Every writer has a practice novel under their belt. Sometimes, your first book (or your second, or third) won’t be ready for querying or publishing. And that’s okay.
I’ve talked before about unfinished projects, and why it’s okay to abandon something that isn’t working. This time I want to talk about letting go of a completed project, putting it in a drawer, and taking it as a learning experience.
It’s not easy, but it’s necessary
If this is your first ever manuscript, odds are, it’s not going to be amazing or a bestseller – we just can’t be experts on the first try. You’ve probably heard that phrase that it takes thousands upon thousands of hours to become an expert at something. I’d go so far as to argue that you can’t become an expert at something as subjective as storytelling, because one reader might praise you while another might not like your work. But you can learn about the conventions of writing, develop your craft, read up on the industry, and get better. For writers, that means having a practice novel or two tucked away somewhere that might never see the light of day.
One book, two book, three book, four…
Your second manuscript might not be so great as well. And you know what? That’s also fine. Because along the way, you’ll be learning – and not just about the craft. You’ll probably pick up some critique partners and beta readers, so you’ll be learning how to deal with feedback on your work, and how to revise it. You might hire an editor or writing coach, or take a writing course. All the while, you’ll be developing your craft and training yourself to write a better story.
These manuscripts, even if they sit unpublished, aren’t a waste of time. They’re helping you grow as a writer.
Don’t give up on first drafts
It doesn’t matter how many books you write – whether it’s your first or your tenth. Your first draft is going to need help. Even the bestsellers need editorial feedback.
Many writers become outliners, and after decades of writing books, can knock out a pretty good first draft. Mostly, first drafts are you telling yourself the story, and the polish and shine comes later. Don’t beat yourself up if you hate your first draft. That’s normal!
Training yourself to write and finish drafts is how you develop the discipline to keep writing.
The importance of patience
It’s so important not to rush into publishing or submitting if you’re not ready. There is such a thing as starting your career in the wrong way, such as publishing a book riddled with structural and writing craft problems when you could have taken the time to develop your skills a little first.
Give yourself time to grow, and savour it! Don’t be in such a rush that you forget to enjoy the process, because once you publish or submit, you’ll have so many other things to think about, whether it’s sales or reviews, or negative feedback.
You can use your practice novels later
If you still think your “shelved” manuscripts were a waste of time and feel disheartened that they exist, here’s another reason they weren’t: You can pillage the best elements and use them in your other projects.
You could take a plot element from an early manuscript and put it into a later book. If you have characters you love, you can build them into a different setting and storyline. If there was a theme you enjoyed exploring, you could work that into a fresh idea.
Nothing you do is ever wasted. You can use the best parts of your shelved manuscripts elsewhere – the ideas, characters, storylines and themes you loved aren’t gone forever. They’re just waiting to be used and refreshed somewhere else.
Resources for learning
There are so many incredible resources out there for developing your craft. I have a page dedicated to some of my favourites, but here are some specifically to help you with the mechanics of writing and storytelling:
- NYT bestseller Susan Dennard’s writing resources.
- Editor Emma Darwin’s blog, This Itch of Writing.
- Former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog.
- Grammar Girl.
- Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lectures.
- The Writing Excuses podcast.
- #WriteMentor – Programmes and courses for children’s writers.
- Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.
- On Writing by Steven King.
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Browne.
- Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies (I promise I’m not being patronising – this book is an amazing resource).
Most importantly… just keep writing! Do you have a practice novel hidden away, or work you’ll never show anyone?
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