The moment in my writing career I’m most proud of happened just last year. I took the 85000 words of my debut novel that had consumed years of my life, hundreds if not thousands of hours of effort and thought, editing, querying and pining and…
I trunked it.
Then I put the proverbial fat guy on top of said trunk to ensure the novel never escaped ever again. It was the best thing I ever did for my life as a novelist.
Anyone who has strung together more than a couple of sentences in hopes of having them someday published, has heard the phrase “kill your darlings.” I’ve heard the quote attributed to everyone from Stephen King to William Faulkner (though it actually first came from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch). In those early days of writing, we naive writers think “killing your darlings” means occasionally cutting that bit of overly-flowery prose. By the time we’re starting to mature it means cutting that unnecessary character or that scene that just doesn’t move things along. I’ve also come to believe it can mean permanently setting aside that first novel. Don’t take my word for it. Brian Sanderson on his podcast Writing Excuses called first novels “One giant darling.”
I think most everyone goes into their first novel with dreams of becoming JK Rowling or Bernard Cornwell, where that first brilliant work is scooped up after a dozen queries and then rockets to worldwide acclaim. First novel greatness is an exception, not the rule! Most first timers don’t get that and I think that’s part of why they (me included) spend so much time agonizing over that début novel: they don’t want to face that they’re not going to be JK Rowling. I’m not saying if your first novel isn’t immediately picked up you won’t be a success, or that it’s some sort of indicator that you’ll never be huge, I’m simply saying the story of your writing career won’t be the same as JK’s.
In a session at Pikes Peak writers con a few years ago, Marie Lu, author of the now-huge Legend series stated that she’d written six books before Legend was picked up. Five before she got an agent. Now she’s sitting on the next big thing with a movie in development and slated for release in 2016. In the same session her agent, Kristin Nelson, said that across the board, authors average TEN books written before being published. This includes Harlequin romance writers, and we all know they’re like the rabbits of the writing world.
Here’s why I think clinging to that first novel is such a stumbling block and why they should probably be “killed” more swiftly than they usually are. I spent a total of seven years “perfecting” my first novel (five back-to-back years, and two non-consecutive). Much less than half of that was actually writing. Most of it was editing, tweaking and trying to fix the problems I didn’t want to really admit were there. My second book took three years to write with about half spent in editing. The third which I just finished took under a year and a half I spent less than four months editing. When I set aside my first novel and wrote something entirely new (just like Marie Lu did), I not only got faster, my writing got better. If I’d stopped fussing with my first novel sooner I could be on my fifth or sixth novel. I’d have more practice, better skill and less frustration.
Now, I can already hear some of you going on about how I don’t understand that your book is different. It’s the first book in a series of eighteen novels each woven together by—Aaaand I’m going to stop you right there. You do not need to worry about sequels when you’re trapped in a bloody, wrestling match with your first and most precious darling. If you’re an exception to the rule and get picked up, great! Then start working on the sequel. But, if like the other 99% of us and your first novel isn’t snatched up, let it and the unwritten sequels go graciously, rather than wasting years in stagnation when you could be improving your writing and stories.
Even across the ether of the internet I can hear your grumbles about elitist publishing gate-keepers and the values of self-publishing. Be that as it may, here’s one final thing to consider. What other career would you ever—EVER—expect to start out with absolute brilliance? Would you pick up a tennis racket and assume you’d be in the Olympics two years from today? Would you assume your small business will be a fortune five-hundred one year after you start it? Writing is a skill, and just like any other skill, it improves the longer you study and practice it. Don’t be ashamed of that. Don’t cling to something that’s going to hold you back because it’s your darling. Save the ideas. Kill the novel. You’ll be glad you did.
S.J. Abraham is a writer working towards publication. He’s a geek to the core and seeks to write stories that will inspire younger geeks to embrace their nerdy side and never look back. In addition to his novels, he writes fiction for his blog GeekyWriting.