This week, I got my first rejection on a full manuscript. Three months and a handful of days into querying, I received a kind but stern “no” on my first novel. And I won’t lie- it stung. It doesn’t matter how many novels we’ve written since, nor how distant I claim myself from this book: rejections hurt. But after nursing my wounds on poetry and wine, I final;y understood one of those universal truths: your first novel is the hardest to sell.
And that can feel a bit unfair to the novice author. First novels, statistically, take the longest to write and revise. We toil over them with ink, and sweat, and tears, striving so much just to finish, polish, and share with the whole wide world. The greats got their first novels published, after all; surely you can too? There’s a six-figure deal in the wings, just waiting for you. Surely Warner Bros. will call you any day now for a seven-movie adaptation, pleasing your wondrous fanbase?
The reality of the first novel is much less glamorous, and more about becoming a novelist. To learn, after all, we must first try. We must fail, climb, change, and grow. This is true of life, and it’s true of writing. And I can think of no better example than the story of my first novel, and what I learned from writing it.
If you dug through my old, old, old notes, I mark Chimehour’s start point in 2012, which is half true. That summer, I scratched out concepts for a bunch of stories that I will probably never write. Almost 20, and not yet in college at this point. A good friend and I sat down one slow afternoon to kill time. The following conversation unravels:
“There should be a story about a seer therapist who deals with troubled monsters and fae. Like, he solves problems that way rather than having weapons and powers, like in Natsume’s Book of Friends.”
This is not Chimehour yet. But it plants a thought in my head.
My good friend and I started clashing. We were fighting; then we stopped the fighting, because we stopped talking. Unrelated issues unfold when I’m caught in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, leaving permanent damage to my leg. Your life does flash before your eyes in incidents like that, and you realize you still have a lot to do at 20.
In the following September, I sat down and wrote a prologue. The same prologue that begins Chimehour, sans some changes and edits.
I also begin the new year by losing that prologue to computer failure. I save what I can and start again. I begin camping out at my nearest Starbucks, and tell a couple of people that I’m writing a “steampunk zombie story.” I begin filling binders with notes, pictures, maps, dialect quirks, mythology. socioeconomics, and any related thing I can get my hands on. I spend the next year drafting this book and its sequel, from January to November.
And how much of that draft still exists, you might ask? One scene- maybe two. There’s a fight in the middle of the book where my protagonist first faces off this manic Druid. It was written at 4am to the tune of a lot of caffeine; it was the best writing session I’ve ever had to date, and the scene still reads perfectly. Everything else? Edited, revised, or thrown out. Because first drafts are always going to be pretty bad. Finishing them is the first step. Don’t fear the re-writes.
Revision was much larger task than I expected. I suspect this puts new authors off from editing a lot, because you return to a first draft a month later, only to find your precious novel is imperfect. Dare I say- messy. I treated this as a crisis for a bit, but eventually buckled down and began taking Chimehour apart. Re-reading, rewriting, and editing with two early readers for almost six months. A break, then I did it again: read, revise, rewrite, each pass making the story a little clearer. Working with different, trusted early readers and beta readers also helped clarify something- that authors do not always have the clearest perspective about their work.
In fact, they probably have the least clear perspective, muddled by closeness and the high of a first draft. My earliest readers picked out weakness and oddness in my writing that I might otherwise miss, allowing me an easier path with editing. Yes, I had to kill some darlings along the way, but editing isn’t a defamation of the author’s vision. Rather, it’s refinement; it’s the polish that makes the project sparkle.
I revised for almost three years, writing a few new projects along the way. A lot happened in that span of time (so much, it could easily fill a whole other blog), and slowly, I felt myself returning to Chimehour with less to say. When I finished a round of revisions early this past spring, I realized that there wasn’t any more I could do it. It wasn’t perfect yet, but… I was finished. This was hard to stomach, the idea that you will stop pulling returns from a project, and it can still be flawed. But then, I’ve heard plenty of stories about books that have been edited to death. NYT bestseller, Shannon Sanders, talks about how her first novel was deemed unpublishable due to over-editing. There comes a day where you recognize that your book- your baby, has grown up and entered the University of Queries and Publishing. You, the author, must now step aside and let the work speak for itself. It is no longer your work, but the world’s to read.
It’s hard. It’s heartbreaking, and there’s still so much rejection to be found. You look back at the years of writing, revision, and work, wondering if that journey was really worth it?
And the short answer is yes. Because novels aren’t just about finishing and publishing and fame. This is why it’s silly to compare yourself to other authors, because novels are the product of learning, and becoming a better novelist than the one you were yesterday. It’s also about learning to be a better you, in some ways. I know the person I was when I started Chimehour is not the person I am today, and I have my book to thank for that.
I started a new novel this year, unknowing of the roads it will open. But it’s that beautiful? When we start a novel- our first or our fifty-fourth, our work with it is more about a journey than a destination. It is about the lessons we learn, the projects we finish, and the person we become through creating something new.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.