Sometimes your first book shouldn't be published.
Long before I was writing novels that sell, my first published mentor took me under her wing. After reading my manuscript for the first time, she sat me down in a public restaurant to teach me how to start a novel. Patting my hand in a motherly fashion, she proceeded to deliver one of the hardest criticisms I’ve ever had to hear in my writing career:
“Adrienne,” she said. “You need to cut the first 45 pages of your manuscript.”
“But why?” I whined, too shocked to realize that I was bending the salad fork in my fist.
"Because your story begins on page 46," she explained in her best professional manner. "You’ve written these first 45 pages for yourself, not your readers. You were trying to figure out how to start a Romance novel. These 45 pages don’t move the plot forward. In published circles, we call this problem background dumping.”
In those days, I didn't know that sometimes, the first book you write shouldn't be published. (Sounds crazy, doesn't it?) My childhood dream had been to make a career out of writing novels. I was determined to join the ranks of the published, and I wasn't about to crumble under my first professional critique!
Even so, I found myself agonizing for weeks over my mentor's advice. Rip out 45 pages? Three whole chapters? Unthinkable!
But not just any chapters, mind you: Chapters 1-3, the most crucial chapters you will ever write. The chapters that set up the story. The chapters that an editor evaluates to BUY your book manuscript.
Back then, I didn’t know that Chapters 1-3 were included in the book manuscript's proposal. In my myopic view, I thought my mentor was being harsh. Now I know better. Thank heavens she had the courage to tell me a truth I didn’t want to hear. She saved me from positioning myself as a perennial amateur in the eyes of New York editors – who have long memories, by the way. Send them two schlock submissions, and they aren’t likely to waste their time reading your third book manuscript.
Years later, when I actually was writing novels that sell, I dragged that first book manuscript out of a box that I kept beneath my bed. You see, like so many published authors before me, I wasn’t able to let that first story die. It was my baby. My greatest creation. My brightest idea.
Practically speaking, I was between contracts. Since my Texas Trilogy had been published, I had to come up with a fresh idea, a new setting, and original characters. I figured that all that research would take weeks – maybe even months.
Meanwhile, rent was due.
“Why go to all the trouble of figuring out how to write a new book proposal,” I reasoned. “I have a quick sale right here, under my bed."
Before I was writing novels that sell, published novelists and fiction writing teachers had lectured me repeatedly: “You must finish your first book manuscript to learn how to write a novel. You must finish your SECOND manuscript to get published.” But what did all those award-winning, bestselling authors know? Brilliance in a Box, as I’d secretly dubbed it, had been denied its rightful place on the New York Times Bestseller List.
So while I was planning to pitch Brilliance in a Box to my wonderful Bantam editor, it occurred to me that maybe – just maybe – I should review that first book manuscript before dropping it in the mail. You know: to make sure I’d dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”.
I settled on my couch to enjoy Brilliance in a Box.
By the time I'd reached Chapter Six, I wanted to tear out my hair. “What are all these Romance novel characters doing in my book?” I thought.
Apparently, while in the throes of learning characterization, I’d gotten bored with my Romance hero. I’d started to entertain myself with new and interesting sidekicks: one per chapter, no less! By Chapter Six, I couldn’t tell which character's story I was writing. My manuscript was an unmitigated mess.
But because industry reviewers were hailing me as a master storyteller (ha!), I had every confidence that I could fix Brilliance in a Box and earn mega-millions. Or at least pay off my car.
I confided my grand and glorious scheme to a colleague. Her first book manuscript had been a finalist in Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Golden Heart contest the same year that Brilliance in a Box had been a finalist. However, my colleague’s manuscript had earned a publishing contract, while Brilliance in a Box had languished under my bed, unfairly barred from my oodles of fans and the bazillions of awards that it was surely destined to win.
As I enthusiastically described my plan how to circumvent the painstaking proposal process, my colleague began to fidget.
“Adrienne,” she confided, “I wish my first book manuscript had never been published.”
I gaped at her.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because it embarrasses me,” she answered. “I’m a much better writer now.”
Two weeks later, while I was watching the dinner scene from a 1950’s comedy, my fourth published book, Scoundrel for Hire, was conceived. I wish I could tell you the name of that life-changing movie. But I only caught a glimpse of it while I was waiting for my perennially late boyfriend to arrive for our date.
The moral of this story?
Sometimes, your first book shouldn't be published. If writing novels that SELL is your goal, it’s better to let go of a story that isn’t working. That way, the Muse can whisper a much bigger novel idea, with a brighter future, into your ear.
© 2020, Adrienne deWolfe. All rights reserved.