Everyone’s heard about so-and-so author’s “debut novel”. Some fail, some succeed, and some are overshadowed by later successes. But the fact of the matter is that every author has to start somewhere.
But the term “debut novel” refers only to the first novel that an author publishes, not the actual very first novel they write. By the time an author actually gets around to publishing anything, chances are good that he or she already has an entire collection of practice novels stashed away somewhere. These books typically aren’t published for one very simple reason: first books are often terrible.
Well, maybe not terrible, but definitely not as good as it could be if the author just waits a while before editing and publishing. Trying to write a story early on in the learning process is like trying to write your own music after just a few months of music lessons. This has nothing to do with an author’s inherent talent. Talent actually isn’t actually worth as much as simple hard work and practice. Yes, talent helps, but it’s not the be-all end-all of writing.
The point I’m trying to make is that an author’s “first book” is very seldom their actual first book. It’s just the first book they allow the public to see. If you’re lucky (unlucky?) enough to be related or married to an author, try asking to see their very first rough draft, before they got around to publishing.
I can’t prepare you for what you’ll see in that draft. It might be completed, it might just be fragments of something bigger. They might have tried editing or it might be rough as sandpaper. Either way, if you’ve read some of their later works, it’s possible that the two won’t even seem to have been written by the same person.
But if anyone ever asks, I’ll always recommend that an author (or any artist, really) keeps their early works on hand. Whether it’s an author keeping a USB drive of their old drafts, or a sketch artist keeping all their old sketchbooks. They don’t have to be shown to anyone. In fact, no one but the artist who made them needs to know about them. They make for great motivators, and can help when an author’s self-esteem is going down-down-down. Yes, they’re probably no good. But the fact that you can recognize that means you’ve been improving. Things that seemed like good ideas at the time are no longer so.
Practice novels also let an author try out different ideas, genres, and age ranges. Are they a YA author, a kids’ author, a new adult author? Are they sci-fi/fantasy material, or do they prefer mysteries? What kind of mysteries? Because a police procedural and a cozy are going to be very different. What about horror? Supernatural? Slasher? Psychological? A combination?
It’s all about practice and experimentation. But, since readers usually end up paying money for our books, it’s generally a good idea to not saddle them with crappy, failed experiments before the author finds out what really works for them.
When I started writing, my very first completed story was a playful sci-fi romp with a snarky alien heroine off to rescue her mother in space with her half-human half-brother tagalong. It was… ok, I guess. I based it off a video game I played when I was a kid. It’s even kinda charming. But at the time, I thought it was awful.
I was apparently so unimpressed with my own writing that I swore off genre fiction entirely and spent a month or two trying literary fiction. That… did not work. Then I tried YA romance, then supernatural romance (which I admit I liked better than the others), until I finally came back around to my sci-fi roots.
I’m a science-fiction girl. My favorite TV show of all time is Stargate SG-1, which I still swear by as the best TV show of all time, with Star Trek The Original Series coming in as a close second. I don’t know why I tried pretending to be something else, something boring (to me). Now, I’m not writing about adventures through space, but steampunk is still a form of science-fiction, and it’s one I adore. The 2003 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, despite being a relative flop elsewhere, has always been massively popular in my home.
It took me 4 years to find where I belong. Some learn quickly and seem to know what they’re meant to do in just a few months. Others want to be authors but don’t take action for decades. The important thing is that everyone find what they love to write. This life is too short to be stuck writing thrillers when you have the heart of a fantasy-romance author.
So, ask your writer friend about their very first story, and see the difference that experience can make for yourself.