A friend of mine, quoting a friend of hers, probably, used to say that the first novel a person writes is like the first pancake of a batch: you have to throw it away. This causes me a little anxiety on Sunday mornings, because I make a lot of pancakes and rarely throw any away. It seems to hold at least a little bit true for novels, though. Many published first novels are wonderful, polished gems, but in the closet of almost every writer I know there's a real first novel, the unpublished one. At least one -- often more.
I have one. I worked on it for three years before I decided to give it up. It wasn't easy to make the decision to let it go -- it was painful enough that I remember exactly when it happened: June of 1996. I remember that because it was on my honeymoon; yep, I actually brought the damned thing on our honeymoon, 300 pages in a Kinko's binding. I still have it, and my favorite thing about it now is the wine stain on it.
How did I know it was over, though? I didn't, really. It had probably been over for a year or more, the life draining out of it, my enthusiasm waning. But I couldn't let it go because I still basically liked it. It was up to that point the best thing I'd ever written, by a long shot. I had written scenes that made me laugh and evoked powerful feelings in me. It took a long time for me to see that as a novel it didn't hold together. There were a few good scenes and some good characters and even some okay writing, but it didn't mean anything. It didn't add up. And because it didn't add up, I couldn't make the scenes run any deeper and I couldn't figure out a way to end it. If a book doesn't mean anything, it can't have an ending. It can only just stop.
Maybe it was the honeymoon, the change of scenery, that allowed me to see the book for what it was. I remember flipping through the pages on the hotel bed and thinking, Blah, blah, blah. We had just gotten back from looking at a catacomb full of mummies. Now that was interesting.
When we got home I started something new right away, and that was it, the old novel was forgotten. The new one was slower and deeper and more organic. But I couldn't have written the second without the first -- the first one showed me I could do it. I had to have those pages written in order to be sure-footed in the next one. And all that dreadful, seemingly pointless work, the kind of CPR we do to try and revive a doomed piece of writing, isn't pointless. It all counts eventually.
But wouldn't it be great if there were a machine you could toss your piece of writing into and it would tell you the truth? It would say GIVE IT UP NOW, or THIS IS BRILLIANT or EH YOU COULD DO BETTER I GUESS. How much hair pulling and teeth gnashing such a wonderful gadget would prevent.