You never get a second debut novel.
These are words I remember hearing at writing conferences, and from teachers in my graduate program: you don’t get a second debut novel. I kind of dismissed them at the time. I mean, duh. You only get one debut. But now that I’ve come up and over that hill, I have a new perspective on the idea.
Good Enough Never Is
When I was younger, I was a big fan of “good enough.” Once, in my early twenties, I really wanted to make a bookshelf (because books). I went to Home Depot, bought some planks of wood, some metal brackets that looked like they’d do the job, and a handful of screws.
Did I look up HOW to build a bookshelf? Nope. Did I sand and finish the wood? Nope. I just slapped that baby together and put some books on it. Not surprisingly, it lasted about a week before it started to lean and fall over.
Maybe it was the fact that I was always struggling, always hustling to try and make ends meet, but I continuously felt like I didn’t have enough time for things. I just needed them to be done.
But writing a book takes time. There is simply no way around that.
Taking The Time
I’ve blogged a lot over the years about how to write. Little tidbits of do-this and don’t-do-this. Because I learned a great deal about the craft of writing as I pushed to get my first novel out into the world. But arguably the most important thing I have learned along the way was to slow down. Get it right.
Every time I thought my book was done, I put it in a drawer for a month and then read it through. Every time I did that I realized it wasn’t done, no matter how much I wanted it to be. Because when I read it through, with a little perspective, I didn’t feel like I wanted to feel.
So I kept working. And working. And then, finally, after 10 years, it became the novel I wanted it to be.
Now, admittedly, this is the WORST time to put a debut novel in the world. Even if people can tear themselves away from the news of the global pandemic, racial injustice, and bipartisan politics, there’s not a lot of head space left for fiction.
And yet, it’s been deeply flattering to see reviews that reflect the years of hard work I put into it. Publications I admire and trust have used words like “vivid,” “unique,” “uplifting,” and “compelling.” (You can read more reviews here.)
The thing that is hitting me, now that the book is out in the world, is that I’m really proud of my debut novel. What’s more, I think this pride is what my teachers were trying to push me toward when they said you only get one debut novel.
More Than Marketing
I always thought they were talking in terms of marketing. And perhaps they were. Every agent, every editor, wants to be the one to discover the next big break-out author, and you only get to be a debut author once. But there’s another layer to it.
Because no matter how well your book sells, no matter the state of the world when it’s released, it will always be your debut novel. You might, in this digital age, get to go back and fix a typo or two, but you’ll never get to rewrite the book.
Take The Time
So my advice to writers working on their debut novels is this: take the time. Take care with every sentence. Create characters that resonate with purpose and desire (even your villain). Paint the setting in a way that makes your heart ache to visit.
Go ahead and assume your debut novel will not be paying your bills. Take the pressure off yourself. Write for the love of writing. Rewrite for the love of rewriting. And when you’re good and ready (ONLY when you’re good and ready) go ahead and put it out into the world.
Because you only get one debut novel.