Friday, December 14, 2007

The “Specialness” of the First Novel …and How To Keep It Going

This post has come about because of a surprise I got in my reading life—one of the few times that a book/author who didn’t impress me at all before has drawn me in, at least somewhat, on the second try. Specifically, I’m talking about Katherine Valentine and the Dorsetville books.

I’ve mentioned Ms. Valentine in this blog before, in reference to The Haunted Rectory, which I thought was a horking good story—something that surprised me after I’d tried to read her Dorsetville books and been left utterly cold by them.

But then the day came at work when I needed a book that wouldn’t depress me, irritate me, or otherwise set my teeth on edge while I was reading at lunch, and I decided to give Dorsetville a try again.

And I was, if not entranced, at least pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the trip.

 I can’t say this for all of the books in the series, but after reading the first one, A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s, it’s clear to me—when it wasn’t before—why a publisher would have bought this first novel from this woman. It’s a whale of a good tale just to sit back and relax with, without too much angst, grit, or darkness to it (unlike The Haunted Rectory, which has all that and more). It’s strong Catholic fiction, for another, and that’s an area obviously close to my heart.

But what really impressed me as I thought about the book was realizing that it had an indefinable essence to it, an essence that for lack of a better term I’ll call the “First Novel Specialness.”

For some reason, a “first novel” has a unique feeling to it…which this book has. I’ve seen it in the Mitford books (which this book unabashedly pays tribute to); I’ve seen it now that I’ve finally read MHC’s first book (Where Are The Children?); and I can see it in the “first books” of lots of authors I read and love, whether I actually know the authors personally or not.

I can’t identify precisely what it is, any more than an editor knows how to label when something “works” for her, but I know it when I see it. I’m sure you do, too.

The question is, why and how that happens, and how we can make it happen for ourselves—whether we’re on our first book or seventh.

Because the next one, in essence, is always a “first book” all over again, especially if we’re trying to plan a career and advance to the next step up the publishing “ladder.” So why are first novels so good—sometimes better than anything else the author does afterward?

Maybe it’s because we generally spend more time on our first books than we do on subsequent ones; maybe it’s because we’re “learning” on those novels, and thus they get a lot of attention and thought that maybe subsequent ones don’t get. There’s always the very valid excuse that before you’re published, you don’t have an externally imposed deadline, so you can take your time and really “get it right.”

But for whatever reason, odds are if you have favorite authors and you go back to their first novels, you can see a) why they got bought and b) the potential they show in that early work for blossoming into what they eventually become.

So what is it in your work that would make someone say, “She’s got it”?
Or what is it in older works of yours that you go back to, read again, and think, “Yup, I nailed that there”?
Can you see growth from your first book to what you’re writing now?
Or if you’re on your first book, are you “hitting on all cylinders” yet, or are you still working on getting to that point?

Here’s to some successful First Novel Specialness, no matter what number you’re on!