Why You Should Never Show Anyone Your First Novel

I tossed five novels in the trash before I wrote one worth sharing

Why I Tossed My First Five Novels

I’ve written fiction consistently (and seriously) over the past four years. Before fiction (BF), I published a dozen non-fiction books under a pseudonym. I dove into fiction with over 2,000 articles published and more than three million words in print. I was ready for the world of the novelist — guns-blazing.

I thought the non-fiction skills would translate to fiction.

Boy, was I wrong. Although I was an avid reader, and could tell the difference between a story that worked and one which didn’t — there was an entire architecture required to transition to fiction. It’s like a secret formula they don’t tell you about. You discover the secrets after you start.

I wrote 50,000 words of my first novel, working feverishly, until I realized the story didn’t work. I wrote myself into three corners. I blamed the plot, trashed the book, and tried a second novel. And a third. The fourth got closer.

Once I reached my fifth novel I had something salvageable.

The fifth was not good, but at least the manuscript could be edited. This is the initiation process for the true writer. I hope your experience is easier than mine. I still have a lifetime to go.

I’ve read dozens of writing books and watched thousands of lecture hours on writing. There are few common themes amongst all writers, but the drawer novel is almost universal — the one book you shut in the proverbial, digital drawer, never to be seen by a reader.

The garbage novel is your rite of passage.

It’s not like there’s a certification for being a writer. From the moment you plop your cheeks on the seat, you hang your shingle with the self-title. ‘Writer’ is a matter of degree — both in output (whether or not you publish what you write) and skill (whether or not someone wants to read what you publish).

We all must write a book we can’t bare to read.

The garbage novel isn’t something you seek-out. You don’t spend six months of your life typing, only to get excited about dumping the whole project in the trash. But you’ve got to write a terrible book, so you know how it feels to read it.

Now, I learn hard lessons. It shouldn’t have taken me five garbage novels to recognize writing unfit for consumption. Maybe it will take you 10 novels — maybe one.

If you ask the average person, she’ll tell you how great it would be to write a book someday. Many people have this nagging goal in their minds. You overcame the hurdle. You actually finished the thing. The garbage novel isn’t for them. It’s for you.

We play with voice, genre conventions, and point of view. We learn about dialogue, character development, and exposition. Somewhere along the way the Hero’s Journey crosses our path — like a dirty secret we wished we knew when we started. Some of us go to school for writing, only to discover this classical education does little to sell books, and more to win awards.

We learn to suspend disbelief.

We ask open-ended questions of our readers and soon stop treating them like children. We fight the stigma of the starving-artist. We write despite raised eyebrows and eye-rolls from family. We beg, claw, ob, cheat, and steal (maybe not that far) to build a story that works. And sometimes it doesn’t work.

We try again.

The blank page — that ugly, menacing thing staring back at us, mocking and laughing. The failure is part of the journey — the 101 piece of the education. We must have the garbage novel. It’s the writer’s version of boot camp.

Things I learned from my garbage novels:

  • You’ve got to know what the story is about before you write it.
  • Plotters and pantsers are both correct.
  • Don’t give away too much information at once. Spread-out the love.
  • The Hero’s Journey is important.
  • Write every day, even for ten minutes, to keep the work fresh in your mind. The story momentum will whither fast.
  • You can’t polish a turd. It’s best to start something new.
  • You’ll know when you have a story that works. You can feel it. Write until you feel it.
  • Writing is a blue-collar, hands-dirty vocation, like changing oil, or putting stickers on bananas. You’ve got to put in the time. Go after this process like some fancy-pants, I’ll-write-when-the-moods-trikes-me, artist and you’ll never finish a book.
  • Writing a lot makes you better at writing a lot.
  • Write polarizing work or don’t bother writing. There’s no more room for vanilla books. Those shelves filled years ago.
  • If you stop learning about writing your work will show it.
  • All rules of grammar were made to be broken.
  • All rules of writing were made to be broken.
  • Don’t write the obvious, but write the believable.
  • Steal dialogue from your friends.
  • Commercial writers write for the reader, not themselves. You’ve got to hit the tropes of your genre, or no one will buy your second book.
  • Your first story idea is probably too obvious. Go deeper. Ask ‘what else?’ Pick your third idea… or your thirtieth, instead.
  • Write tighter.

Now it’s your turn to run the gauntlet. Write the best, terrible novel you can. Work your face off for months. Assume this book will be a best-seller and rocket your career all the way to the shelves of Walmart. Type ‘The End.’ Pat yourself on the shoulder for a job well-done. Now, throw the manuscript in the trash. Don’t bother editing it. The book won’t be salvageable. Start writing the next book instead.

We all need a garbage book. This one’s yours. Hold it up proud (just don’t let anyone read it).