First time writers suffer from a big problem (especially young writers).
Not all young writers suffer from this problem–and it isn’t just young writers who suffer from this problem either. But many first time writers I know suffer from this and you may also struggle against it.
Let me first tell you a story about a young writer that may be like yourself.
This writer was inspired by the Young Writer’s Guidebook to begin working on her novel, and she completely invested herself in it.
For two long years, she worked hard to write and revise this novel. She loved the characters, the plot moved her, and her novel became a part of who she was as a writer.
She worked hard, she learned a lot about writing thanks to the Young Writer and other sites, and she knew this would be the novel that would get published.
Then she began sending it out to writing professionals, agents, and editors. And a lot of the feedback was the same.
“This book isn’t good enough.”
“Your writing is weak.”
“Your story bored me.”
She received rejections at every turn from agents and editors. And she soon finds herself discouraged and disappointed that her passion project of the past several years was all in vain.
What problem does our first time writer (and possibly you as well) struggle with? You may point to her discouragement and disappointment as the problem, but that’s the symptom, not the root of the problem.
The real problem is that she’s investing all her time and energy into publishing her first novel.
The hard truth is that nine times out of ten, your first book is not going to be published. Your second probably won’t either.
You can use this as a reason to get discouraged (“What’s the point of writing a book if it will never be published?”) or a reason to take your writing to the next level.
In this lesson, I want to help you understand why your first novel probably won’t be published–and how that can actually help you train yourself to succeed.
3 Reasons Why First Time Writers Aren’t Normally Published
Everyone knows the exceptions to the rule. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was Rowling’s first novel, Eragon was Christopher Paolini’s first novel–and both novels not only got published but earned bestseller status.
Stories like this understandably inspire authors–if these authors can do it, why can’t you?
Unfortunately, exceptions aside, most first novels aren’t published for three reasons.
First, writing is like art or music–you need to learn the craft before you master it.
Imagine, for a moment, a painter who began their first work of art with the expectation that they would sell the painting. Or a novice guitar player who expected that their first musical composition would be good enough to sell as an EP.
We realize innately how unrealistic those notions would be.
Most musicians play dozens if not hundreds of songs before they’re ready to put it in front of a commercial audience. Most artists do similarly.
And yet, I haven’t met any musicians or artists who get discouraged because their first work didn’t go anywhere commercially.
Why? Because they understand that a first work is supposed to help you learn the craft not to show mastery of the craft.
That’s why an early novel that didn’t get published should never be viewed with disappointment: it wasn’t supposed to be published. If writing that novel helped you improve your craft, it was a success.
Second, most first novels aren’t ready for publication because new writers haven’t read or written enough to create truly new, engaging content yet.
While some first time writers are able to do so, in my experience, it takes time for most writers to avoid repetitive trope usage and craft something different.
Writing a book that relies on derivative tropes isn’t necessarily bad for a first book. That’s what the first book is for.
Just like an artist or musician may seek to replicate another artist with their first pieces, storytellers should feel free to do the same.
There are so many aspects to the writing process that it’s natural and fine for beginning writers to lean on used tropes when crafting their first book. But this often means the first book isn’t ready for publication.
Finally, most first novels aren’t ready for publication because writers need breadth to succeed–breadth that best comes through multiple projects.
Authors need to not only master plot, but also characters, theme, prose, and pacing. It’s hard to learn all of these skills with a single project.
Short stories can be an excellent way to hone your abilities in specific areas, which is one of the reasons I recommend novelists spend time writing short stories.
However, while short stories are a great training ground, novels are distinct enough that you often need multiple attempts to master all the skills you need for them.
Breadth, however, doesn’t only consist of skills but also consists of ideas.
Theoretically, with enough revisions, most first drafts–even of a first novel–could become publishable. However, spending years on a single novel can prevent authors from broadening their ideas through multiple projects.
Making a career as a writer entails writing a plethora of books–not simply the publication of one specific book.
To accomplish this, you need experience with a variety of projects. Working on multiple projects until you get to publication is one effective way to set yourself up for long-term success.
(Don’t worry, first time writers can still make writing a career. Check out the post here to find out how)
Four Encouragements for An Alternative Strategy
Learning how unlikely it is that your first novel will be published may be understandably disappointing.
You’ve put a lot of time into that work, and you may not be ready to “give it up” to work on a new novel. If the road to publication means devoting hundreds of hours of your time into unpublished works, why write a “useless” novel?
Here are four encouragements to help you with the disappointment you may feel about giving up one novel to begin another.
First, remember a story has worth regardless of whether or not it’s published.
Even if only a couple of friends or family members read it, writing an entire novel is a significant accomplishment. If you measure how worthwhile your story is by how far it gets, you’ll always be disappointed.
