Saturday, February 16, 2008

First Novels and Pancakes

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novels are wonderful, polished gems, but in the closet of almost every writer I know there's a real first novel, the unpublished one.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.

11 comments:

zoe said...

Oh God, I keep reading people saying things like that about their first novels and I keep wondering whether I'm fooling myself that mine isn't a first pancake book.
Did that book turn out to be the one you published? Did you use anything (other than your experience) from the first in the second?

jrlennon said...

Interestingly, I'm the house waffle chef...and I only make enough batter for the correct number of waffles. If I fuck up a waffle, breakfast is ruined. Is this more indicative of my writing style?

That said, I do have a crappy first novel that never saw the light of day. I eventually turned it into a short story which I also failed to publish, and then a screenplay I never finished.

zoe said...

That's actually not all that reassuring.

rmellis said...

No, I never published that first one. I did publish the second, which had no relation to the first at all. And I still like bits of the first, and every now and then it crosses my mind that maybe I should do something with it...

I think the only thing you can do, for your first or any novel, is keeping working at it until you just can't anymore. At some point you'll either decide it's not working, or you'll decide it's done.

Hm, maybe novels aren't like pancakes; maybe they're like boyfriends....

Ray said...

Is it too late to say something nice about a previous blog? I ordered a copy of Earthquake, by Susan Barnes, because it was mentioned on this interesting site, and I read it today with great pleasure. Thank you. I came to the site because of a connection to the Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish article in The New Yorker, and I bookmarked it and have looked forward to the postings and responses since then. Thank you again.

Writer, Rejected said...

Yeah, damn. That adding up thing. It is key. It is also (or feels like) a shot in the dark, and you just don't know for the first few years. But I don't know. I just finished a novel that took 10 years to make make sense. And I do have a first novel/pancake that is malformed and in the closet, but I never finished it, so does it count? Anyway, sometimes, if it something you really need to say, the first comes back for a revival. You never know. Isn't that the joy and hell of it?

jrlennon said...

It's true, you never know...

Zoe, my crap novel was written when I was, uh, 23? Don't despair...if you think I'm immature now, you should have seen me then...

Ray, thanks for checking in, glad you liked that book! Rhian will probably be along to comment on it...

rmellis said...

Yeah, I am not advocating for the truth of the pancake metaphor, just noting that it seems true in some cases. My "first" one was never finished either.

And you know, now that I think about it -- I started a novel years before *that* one, and never finished it, but the germ of it showed up in the one I did publish. It's not a pancake, more like a big stew pot you dip into...

Ray: thanks for visiting, and I'm so happy you liked Earthquake. It's a wonderful little book.

Mr. Saflo said...

I started writing my first novel around the time I was nine or ten. It was called TOTAL EXPLOSION and my sister found it and made fun of me and this is almost certainly why I don't tell anyone I write nowadays.

jrlennon said...

See now TOTAL EXPLOSION is approximately the best title ever. I think you could sell it for six figures based on the title alone. Especially if your agent tells all the editors in New york that if they want to talk to you, tough shit, because you're in rehab.

Anonymous said...

Having taught creative writing to a class of 3rd and 4th graders, I can say that I would love to read a book called TOTAL EXPLOSION written by a 9-year-old. Though I'd suggest putting an exclamation mark on it.