First novel blues

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So you have written your first novel, eh?

You are feeling pretty proud like a new father or mother cradling their first-born child. Your head is filled with the literary success stories … JK Rowling, Lee Child, Jeffrey Archer. In your imagination you have already chosen the colour for the leather interior of that Lamborghini you are going to buy. And half written your Man Booker prize acceptance speech.

I had to rain on your parade or wee on your candle, but there’s a problem with that particular scenario.

You see, 99.99% of first novels don’t make gazillions. According to the internet (so it must be true) there are somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million books published each year in the US alone. On average, most sell less than 250 copies.

So sure some will sell in huge numbers and make their authors a fortune. But most will not. Sorry. That’s just the way that it is.

Publishing is like a pyramid. There is a very fat and wide base made up of the books that only sell in small quantities. I should know, I’m down there too. Then the pyramid gets narrower as we work our way up to the few megastars who make oodles of money.

Statistically, you are more likely to be one of the massive base than anywhere near the peak.

You don’t know it yet, but your first book almost certainly has a number of common newbie mistakes. Mistakes that you don’t even know are mistakes yet.

The bad news is that an editor will spot these mistakes instantly. They will probably be able to tell within the first paragraph whether it is saleable or not.

And yes I did say the first paragraph. Some editors will stop reading after the first line if they can catch a whiff of that most unmistakeable perfume – eau d’amateur.

This is where I have some bad news and some unexpected good news. The bad news is that you have a sworn enemy you didn’t know about. A super-villain bent on your destruction. A nemesis.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you … drum roll please … Mrs Miggins at number 42.

What’s that? You don’t think that Mrs Miggins is much of a super villain? You were expecting someone … I don’t know … taller or more menacing? Someone wearing a cape, perhaps?

Let me tell you about Mrs Miggins. While you are proud of your first novel, she has written six already. She is a member of the local writers’ circle. She hangs out on internet writing forums. She reads “how to” books.  She devours books in her chosen genre.

You can be certain that she knows what the newbie mistakes are. She has a much better idea than you of what publishers are looking for.

Most of all she writes. Lots. She writes in the morning while you are having your breakfast. She writes in the evenings while you are sitting in front of the television. She even writes in her sleep while you are agonising over black or cream leather with the red piping.

Mrs Miggins is your competition. And the bad news is that she is much further ahead than you are.

Imagine that an editor is sifting through the slush pile of manuscripts they have received. It is a pile that may have hundreds or even thousands of novels in it. Who is that editor going to choose – your book complete with its newbie mistakes or the latest highly-polished book by Mrs Miggins?

I know, I know, I know. Your dream is that your book is special. It has that certain spark of greatness in it. A diamond in the rough. The editor will spot your potential and help to mentor you to greatness like a kind and wise Yoda.

Yeah, right. That does happen, very occasionally. It’s far more likely that the editor will choose someone who doesn’t need to much work.

Mrs Miggins doesn’t know it yet, but her years of hard work are about to pay off. She is about to become the next overnight sensation. Then the press will forget all about her early years of being rejected and getting nowhere. She will be the one visiting the Lamborghini dealership and saying “I’ll have one of those … and one of those … and two of those.”

I can sense you’re getting a bit depressed by all this bad news. How about some of that good news I promised you?

You’ve got to ask yourself a question. How did Mrs Miggins get to be Mrs Miggins? Okay, smart-arse, she married Mr Miggins, but that isn’t what I meant.

How did she learn all the newbie mistakes? How did she find out what editors want? How did she learn to polish her writing so that people would actually want to read it? How did she learn to produce a professional manuscript to rival anyone else’s?

I think we both know the answer to that one, don’t we?

Writing is a skill. Like any other skill, it can be improved with practice. Too many people give up when their first novel doesn’t sell (and the chances are it won’t). They convince themselves that they “can’t” write. That writing isn’t for them.

The Mrs Migginses of this world keep on writing, getting better, learning the craft. The only way to beat Mrs Miggins is to become Mrs Miggins.

No, no, not like that. I am sure that there isn’t room under the duvet at number 42 for you, Mr Miggins and the current Mrs Miggins.

You need to put in the hard miles. Learn. Michel Roux didn’t become a Michelin starred chef after he cooked his first cheese on toast. Usain Bolt didn’t break the world record for the 100 metres at the first attempt.

You’ve written your first novel. That’s fantastic, great, a huge achievement.

Now go and write another one.

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