First Novels

When it comes to publication, the love of storytelling must come first. If you are in this for the fame or the money or the glory or the status, then you’re in for a rude awakening.  

We write because something in us longs for it.  

Yet you don’t hear of many novelists who pen a story, stick it in a drawer, and get to work on penning another. Most of us desire publication. 

Why is that? Why do those of us who write books so often aspire to publish them?

I think the answer is simple.

That story we long to tell is the same story we long to share. And publication is an excellent means to that end.

So we sit in our chairs like good little writers and we write that first novel, delighting in the magic that is storytelling. But also spurred on by the hope that maybe, just maybe, it will be on somebody’s nightstand someday. 

I know that was my hope when I wrote my first novel. 

I came back from Kenya with a story bursting inside me. A story I couldn’t wait to write. It was magical, that first novel. I loved it. Absolutely, one hundred percent loved it. I’m telling you, I believed in that story. I thought it was good enough to share. Good enough to publish. And I think that was a good thing.

Because if I would have written that story thinking, “This is just a stepping stone”. Or if I would have written that story without the hope of one day sharing it, I think that might have sucked away some enthusiasm. I think I would have felt deflated before I ever got the chance to hit my stride.

So while I resonate with the majority of Jody Hedlund’s post, How to Drive Yourself Crazy as a Writer. While I wholeheartedly agree that a writer must take intrinsic joy in the process of writing. I don’t agree that writers should write their first novel with the belief that it won’t be ready for publication. 

It’s okay to dream. It’s okay to hope. It’s okay, even good, to imagine that maybe, just maybe, that first book could be the one.

It’s happened before.

But the key, the absolute key, is to keep writing. 

Maybe your first novel will be published. But don’t put all your eggs in that particular basket. Keep, keep writing. And by writing, I mean something new. While your first novel is getting critiqued, or read by beta readers, or professionally edited, or while it’s out on submission to agents, write a different story. The world is filled with them. Latch onto one you’re dying to tell and write it.

Not only will you grow and improve. But you’ll have another story. And the more stories you have, the less pressure you’ll pin on that first one. 

Maybe it’s still a masterpiece. In which case, bravo!

Or maybe it’s lost some of its shine. Because your second novel is a thousand times better. And your third one, even more so.

And you start to see what you couldn’t have, maybe even shouldn’t have, when you wrote your first. That while it might not be ready for anybody’s nightstand, it wasn’t a wasted effort. Because without it, you wouldn’t be the writer you are today.

Let’s Talk: How many novels have you written? How has your opinion of your first novel evolved over time?

29 thoughts on “First Novels

  1. Loree Huebner

    I agree…there must be joy, and we must keep writing.

    Inspiring post to start the week!

  2. LOVE this, Katie! What an encouraging perspective from someone who’s been there—and it’s exactly what I need to keep in mind rather than getting caught up in the ‘stepping stone’ mentality. Maybe it’s kinda like having kids, lol… I might get better at parenting and not make the same mistakes with my second born as I did with my first, but I still love my first just as much. (Okay, silly analogy, but hey, right now my first [and only] novel still feels an awful lot like my baby.) At any rate, I appreciate the reminder to keep the love of storytelling alive above all, and to keep writing. Great way to start my week.

  3. I’ve written three completed stories, two of which actually count as novellas word-count wise, including my first.

    The truth is, though I put years into my first book, when I finally got it done, I basically knew it had to go in a drawer or be massively re-hauled, which I didn’t feel like doing.

    My second book (actually a word-count novel–yay!), though, was the one I adored. Still not sure where it’ll end up. I tend to be more skeptic about getting anything published than friends, fans, and family.

    I love all of my stories, whether I consider them good or not. Stepping stones aren’t bad things.

  4. You are all kinds of encouraging today, Katie! I loved this post. Thank you for this.

  5. Katie Ganshert

    Thanks for the comments, ladies! I’m thinking a lot about the whole “we want to share our work” thing this morning. And I’m seeing just how true it is.

    As a little girl, I would write and write and write, and then I’d go on to read all of those stories out loud to my mom and dad. I loved sharing just as much as I loved writing. Part of my love of writing was a result of the anticipation to share.

    I’m not sure if I’m just weird. Or if this is a normal, common feeling among those who love to write.

    I saw it as a teacher. My students who loved writing were the very same students who were eager to share.

    Not sure what this means, really. Just an observation.

