Reader Friday: Your First Novel

“Most people think they have a book inside them. That’s usually the best place to keep it.” – James Scott Bell

What was the first full-length novel you ever wrote, whether it was published or not? How did it turn out? What did you learn? What did it tell you about yourself as a writer?

31 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Your First Novel

  1. I won’t bore you with details of my first. I just read yesterday afternoon about a guy who wrote his first novel, and “worked on his manuscript for 33 years.” And it was a bestseller out the gate. Is that a work ethic, or what? (grin) But somewhere out there, someone will say, “Well if he worked for 33 years on it, of course it’s going to be a bestseller.” Sigh.

    • What I want to know is how long he expects to spend writing novel no. 2. 🙂

  2. It was called “A Small Town in Vermont” and isn’t published, but not from lack of trying. I liked how it turned out, but can certainly see where it needs to be rewritten in parts. The most important thing it taught me as a writer is that I can finish writing a book.

  3. My first novel, which I wrote because I ran out of room on my walls for any more needlepoint, and because I thought learning a new craft was fun, did get published. Start to publication was probably around 3 years. It’s still out there.

  4. Yes, and yes. I must have edited that book over 200 times. That’s where I got my aversion to editing, and where I learned that it’s sometimes easier to leave it to the dust bunnies and start something new.

  5. When I was thirteen I read Gone With the Wind (it was my summer beach book) and said “I can do that.” Home was Mobile Bay, steeped in Civil War history. I grew up playing at Fort Morgan, and went to school with descendants of Raphael Semmes and other notables so grew up with these stories. When the kids were in middle school I decided to write A Time for War but between a full time job, two almost teenagers, and doing several shows a year, research was too much. Enter my former writing partner, an Army lieutenant colonel who wrote war games for a living and had full access to the Army’s archives. He thought I should write it and started sending me research. We wrote that book (he did the male lead’s battle stuff and I did the fou fou girly stuff, plus I was better at dialogue).

    We sent it off to as it turns out Tom Clancy’s agent who sent it to Tom who as it turns out was a history buff who praised our research and liked it. Tom congratulated me in a writer’s chat but since his screen name was Tom Clancy I didn’t believe it was really him. I said “Thank you but if you’re Tom Clancy I’m the Tooth Fairy.” A mutual friend IM’d me and said “It’s really him. I do his taxes.” I apologized. Fortunately he was a good sport and called me TF every time we ran across each other.
    His agent liked our book but said Civil War was out, did I have anything set in Scotland? So I wrote Forget Me Not and used my husband’s clan and clan castle. But that one turned out too depressing so I never sent it (I know, right)?

    I still love A Time for War (though it died on a computer that crashed eons ago). I even sketched it out as a trilogy – A Time for Peace and A Time for Love – after putting my debutante turned blockade runner through hell for two books I wanted her to have a happy ending.

  6. My first novel was The Strangled Rose. I’ve stolen the MO of the killer for one of my series and I still like the title. The tension and conflict, however, is easily resolved by the MC — never a good thing. I wrote the novel longhand, which also taught me never to do that again. My family has strict instructions: in the event of my death NEVER release my trunk novels or I’ll haunt you the rest of your days. 🙂

  7. A comedy novel that will never – ever – see the light of day. What it told me was I could be a good author and I had the ability to write strong dialogue. However, I really struggled with a lot of the elements that would make an author want to read my stuff.

    I put my ambitions on hold for about 10 years and tried to learn how to write better. Eventually the root of my problem was me—I was trying to be a pantser when I need to focus on story structure. Also, most instructors didn’t really know what they were doing—so much for local higher education—but then I stumbled onto JSB.

    Recently I have read, “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t” by Steven Pressfeild. Although I really don’t relate to his struggles as a person—but the book did drive me to reach down deeper to get the best quality I can out of my own work. That early novel was not up to prime-time material.