First, it will be that it wasn’t published, then that it didn’t get enough readers, then that it didn’t get glowing reviews, then that it didn’t achieve bestselling status, then that it didn’t get a movie deal, etc.
There will always be another achievement you’ll want to hit, which makes it even more important to cultivate this attitude now. Your stories are worthwhile regardless of how far they get.
Second, remember that expectations come with a mindset.
The sooner you transition into a mindset where you don’t expect publication at first, the easier it will be to write “unpublishable books” when you’re motivated by a desire to grow.
Painters and musicians work with this expectation without disappointment and you’re able to do the same.
The more you look to them as examples and the less you expect publication the first time around, the easier–and more enjoyable–it will be to write your first book with this mindset.
Third, remember that you can always return to previous novels.
Just because it’s currently unpublishable doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Brandon Sanderson, New York Times bestselling author, wrote somewhere around ten books before finding publication.
Many of his early works were unpublishable but others were not–and many of the books he originally wrote and laid aside were published later once he had enough experience and skills to return to them.
Fourth, remember that if you’re a writer, there’s always going to be another story you can tell.
It’s natural for all of us to feel the most passionate about our current work in progress. But there will be other great stories as well. The more you write, the more ideas you’ll generate for great stories you’re able to tell.
With these four encouragements in mind, it should become easier to adjust to accept a growth mindset over a publication mindset with your first novels.
However, many of you may have a natural question: what does it look like to work with this mindset and move from one novel to another until you land an agent?
Glad you asked.
The Alternative Strategy: The Young Writer Novel Path
For the past few years, we’ve taught writers within the Young Writer’s Workshop to use the Young Writer Novel Path to guide their process of writing novels.
Many writers get stuck along their writing journey and don’t know how to move from their first draft to the novel that will land an agent.
This path is designed to clarify your next steps.
You’ll notice a couple of things on this path.
First, you’ll notice that we recommend writing three novels before attempting to publish any.
This is because of the reasons I gave earlier this lesson: while it’s possible for a first novel to be published, we recommend writing at least two before trying for publication.
Second, you’ll notice that we recommend you avoid editing the first book and only minimally edit the second.
That’s because we believe the best thing you can do early on as a writer is to actually write.
Most first novels will need serious content revisions and we think your time is better spent working on another book than spending too much first time on a practice novel.
Instead, we recommend you only do partial polishes of the first couple manuscripts until you’re crafting first drafts with serious potential.
Third, you’ll notice we recommend you actually print out a physical copy of your books!
While we only list it for the first novel, I recommend you do so every time you finish a novel. Being able to hold my first novella in my hands was a major turning point in my determination to become a published author, and writing a novel is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Privately upload your novel to Kindle Direct Publishing or a similar service, and the $5-$10 printing price is more than worthwhile.
Just make sure that it is a private upload and you don’t accidentally publish it publicly. Doing the latter could unintentionally give you a publishing history and make it difficult for you to become traditionally published.
Fourth, you’ll notice that the last circle repeats itself.
You never know how many books it will take for you to land an agent, and one of the most important things you can do is to keep writing and not get overly attached to any one book. (You can always return to previous books!)
We want to help you cultivate a mindset of yourself as a writer–not just the author of one particular story. That’s why we designed this roadmap like a spiral.
The path to becoming a published author involves writing novels again and again–and each time you write a novel, you’re a stronger author than you were before.
The more you write, the more advanced you become until you eventually break out of the spiral and land your agent.
With this model, you no longer need to be frustrated that you don’t know the next steps to take. It may take retreading the “same” steps multiple times to achieve your goal–but you’ll always know what step to take next.
One last thing to note…
While we recommend skipping revisions on your first book to jump right into the second book, if you’re really passionate about your first work and don’t want to give it up, we recommend you return to it for your third novel.
Often, it’s helpful to get some distance from a book and try something else before returning to your dream project.
Normally, I’d recommend not making your first book your dream project so you have enough experience before tackling it. But if your first book is already your dream project, writing a different novel as your second work and rewriting your dream project as your third novel could be the best thing you can do to succeed.
Cultivating The Author Mindset
There’s a lot of steps in the novel path you may not be ready for yet (especially for first time writers)… And that’s why we have several lessons in the works to fill in the gaps for you over the next several months and give you the training you need to get yourself around the spiral.
Becoming a published author takes work as all things do. But the more you cultivate a growth mindset and the more you diversify your skills through multiple books, the stronger you’ll become as a writer and the closer you’ll get to achieving publication.
How much have you written? It can be encouraging to know that you’re not alone in this journey. For myself, I’ve written eight novellas and three novels, and I’m not published yet–but I’m a lot closer to achieving that now than when I started writing.
Share below where you are on the novel path, how much you’ve written, and what your next steps will be to continue to close the gap to publication!