Friday, February 09, 2007

What are the typical flaws of a first novel?

Who's asking: Me

This question came up recently when I left a comment on a friend's blog, dismissing a book's shortcomings as "first-novelitis." I knew exactly what I meant by that, and my friend, who is a writing instructor as well as an author, knew too. When I used the term with one of my clients, though, it struck me as a lazy shorthand for something that needed more explanation.

Helping people fix their books is a big chunk of how I make my living, so I'm giving work away for free here -- but it's useful for me to lay this out, for my own purposes.

Every novel has flaws (with the possible exception of The Great Gatsby), and most of those flaws originate in the writer's own weaknesses. First novels, however, tend to be both overwritten and underdeveloped.

You can't learn to write a novel except by writing it, and along the way you have to unlearn as much as you learn. One way or another, an author's entire life goes into the first novel. First novelists tend to cram in everything they know about their particular areas of interest or experience. The ones who come out of writing programs often think they need a theme or "motif" (those quotation marks are just for you, Tod), and wreak havoc with their story trying to lard in symbolism, metaphor, political agendas and cultural references.

At the same time, a first novelist may know what's supposed to happen in the book, but lack the skills necessary to make a sequence of events believable. Why does Character A do that? Well, it's necessary to the plot. But is Character A the kind of person who would do that? No, not the way he's written. That means going back to the beginning to reimagine the character, and that's a daunting process for anyone. As novelists learn their craft and develop their skills, the flow of character into plot becomes more natural. First novels, however, often have characters doing things that seem out-of-character or abrupt, simply because the novelist had outlined the plot that way.

For an object lesson in this, go read Robert Crais' The Monkey's Raincoat -- a highly entertaining first novel -- and then read L.A. Requiem, which takes the same characters to an entirely different level. (I'm halfway through Crais' latest, which is another step forward, but more about this next week.)

That said, I love first novels. Somewhere I once read that a first novel sets the agenda for everything the author wants to explore in his or her career, and I love that idea. One of the books I read this week is a first novel from an author who's given herself a lot to work on.

What I Read This Week
(I'm off my usual pace; too much other work, which I can hardly complain about.)

Sarah Langan, The Keeper. This first novel is a horror story set in a town very similar to Gardiner; Langan did her undergraduate work at Colby, just up the road. Gorgeous writing, truly scary in parts, a little unfocused. It reminded me a great deal of the early works of Peter Straub, and even more of John Connolly's "The Reflecting Eye."

Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life. More client research, but so enjoyable I feel bad about charging for it. Helen Keller was an icon of my childhood (no jokes, people; I'm looking at you, Scott P.). I've mentioned before that my grandmother taught kindergarten at a school for the blind, so I can't remember a time when I didn't know about her. What I knew, however, was the sanitized version. Herrmann gives us the whole woman -- a socialist, a woman who liked her martinis, a woman who might have gotten married if her Teacher and her mother hadn't interfered. Fascinating.


Claire said...

Even The Great Gatsby has a couple minor flaws, though it pains me to say it. Fitzgerald's geography and time sense are remarkably sloppy.

Anonymous said...

What? WHAT?



Scott P.

AnswerGirl said...

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Scott Phillips, author of THE ICE HARVEST, a first novel like a diamond.

Let me clarify (for anyone who's clicked through from the Guardian, and has read this far) that flaws don't necessarily make a novel bad, and this posting was not meant to slag first novels. In fact, my original use of the term "first-novelitis" was to explain my endorsement of a first novel that my colleague had written a scathing review of. I liked the book, and chose to overlook the shortcomings my friend had pointed out.

Even the Mona Lisa has flaws.

roger said...

Hi, yes, I'm here from the Guardian. I'm now onto my second novel, so I hope I've moved beyond first novelitis.

As I writer, I accept that everything I produce will have flaws. It's insane to think otherwise. In the case of my first book, I'm probably hyper-aware of its flaws and honestly didn't need anyone to point them out to me. You make it as good as you can at the time of writing. Then you move on, accepting its imperfections as you do those of one of your children, maybe. Believe it or not, there were flaws that I willfully refused to fix. And actually my first published novel was not the first novel I wrote, which is quite common I think, and overlooked by reviewers.

I thought Kate Kellaway's article was excellent and the quote "reaction is easier than creation". And she did own up to her own inability to write fiction, I think, which was laudable.

roger said...

Sorry - my post got a bit garbled - I loved the quote "reaction is easier than creation" was what I meant to say.

AnswerGirl said...

The fact that first novels share a set of characteristic flaws (as well as characteristic strengths) does not mean that first novels are not worth reading. Nor does it mean that we shouldn't judge first novels by the same standards we use to evaluate any other novel. Presumably, writers write to be read, and every reader brings his or her own judgment to the table.

Second novels have their own set of challenges. Novels written to deadlines once a writer's achieved success have another characteristic set of flaws, and maybe I'll lay those out at some point.

Everyone's working to create the best book they can, given the tools at their disposal. And of COURSE it's easier to edit or criticize than it is to create. It's a privilege to be part of that process, but I never forget that I'm just an assistant.