof that it will ever pay off. You have to have the ability to do the work it takes to become a writer. That means writing. A lot. It means writing novels that aren’t good or aren’t good enough, so that you can learn to be better.

To succeed as a writer, you have to have the grit to write your second book.

And it means being willing to accept that the learning curve is real and that you probably aren’t going to be that one writer who is brilliant from word one.


And if you made it this far, then you were probably curious to know what these traits were and whether or not you really have them. Even if you skipped all the way down and missed the anti-pep talk about how your first book really does suck, your curiosity will serve you well.

A strong desire to know or learn something.

If you have it in you to be curious enough to see this thing through the writing and editing of however many books it takes, then you’ve got a trait that sets you apart.


Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.