the first time

My first novel comes out about a month from now. It feels weird to call it “my first novel.” It is my first published novel, but it’s far from the first thing I’ve written or even the first novel I’ve finished.

But I think there’s some trial and error in writing. You never get it right the first time. The first novel I ever finished was this overwrought teen drama that I wrote when I was maybe seventeen. On the rare weekday afternoons when I was home (I participated in a lot of extra-curricular activities, so these were rare indeed) I would sit at the computer in my mother’s room, typing away until she got home from work. (We had a pretty cutting-edge set up for the time. When I was a kid, we were usually the last kids on the block to get any new technology—I personally didn’t own a CD player until, like, 1998—but we were, I think, the first among the families I knew to get a computer.) So, I banged out this novel over the course of several months, and I don’t remember all of my thought processes, but I do remember the euphoria I felt when I finished the last chapter. And you better believe I printed that sucker out and hugged the manuscript for a while. (I think I even bound it, actually. Yes, I was a big dork.)

You never forget the first time, right? I saved that novel onto a floppy disk and took it with me to college. Four years after I finished the book, I took a look at it again. At the time, I was writing a thesis and needed a distraction. By then, I had three and a half years of college under my belt, and that included two creative writing classes, and my writing had improved so much that I was able to recognize how terrible the first draft was. So I started over from scratch. I took the same characters, aged them up a little, sent them on some new adventures, and wrote whenever I could steal time from my thesis and my job and my (inadvisedly heavy) course load. I somehow managed to finish a second draft before graduation.

I moved to New York about a month after I graduated, and it took me another month to find a job after that, so I had free time enough to start thinking up other stories. I sat down one day and decided to write a novel based on where I was in my life at that time: I had finally managed to cauterize the wounds from a fairly traumatic breakup, I was feeling a little aimless with nothing in particular to fill up my days, and I was, well, in New York. Thus the second novel I ever finished came about. It was angsty and cathartic, aimed at being an anti-chick-lit novel but ultimately succumbing to my great fondness for a sweet romance and a happy ending. I later had that novel bound at Kinko’s and gave it out to a few friends of mine to read. The verdict was, basically, “Um, Kate, this is a thinly-veiled autobiography, and, uh, it’s well-written and all, but… no.”

So that was a failure, but you have to grow and move on. I started and abandoned a lot of projects. I wrote a couple of novels of no redeeming value. I didn’t feel that “I finished!” euphoria again until I wrote a screenplay based on this story idea I’d been kicking around for years (an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery crossed with an action film… there’s amateur detective work and also explosions!), and I think that elation was due more to the fact that I’d finally committed that idea to paper (or screen, I guess) than about the fact that the screenplay was any good (because I’m pretty sure it’s awful).

Two years ago, I made a commitment to myself to write at least a little every day. I think that changed everything. It seems like such a small thing, but I think it was vital in both my actually finishing a novel and in producing something that was any good. I still have a lot of false starts, but forcing myself to think about writing every day, and to actually write, means that I am more engaged with what I’m working on, which is all to the good. So, last June, I finished a novel that I was confident enough to send out. And it will be published next month.

As I finished writing this post, I noticed that Rick Reed wrote a post comparing finishing a novel to shooting a child. It’s not as crazy a metaphor as you’d think. You take the time to love and nurture your characters, and then, rather abruptly, you’re done with the novel and it’s gone.

But that first one. I take it out every now and then, perhaps as a concession to my seventeen-year-old self to fulfill that dream and get it published. I rewrote it from scratch again a few years ago, but it falls victim to the fact that I’ve grown a lot as a writer even in the few short years since I last did serious work on it. So I read it now and think it’s awful. The novel has a lot going for it—I still love these characters, I handled the settings well, the ending made a friend of mine cry (in the good way)—but this might just be the thing I open up every now and then and tweak and rewrite and it will never be finished. But visiting it is sort of like visiting old friends.