My Very First Novel

No, not Legend. I’m talking about my very, very, very first novel. You only have one first novel–not your first published novel, but the first one that you are able to write “The End” on. I know that for the most part (unless you are Stephenie Meyer!), first novels don’t end up going anywhere except for the back of your closet or the Archives folder on some old hard drive. And for the most part, this is a good thing. But I’ve always felt a certain rosy fondness for first novels–not just for my own, but for others’. It’s usually that first novel, however bad (or good), that teaches us that we want to become writers. It’s the one that makes us realize that we can do it. The dream is possible, at least according to our word count.

Here’s the story behind my first.

I’d been making up little fairy tales ever since I was five, and over the years they had gotten progressively longer. When I was eleven, I wrote my longest story yet–an eighty page, handwritten fantasy adventure about a squirrel king and his squirrely kingdom that was noticeably inspired by Brian Jacques’s Redwall and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. I even have that wrinkly old notebook hidden in a crate somewhere in my mom’s house. I remember thinking to myself that I could write something even longer, “maybe as long as an entire book.” That was my thought, verbatim. I still remember it.

I took this goal to heart when I turned fourteen. I was a high school freshman when I first began writing with the goal of publication, and I was incredibly, perhaps arrogantly, optimistic about the ordeal one goes through in order to get published–after all, this was around the time when fifteen-year old Christopher Paolini had just started to hit the radar with Eragon, and when a fourteen year old girl named Amelia Atwater-Rhodes saw her very first book, In the Forests of the Night, published. I taped their newspaper articles to my computer desk and daydreamed about joining them. I figured that if I worked for a year, I might be able to get a literary agent by the time I was sixteen and then get a publishing deal a few months afterward. After all, young writers hit it big all the time. Why couldn’t I be one of them?

So I started writing a “real book”. I had no idea how difficult the publishing journey could be.

That first novel was a high fantasy titled The Wings of Heaven. I’m still not sure why I called it that, since it had nothing to do with the story. It was about a young, orphaned (of course) knight’s apprentice named Pher (pronounced “Fair”) Artemsrough who aspired to become a knight and who loved the kingdom’s red-haired princess. One day, a beautiful woman came to the kingdom and told him that he was the Chosen One, and that she was on a quest to bring him to the far reaches of the world so that they could find a shiny ancient object that would tell her what his role in a prophecy was. I can’t even remember who the bad guys were in this story, but there were definitely some bad guys. I think. Along the way, the beautiful woman and Pher picked up a ragtag team of elves, thieves, and assassins that all happily joined them on this quest. There were also some children that could breathe fire, some powerful sorceresses, and a snowy cave called The Dark of Night.

It was 160,000 words. Yeah, I know.

Of course, fifteen year old Marie was completely oblivious to all of this thing’s flaws. I worked on it obsessively. Every night, I’d set my alarm clock for 2 AM, wake up, stuff a bathrobe under my door so that my parents wouldn’t see lamplight leaking from the bottom of the door, and then write quietly until the hour right before dawn. I wrote notes in my schoolwork and drew pictures of my characters on the margins of my homework. I posted chapters of it onto a personal site that I shared with my closest childhood friend. I spent a great deal of time lost in the whimsical haze of First Book Euphoria. I promised myself that I would finish it. I will never forget typing “The End” on that manuscript–I leaned back in my bedroom chair at 3:30 AM, stretched my arms up high, and smiled so hard that I thought I might break.

It was a terribly written story. I loved it with all my heart. I learned from The Wings of Heaven that I could finish a novel-length book, that I could carry characters from point A to point B (however badly), and that I could keep a promise to myself. I learned that if I wanted something badly enough, I would find the time to work on it–even if it was in the middle of the night.

Of course I went on to submit it to over a hundred literary agents, and of course they all soundly rejected it. I don’t think I even had a single request for sample chapters–that should tell you something about my query-writing skills. I remember crying over some of those rejections, laughing over others, stuffing them all in a big manila envelope (which I still have), and then pushing stubbornly onward. The thing is, looking back, my naivety was probably my greatest advantage. Had I actually known how difficult it would be to get published, I might never have finished that manuscript. I never might have been able to face getting rejected. And writing another manuscript. And getting rejected. And writing another. And getting rejected. And another. And another. If I hadn’t been so naive, I might have stopped right there. But I was so young, arrogant, optimistic, ignorant, and hopeful, and because of that, I was able to convince myself to write “just one more.” Most importantly, I was able to figure out over time that I wanted to write stories regardless of publication, that I loved it and that it was a permanent part of me.

