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.