    Thanks to you Mr. Bell, and your courses, I have really turned it around. One of my daily habits is that I listen to you on Great Courses every day through

    Again, thanks for providing a path forward.


  8. It was a winding road to my first novel. I’d been struggling to outline novels, but never got very far. I’d written openings to a few novels, but couldn’t make it very far into the book.

    Finally, in April 2003, I decided I was going to finish the opening of a novel that I’d begun writing the previous year. I had no outline, only a premise, and eighteen thousand words, hand written in a spiral notebook. I pulled out a new spiral notebook, and began writing, every day. I wrote at home. I wrote in my car. We took a trip to British Columbia and Vancouver Island early that June for a conference my wife was attending in Victoria, and I wrote ten thousand words in a just a few days, finishing the novel in our room while my wife attended classes.

    The result was “Pskyers Rule,” a modern fantasy featuring a telepathic conspiracy. I’d discovery written it (pantsed as we’d say now). However, it became obvious that the book didn’t have a story, but was rather characters going through the motions of trying to find the plot. My father died two weeks after I finished the book, and I spent the next year handling his estate. More time passed, and it wasn’t until the fall of 2006 that I wrote a novel again, two short ones, back to back, also pantsed.

    What writing “Psykers Rule” taught me was I could draft at novel length, and that I could discovery write scenes and conflicts. It and the two following novels also taught me that, after all the time I’d spent writing short stories and novels, I didn’t have a clue on story craft, I only knew there was so much I didn’t know, and that working out the story in advance would help, if only I could figure out *how* to create that story.

    I had “read” books on writing craft, usually very quickly, not absorbing them, not taking notes, or making up exercises, including having “read” Jim’s “Plot & Structure.”

    It wasn’t until I attended my first writing conference in 2008 and followed that with an intensive eight-week private class on fiction writing that the scales fell away from my writerly eyes. I re-read Jim’s book and began to understand, taking the time to understand. It was still years before I could write a workable novel, but I began in earnest by writing short stories that worked.

    • Hey Dale, thanks for the mention. I, too, had a “scales falling away” moment in my early studies of the craft, and it was also a few years before I sold my first novel!

  9. I am a reader but a few people have said that my life as a pizza driver would make a good book. After seven years it is at about 20,000 words so maybe? One issue is that most customer interactions are under a minute each. It is being hard to string them into a single story.

    A few months ago, after a great many first page critique I redid what I was going to put on page one.

  10. First Book:
    Historical fiction set in my beloved Arizona circa mid-1800’s

    How did that 1st manuscript turn out?
    I finished the manuscript about 2008. The first chapter won the ACFW Genesis Award in Historical Fiction in 2010. It still sits unpublished, chiefly due to me never being satisifed with my work & being pulled in so many different directions because of numerous interests.

    What did I learn?
    1) No matter how much you plot ahead of time, you’re going to have curveballs.
    2) You need beta readers if for no other reason than the fact that how YOU see your characters and how others see your characters may be a bit different.
    3) I have to learn to be decisive in my writing. Not only kicking perfectionism to the curb, but even with a plotted story, as I write, I get so many more ideas about directions the story could go in–it gets paralyzing.
    4) Despite the oft-repeated advice that you should write your first book then disappear it in a drawer, this book IS publishable (w/some revision) & I do not want it to stay hidden forever, but I do need to get over myself.

    I may end up with one of the longest trajectories to publication in the history of mankind, but no matter how slow my progress, I write to entertain myself first.

  11. I wrote my first novel, INITIATION, when I was in high school. It came in at a little over 200 Smith Corona manually-typed pages. I won’t go into the plot, because I think I might do it again. What did I learn? That I could just as easily get engrossed in writing my own stories as I could in reading stories written by others. It was a kind of escape that I found addictive.

    I knew the book wasn’t very good–though my mom praised it as the finest words ever committed to the page!–but I knew I cold tell a good story. It took another 20 years or so to learn how to tell good stories well.

