The Benefits of Writing a Terrible First Novel


As some of you may know, I recently completed a novel for the first time. After two failed attempts to complete manuscripts before, just the fact that I wrote “The End” was an accomplishment to me. I took some time away from the book in attempt to return to it with a fresh perspective. What I saw upon my return, however, shocked and disappointed me. My finished book, the one I spent three months writing, was not worth reading. Many find it difficult to admit this about their own creations – believe me, it took me a while to accept the fact myself. In spite of how disappointed I was by the first draft of my book, there are invaluable lessons that I learned throughout the process.

Many might say that I shouldn’t put so much pressure on myself, a first draft is never as good, and it was only the first novel I ever completed. However, when I finished writing the manuscript, my writing substantially improved. Editing didn’t take as much effort as it used to – even though there were still times when I had to rewrite a piece seven to eight times before I became satisfied with it. Therefore, when I got back to my novel, I noticed that it was written below my own standards. What I noticed, hence, was the first advantage of writing a terrible first novel: it made me a better writer.

When I started writing my book in January 2014, I had a clear idea of how the story will begin and end, the genre, and the main conflict of the plot. However, other than that, I had not much more to build on. I started to discover my characters as I went along, and the plot changed as well depending on what I had written before. It wasn’t planned, and it looked like it. Therefore, my second lesson was to pay more attention to plotting and characterization.

Initially ,I only began writing the novel just to prove to myself that I was able to write one. I was eager to finish the book since I had already failed twice at that, so the most important part of the manuscript was the final chapter. When I started reading my first draft, I could tell that I had rushed through writing it. Even in the places where I thickened the plot felt uninspired to me. The third lesson I learned was to take my time.

Research is invaluable, I came to realize. Even though the subject I tackled was familiar to me, had I not had the knowledge about that subject, writing that novel – as modest as it turned out to be – would’ve been impossible and would’ve placed the novel at an even lower standard. In fact, the most appealing part of the manuscript, in my opinion, was my description of society and places.

However, in spite of my knowledge in the subject, I felt that it was of no more interest to me after a while. Many may tell you to write about what you know; however, I learned that I needed to find a subject that flares a lasting interest in me. Writing one novel could sometimes take years. If a writer’s interest in the subject he’s tackling fades, what’s the point of writing? Sure enough, the reader will lose interest just as well.

There’s not enough time in the world to learn every tip and trick to write a great novel. Everybody has to start somewhere. Armed by the lessons I learned and the experience I gained, I continue my writing adventure. All I can do is write, and learn as I go. I wonder what I am going to learn today.

What are some of the lessons you learned in your early experience as writers?

120 thoughts on “The Benefits of Writing a Terrible First Novel”

  1. Your main premise is absolutely true: that writing a terrible first novel makes you a better writer. In fact it seems to be an inevitable stage in the development of a writer. But as you say, the trick is to acknowledge the terribleness — and to move on.
    Before my first published novel, I wrote two cosy little detective novels, and was thrilled by the encouraging rejection letters I received. I knew they were just for practice. My third novel was published by Penguin, but when I reread it recently I could see it was good in parts … and shocking awful in parts. (Those were the days!)
    As for endless editing, my own experience is that the books I write quickly are better books. When I labour over a book it seems … laboured. But horses for courses — after a certain point, we have to do our own thing.

  2. I’m perhaps a compulsive (a) cynic, and (b) writer. Put ’em together and you have a frustrated unpublished author. (Okay, I fib a little here, I have had some stuff published—but not a full-size book. Bummer.)

    So I put three of my undiscovered masterpieces into the form of a WP ‘page’ each and shoved ’em into my blogs, free for the taking.

    Another goof. I don’t think anyone has ever even looked at them …

    So I fulfil myself by blogging. It’s wonderful, I can say anything I like about anyone; and if this isn’t freedom of the press nothing is.

  3. I am editing and rewriting my first novel right now so I am happy to have dropped by this post right now. You offer some great advice – thanks:)

  4. Congratulations Margaret. At one time or another every writer has gone through what you describe here. If I was to add one thing it would be this, never rush to get to the end of your current WIP. A story takes as long as it takes – if that makes sense to you. 🙂

  5. I spent years writing and rewriting my first novel. It was a subject I cared a lot about, so it was worth sticking with it until it was ready for publication. Finally this past May, it was published.

  6. Still writing my first, but in a very public way. I publish parts of my novel on my blog as it is as a first draft. The final product will be vastly different, I’m sure. But I’m giving people an idea about what it’s about, though I don’t give the whole story. I’ve been learning a lot, and I have a long way to go before I can even think about publishing it. First, I have to actually finish it.

  7. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    My first novel I considered bad; not simply for the print size (not my fault), but for the lack of over-the-top drama. I like to read quick enjoyable stories and wrote it like that. I learned a lot from my first novel and, hopefully, my second one will be better.

  8. Margaret, the answers to your questions may reside in your own words about yourself. “An occasional pianist” for example. Why? What do you like to play? How did you start playing? Why do you not play more than occasionally? A simple story, a true story. Your best story will be simple and true. Your conflicts about being Ukrainian and Lebanese, mirrored by the conflicts you observe in these countries. Be true to yourself, write your story, as only you can write it, as only you can tell it.

  9. Thank you for stopping by one of my blogs. I appreciate you taking the time to click the like button but even more, it brought me to your blog and a message that I needed to read. Congratulations on completing your book! That is a major accomplishment. It sounds like you learned a lot from the experience and trust that you will put it away for awhile and then re-read it with a more objective spirit.
    I’ve been writing poetry for years but have recently ventured into my first novel. However, it may be a long time before it sees, The End. Well done. Léa

  10. A very timely comment for me, as I try to tear myself away form my first novel and set it free… I think one thing I struggle with in novels is trying to get it perfect. In a 3000 word short story I can eventually get it “perfect” (to me, no one else may think so!) but in a book length work that’s just never gonna happen.

    1. My favorite living fiction writer, Deborah Eisenberg, is known to work on one short story for one or two years. And in the end she does indeed get it perfect. I once played a game called “Deborah Eisenberg’s editor” trying to imagine changing one word or even a piece of punctuation in her story, The Custodian. I couldn’t. There was nothing extraneous. Not since Hemingway have I seen such precise and tight writing.

  11. Thank you for liking my post! I, too, have a novel that I wrote–this one during my third year of university, written in pencil, in three notebooks, mostly when I should have been studying–and it will never be published. It is in a drawer or a box and still gets lugged around the country when I move, but it taught me to keep writing. I’ve kept a few names of places from this first manuscript for other work, but not much else other than the memories of delving into the work and forgetting where I was.

  12. I think the greatest benefit is that you are discovering, learning, growing….I hope you continue

  13. One of the things I found I went through was that when I started, I thought I had something to tell the world, that I knew something. Having come out the other end, I now feel like I don’t know anything and never did. Frustrating, but not surprising, I guess.

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