There’s some unwritten — but widely known — rule that the first pancake you cook will burn and have to get thrown away. The subsequent pancakes will be delightful fluffy masterpieces, perfectly adequate for human consumption, but the first will almost always be a disaster.
This “first pancake” rule can be applied to a lot of aspects of life. The first attempt at anything new will probably end up a little messy, if not a complete failure. But it’s that failure that helps us learn what to do next time, to make our delightful fluffy masterpieces the next time around.
It took me six years to write my first novel — not a recommended practice from my point of view. But I eventually got it done, all the while simultaneously hating it and loving it, and being horrified and awed. It was a six-year rollercoaster to basically nowhere.
Despite the fact that I’d been given an abundance of positive feedback by those who read it and the real-life author mentor, who helped me write the first draft, told me the book was publishable, the thing wasn’t getting published. I expected the rejection, it was my badge of honor as a writer, but I also thought that maybe I’d get a partial request maybe even a full. I thought maybe this book would fall into the right hands and find someone who’s as excited about it as I am.
The longer I spent querying and the more rejections I was getting — of all sorts — the more I started to suspect that maybe something wasn’t quite right. I fixed up my query letter and sent it to a Twitter-based mentorship program, but I was met with even more silence.
So I figured I had two options:
- I continue querying and hope that with an improved query letter I can find the right person to represent my book.
- I put the manuscript away for a while, work on different projects, then go back to it and see about edits or rewrites.
At the moment, I’m leaning towards shelving the book and going back to it later. But it sort of feels like I’m betraying it.
This was my first “real” novel; the first time I’d managed to get 80,000 words in some coherent order; the first time I’d had a story that spanned a novel-sized thing. And, even though I took 6 years to finish it, I think I rushed to get it done so that it could go off and be published.
It was only when I seriously started a new manuscript that I realized what was missing: a soul.
All of the books that truly catch my interest, even before I’ve started reading them, have a strong sense of atmosphere. They have a real personality and a beating heart.
While my novel had all the trimmings of a real book, a plot, characters, a climax, resolution, and all that, it doesn’t feel like it has as much of a heart. The new thing I’m working on has more of that, even in its first draft baby stage. That’s how I know I’ve learned from writing that first novel, so it can’t be described as a failure.
That’s important. I need to constantly remind myself that rejection does not equal failure.
And I don’t mean that this poor rejected manuscript can’t ever have a heart. Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz singing, “If I only had a heart,” it will take time and energy to make it so. Some other day, a ways off yet, I’ll return to my beloved first book because it deserves a second chance.
I originally thought that I might be an exception to the First Pancake rule, but as it turns out, my pancake needs a do-over. But, at the moment, I need to go onto my next project. The one that has more of a soul and feels more like me.
The moral of the story is: don’t be afraid to let go if something really isn’t working. Putting your book away doesn’t mean you’ve failed. In fact, you’ve succeeded greatly. You’ve written a book. And in the process, you’ve learned so much about writing and who you are as a writer. I know I did.
I can’t say whether this new novel will be a delightfully fluffy masterpiece, but I want to keep working and growing as a writer. The only way for me to do that is to move on.