  6. Great post, Katie. I agree with you 100%. I’ve been struggling lately with whether I should just put my first and only novel away or keep working on it. You see, I’d kept reading things about how usually the first novel isn’t published, etc., and that got me thinking that maybe mine wasn’t worth editing and putting more effort into. However, I think that even if I don’t ever get my first novel published, going through the editing/critiquing process is a valuable experience. So my plan now is to edit/critique my first and make plans at the same time to start on a new novel.

    And I agree…something in me longs to share the stories I have. I’ve always been that way and suspect I always will be.

    1. Katie Ganshert

      Lindsay – I think this is a GREAT plan. Learning how to edit and revise and improve a novel is invaluable experience that will not only make your story better, but make YOU better as a writer. And the key to your plan is that you’re going to be making plans for book 2 while you do it! That is so important!

      I think a big point/takeaway from Jody’s post the other week was that we should never get stuck on our first novel. We need to move onto to novel 2. We should edit it and revise it, then at some point, move on to book 2. Just like you are doing!

    2. Sometimes it is best to put your work aside for a while then come back to it. You will see it with fresh eyes!

  7. I think I’m on #8. That’s if you count the YA I wrote (and I have a hard time counting that, not b/c it’s not solid, but b/c it’s 30K less than I normally tackle).

    I love how much I’ve learned (wouldn’t trade that learning experience for the world). But that’s just it…the learning came through doing. Through writing those 7+ novels. I look back at my first and think how there was something there that gave me the momentum and encouragement to keep at it. And while I’ll always love my first, I’m thankful it propelled me to write more.

    ~ Wendy

  8. I must have been naive because I never thought my first novel might not be published. LOL I think some first novels can be saved. Can’t they? For the love, say they can!!! :O)

    Great thoughts today, Katie!

    1. Katie Ganshert

      Read Beth’s comment, Jessica. For the love. 🙂

  9. I think you have to write that first novel in the euphoria of hope, otherwise, why write it? And it’s important to know that while that first novel might not be ready for publication the minute you finish it, that doesn’t mean it will never be ready for publication.

    1. Katie Ganshert

      Very much agree, Erica! And you are SO right! We can always come back to that first novel, after we’ve grown from writing others, and make it into something that will grab an editor’s eye. You did this, didn’t you?

  10. Great post! Very encouraging. We writers need encouragement! I am always encouraged by JK Rowling’s story. She wrote because she had a story…but also because she was at the lowest point in her life. Look how it paid off! Every 30 seconds someone in the world is picking up a Harry Potter book to read.

    We were created in the image of God and look how He chose to communicate to His people: through the written word. To be is to do!

    As an artist, I draw and paint to be seen. I write to be read. I have one book published and have completed the sequel. Now I am almost finished with the first book in my second series. I recently started the outline for another book. Whew!

    But you are so right…just keep writing! That’s the most important thing of all.


  11. During a season of burnout as a nonfiction writer and editor, I started a novel. Never planned on showing it to anyone.
    Three years later, I landed a book contract.
    No one was more surprised than me.
    First novel — 2-book contract.
    But here’s the backstory (there’s always backstory!) I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote that blasted thing a ga-zillion times. I went to writers workshops and writers conferences and I tore that thing apart so many times that it the first draft barely resembled the final manuscript. One of my mentors called me an oddity in the writing world because I got my first novel published. But then she said I backed that first novel up with hard, hard work.
    And woven in the midst of all that hard work? A lot of dreaming. And praying. And, yeah, hoping.

    1. Katie Ganshert

      Beth! WOW! See…..every time I think I have something figured out, I really don’t!

      I usually give this advice: Don’t dwell on the first novel. Write it. Edit it. Move on.

      Because I see and hear about so many writers who don’t move past novel one. They just keep revising it and revising it and never get past it.

      But then you go and bust that advice to pieces. Because you did exactly what I might tell people not to do and completely show that there is NO right way!

      I love your story, girl! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Linda Connelly

    love this post! i just finished my first novel & i really hope to have it published one day but while i wait to hear back from my beta readers i am working on other things. Cant believe i get to write!

    1. Katie Ganshert

      I know! It’s the best, isn’t it?? Thanks for joining the conversation Linda, and congrats on finishing your first novel!

  13. I’ve written 4 1/2 novels. 1 1/2 of those are historicals and the half I never finished. Though I still think about that story and maybe someday I’ll go back to it.

    But I’ve just finished my third contemporary women fiction novels and feel that maybe I’ve hit a tiny bit of my stride. Or at least what I really love to write, because I keep going back to it.

    Are my first books publishable? Not a chance. Unless I do what Beth did and really, really edit it. But even then, I’m not sure if I want it to be. It’s my first story and sometimes, like Erica said, to think back on that “bright-eyed-anything-I-write-is-fantastic” and realize just how *far* I have come!

