Thursday, January 24, 2008

First Publication

Is your first published story really all that different?

I'm wondering, seriously. Daniela is talking about how many strikes she gives a writer before she stops buying their books over at Romancing the Blog today, and Sarai said in comments:

Being an aspiring author I try to read the first books of everyone with a grain of salt. Why? Because we all start off rough and work to improve with every book.

Now, I agree that someone who's just starting out isn't usually as good as someone else who's been doing something professionally for twenty years; practice definitely counts. But on the other hand, I've known other people who've made similar statements about first books or first stories, about how allowances should be made and the next one is usually better, etc., and I really have to wonder whether there's such a huge difference.

Because seriously, we're not usually talking about a writer's first book or story here. We're talking about the first one published, and while there are occasional stories about someone's very first story or novel getting published, we all know how rare that is. My first story published was more like the fortieth I've completed (no clue exactly -- I don't have most of my earlier stuff to be able to count) and probably around the hundredth story I've at least begun and done some work on, going back to my first scribblings as a kid. [wry smile] Am I really that weird? That much of a slow starter...?

The whole point of having that gateway to publication, of having to get past an editor and a couple of assistants, and maybe an agent too, is that we're supposed to do our practicing before our work gets out there with a price tag on it. Not that I ever expect to know all there is to know about writing, or to stop learning and improving, but there is -- theoretically -- a bar we all have to clear before anyone is ever asked to pay money to read one of our stories. We need to achieve a certain level of skill and craft and professionalism while we're still banging away in the solitude of our writing dens, wherever they may be. Whenever I've said, "Well, it's their first story -- they'll get better if they keep working on it," I personally have always been talking about someone who's more or less new to writing itself. I don't recall ever saying or thinking that about someone whose story I read in a book or magazine.

I mean, yes, it's true that even published authors will improve, or at least they might and I think most do if they keep going and working at it. But I would hope that no one who's actually been published needs to improve so much that people would have to make "Well, they're just starting out" type excuses for them. There's a difference between, "Well, hopefully she'll get better with practice," and "Wow, imagine what she'll be like if she keeps getting better!"

Personally, I don't make those kinds of allowances once a writer's been published. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I usually assume that by the time I'm being asked to pay money to read someone's fiction, they've worked and honed their craft and have done most of their learning and improving. It's like with athletes -- the difference between your average person out for a jog or running to catch a bus, and someone who can compete and win a few ribbons or medals is pretty huge. The difference in, say, the 1500 meter pace of your average American and someone who competes is going to be a matter of minutes. There's a huge gap there. In contrast, the difference between runners who can win a few ribbons in the 1500m at a local meet and those who have a shot at an Olympic gold medal is much smaller -- a matter of seconds. But the amount of work and skill and talent and just plain luck it takes to close that gap is huge, moreso than what's needed to get Joe Average onto a local competitive track team.

I'm assuming that any writer whose work I'm asked to pay money for has made it onto that competitive team and is running with the dedicated athletes. I'm assuming that those writers have achieved a certain standard of quality and skill, and if I read their work and find out that this isn't the case, I'm going to assume that not only does their writing still need a lot of work, but so does their judgement. I'm going to assume that that is what this writer thinks is professional quality work, and I'm not interested in spending my money on a writer whose judgement is that lousy.

Your first professional publication still needs to be of professional quality. Yes, it's the editor's job to act as gatekeeper and make sure that everything that makes it out there into the commercial pipeline meets professional standards, but even when the editor blows it (and they do sometimes, we all know that) it was still the writer who submitted that work in the first place. Most of the time I don't know who the editor was, especially if I'm reading a book rather than a periodical. But I know the name of the writer, and fair or not, that's the name I'm going to mentally circle or cross out if a story was really outstanding or wincingly bad. Our stories represent us to the reading public, even our first one, and I honestly don't think a first publication does or should get all that much of a pass, just because the writer is a newbie.



writtenwyrdd said...

See, I have the observation that first books are often much better than their sophomore attempts. Hence the term "sophomore slump": The first attempt is years in the making; the follow ups are much more hurried. I do expect an author to improve or not be published after a while; but the first book is often their best to me. That said, it is often true that the sequels in a series are not as good as the first. So my observation may be more about the quality of sequels than about first books? Dunno. Just have my opinion, and I'm sticking to it. :)

Angie said...

WW -- humm, I'll agree with you about sequels, especially in planned trilogies. Or at least I'll agree that it's common; with one of my favorite series, the second book is my favorite or nearly so. But often, yes, the second is disappointing, especially if there's a strong story arc across the trilogy to the point where each book is only a story in and of itself on the technicality of being separately bound. [wry smile]

I'd have to go back and start pulling books by favorite writers and checking publication dates, though, to see whether that held up when number two was a stand-alone. [ponder] Although I'm not even going to try to track down a bunch of writers' second short stories. [laugh/flail]


Charles Gramlich said...

They say you have your whole life to write your first novel, but only a year or so to write the second. That might explain the sophomore slump, which i've seen in some cases.

