Sunday, November 14, 2010

No novice writer needs to apply: the myths surrounding that first novel

More myths have been created around the publishing of a first novel than about JFK’s murder. The “experts” agree that publishing houses prefer to stay clear off first literary attempts and even if a novice writer gets the longed-for breakthrough, he or she must never expect instant fame, invitations to Oprah or even a decent amount of cash in exchange for the untried manuscript. Is that ominous scenery even close to truth?

Go back in time and remember that first time you went looking for a job. Remember how your eyes scanned the ads and kept meeting those ominous words “experience required”? It seemed like nobody wanted you and yet you did get a job. The same goes for novice writers. Somewhere, somehow, unless their MS are written in Pidgin English, every writer gets his day. Hundreds of new writers emerge every year. And wait! Some make it to that iconic honor roll, The New York Times Bestseller list.

A couple of years ago, I went cross-eyed, reading article after article declaring that first novels, even if published, were just rehearsals into the Real McCoy. And then I heard of Jo Graham. Today, Miss Graham is a well recognized writer who merits her own Wikipedia entry, but back in 2008 she was a newcomer to the business. However, her first novel Black Ships, a retelling of the Aeneid, could be found among Amazon´s bestselling historical fantasies.

I had never seen a picture of Jo Graham, but she became my idol, the person I wanted to be when I grew up. Here was a novice writer who, at the noble age of forty, had published a historical fantasy, and yet was not hiding in some dingy bookstore, boring housewives to death. She was in Amazon‘s list off successful books, and would eventually go to win the Locus Award for First Novel. Jo Graham was a success story incarnated. She had proven all the prophets of doom wrong. Moreover, she had broken a tremendous taboo. She had published excerpts of her novel in the World Wide Web for all her friends to read!

Was it sheer luck or are there more Jo Grahams in the making? Well, the fact that Locus, a well known magazine devoted to Science Fiction and Fantasy grants a yearly award to the best First Novel is a telling sign. If you examine the list of winners you´ll find two of my favorite historical fantasies: Naomi Novick’s Temeraire, and Susannah Clark´s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Temeraire was the first volume of a very successful series, and Ms Clark´s first novel has been sold to Hollywood. Not bad!

There are plenty of literary awards for a first book so not everyone in the industry is unwilling to touch newcomers. And even novels that get no critical accolades can make it big. Let's see, what about an improbable plot that has a shy teenager, living in a tiny village in the Northwest, and falling in love with the most enigmatic boy in school who also happens to be a one hundred yea- old vampire? Yes, Stephanie Mayer was a newbie in the writing craft and yet she scored a home run with Twilight.

The love story of Bella and Edward was not only a first novel but (and it was clear by its open ending) part of a series as well. Don´t they say that first novels that are part of a series are not welcome by agents and publishers? Those who believed in that clause were the twenty publishers (some say they were sixty!) that turned down Susan K. Rowling’s manuscript. They are still kicking themselves for missing the chance to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher´s Stone!

I left the juiciest tidbit for dessert. The Historian was a first novel that came out with such buzz that a couple of publishing houses bid for it believing the novel to be the next Da Vinci Code. Little Brown eventually paid 2 million dollars to the author, Elisabeth Kostova, who even won an award when The Historian was still in progress.

So novice writers have plenty of reason to dream, won´t you agree? And the best example is Rosslyn Elliot, whose interview, may be read in this same blog. Her first novel landed her a three book contract, despite the fact that she delves into a complex and uncommon genre.

Do you know any other first novels that went on to become bestsellers? Do you still think a first novel has fewer chances if it is part of a series or if the author post chapters on the Internet?


  1. Great post. You dig deep. I think these days where authors have their own blogs etc and post extracts it's a good way to hook readers. I think the message is persistence. Think what would have happened if JK Rowling had believed those publishing houses? No Harry Potter! No, you've got to believe in yourself.

    All famous authors were newbies once, but as you say, there are plenty of newbies on shelves every year, so go for it..:)

  2. I believe anything is possible, I never listen to the naysayers anyway.

  3. I read an article this past weekend (can't remember where, of course...) that talked about publishers who ARE seeking debut authors. Something about them not having any literary baggage yet!

    Anyway, it's good news for us novice writers. There's always hope!

  4. Charles Frazier reportedly received a moderate sum for Cold Mountain. It ended up winning the 1997 National Book Award and, as many people already know, it was turned into an Oscar winning film. It was a debut novel. The interesting thing, is that his second novel reportedly sold for eight million before the novel was ever completed. It didn't quite hit the high notes that Cold Mountain did.

    Thanks for your insightful post, Violante!

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  6. Publishers? not agents, Rachel? That is a telling sign, because I heard agents are not as vital as they like us to think.
    Mary, Mary I had forgotten about Cold Mountain. Another great story is Stef Penney´s. Not only she won an award with The Kindness of Wolves, but she did her research from home (since she suffers from agoraphobia) and has never set foot in Canada where her historical debut novel takes place

  7. L'Aussie (and others) do you think it´s possible to hook publishers by posting bits and pieces in the Web? Because a couple of years ago I heard it was a big "NoNo". That no agent would touch a novel that had been "exposed" the public eye. I am seriously considering posting chapters but the caveat holds me back

  8. Great post, Violante! Off the top of my head, I can think of another very successful first novel: "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. According to Wikipedia, she was rejected by 45 agents. It has been published in 35 countries and 3 languages and it is a major bestseller.

  9. Don't forget the story of Christopher Paolini, the home-schooled teenager who wrote Eragon and self-published it with his parents' help before it was later picked up by major publishers. He sold film rights too!

  10. I did't know The Help was a debut novel. So agents keep on turning down good stuff. Kudos to them!
    Adina, I had forgotten about Eragon, but they say that the younger the better. And young, even teen authors have more chances to get their manuscripts published, than a fortysomething or older novice writer.

  11. Let's not forget Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook either!

  12. Yes Sparks had to start with a bang? Am I mistaken or Atonement was also a debut novel?

  13. Sorry to say, Violante, but Atonement wasn't a debut. I read On Chesil Beach earlier this year for one of my reviews and, as I usually do, I checked to see when the book I read was published. I think Atonement was like seventh on McEwan's list.


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