First novel, love it or leave it?

I realize most of you who read this blog have never published a novel, but I’m going to ask for your opinion anyway. Often I’ve read the admonition you shouldn’t attempt to sell your first novel. I saw someone question why on Twitter just yesterday. If anyone answered, I didn’t see those tweets.

Of course, we all know there are exceptions to every rule. There are prodigies in every field. If you were one of those, you would be too busy with your career to be reading this blog. So, how do the rest of us know when this “first novel rule” applies?

Obviously, if you were ten years old when you last wrote anything longer than a shopping list, the chances are exceedingly slim that your first novel will be of publishable quality. And if your first novel was written during NaNoWriMo and you query it on December 1st, don’t be surprised when agents fail to fight for the privilege of representing you.

Is the real thought behind the rule that you learn to write by writing? If so, what if you have seriously studied the craft, whether formally or self-directed? What if you have written short stories? Then are you “safe” to query your first novel?

What is your take on the first novel rule?

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42 thoughts on “First novel, love it or leave it?

  1. Just lie.
    When you query, call it your “latest novel.”
    If they ask about the prior ones, say oh no, those were where I learned and no one shall see them,

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    1. Well, for me, that’s true. I wrote a horror novel, but never tried to publish it. And in my query letter I simple refer to it as my novel because I’ve read agent advice saying don’t mention that it’s your first.

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  2. I think this might be the line between naive optimism (or celebrity impunity) and over-caution. I reckon if you’ve put considered work, effort and skill into something for the sole purpose of making it public in some way, then you should do it. The only thing that is certain is that, if you don’t, it will go nowhere. People who should not do this are the ones who have never thought about writing, subjected themselves to scrutiny, or taken the trouble to learn any ‘how to’s. And maybe even they deserve a shot at a market that contains others like them!
    In Yorkshire, we say (or may have said in the past) ‘If tha does owt for nowt, do it for thee sen’ which, in translation, means’if you do something for nothing, do it for yourself’. Writing must surely fall into that category.

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    1. I agree. What can it hurt to query your first novel? My advice though is not to query until you’ve had it critiqued. I quite often think I’ve written something brilliant until a member of my group says, “Ummm … no!” Of course, then they tell me why it’s not so great and I get to fix it.

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  3. I think every piece of work stands on it’s own. Or at least should stand on it’s own. Someone could write a perfectly lovely first novel and an awful second novel. It should always depend on the novel and the quality of writing.
    Personally. my first novel is the first in a trilogy, so I’m hoping it’s worthy or I have three to chuck. 🙂
    I will definitely query it. If I get rejections so be it. I won’t give up on it just because it’s my first novel.

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    1. I’m so glad we’re all in agreement. Maybe this is one of those bits of advice that should be labeled useless … or nonsense. I wonder why agents say it?

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  4. A gentleman once asked me to read his first novel. It was excruciating. Having never written anything before, he admitted he’d whipped that baby up in just two weeks. Imagine that! I mean really…. imagine that. He also knew nothing about editing and had decided he wouldn’t want to change anything about the story anyway because he liked it the way it was. This man should never try and sell his first novel.

    Hopefully, not many writers are like him. He has not felt the urge to write since, he tells me.

    For someone who has worked at their craft, has edited, revised, spent time and attention to the story, in my opinion, stands just as good of a chance of having it accepted as someone who has written several. A good story is a good story…Good writing is good writing.

    The truth of it is, ( as we all know) acceptances are not easy to come by. Not easy, but not impossible. I’ve heard stories of people who couldn’t sell their first novel until they had sold their second one first.. (hope that made sense)

    Sometimes it just takes the right person to read your story and to connect with it. Good writing is a must but I sometimes think a little luck thrown into the mix can’t hurt either.

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    1. I wonder, did that man write with the intention of publishing? I think it’s fine to write for yourself and not seek feedback. I’ve done it for years. But when you decide to “go public” you need to know the rules change. You’d be foolish to think you don’t need to learn the craft. Yet, I’m sure agents see books like that man’s all the time.

      Yes, I’ve heard the same stories about authors failing to get the first book published, but succeeding on the second. Then again, you have writers whose first is a best seller (Eragon) and the second not so much.

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  5. I hope it’s not true. I’ve only done the first draft of my first novel, but I like the story so I hope after a little editing (sorry, did I say little? I meant HUGE amounts) I’d like to try to sell it.
    There’s that saying isn’t there, ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule’. 🙂

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    1. If you’ve done the hard work of writing, revising, editing, getting feedback from other writers, then editing again, I say go for it! If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or fifth novel, right?

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  6. Unless literary editors differ in this, most editors don’t seem to care how many novels an unpublished author has written. They care about the quality of what’s offered to them.