  12. My first novel, THE BOYS OF ALPHA BLOCK, launched April 20– based on my experience teaching in a boys’ prison in Florida. It is a book I had to write though the breakout and romance are fictionalized. (Some girls gotta have fun!) Coincidentally, the great Colson Whitehead’s THE NICKEL BOYS came out the day I typed The End on my final draft. I probably won’t get the National Book Award, but I’m pleased with my editor and publisher, and the wonderful help from Guppies at Sisters in Crime.

  13. Late 1981. My dad had just died of cancer, and I realized it was stupid to not follow my dream of a writing career. THE POWER THAT BINDS started out as a standard murder suspense, then it morphed big time into a mystery subgenre, supernatural suspese, that wouldn’t exist for another 25 years. That’s my career in a nutshell. Romance editor: “Sorry, but vampires aren’t sexy.” Everyone: “Ebooks aren’t a viable, and you’re a traitor to publishing. You’ll ruin our royalties, etc. How dare you!” “Everyone “promptly signed up with their traditional publishers and ebook royalties dropped from 50% or better to between 10-20%. Sigh.

    POWER was the first of a trilogy that looked like it could be a franchise, but I never sold it. To this day, I still believe in it, I’ve rewritten it over a dozen times, and the characters have stayed alive in my head as no others have. It took me a long time to realize that, sometimes, books are written for the author, not readers, and this book was how I dealt with the failure of my academic career and my dad’s death.

  14. The first novel I ever wrote was a historical western romance. I didn’t know anything about the publishing process, so just mailed it to an editor at Berkeley, who called me three weeks later and said they wanted to publish it. It was not a best seller, but it did teach me a lot about the writing and publishing process. It also taught me that I had the ability to write well. Now, after decades of studying the craft and second guessing my instincts, I’ve decided to go back to that and just write.

  15. So many false starts. One was sort of a memoir. Not really sure, which is why it didn’t go anywhere. The next was something about finding the last Nazi. Fizzled quickly. Then one I almost finished about “plastinated” bodies. But I “lost my forward motion,” as Michener once said. Stopped and regrouped. Thought about what I *really* liked most about the fiction I was reading (and wanting to write)… that would sustain me for the months it would take to finish it.

    It occurred to me that I really loved being at famous locations, closing my eyes and imaging that I’M THERE at an important point in history. A turning point. When it all started or when it changed forever. And I realized there was a story that I could tell that no one else could. It would involve my personal connection to New York City and its ancient past, starting when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor on September 12, 1609. I would write that story.

    So I did. And have now shifted a bit from historical fiction to historical fantasy. Am currently writing the third of a time-travel trilogy. I found my footing.

    What did I learn? Two main things. (1) It’s fine to jump in and try to swim without any background or training, but it really helps to understand the basics by getting some help or instruction. I got that from the How-To books I read, including a couple from a certain Mr. Bell. (2) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

  16. After retiring from a challenging career in IT, I finally had the time to write. My first novel was the cozy mystery “The Watch on the Fencepost.” It was inspired by the mysteries of Harry Kemelman. It took about three years from beginning to publication, and, boy, did I learn a lot.
    – I learned that I loved writing.
    – I learned that persistence is more important than talent.
    – I learned that there’s a craft to good writing.
    – I learned about a writing expert named James Scott Bell whose book “Plot and Structure” gave me the confidence that I was on the right track and the information to restructure my story.
    – I learned about another book, “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King that gave me more tools.
    – I learned there’s an incredible community of writers who share their wisdom in places like TKZ.
    – I learned that writing is good for the soul. (Not so sure about the pocketbook. 🙂

    I could go on, but I need to get back to constructing the plot for my third novel.

  17. My first two novels are almost ready for shopping/or indie publishing. My first three published works are creative non-fiction, which were a hoot to write. So fun!

