Putting Your First Book Forward

When I finished writing Finding Angel, I let a good friend and avid reader critique the manuscript. He gave me some great suggestions for improvement, complimented specific things, and then made the statement that Finding Angel was “very good for a first book.”

At the time, that statement really got under my skin. I appreciated the “very good” part, but the “for a first book” part…not so much. I didn’t want Finding Angel to have that qualifier. I wanted it to be very good, period.

And while I continued editing I kept that statement in mind, trying to eliminate everything that makes it a “first book.” Was I successful? I had no way of knowing before it released. Now I have almost entirely positive reviews, and those reviewers reach well beyond my personal circle, so I’d have to say I succeeded at least to a degree. But the phrase still hung over my head.

For a first book.

For a first book.

Even with no one else saying those words, I felt marked. Even after making finalist in three contests, my confidence just didn’t seem able to rise beyond the ability to think of Finding Angel as a giant neon sign that said, “New writer.”

I hated it.

And then Seeking Unseen released.

I haven’t gotten nearly the number of reviews I had after one month of publication with Finding Angel, but there are comments like, “…the author’s storytelling skills have massively improved between the first book and the second. If the third one is even better than Seeking, then we’re looking at some eventual bestsellers.”

And a reader who simply made the statement that Finding Angel “reminded” her of Madeline L’Engle’s writing sent me an email the other day that says, “I’m only half way through “Seeking Unseen.” It’s amazing–it’s really carrying me away into another world!…this time, so far in “Seeking Unseen,” I don’t see you as the lurking author at all. I feel the same way I do with Lewis, Rowling and L’Engle.”

I’ve used childbirth as an analogy before in describing getting a book into the world. And it still holds true. But something in that analogy doesn’t–we love our real children equally. No one would ever be able to handle having their first child seen as inferior simply because he or she came first. But our books aren’t real children. They are artwork and reflect our skill. So a first book will always be less skilled than following books.

I have finally come to grips with that. Not because I think Finding Angel is somehow inferior, but because I can see the other side of the coin now. I have improved. I am a better writer now. And that is a good feeling. Finding Angel IS very good for a first book. And every single author out there has a first book. The point is to not let that first book end up the last book.

I’ve also noticed that even if someone publishes their books in a different order than the order they wrote them, I can still often tell which was written first. Don’t get me wrong–I know my title of this post is “Put Your First Book Forward” but don’t let that make you think I’m saying there’s something wrong with publishing books out of order. It’s not going to make you look like you’re stepping backwards or anything. But tiny clues cling to the manuscript, things most readers won’t notice but a writer who has gotten through at least two manuscripts probably will. We see bits of ourselves in those books, bits of the newbie clinging here and there, and it makes us smile. Because we also see the improvement in the other books! There is a sense of comaraderie in it.

What I am saying is, we need to be proud of our progress. First books will always be first books. We want that. We want each book to be an improvement on the last. We want to start at the bottom our own personal hill–regardless of where that is in relation to the bottoms of other authors’ hills–because if we start at the top, the only way to go from there is down.

About Kat Heckenbach

Kat grew up in the small town of Riverview, Florida, where she spent most of her time either drawing or sitting in her "reading tree" with her nose buried in a fantasy novel...except for the hours pretending her back yard was an enchanted forest that could only be reached through the secret passage in her closet... She never could give up on the idea that maybe she really was magic, mistakenly placed in a world not her own...but as the years passed, and no elves or fairies carted her away...she realized she was just going to have to create the life of her fantasies. She shares that life with her husband and two homeschooling kids. Kat is a graduate of the University of Tampa, Magna Cum Laude, B.S. in Biology. She spent several years teaching, but never in a traditional classroom--everything from Art to Algebra II. Her writing spans the gamut from inspirational personal essays to dark and disturbing fantasy and horror, with over forty short fiction and nonfiction credits to her name.

11 comments on “Putting Your First Book Forward

  1. *thinks*
    Then perhaps I should save this novel for later.

    • If the question is whether to start a newer, better book, or finish what you’re working on, I say finish what you’re working on.

      • Yes, agreed. The first book may be a learning book, but it’s important to finish a project in my opinion. And there is nothing wrong with finishing one, starting a new one, then going back to edit the first.

      • Other way around, actually. Should I go back to an older, not so good one to learn on. I’ve only been working on this one since this past spring.

        • So, have you finished either novel? It’s hard to say, but I’d probably go with the one that is closer to being finished. I am finishing the second novel I finished (now draft 5), while my first novel is trunked because the editing class I took pretty much led me to believe the book needed rewritten.

          • Er, no. Most of mine are all SotP unfinished drafts. The one I’m doing now I’m actually working on plotting and character fractals. My longest draft ever needs entirely scrapped and reworked, and the second longest requires more finesse at emotions than I possess currently.

  2. Kaleb, there is no guarantee to what order your books will get published. Unless you self-pub, it’s all about what sells and when :).

  3. True, but this will be the only novel I’ll have finished. (Once I finish it, at least. No idea when that will be.)

  4. Thanks for opening up Kat! It’s a neverending process, this learning stuff…

    • You’re welcome, Pauline. And that’s exactly why I posted this. It is a constant learning and growing process. And it seems different at every turn. On the cusp of starting book 3, I feel completely different than I did with books 1 and 2. It is so weird!

  5. It is because of my continued learning of the writer’s craft that I am currently rewriting my first novel and editing it. My hope has been that I will get it to the point where I won’t ever have a ‘first’ novel. Especially as I’ve heard many don’t even end up publishing their first novels. This is my third major rewrite and I don’t know how many edits.
    That is the reason why if we like a first book, we’ll eagerly look forwards to the second though. I have found a few occasions where the opposite was true however-they got worse as they went. That’s always a huge disappointment.

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