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the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 8:34 am
by THB
Does one's first novel necessarily become a drawer novel?

I read all the time about the writer who sweats and struggles over his or her first novel only to realize at some point down the road that it belongs at the bottom of a drawer. And in general, this makes sense, because how many people produce top-quality work on their first try?

But . . .

Do you think it has to be this way, or can some writers who are willing to rework their mss, kill their darlings, etc., etc., eventually whip that first novel into publishable shape?

I'm working on my first novel (literary/mainstream), and yes, I've got a lot to learn. It's riddled with problems--ones I recognize and ones I know I don't see yet--but I'm okay with that for now because hey, it's a first draft. I have never believed that the process for this book would be a Stephen King-type three drafts and I'm done. The book has involved extensive research through reading and in-person interviews and the characters are complex individuals who will speak up when I've written something that they don't think fits with their personalities or relationships. It began with a theme that is a critical question in my own head and the characters who took it from there; now it incorporates so much more. (And yes: there is a plot! Plot and structural problems will be the first things to tackle in revision #1.)

But yeah, at the moment, the writing sucks. Other than the first two pages (rewritten dozens of times, critiqued and polished), the ms is a mess.

I know this. I'm studying craft as I write, and I have some sense of my own skill level (in those rare moments when I'm not doing the bipolar "I can write v. everything I write sucks" dance). I am willing to do as much revision on this ms as it takes to make it good; I expect to revise many, many times. But I find it very discouraging that the vast majority of writers I read about don't just say that their first novel was a drawer novel, but they believe it couldn't have been anything else in the end. This story means a lot to me, and while I know that doesn't guarantee anyone else wants to read it, I'd like to work on it until it IS something other people want to read. Can it be like a good memoir; i.e., you don't read much about successful memoirists having a "drawer memoir" in their desks. They write what they are passionate about, and it comes through. Can this not be the case for one's first novel?

What do you think? Does your "first" have to be a drawer novel, or can it be whipped into publishable shape if you're willing to do the necessary work?

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 8:43 am
by Kaitlyne
I have every intention of completely rewriting the very first novel I ever wrote because I like the idea and characters, so I don't think it's all that unusual at all. Granted, the second I don't ever plan to touch again. It was pretty awful, and I borrowed the few things I liked about it for my last book. I wrote a couple in between that were nothing but practice and character studies that no one but a couple of friends will ever read, but I'm okay with that. I think it just depends on the person and the story and how in love with it you were/could be again. It takes a lot of dedication to do a rewrite.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 9:36 am
by Bryan Russell/Ink
No, first novels do often make it. They certainly aren't necessarily drawer novels. If the story is great, and you're committed... it can work.

I think the drawer novel thing is often dependent on the writer, what stage they're at. Some people whip off their first novel when they're fifteen, writing derivative stuff closely based on the stuff they've read. It'll be hard to ever make that sort of thing a publishable novel. And even for ones that are decent... why go back to completely rewrite a decent idea when you've had much better new ideas in the meantime? I think that accounts for a lot of drawer novels.

But you can certainly escape the drawer novel trap if you're committed, and if you have a strong story worthy of that committment.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 9:49 am
by lmjackson
This is a something that kind of worries me as well. I'm working on my first right now, and even while I'm writing something in the back of my mind is wondering if my efforts are for naught. Meanwhile I might be sabotaging my own writing by thinking this. Hopefully, I'll get over it soon.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 11:12 am
by Crystal
I too am working on my first novel and praying the drawer novel is not in my future.

Ink, your words are very encouraging, thanks! I know that I need to put a lot of work into my wip, but right now it is work of love and I am enjoying every minute of it (well ok, maybe not EVERY minute of it, but over all I am having fun).