    Writing the novels were definitely NOT a hoot . . . dang hard work. But what have I learned so far? (Besides the stuff I learn here…)

    That I can actually write the first line and The End on a story that means something to me. The sense of accomplishment is intense, and even if it takes mountain-moving to get those two stories out there, I’m not giving up on them. 🙂

  18. I’ve been a writer for more decades than I care to admit. It’s part and parcel of how many of us communicate our ideas within the business world. When I retired, I decided to write a novel, after all, how hard could it be? I’ve written perhaps several millions words over the years, another 100,000 give or take, piece of cake.

    By this point, others on this site are probably smirking at such naive thinking.

    What did I learn on this adventure? For one thing I am neither a pantser nor an outliner. I am a business writer. My typical audience had no interest in the color of anyone’s hair or eye color, just the pertinent facts related to chemical reactions, finance, manpower, time to market, etc. Writing a fiction novel with my, up to this point successful skill set, generated more of an outline consisting of terse statements. “The party started at 6 and was over at 10.” and, “I took the injured girls to the ER. They checked out okay, injured but not seriously enough to require admission.”

    I have lived through/survived some real world experiences which I used as building blocks requiring only some mortar to hold the whole thing together in the form of a useful structure. Little additional research required. When I reached my 120,000 word target, I found I didn’t have a novel, but rather something more like a tersely worded outline for something much longer. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

    About that time my wonderful wife gifted me with The Great Courses “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction” by James Scott Bell. The timing was perfect, I always read the directions after I have tried unsuccessfully to assemble something. Thus began a new adventure.

    With my novel/terse outline open on a PC monitor running MS Word and JSB’s face on my adjacent Mac monitor coaching through the process in 24 lectures, I began the task of putting flesh on the bones. “Adding tension” to the ER scene converted this 20 word brief description into 2,400. The admitting nurse suspected my protagonist was responsible for the girls’ injuries and treated him accordingly, etc. (Yes, real world experience.)

    “Death stakes,” professional, social, or heart stopping variety. Aw hell, why not throw in all three. Back story info dump, nailed that one. Fix by changing story structure to in medias res. And so it goes. At this point my novel was 737,000 words long, dwarfing Tolstoy’s War and Peace at 587,287, oops. Consulting with my very avid reader wife, who is a member of two book clubs, I learned readers with that kind of patience are as scarce as hen’s teeth. How to fix? Split it into several novels. The WIP became a double trilogy with the six major climaxes finding a separate volume home.

    The focus became getting book one across the finish line.

    Other lessons learned. Not everything I thought was hilariously funny is viewed by beta readers in the same way. My boyhood mishap of being a food server and pouring a pitcher of ice water down the back of a beautiful lady’s low cut dress was not considered at all funny by a female reader who saw the incident from the point of view of the lady. In an auditorium with 4,200 in attendance, the lady was able to hit and hold the “A” above high “C,” causing a hush to fall over the whole auditorium. Not being able to attain her full volume in her rendition of “The Exterminating Angel” cadenza, she suddenly stood up causing all the cups and glasses to spill into the laps of other ladies and gentlemen. (Yes, another real world experience. Actually I’ve done it twice; does that make me a klutz?)

    Set in circa 1970, the book has multiple parallel plots including murder mystery, as well as romance relationships with a twist on the “Billionaire” sub-genre. A man is involved with much higher socioeconomic class women. The novel is nearing completion and I have a professional editor lined up to work with me.

    Win, lose, or draw, I’m having fun. Isn’t that what it is all about?

      • Personally, I found it most useful to have a problem staring me in the face as I watched your lectures on how to fix such things. Reminded me of my youth having an automobile engine dismantled for an overhaul, a good time to pull out the motor manual with illustrations and instructions on how to properly put it back together.

  19. My first novel was 200 pages long, and an amalgamation of everything I loved from a hundred other books. It had a beginning, a middle, more middle, yet more middle, and never really ended. I plead ignorance; I was ten years old at the time…

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