    The chances of selling a first novel are slim, because the chances of writing a publishable novel on the first try are slim. But I figure any novel that gets a stamp of approval from its writer and experienced readers should go to agents/editors.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more, Ann. I think feedback from other writers is critical. Some days I think my writing is great; some days I think it’s garbage. So, clearly, I’m not the best judge of my work. But if you’ve run it through critique and polished it the best you know how, I don’t see any reason not to query. Some first novels get published, but if you don’t query you have zero chance that one of this will be yours.

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  7. I whole heartedly agree. Problem is I’m saying this in hindsight. My first novel is sitting with an agent now. I also realize all the weaknesses said novel consist of after the fact.

    Compared to the book I’m writing now. There is a world of difference and experience. This latest I believe should have been my first. I’ve come to terms with that fact and wouldn’t be surprised if the first book wasn’t picked up. (Hugs)Indigo

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    1. So, you’re saying you agree that no one should query their first novel?

      Does your agent know about the second book? Would you “recall” the first and revise it?

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  8. I see no reason not to query a first novel. It’s a great experience, and if you have a finished, polished, sweated over project, why not try to sell it? I think the warnings are that it’s tough to sell a first novel, but I don’t think that means you shouldn’t try.

    I tried queried my first novel full of hope and ambition and it went nowhere. Now that I’m writing my third novel, I can look back and see why my first novel didn’t sell — it just wasn’t good enough. But I didn’t know that at the time.

    So query away, yes! But while you’re sending out those query letters, get cracking on novel number two!

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    1. I am trying to ignore the fact that both you and Indigo said you see now your first novel was not ready to be shopped. Then again, I didn’t query my first novel, so I’ll just look at that one and say I knew it wasn’t ready. 🙂

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  9. I agree with Laura and many others who said if you’ve poured sweat and tears over it (and for longer than two weeks), why not query it? It’s all good practice.

    And, while you’re querying the first novel, you can focus on the second, right?

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  10. The question is, what was my first?! I wrote my “first” novel to see if I could sustain a narrative arc for 300+ pages. That went into the drawer without re-writes.

    I queried my “second” (I think of it as my “first” because I re-wrote, edited and had beta readers). One request for a partial, then … nothing. Did I mention it was 101,000 words? 😉

    Now older, if not wiser, more educated on the business side of fiction writing, I’m querying my “third”. [89,000 words ;)]

    I don’t know how agents think, but I wonder if the advice is telling us we need to write a LOT. We need to learn the craft, and for some, that might happen on the first. But maybe what agents see is that it’s the wrestling through multiple story lines, working with structure for several novels, etc. etc. that builds the ability to write a strong story — something salable. Just guessing …

    Once again, I find myself rambling, which means that, once again, you’ve posed an intriguing question! Thanks, Linda.

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    1. Yes, the “rule” can be taken too literally. Many have studied the craft and written short fiction long before they write a novel, so their first novel would almost certainly be of higher quality than a first novel from someone who just jumped into writing with no training.

      I’d never heard that rule when I wrote my first novel, so that’s not why I didn’t query it. From time to time, I’ve since started edits of it, but something else always pulls me away. Will you revise your first or second?

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  11. IDIOT QUESTION ALERT
    What the heck is a query? I mean, I know what I thought it meant – you ask something of someone – but in this context, I’m what’s referred to over here as Baffled of Tunbridge Wells! I’ve had visions of you all pinning your novels up against the wall in an arm lock and interrogating them with threats of having the corners of their pages folded over for non-cooperation! Is my ignorance a transatlantic thing or a stoopid thing? Be direct, I can handle stoopid…

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    1. Ha! No stupid questions here … only stupid posts. 😉

      I had to learn that term too, Suzanne. A query is a letter of inquiry written to a literary agent. Its purpose is to sell them on your book, so they will offer to represent it to the acquiring editors of publishing companies.

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      1. So not so much an arm lock as crawling down a very long corridor, licking the carpet clean on the way, and promising to raise all their children for them if they will just LOOK at your offering? Interesting contrast with academia; there, you approach a publisher with an idea and you write nothing unless you get a deal, then they help and you all get paid. That’s for books. For papers, you tout your fully fledged work of genius around the journals, re-formatting for each one, and hope your main competitor isn’t on the editorial board. There’s no pay for these, just glory!

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        1. Cathryn, I was referring to a novel query, which is sent after you’ve completed the writing. For non-fiction, you do much like you said. You submit a book proposal.

          I loved your humorous view of the road to getting an agent to rep you.

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  12. My first (second, and third) novel was purely self-indulgent and was never intended for publication. I did try to get my second novel published but discovered I still had so much to learn about writing and the industry.
    I have studied the craft through university, but it is no substitute for actually writing. I think most writers need to read read read and write write write for some time before they are ready to publish.

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  13. I sure hope so as I intend to query the darn thing soon.

    If I find out later that my book isn’t ready, then I’ll make it ready. I’ll never tuck it away until every agent in the continent has issued a restraining order against me. Then I’ll revise and send again, under an alias of course.