  14. Well, I’ve had plenty of novel ideas, a few which got halfway done, but only a couple that were finished first drafts.

    My first one was when I was twelve. Mostly handwritten, front and back on typing paper and that was about 170 pages. I toy with the idea of possibly revisiting it–the characters never really left me after 15 years–but not yet.

    I had three others I worked on between middle school and high school but were never finished. One was supposed to be the start of a historical trilogy set in Israel.

    Within the last five years, there’s been three others, but only one is close to being finished (my fantasy novel). I may go back and visit my historical, but I have a TON of research for that one.

    So, what is that–seven? Not counting a few files I’ve got with little snippets of ideas that I may or may not work on. I’m not short on ideas, that’s for sure! 😛

  15. When I began writing, I had an advantage. I’d worked as an assistant editor at a small publishing company and had seen the business from the other side of the desk. I knew it would take time to learn craft and produce a marketable story, so I dove in, prepared to grow over time.

    I wrote five novels in my first two years, moving from one right into the next. With each one, I improved as I integrated what I was learning. I looked back at them and the contest feedback I’d received and realized I still had plenty to learn, so I took a year off to study craft.

    At the end of that year, I chose the most promising of the five stories (my third) and spent the next two years rewriting, revising, and editing it numerous times before my agent sold it. That book, my debut novel, will be released in July, six and a half years after I embarked on my writing journey. Sometimes perseverance really is the key. =)

  16. Cindy R. Wilson

    I definitely agree that first novels could be the one! We can approach them as that if we want, just as long as we know that (just like subsequent novels) there’s still editing to be done. And, just like subsequent novels, this particular one might not be ready for the market or the best fit for an agent or editor.

    I wrote my first novel to prove that I could do it (I was thirteen :D), and had no plans to try to publish it. But that was what made me want to be a writer. I just finished my 14th novel (not including that first one OR the one I rewrote into a novella length story) and I know for sure most of those stories weren’t meant to be published. They were, however, meant to help me learn, grow, discover what kind of writer I am, and land me a genre I know is my fit. Great post!

  17. First novels are debut novels for some lucky authors. It doesn’t happen as much anymore because their are simply SO many writers trying to get published, but it wasn’t unheard of even 15 years ago to have your first novel published.

    I’m with you–I poured everything into my first novel with high hopes. Then I poured it into the second, third, and on and on. I’m still pouring! Why bother if not?

    1. Thank you for pointing out that the industry is different today than say 10 or 15 years ago (like when J.K. Rowling hit it big!). I think agents are looking for things that are already edited, possibly by a professional, more than ever. Saves them time!

      Personally, I’ve started books but finally completed one for NaNo in 2009. Now I’ve finished another one and have about 2-3 other irons in the (mental) fire of my brain. Yes, just keep writing is great advice, especially when those queries are out and you’re privately freaking out waiting for responses!

  18. I completely agree. If I’d thought it wouldn’t ever see the light of day, I wouldn’t have finished that first novel draft. To date, I’ve written 5 books, 1 novella, and a few nonfiction pieces (novella length), plus all those 1/2 books I may or may not come back to. I don’t know what the future holds.

  19. I just finished the re-write of my first novel, and am still in love with it. Maybe even more so, because while before it was just a stepping stone in the right direction, now it honestly could be the one. But it took a long time (ten years!) to turn it into that, and I had to murder a lot of darlings (three re-writes!) that I might have kept if I hadn’t done exactly as you suggest and written something else.

    All in all I’ve written the first draft for seven books: two of them complete duds, two of them very promising, two of them need a lot of work but will be promising eventually, and the first 🙂 And I’ve got several more stewing away in my brain. And I’m sure that as I write more, I’ll learn more, and then I’ll want to re-write the first book again 😛

  20. So true!! I am starting my 7th novel and wish I knew more–not sure this will be the one but practice helps!

  21. Alas, I am guilty. One of my problems was getting contest wins, and then issues with editing. I was overcome with fear, thinking that I didn’t really know what I was doing, and scared to keep going.

    But this is the year. I am going to finish my 2nd novel and then start a new one. Period. 🙂

  22. I’m reading this a day late, but I’m oh so glad I did. It was definitely an encouraging boost as I’m struggling to slog through revisions (mostly a total rewrite) of my second book. I still love my first book. And somewhere deep down I’m pretty sure I love the second book (though it’s kicking my butt)…and I need the hope that eventually it’ll be publish-able. Otherwise, it’d be too easy to let it go and move on to the next one. When I do move on and keep writing, knowing I’ve completed something will encourage me all the more.


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