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Stick or Twist? Those first novel dilemmas

As it happens, it’s the Festival that gives me my entry to today’s topic. A few year’s back, our keynote speaker was the brilliant Antonia Hodgson, author of the massively acclaimed, hugely bestselling debut, The Devil in the Marshalsea.

Because Antonia was also editorial director at Little, Brown, it seemed a little bit like this was just how publishing happened for the in-crowd. You have all these amazing connections. You hone your self-editing skills by editing professionally for many years. You have a glorious outcome.

That’s a nice story in a way, except it didn’t really feel like it was very relevant to an audience of aspiring writers not one of whom happened to be the editorial director of an internationally respected publisher.

Only here’s the thing –

The Devil in the Marshalsea wasn’t Antonia’s first book. It was her first published book.

Her first actual manuscript was a 250,000 word vampire novel written long after the whole vampire wave had risen and crashed.

It was, from the sound of it, a terrible book. And, for all her mighty editorial prowess, it took a literary agent to sit Antonia down and tell her the bad news.

So what do we make of that? What do we learn?

Well, we learn that Antonia Hodgson is like us after all. And that she had the guts to ditch one monster manuscript and start all over again.

But also: writing a first novel is hard. It may not work. It may not work, even if you put your intelligent damnedest into fixing up that first draft.

Indeed, we see this all the time with our editorial clients. Yes, some of them make a brilliant go of their first novel. But for others, the first novel is basically a learning experience. A sandbox where you can make every mistake in the book and then learn to fix it.

But you can make 100 mistakes and fix everyone and sometimes what you’re left with is a good novel. A technically proficient, interesting, decently written, good novel.

And (sorry!) that’s not enough in our game. The top few percent of every agent’s slushpile will consist of good, competent novels. No one ever woke up in the morning and thought, “Must head to Amazon and see if they have any good, competent novels in stock.”

The fact is that we – readers, agents, editors – want to be dazzled and transported. We want to be blown away. And a novel that gets laboriously worked and re-worked just may not retain that dazzle.

Indeed, it’s more than likely that the original concept was flawed. It’s quite likely that the writer didn’t really go for it when designing the basic story set-up. That they played safe rather than going all in. (Or, another error: they went all-in on a story that no audience actually wants.)

And look: writing is hard.

Nothing here is saying, “You’ve done this wrong. You’re a terrible human. Go and learn golf, because you don’t belong here on our planet.”

Quite the opposite. I’m saying that for many writers – not all, but most – there’ll come a point where you think, “This story isn’t working and I can’t fix it.”

And that’s OK. You’re learning. Sometimes a dodgy first novel is part of the learning. Fine. Don’t stress.

I do think it’s a good idea to self-edit the thing hard. There are two reasons for that. First, you learn by editing. Second, most great novels look pretty dire in those early drafts. You don’t quite know what you’re dealing with until you’ve done some editing work.

But let’s say you’ve self-edited hard. Perhaps you’ve worked with us editorially. Perhaps you’ve taken a course or come to the amazing Festival of Writing.

You’ve done all that good stuff and … the book still isn’t working.


You’ve achieved your most important task which was to learn a hell of a lot about writing. The best way to write a good book is often enough to write a bad one first. That’s not failure. That’s apprenticeship.

And you know what? Writing a first novel that goes on to become a bestseller isn’t necessarily the gift you might think it is.

My first novel did get picked up by agents, did get fought over at auction and did become a bestseller. So I thought, ha! I know how to write books.

But I didn’t, because I’d had a curtailed, weird apprenticeship. My second book was a total disaster. So bad, I deleted it and started again. That’s hard enough at any time, but I was mid-contract with HarperCollins and the whole episode felt seriously alarming. I rescued things, but the experience was no fun at all.

One last thing.

A lot of you will want to ask: how do I know? How can I tell when it’s time to move on?

Well, I don’t know. Sorry.

What I will say is that the experience of moving on can be both scary and liberating. Scary, because you have to release something you’ve been highly attached to. Liberating, because once you let go of that attachment, your imagination surges with all the other great things you could be writing about.

Antonia Hodgson started with vampires. She made her name with historical crime fiction. Who knows what could lie in store for you?

Tell me about your first novel dilemmas below ... consider it a Clinic for Worried Writers. The doors are open ...

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Comments (5)
  • Stick or twist, now there's a question right up my literary alley. I've been holding this hand for aeons, and it's time to play or fold. I'm new to writing, least I was ten years ago when I retired and decided to become a world-famous novelist. I love my (intended) debut novel - but having entered and not won a place on any competition list, well, only on a couple of now-defunct contests I'm starting to believe that at best, I'm misguided, and at worst delusional. Midst preparing a submission for another competition, I, instead of primping my cyber cloud of little darlings, read your email, downed tools, joined Townhouse and had this self-indulgent moan. Thanks for the prompt.

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    • Yep. Just at a guess it might be time to move on from that novel. (Or at least come to us for a manuscript assessment if you haven't yet had one.) The truth is that the main obstacle to writing a dazzling second novel is an inability to let go of the first born!

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    • I might just do that, I'll check out the cost.

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      • I've been avoiding this question all summer....it's hard to leave your first love though, especially when you still believe in it. I've given myself another week (when the kids are back to school and routine is reestablished) to decide if I'm going for a short mentoring stint to see if we can breathe new life into it or it's at least getting an extended break (never say never!) ;-)

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        • I can certainly vouch for the manuscript assessment.  The first one I had turned my very poor initial ramblings into a real crime novel.  I then worked on improving it before going for a second manuscript assessment recently.  That was brilliant!  It vindicated a lot of the improvements from the first one and, by using working examples from my own text as well as referencing JW workshop videos, blogs, etc., showed me clearly how to fix the remaining problems.  Still polishing as a result of that and attending the FoW, but received positive feedback from an agent at the FoW.  Not ready to bury it yet.

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