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    1. Yes, I said I’d start over from the beginning of my agent list if necessary, didn’t I? Unless your novel plot was the most ridiculous, disgusting, or horrifying one they’d ever heard of, I doubt they’d remember the first query. 🙂

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  14. Who are all these rules written for?

    You should trust only yourself and query whatever you think is good, if only to get some experience of the query process.

    On the other hand I think it is very strange that so many people believe they can write a good novel at the first attempt. A novel is very unlike any other piece of writing most of us do, even if we are reasonably literate. There are many new skills to learn, not least of which is how to hold the reader’s interest over more than 60,000 words. Even experienced novelists can’t always do a good job, so you have to be very patient with yourself and give youself plenty of time to practice. I think this is the point of the rule “never give up.” Even if your first few novels aren’t published this doesn’t mean they are without merit. There may be many good things in them. You can build on these strengths with each subsequent novel, so long as you take pride in your work, remain your own best critic and ignore vacuous rules that are meant for people who have no idea what to do.

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    1. Well said, Joseph. It seems to me that competence is enhanced by three things: education, training, and experience. For most professions, these are quite clearly demarcated and, although they can run concurrently, they’re usually sequential so that you build up a wealth of knowledge and experience by which to make judgments informed by evidence. Writing seems to take a more haphazard course so that any or all of those three might not be present when someone pulls their first novel out of the bag. If they’re lucky, they’re a natural or just hit a particular zeitgeist, but mostly it takes all the elements you need to be good at most things and you should expect to improve with time. Like good wine. I’m with Tricia too – never waste your effort, make the thing work for SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE, preferably twice! And rules are there to be broken. Although not the ones that get you arrested.

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    2. This particular rule, it would seem, is written for the sake of the agents. It’s their way of cutting down the queries of not ready for prime time work.

      For over a year, I’ve seen many agents comment on their blogs that they are receiving record numbers of queries. Presumably, since they obviously don’t already have agents, the majority of these are bearers of newly written first novels. I expect this growth in novel writing is inspired by our economy … everyone thinks they can just whip out a novel and earn a little cash.

      It’s all about the writing, isn’t it? If it’s compelling enough, no agent will care how many rules you broke.

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  15. I think a novel — whether your first or your five hundredth — needs to stand on its own merits. I can’t imagine that it would matter to an agent how many unpublished novels you’d written, the only one that mattered was the one he or she was considering.

    Of course, if you are already published and have a loyal following, that’s an entirely different matter. Nicholas Sparks could query his grocery list and it would probably be picked up.

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    1. Well, of course, the merits of the novel you’re querying should be all that’s considered … and I suppose is all that’s considered. The first time I heard this “rule” I dismissed it out of hand, but then I started seeing agents echo it and wondered why. I think now, it’s just a way to try to lessen the amount of dreck that comes their way.

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      1. Good point — you’re probably right. BTW, I’ve added your site to my blogroll. I hope that’s okay with you. It’s definitely a site worth visiting!

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  16. Linda, I saw your blog when you first posted it, and have been waiting until I had time to come over and dwell on it. I’m assuming it was my tweet that inspired your blogpost.

    That “rule” has been haunting me (perhaps that’s too strong a word) since I first read it. I’m new to writing and all that, but I thought it sounded ridiculously broad. Certainly there are many first novels that waste the agent/editor’s time, but there are the few that become best-sellers.

    I’ve greatly enjoyed all the comments you’ve received. It seems everyone is in agreement for the most part. So maybe I’m not ignorantly wasting my time revising my first novel yet again.

    But this all leads me to another rule: Do not write a sequel until you’ve sold the first book. What do you think about that one? I have outlines ready for three other books that would continue the series of my first novel, but I still think I’m going to write something entirely different next. Is that pessimism or common sense?

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    1. Actually, I’ve heard the first novel rule cited many times, including by agents themselves on their blogs and in tweets.

      On Monday, agent Nathan Bransford said this: “If your goal is to be published, writing a sequel to an unpublished, self-published, or under-published book is probably not your best strategy.” So I guess he’d say it’s common sense to leave the sequels until the first does well. However, my friend Kasie has written two series already. One she has set aside for now, but she has an agent shopping the first of her second YA fantasy series, BUT this series she’s writing as stand alone, so the first doesn’t really have to be read first.

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  17. Do you mean this is an actual rule rule? Or just something to play by?
    I like how Joseph says that why in the world would we think our fist novel is publishable. But, you can never know. I think if you care for it enoug, love it enough, and feel you have worked over it enough, why not try (as long as that’s your goal.) You do learn a lot from the query process, even if only how to write a darn good letter!

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    1. No, I’ve seen this stated as a rule. And my first reaction was, “That’s ridiculous!” But then, as usual, I started to question myself.

      As for learning to write a “darn good letter” the jury’s still out on that one!

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