This is why I love first novels, in all their imperfection and wonder.

So. Tell me about your very first novel. Maybe it’s the one you’re working on right now, or maybe it’s published, or maybe it’s sitting in some dark corner on your hard drive. When did you write it? What genre? What’s your relationship with that first manuscript?


33 Responses to My Very First Novel

  1. Deanna Nov 14 2012 at 5:01 am #

    Surprisingly i’m still working on my manuscript an its been going for how long? i ask myself that everyday (or when someone else brings it up). 3 other stories are in the works too. the top 2 that i’d have to choose would be a fanfic (i know that it can’t be published but i need to get it out somewhere, right?) and the other is somewhat complicated that it can’t really be put into words. i only just begun to write it ad now that the characters are slowly coming together… i think i’m getting there.

    i could honestly say that writing from the bad guy’s p.o.v. is rare (or reading it is rare for me…. i don’t know… ?) and i just wanted to get into the mind of a bad guy while also putting down a great storyline. as my favorite author says: butt+chair=story!

    the story i’m currently working on would have to be a supernatural/horror/fantasy/religious fiction.

    ps–sorry for how i’m typing this… 4 am and no sleep for almost 3 days isn’t worth it… but my story needs me. lol

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:38 pm #

      Haha–I know the feeling of typing at 4am. 😉 I love stories with dark protagonists (which I suppose is a story from a ‘bad guy’s pov)!

  2. jeffo Nov 14 2012 at 6:06 am #

    The NaNo I did two years ago is very technically my first novel, though I tell everyone the one my first was the one I started a week after NaNo closed. Why? Because, while the NaNo, is ‘finished’ (i.e., 50K words, with a beginning, middle and end), it’s not really ‘done’. Despite the beginning, middle and end, it wasn’t really a complete story, and it hasn’t been seen by anybody. The second one, on the other hand, has been read and revised and read again, and has been making the query rounds for the last 7 months or so. I have a feeling it’s going to suffer the same fate as most ‘first’ novels.

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      Hugs. <3 A first novel is still a first novel, though, and a worthy milestone in and of itself. As writers, we just keep on truckin'!

  3. Tioka Nov 14 2012 at 6:11 am #

    Thanks for sharing your journey. It’s made me take a look at what I’ve learned since first typing The End and how meaningful every step of the way has been.

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:42 pm #

      You’re welcome, and it’s always interesting to hear others’ writing journeys too!

  4. Marc Vun Kannon Nov 14 2012 at 6:41 am #

    My first novel was Unbinding the Stone, and I wrote it twice. It’s a fantasy novel, written back when I was in Graduate School for Philosophy. I was getting a lot of ideas thrown at me and they took on a fantasy form, because fantasy is good at that. I learned a lot of things, that first book: how to make different characters sound different, how to describe the world my characters moved through in a way I could stand to read. I remember wondering how I was ever going to write enough stuff down to make a whole novel out of it, and then getting the MS over 100K words quite by accident.
    Then, when that first version was consumed in a computer crash, I learned just how bad it really was when I went on a few years later to recreate it on a second computer. I learned on the fly how to take badly-written text and scrape the ‘bad’ off. I discovered the amazing phenomenon of the story that grows as I told it, overflowing the first book and inspiring me to write a second and now a third, although I’ve had other novels compete for my attention lately. That is the version that got published and is still selling, occasionally, and I recently did a second edition of the story, removing over 15K words. No idea when or if that will ever be released. No movie deals yet.
    Of that first version of the first novel, only about half remains, since I started writing it on a typewriter. My son thinks it’s worth saving, for some reason. Probably blackmail.

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      Haha–well, mine would definitely make for good blackmail material. 🙂 And it sounds like the computer crash was a blessing in disguise, so that’s good! congrats!

  5. Natalie Aguirre Nov 14 2012 at 7:21 am #

    Thanks Marie for the inspiration. I’m just finishing the revisions on my first manuscript that I’ve worked on for about 10 years. I’m going to query after the first of the year. And start a completely new project because I know my first baby may not go anywhere.

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:45 pm #

      Congrats, Natalie, and all fingers crossed for you! Always good to be working on another project at the same time, too.

