From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Make Your First Book Not Totally Suck

I realize some of you may be past the point of first book. I also realize I've only recently finished my first, and have yet to have editors and agents and other real people look at it, so I may not be the most qualified to give this advice. However. Even if you've finished and published your first book, there's always room for improvement. Also you may take what I say with a grain of salt and do your thing. Anyway. Onward.

Yesterday at The Kill Zone blog (which is totally and completely fabulous) there was an incredibly wise and infinitely practical post by Joe Moore called The Pancake Rule. The Pancake Rule basically says that a writers first novel typically serves as a test novel but isn't usually edible. Like a first pancake, which usually ends up burnt. He gives a fantastic print-this-out-and-put-it-by-your-desk list of the flaws in first novels that make them turn out this way.

But I've made my first pancake, and I want it to be edible. I want it to be delicious, in fact. I needed that hope and ambition to make it through the hot stuffy kitchen. If we didn't think our projects were worthwhile, we wouldn't spend as much time and effort on them, right?

So is there a way to make a fluffy, golden-brown, delicious and succulent first pancake? Er, novel? Optimism + come on I did all this work=I believe there is.

1. Read. Of course I'm going to say this. It is so incredibly obvious and cannot be stressed enough. If you're going to learn how to play the violin and play it well, you need a proven and talented teacher. The more serious you are, the more you'll study and practice and the better the teachers you'll seek. Writing is NO DIFFERENT. Read Dickens and Shakespeare. Read Austen and the Brontes. Read the Greeks and the postmodernists and poetry. Read modern writers in and out of your genre so you know what style of music is being played today. Not that you need to follow the trends, but it expands your repertoire. I am a firm believer of literary osmosis. The better you read, the better you write. I am the dork who read the unabridged Les Miserables during the bus drives on a highschool exchange in Germany for fun, so this better work.

2. Study. This is similar but different to reading for pleasure. See, merely the fact that we have Joe Moore's list of newbie mistakes helps us avoid making them. Reading blogs has taught me literally everything I know about the publishing industry. There are some really great books on writing out there (as well as some not so great ones), and they help too.

3. Real Life Teachers. This of course means English and Creative Writing teachers in high school and college, but its not just that. A critique group works. Beta readers. Outside perspective can help you figure out your blind spots.

4. Experiment. Try a few short stories before you dive into a novel. Or poetry. These are the kinds of things you can give to your teachers and beta readers. Then take their feedback into account as you start on your first real pancake.

5. Have passion and know how to translate it. Of course you have to care about your story. Everyone can tell if you don't, and they won't either. But this passion has to translate into an emotionally captivating story and characters, not sappy and cliche writing. And really, sometimes the line between them is very fine indeed. This is where the reading and studying and experimenting and teachering come in to play. They're your translators, they make your writing comprehensible and beautiful to the world outside your head. But you're heart has to be there too.

What do you think? Do you agree that its possible for a first novel to be delicious? I mean, of course it is because its happened, but do you think that consciously doing these kinds of things can really increase a first-time novelists chance of success? I sure freaking hope so. Any tips you would add to this list?

Sarah Allen


  1. I don't know if it's possible to make the first novel "delicious." BUT I sure hope so! I've been hoping, praying, and anxiously checking my inbox everyday in hopes that someday I will find that my first pancake is not totally burnt. We shall see... Wonderful post, as always. :)

  2. Sarah, I believe you can make your first novel edibly delicious. I've worked on mine for four years now and it has become quite palatable.

    When I first wrote it, it had a different plot and was written in third person. But I didn't like it. Then I rewrote it in first person and kept the same plot but it still sucked. So I trashed the old plot and came up with a new one.

    Go by what your Critique and beta-readers say. If they love it so will a part of the world if not all. That's what I'm going by. Just make sure your crit and beta partners will tell you the absolute truth about your stuff. Mine do. They let me know when I suck and when I rock.

  3. Yes, I do believe that a first novel can be great. Get yourself that one, special beta-reader; heed what she/he shares with you; don't be in a hurry to get it "out there" - let it sit a month or so before doing final edits with a clear mind.

  4. I'm just about to send my first ever book to beta readers, and I'm aware that since it's my first book, it may just not be good enough for publication. But I'm still optimistic! I'm working very hard, learning the craft, reading a ton, sharing it with critique partners and beta readers, etc. Every once in a while, I hear about a debut author who published their first ever book. I hope that's me! If not, I'll keep writing more books. :)

  5. I think it's totally possible! I love your list. The only thing I'd add is revise until you want to strangle it! :D

  6. I think your advice is solid despite the lack of writing credentials. I like it :)

  7. I think I read some advice like that long ago (your first book is an inedible pancake, don't even dare to dream that it's good enough) and it really put me off of writing for awhile. Why waste my time writing a crap book that I will just shove under my bed after I've been laughed out of town?

    Then I came to realize I just wanted to WRITE it. And maybe if i WRITE IT and edit it and get great feedback on what makes it inedible, it might not be inedible crap. That's all we can hope for, right?

  8. I sure hope that my first novel will be a delicious, edible pancake, too!!

    Btw, I totally loved this: " I am a firm believer of literary osmosis." :) Me too.

  9. Love the pancake parallel!

    re: 1st pancake--the skillet has to be just right. A drop of water will dance and hiss. Then the 1st pancake will be edible.

  10. I definitely agree with that philosophy.

    My first serious attempt at writing a novel was very bad, and to this day, I'm still paying the price for it.

    But I've persevered and I can say with confidence that my third novel does not suck one iota.

  11. The pancake analogy is dead on. I agree agree agree that reading voraciously is the best writing class you can take.


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