The Birmingham Post’s Richard McComb is attending Tindal Street Press’s first creative writing masterclass. Here, guest tutor and award-winning Birmingham author Helen Cross explains the experience of getting her first novel published
What is a first novel? As a publisher once said to me, it’s just a book by a writer who hasn’t failed yet.
What it usually doesn’t mean is that it’s the first book that writer has written. If only.
How many first novels are really second novels, or even fourth novels? My first was really my second, and I know a writer whose first was actually their sixth.
Still, publishers love first novels. They’re everywhere proudly trumpeting their firsts: Astonishing Debut! Remarkable Young Talent! Groundbreaking New Voice!
All because this glorious newcomer has no track record of poor sales, negative reviews or failed promotions. A first novel is a book without baggage.
It’s the beautiful virgin newly arrived from out of town. But, as in all fairy tales, before you get to gaze on this gorgeous creature you have to first glare at few gnarled old hags.
So before we get on to my first published novel let’s think about the first novel I wrote. Let’s call this my first first novel.
There’s much pain in a first first, which is perhaps why many novelists deny their very existence.
We’re sad about our first firsts because we remember the great hopefulness of starting, the new notebooks, the new pen, the new desk, perhaps even the new job with reduced hours or the new house with the new spare room. Perhaps even the supportive new boyfriend.
With my first first I was in my early 20s and I decided to write a novel. I’d always wanted to be a novelist. As a child I kept diaries and wrote sketches and made books with felt-tipped cardboard covers.
(My pre-first first was called Pearl Greed – the story of a witch mermaid trying to steal the underwater pearls.)
At the time of my adult first first I was working in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Though I had a full-time job, I lived alone and so wrote until the early hours of the morning; sometimes until dawn.
So the first-timer begins, full of energy and hope.
And slowly, perhaps over many years, perhaps with the consequences of losing your mind, job, marriage and, if not those big subtractions, well certainly the important minor ones, of hope, time and money, you finish the damn thing.
Now here is where the sheep and the goats come in.
Some authors know they have written a rubbish book and some don’t. Some stop crying and put their first first away, carefully consider what they have learnt from this embarrassing debacle, and what they still need to learn, and so they move forward.
Others think their first first is a work of genius. Some try to use it to get an agent and as they dream of a soon-to-be transformed life of riches, celebrity, and alpha status.
Try to not marry these people.
Luckily, I’m naturally hard on myself. No bad review could ever be as bad as the reviews I give myself, so I knew my first first was rubbish as soon as I read it – four years after I had started it (three years longer than the year I’d vowed to spend on it).
What had gone wrong?