As for the quality of first books, I've actually made a couple of mistakes by reading an early book and deciding I don't care for an author. I read a very early Dean Koontz book, hated it, and refused to read anything by him for many years until I picked up one of his thrillers and was blown away by how good he was.

I also read David Gemmell's first book, and although I liked it OK it didn't knock my socks off. I didn't read anything else by him for several years and then picked up one of his later books and found it incredible. This is not to say that a first book shouldn't be written professionally. Koontz's and Gemmell's were, but they clearly developed in their ability to tell compelling stories over time.

Travis Erwin said...

I agree with writtenwyrdd. Second books tend to be worse and then you will find some of the established authors who rest on their laurels and put on book after book that their name carries but the story is flat or uninspired.

Sarai said...

I think that first books for writers are their babies and that they are going to put their whole heart and soul into that first book. Sometimes they put too much of their heart and soul and throw
everything in. I can think of a few examples where I sat back and said “wow if she wouldn’t have
added that last thing there I might have loved it.” Then I realize that they have had all this work done with people telling them what sells, what looks good and what works that maybe they didn’t get it. So I will pick up the second if the first one is okay or good.
Don’t get me wrong if it sucks or can’t hold my attention new author or not I will not buy another. But if it is a new author or even a new author for me and it is okay I might look into picking up one more just to see if they can wow me with the second.
You have a good point though I do tend to forget about how many times other people are looking
at that writer’s work and critiquing it and it should be a good representative of that author’s work. However, we all grow and sometimes looking back at that first work we scratch our head
and shudder when we compare it to the work we are putting out now. Great Post!

Angie said...

Charles -- Right, I think the idea isn't that the first published book has to be spectacular, but that it shouldn't completely suck either or why was it published? And the sophomore slump makes sense too, for just the reason of how much time is spent on it.

Although agonizing over something for too long can be just as bad, too. I can see that as just a valid reason for the second book to be better -- that the first one was rewritten thirty times and had most of the juice wrung out of it by the time it found a publisher, whereas the second one was more spontaneous and more likely to flow smoothly rather than be patched together. [ponder]

Travis -- I wonder how much of that is the writer's doing, though. At least some of the time it's the publisher (or the fans) insisting on more of the same because it's selling, even over the writer's objections. Conan Doyle's hatred of Holmes is well known, but from what I've heard Piers Anthony hates the Xanth books just as much, and wanted to stop after two or three but his publisher wouldn't let him. Frank Herbert never intended to write any sequels to Dune, but his publisher pressured him into it and it shows. I'd be willing to bet there's something close to a fifty-fifty split on just who it is who insists that a blah series must continue, or that the writer must keep writing the same type (brand?) of books over and over. The golden handcuffs can be incredibly hard to break.

Sarai -- oh, I most definitely look back at my early work and cringe. :) The thing is, though, that I didn't publish any of my early work. And while I'm sure (or I surely hope!) that I'll continue to improve as I go on, I don't think of my first story, or my first twenty stories, as being particularly "special" in any way. They're just stories. I was very young when I wrote them, or when I started them for the ones I never completed, and although the potential was presumably there, the skill wasn't, in either the line-level writing or the story-level structure or anything.

Those of us who get online and hang out with other writers and talk among ourselves and read editors' and agents' blogs, or before the internet who took classes and went to workshops and conventions and listened to lectures by writers and editors and bought books on writing and read magazine articles and cetera, definitely get a lot of info on what to do and how to do it and what sells and all. Some of that info is valuable and some of it's crap; learning to sort out which is which is part of the learning process. But I don't think anyone ever intended that all that info be applied to one's first story. :/ You write your first story, maybe you finish it and maybe you don't. It sucks and you stick it in a drawer and start another. Rinse, repeat. You learn things from writing your earlier stories which you apply to your later ones, along with all the info and tips you got from outside sources. But you keep writing and learning and eventually, if you keep at it, you come up with something an editor likes. Someone who keeps applying every piece of advice they ever got to a single story obviously misunderstood something pretty basic along the way.

I can't imagine continuing to polish my first story, or even my first novel, over and over for years out of some determination that this is the story which must be published. Writing is like anything else; you have to practice and produce some really horrible product before you come up with something fit to be shown off.

I'll definitely agree that there are writers out there who improved by a couple of orders of magnitude over the course of their careers. The first example to come to mind is Sheri Tepper; an absolutely stellar SF writer with a very readable, literary style. She didn't start out that way, but even her early books (the earliest one I've read was The Awakeners, from '73) were competent and worth reading. The contrast between those early books and what she's written in the last ten or twenty years, though, is pretty amazing.

I guess the bottom line is that, even thought I'm a very recently published writer myself, as a reader I'm not willing to give a writer more than one shot. It's one thing if it's just a matter of differing tastes and interests, but when it's actually a matter of craftsmanship, there are too many writers out there and my book money is limited. As a writer I keep that in mind, and try to make sure that anything I even try to get published is something I'd be proud to have out there with my name on it.