I can say that I have found a lot of great advise here, so many things to learn from and consider. I think this site is really going to help me grow.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 12:05 pm
by taylormillgirl
I understand completely. Nobody wants to put their heart and soul (not to mention months or years of effort) into a novel that will never see the light of day. But at the same time, we can't improve without continuing to write, edit, and practice. Like you, I love my characters and story too much to let them collect dust in my closet. If I can't sell my MS, maybe I'll post it on the web one day.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 12:41 pm
by stevenchasey
Once I find a favorite writer, I always try to go back and read their first novel. Here are a few I've read recently:

Toni Morrison - The Bluest Eye
Jack Kerouac - The Town and the City
Thomas Pynchon - V
Salmon Rushdie - Grimus

In every case, the seed of what made that writer great was hidden somewhere in these novels and flashes out in moments of brilliance. I find it heartening to see how they struggled with the first novel, how the novels had yet to shed the layers of baggage that muddy the vision. Perhaps we all have to fight the good fight with the first novel because it sets us on the path for the future. It lays the groundwork on which everything else is built. Or at least I try to tell myself this as I beat my head against the desk working on the first novel.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 1:04 pm
by Ermo
It's funny you bring this up because my wife just asked me about my first unfinished novel yesterday. It is currently in the drawer where I think it belongs but I learned so much from it. Perhaps I'll go back someday and finish it.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 2:27 pm
by leakelly
If the story is great, and you're committed... it can work.

I have to agree with this statement. I'm still working on my first novel, I just couldn't give up the idea or the characters. However, I'm on my fifth draft. It's taken almost two years to get to this stage and I'm expecting a lot more drafts after this one. I'd have to say that with enough elbow grease and an open mind to suggestions every novel is publishable, even the first ones.

- Lea -

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 15th, 2010, 11:30 pm
by THB
Thanks for the encouragement, especially Ink! It's good to hear someone say there's hope for the story if I keep plugging away at it (and carefully consider critiques).

Now then, I think I hear my characters calling . . .

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 16th, 2010, 2:52 am
by Nathan Bransford
I know authors who actually had their first novels published but then ended up wishing they had stayed in the drawer. Others made it happen with their first novel and made it look easy. Other people have one, two, five, ten drawer novels and eventually made it.

I've had to put a novel in the drawer and know how painful it is. It's really difficult to give up on a project. Now I look back and think it was a blessing. I just think it's important to take the long view and know that it's impossible to predict when success is going to come. I personally think it's important to keep at it, always just keep trying to write the best you possibly can, and always keep learning.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 16th, 2010, 9:51 am
by Jaime
I am loving my first MS way too much to ever put it in a drawer. At the same time, I'm not deluded in thinking that it'll get snapped up straight away by an agent/publisher when I start querying. I'm not even counting what draft I'm up to anymore (I lost count at 15 . . . but I've finally cut it from 175K words to 120K!), and it has taken me a year to get this far. I certainly don't want that to mean nothing.

I did notice when I went over my first few chapters during editing just how much my writing has changed for the better (and those chapters have now been scrapped). Everyone improves with practice (well, most people), but that doesn't mean you don't have a gem to begin with. I think if you love your characters, and the plot, you should give it your very best go. I know I'm committed. I'm even writing the sequel as I'm editing the first one, because the characters still need me!

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 16th, 2010, 10:00 pm
by THB
Wise advice, Nathan, as always. Though I'm not sure if that was meant to be encouraging re: the first novel or not! Either way, the "always keep learning" part is key, in writing and in just about everything else.

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 16th, 2010, 11:15 pm
by Aimée
I'm working on my first novel right now, and I'm sure that it's going to become a drawer novel because it's really not that good. The plot is interesting, but it's not suspenseful enough and maybe a little repetitive, and no matter how much I try to add, it's only gotten to be around 30,000 words. The story is complete. The characters' plots have been fulfilled. It's just about done.
I don't think even a good edit or a rewrite would make it any better.
But the plot and the characters would make for a good movie. :)

Re: the drawer novel

Posted: January 17th, 2010, 1:43 am
by marilyn peake
Different writers have handled this in different ways. Some have first novels published that go on to become best-sellers. Many have drawer novels they'll never want published (I have two or three). Some have drawer novels they might pull out eventually and completely rewrite. And some successfully publish newer novels, then have their drawer novels published if they become highly successful and fans want to read everything they ever wrote.