I’m not sure what the percentages are officially, but a very informal poll taken on Facebook gave me some figures to work with. Out of 113 authors surveyed, 60% abandoned their first effort and felt that was a Very. Good. Thing. Nearly 40% saw their first novel published (some were still in the process of writing their first.)
I was a part of the 60% until this week. My story feels somewhat typical––my first didn’t get published. On the upside, it landed an agent. I shelved it (drawered it?), jokingly called it “my 80,000 words of backstory,” and moved on. I used a few scenes from it, but for the most part, it was destined never to see the light of day.
When a friend offered me the chance to participate in a box set anthology, I immediately thought about my book in the drawer. Could I steal 100 pages from it? I have ten years of writing experience under my belt; have written 18 novels now. Surely I had the writing chops to whip it into a great novella.
But I was scared to death to read it. So scared, in fact, I enlisted the help of two of my beta readers, and had them look it over. If they didn’t think it would work, I’d write something new.
Their responses shocked me. The loved it. They loved seeing how the series really began. Yes, there were scientific errors and grammar mistakes. Yes, I’d used five or six scenes in later novels. But they didn’t care about that. They loved the story.
Story is a very powerful thing.
I remember the rejection letters on this book. Each “no” felt like the end of the world. In the back of my mind, for ten long years, those rejections have simmered. I assumed for so long FIELD OF GRAVES hadn’t sold because it was bad, and here were two readers I greatly respect telling me it was great!
So I read it myself, thinking in terms of full-length novel instead of novella. It wasn’t perfect by any means, full of rookie mistakes––overwriting, overtelling, breaks in the narrative flow to give backstory, which slows the action—but all in all, it was a solid base to work with. It was cool to see how far I’ve come, but also to see the sparks that got me started.
I decided to go for it.
I ran into several problems during the revision process, but nothing that ten years of experience couldn’t surmount. After two weeks of solid work, I had a workable new draft, which I then put through my normal editorial revision process. And voilà—I’d resurrected a story I thought was long dead, and was able to give my readers what they’d been craving for two years—a new Taylor Jackson novel.
For the 60% of us who have a first effort moldering away, here are some ideas to help get it into shape.
Solicit Editorial Advice From People You Trust
My beta readers don’t hold back. Their honest input gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with the project.
Be Open to Changing the Story
What I’d written was too “small” in terms of the high-concept thrillers I write now. I reworked the entire midsection to be more about the science and the challenges the FBI profilers faced a decade ago, rather than the characters getting to know each other. It made the book stronger and fit better with the series canon.
Murder Your Darlings
There were plenty of sections with writing I thought was glorious way back when. Sadly, many of the delightful phrases I’d so loved were perfect examples of first-timer-itis. I had to be ruthless.
Streamline, Streamline, Streamline
I also had far too many “ideas” in the story––the kitchen sink approach. I’d dumped in everything I’d learned during the course of my research. Integrating this knowledge into an iceberg approach (what you see in the book is just the tip of the iceberg) helped tremendously.
Because it was my first book, I did leave in some of my less egregious rookie mistakes. I wrote an author’s note explaining my thought process on this, that I’d done major editing, but that I also wanted the integrity of the debut to stay intact. It’s about story, remember, not perfection.
If you haven’t burned it on a grill, go back and look at your first novel. You never know; you might have instant content on your hands. And even if you don’t, you’ll be able to see how much progress you’ve made over the years, which is a gift in and of itself.
New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the premier literary television show, A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. Follow J.T. on Facebook or Twitter @thrillerchick for more insight into her wicked imagination.