  6. Kateri Ransom Nov 14 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks for this quite endearing story. It’s good to hear about people’s roots–how their own stories began. I have a rather lengthy story regarding my first novel, but the abridged version is that I started when I was 13 because I was freaking out that Harry Potter was about to be over and I would no longer have that world to escape to. Thankfully, I say, I didn’t know what fanfiction was, so my first thought was to just write my own. Seven years later the story is something very different and I love it very much. I am actually just about to finish it, and there might or might not be tears involved when that actually happens. 😀

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:46 pm #

      That’s amazing! I also wrote a lot of fanfic when I was younger–I really think it’s a great breeding ground for future writers. Congrats on nearing the end of your story!

  7. Erica Nov 14 2012 at 10:25 am #

    I love hearing about first novels too! I think I was about 13 when I started writing things longer than a couple of pages. Your first novel sounds a bit like mine did…only it was on an alien planet. The story was about a girl named Girl and she had to save her world from the Eaters. There was a Magical Sword, a blind seer, and a trek through a creepy forest of arms and legs called, you guessed it, The Forest of Arms and Legs. I remember showing it to my mom and she would ooh and aah and exclaim loudly that she loved it. She would tell her friends that her daughter was going to be a writer and I remember being very embarrassed by this, but also secretly pleased. I don’t think I ever thought about actually publishing anything. I just remember wanting to show what I was writing to anyone near me. My mom still has that story somewhere. It had the unfortunate title of The Adventures of Girl.

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:47 pm #

      Haha, the Forest of Arms and Legs sounds terrifying! Also, best title EVER.

  8. Amy Jane Nov 14 2012 at 10:28 am #

    I don’t know if it counts as my first novel any more, since I’m working on version 12 (how bad is that?) But it’s the first-novel that wouldn’t stay under-the-bed. I began it winning NaNo 2006, novelizing a favorite obscure fairy tale, and have worked in the cracks and crannies life’s offered since then to expand and polish the story to where it feels complete.

    Now it’s got a new voice, POV, and action sequences, I hardly know whether to call it the same novel. In my head it is, since my non-writing family keeps asking if I’ve “finished THAT novel yet” (Meaning, “surely you’ve at least tried to have it published by now), and the answer continues to be no.

    What genre? Epic Fantasy.
    What’s your relationship with that first manuscript? Hostage, with a touch of Stockholm Syndrome.

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:48 pm #

      Revisions are good–I think I hit, like, 20 rounds of revisions on Prodigy (Legend #2). Good luck to you on your journey with this novel!

      • Amy Jane Nov 14 2012 at 7:57 pm #

        20?! Thank you so much! You have no idea how relieved that makes me feel.

  9. Alexa (Loves Books) Nov 14 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Oh, oh, oh, I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH. It was a treat to hear about your very first novel that you finished Marie, and it makes me smile to think we felt the same way about writing and getting published (Christopher Paolini was certainly an inspiration to me to become a young, published writer – and his series is STILL one of my favorites!).

    I’ve started countless WIPs (and still have most of them on file), but I was a master at writing and finishing fan fiction back in the day. This, the piece I’m working on for NaNo, is actually the first one I’ve EVER attempted to finish, and I find it surprising that it’s going so well (even though I had a rough start). It’s harder than I ever imagined it could be to write all this stuff out – but I’m getting so much satisfaction out of doing it. I can’t wait to be able to type THE END on this baby!

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:49 pm #

      Aw, so happy that you liked this post, Alexa! <3 And congrats to you on your current NaNo project (and that it's going so well!)--typing "The End" is one of the best feelings in the world!

  10. Kendall Nov 14 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    What a great essay! It got me thinking a lot about my first novel(s). I posted my response here: First Loves, First Novels

    Thanks for the excuse to wander down memory lane

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:51 pm #

      Wow, what a great response post! First novels are so nostalgic. And I love your reference to Miss Havisham–I think I had that for a while with manuscript #2!

  11. Loie Nov 14 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Haha! Great post, especially during Nano!!!

    The story I’m working on for Nano is probably going to be my first novel length book where I will type The End on. I’ve started two other projects and got caught in the middle. But this one I brainstormed and drafted up an outline, to keep from getting stumped in the middle.

    It’s very exciting, to type The End, and to plow forward in revisions and so forth.

    Thanks for posting!!

    • Marie Lu Nov 14 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      Congrats on your NaNo project and its upcoming “The End” moment! So awesome!

