Saturday, June 29, 2013

What to do with your first novel: write your own rejection slip

I've just read a friend's first novel on Kindle. I wish I hadn't.

Or rather, I wish I had read it in manuscript form, not as a published ebook.

And I wish she had asked me for a few tips.

But I imagine it's particularly painful asking for feedback when you are a senior communications consultant who has been writing reports and critiquing and correcting other people's work for the last 15 years. Or perhaps my friend wanted to keep fiction writing as a private treasure, not to be tinkered with by others.

The thing is, most people who actually finish a first novel quite rightly experience a burst of euphoria. Yes! To finish writing a novel is a mighty, marvelous, massive achievement. You are amazing! Your home town should declare a public holiday in honour of You and celebrate your achievement with fireworks and brass bands.

Even so, this was a first novel, written all alone in a creative cocoon. Is yours like the one I have just read — all description and no action? Endless cups of tea (or swigs of gin) and flashbacks? Characters that we can never like?

There are so many skills to learn as a novelist that it's impossible to master them all in one go: plot, character, dialogue, momentum, description, pace and structure are just the start. You learn little by little by writing more and more and more, again and again.

And then there's spelling. All first novels need a severe copy-edit, if nothing else, because we literally do not see our own errors of grammar, phrasing, spelling and formatting.

Kindle will not reject your unready manuscript: now you must write your own rejection slip — or at least a Needs more work letter. That's an impossible task for a new writer. With a first novel you are inexperienced by definition, so inevitably you misjudge the quality. It cannot be otherwise. Sometimes you think your book is much better than it really is.

So enjoy the euphoria. Celebrate. But please, for your own sake, don't publish your adored creation at this stage. You're a good writer and an expert business communicator, but you're not a novelist—yet. When you move on to the next stage and write something that's as much fun to read as it was to write, you'll be so relieved you didn't publish prematurely.

Years later, you'll look back on this manuscript in wonder. You'll toy with the idea of revising it, but it cannot be salvaged because you have moved on. Instead you may recycle one character or a snippet of conversation or perhaps the setting. And your next book will bring much more pleasure to you and your readers.

Image of Hypatia: in the public domain. I think she is rejecting her suitor. But he'll live.


  1. I think this is the most wonderful advice. I too actually finished a novel and had that feeling of euphoria. Given my
    Inherent limitations it probably was an achievement but it was not publishable. Unfortunately I got carried away and made a book of it myself - some 10 copies with book craft hard cover. It has an IBSN and was lodged in the National Library of Australia and bought by several state libraries. Now I have fantasies of stealing these copies and destroying them.

  2. Oh yes yes yes. I'm glad you understand my meaning. I'm sorry you had that experience. Deep breath and move on, ay?