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The Practice Novel

For the first time, you’ve been caught up in a plot, or a character, or a world of your own making.  You give in to it, give our heart to it, maybe you even start dreaming your next scenes.  You find yourself dwelling on it when you should be thinking about other things. You work on it for maybe a year or more.  You revise it, get friends and family to give you feedback, and revise it again. Then it’s finished, and it breaks your heart because it’s like saying goodbye to your characters.

And then you send your novel off to the professionals, either agents or editors.  And learn that you should just put it in a drawer.  I have had to gently break this news to clients from time to time.  I feel like the police must feel when they tell someone that a loved one has died.

The problem is that novels are huge.  They involve moving parts you may not even be aware of and require skills with language and tension building and insight into characters that take years to develop.  You don’t just have to master these skills, you also have to develop a feel for how they all work together [1].  And you can’t start doing any of that without investing a large chunk of your life and soul in a novel that is likely to wind up in a drawer.

I know how discouraging this sounds.  I know how discouraging it actually is.  A lot of writers, faced with the prospect of starting a second novel after shoving their first one in a drawer, simply can’t do it. So they give up writing and take up macramé or bowling or something. That is often a shame, because some of the practice novels I’ve seen show genuine promise.  The novel itself may be so fundamentally flawed that it probably won’t ever see print, but there is clearly a real writer at work behind it, one who deserves encouragement.   So take heart.  The practice novel is almost always the first step that anyone takes in becoming a writer.

Remember, your writing life is about more than just this one novel, even though it’s easy to get the two confused.  After all the work you’ve sunk into it, this one, massive project can become the only thing you see.  But if you really intend to become a writer, you’re probably going to write a lot of different novels in your life.  That will still be true, even if your first one goes into a drawer.  Letting go of that practice novel is often the first step in becoming a writer.

And you’re not alone.  In the introduction to his first published collection, 1981’s Happy to Be Here, Garrison Keillor describes a summer spent writing his own practice novel – his “shelf novel.”

I’d say that personal ignorance was the chief inspiration of that poor novel, that shelf novel, and was the main cause of its lingering death that summer, including ignorance of plants.  In a novel, characters shouldn’t lean against “a tree” – it ought to be a specific tree . . . just as when a character feels bad it ought not to be a vague sense of uneasiness but something definitely wrong and the writer should say what.  An impacted molar, too much beer at the ball game, fear of spiders, or what.

In my shelf novel, all the guys were marathon leaners.  They leaned against vague vegetation and felt vaguely ill and unhappy, probably the result of their getting no exercise and smoking so many cigarettes.  They smoked cigarettes like some people use semicolons:

“I’m not sure, not sure at all –” he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply – “perhaps I never will.”

. . .

What kept me beating on the novel was the sheer size of it and of my investment in it; this was no birdhouse I had screwed up but a genuine mansion, a three-story plaster-of-Paris mansion deluxe designed by me and propped up by hundreds of two-by-fours; a fellow doesn’t walk away from a mistake that big, he likes to keep at it; he thinks that maybe the addition of one more two-by-four will solve the problem.

It’s clear from this passage that Keillor had serious writing chops from the beginning – the collection of stories it prefaces were mostly published in The New Yorker, when that meant more [2] than it does now.  After polishing his character-building and storytelling skills through years of bringing us the news from Lake Wobegon every week, Keillor has written nine novels, in addition to collections of poetry, stories, and Lake Wobegon monologues.  He eventually got the hang of mansion building and now has a small suburb to his credit.

So if you’ve pushed your first novel as far as you can take it and still aren’t satisfied with where it is, put it in a drawer, gird your loins, and start the next one.  You can still find the passion, discipline, and creator’s joy that went into your first one.  I guarantee, the second one will be better.  And you’ll be a step or two on your way to becoming a writer.

So what are your stories of your shelf novel?  What did you learn from it, and how have you progressed since writing it?

About Dave King [3]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [4].