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Letting Go of the Practice Novel

CarWe’ve all heard about, or experienced, the difficulty that comes with finally letting go of your novel, and sending it out into the world. As Winston Churchill said:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.

But what if you finish your novel and realise it’s not ready to be flung anywhere other than into a box under your bed, never to see the light of day?

It’s not a practice novel!

They say the first novel you write is a practice novel.

They say every successful novelist has one, or two, or maybe even three manuscripts under her bed that will never see the light of day.

They say a lot of things.

But, fortunately, I hadn’t heard anything they had to say when I started writing my first, this-time-I’m-serious, I’m-gonna-be-famous!, novel. By the time I heard what they had to say, I was well into my first draft, and happily living in the land of Oh Yeah, But I’m Different.

I didn’t need a practice novel. I already had a hard drive full of half-finished, barely started, novels. I’d done my time.

I’d done my time.

But before I talk about my ill-fated First Real Novel, I want to tell you about my car.

That’s what a car is, you know. It’s not just a motor and a body and a seat, that’s what a car needs, but what a car is…

Do you see it up there? Up in the picture above? That’s my car. Ain’t she a beauty?

Okay, sure, it doesn’t have a lot of sleek lines or sex appeal. And, yes, it’s in dire need of a wash. There’s paint missing in places – most notably, the front bumper, from that time when, in a haze of postpartum exhaustion, I put the car in drive instead of reverse, and slowly edged my way into the front wall of the garage. It’s got children’s stickers all over the windows, and the hub caps went missing years ago, in a weird hub cap mystery that shall never be solved. But, just look at it.

I’ve owned this car for nine years. And it’s not just a car. It’s nine years of life experience, embodied in a physical object. It’s memories and emotions; places I’ve been and people I’ve seen; conversations and laughter and tears.

I brought my newborn sons home from hospital in this car. I told my ex-husband he was going to be a father for a second time while sitting in this car. In fact, we were driving in this car when my ex- and I decided to go our separate ways. I have driven this car over 210,000 km (130,000 miles). I could tell you so many stories about this car.

Or, I could tell you about that one time, just two weeks ago, when I took my beloved car to a trusted mechanic, and he gently told me that there’s more wrong with this car than right with it, and it’s time to move on and get a new one.

That’s what a practice novel is, you know. It’s not just a plot and characters and words on the page, that’s what a practice novel needs, but what a practice novel is…

When I finished the draft of my first novel, I was ecstatic. It was two in the morning, and I danced around my apartment like a crazy person, whooping and cheering (under my breath – people were sleeping), and felt like the Queen of the Universe. All that was left to do was a quick revision, and then I’d send it off to an agent, have it published, and start raking in the money. Woohoo!

As it turned out, I may have been a just a little premature. And naïve. It’s even possible that it wasn’t quite as objectively perfect as I thought.

So, after a brief break, I spent some more time on it. Another two years, in fact, trying to make it perfect. I gave my characters the depth they’d been sorely lacking. I plugged some plot holes and rewrote whole sections. I studied the craft of writing, and discovered this magical thing they call a “narrative arc”, and shoehorned it into my story. I learned about filter words, and perspective, and what an adverb is. I read blogs and books and articles, and took everything I learned and threw it at my novel. Until, eventually, it was finished.

I handed it to a trusted beta reader, ready for her to heap praise on my genius. Instead, she told me that there was more wrong with that book than right with it.

I was angry. I was dismayed. I scratched and bit and fought and denied everything. And then I took a deep breath, and tried again.

Sure, I thought, the story is pretty much a mish-mash of popular fantasy tropes. And, yes, the plot pretty much hinges on coincidence, and there are plot holes big enough to march several well-equipped, wizard-led armies through. But it was my book. And I loved it. And it was beautiful.

It took me four long years to realise that the reason I loved my first novel wasn’t because it was a work of art. It was because it was a visual representation of everything I’d learned on that long, seven-year journey – both about writing, and about myself. I’d laughed and cried over that book. I’d gone to places I never thought I’d go. I’d poured my soul into it. Through all the ups and downs of my life, it had been my one, constant companion.

Learning to Let Go

 

As I sit here, poised to start looking for a new car, I’m scared and excited. I don’t want to let go of all the memories I created with my current one. I don’t want to lose the feelings it engenders when I look at it. And I find myself thinking back to that First Real Novel.

When I made the difficult decision to put it aside (just for a while, honest) and start something new, I felt the same way. But, as it turned out, I didn’t lose anything. I took all those memories and learnings and feelings with me into my new work. My novel lives on, in my heart, and I can summon back all those emotions at will. I let go of the story, but I kept the experience.

And then I fell in love with my next novel.

It’s not a Practice Novel!

Maybe your First Real Novel isn’t a practice novel. There are plenty of people who have published their first novel. Marion Keyes and Robert Jordan come to mind, and I’m sure you can think of plenty more. You could be one of those people. There is no pressure to write your first novel off as practice.

But if you find yourself staring at your story, face-to-face with the reality that there’s more wrong with it than right with it, and you just can’t fix it, remember this:

Letting go of a practice novel doesn’t mean letting go of what you’ve learned. It doesn’t mean losing the experiences you’ve had writing it. You will take everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve felt, with you to your next work.

Because, at that point, what letting go of a practice novel is…. is freedom.

Did you have your first novel published, or have you got a practice novel hidden away in a box under your bed? How did it feel to let go and move on?

About Jo Eberhardt [1]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.

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