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?