  12. Carrie-Anne Nov 14 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    I’ve been writing for 28 years (since I was 4), but I didn’t write anything of novel-length till I was a bit older. I now realize that the stuff I was writing as a preteen was novelette- and novella-length. I stayed with the characters in my Atlantic City WWII-era (and onward) historicals all these many years, far beyond their immature roots, so I know there was something special about them even when I wasn’t even writing them in novel-length books. I’ve permanently shelved the first of my series with them, since I just realized their stories and characterizations no longer fit with the people they became. It would take way too much editing and revision if I transcribed those particular books so many years later. I’ll continue to take the strongest material for use in other books with these characters taking place in the same timeline.

    160K is a drop in the bucket for me! My Russian historicals and my contemporary historical Bildungsroman are way, way longer than that! I write historical, so I naturally gravitate towards long, sweeping, complex sagas with lots of characters and subplots. If I combined some of my Atlantic City books (since many are interlocking), they wouldn’t be so short anymore.

  13. Erin Bowman Nov 15 2012 at 11:53 am #

    “My naivety was probably my greatest advantage. Had I actually known how difficult it would be to get published, I might never have finished that manuscript…But I was so young, arrogant, optimistic, ignorant, and hopeful, and because of that, I was able to convince myself to write ‘just one more.'”

    I want to hug you. This post, Marie!!! I luff it. <3

    • Marie Lu Nov 15 2012 at 12:45 pm #

      Aw! <3 Hugs back!!!

  14. Carla Luna Cullen Nov 16 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Love this post! Like you, I wrote my first novel when I was in high school. It was meant to be the journal of a woman ‘inspired’ by Mary Magdalene (so you could say that it was Biblical fan fiction!). I wrote it by hand in two notebooks, and then took Typing in my Junior Year (yes, typing!) so I could type up the whole thing and send it to publishers. This was in the 1980s, so pre-Internet, pre-computers. I never ended up trying to submit it, but I still have it, stored in a bo; it’s about 250 pages long, typed! It was terrible, but at the time, I was so proud of myself for writing a whole book!

  15. Alyssa Nov 16 2012 at 11:04 am #

    I love this! I’ve written many stories, poems, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings, but I’m currently working on my very first novel. While I’m fully aware that I may not (and probably won’t) be able to get it published, I love it. I love getting into my MC’s head and discovering things as I write. It’s the first idea I’ve ever had that’s worthy of being novel-length, and it’s teaching me so much about myself as a writer. Just like you during your experience with your first novel, I’m learning that I can DO this. I care enough about it that I want to make time for it and see it through to the end, and while I would love to one day be published, that’s enough for me right now.

  16. Kate Traylor Nov 19 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    You must have had a lot of nerve to keep going in the face of that much rejection. I’m awful at rejection letters–I can manage about three before I look at the story, decide it’s crap, and never send it out again. Working on that.

    The first novel I ever finished was for NaNoWriMo in… 2008? It was about a girl named Lucy who was a sort of dull sidekick to her best friend Amelia, a changeling who was always getting them into trouble. A sort of interdimensional watch organization had sent this woman to monitor Amelia, who had stolen her fairy-queen mother’s family grimoire and was starting to make trouble with it. The watcher was called Miss Snowberry, who looked like a no-nonsense, grown-up Snow White and was posing as a biology teacher.

    The novel was thoroughly pantsed, and was unfortunately such a tangled mess that I couldn’t edit it. I really liked it, though, because it was all about Lucy learning that she was a vital, intelligent, interesting person on her own, and didn’t have to play second-fiddle to Amelia just because Amelia was bossier. It was a lesson I needed to learn, myself. : )

    • Amy Jane Nov 19 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      Love this idea! Too bad the pants were so tangled. (I’m still wrestling tangled pants from 6 years ago, and think I’ve nearly won, but it makes me sympathize with a loved story that looks like too messy to be worth it.)


      • Amy Jane Nov 19 2012 at 10:09 pm #

        Not to imply your story’s not worth the effort!
        You’re the only one who knows what your story vs. time algorithm is.


        • Kate Traylor Nov 20 2012 at 3:28 pm #

          Haha, thanks! I’ve actually been halfway planning to tackle a total rewrite after I’m done with this novel-turned series that I’m currently working on. A total rewrite always results in a completely different story, though, and I worry that I’d lose a lot of the elements that I really love about the novel if I rewrote it–plus I want to write the stories that resonate with my 28-year-old brain, not my 24-year-old brain. We’ll see, I guess. : )

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