My first completed novel was a YA Fantasy romance and a project near and dear to my heart, as most "firsts" are. I wrote it over six months, working at night, the thoughts and emotions pouring out as my fingers flew over the keyboard. I had passion for my subject, a great concept, and I was unencumbered by such trivial annoyances as story structure, character arcs, and theme.
I just wrote what I saw and heard in my head, as if transcribing a movie. And because I'm a lifelong lover of books, I managed to end up with a somewhat decent plot through osmosis. Because I've been a professional writer (journalist) my entire adult life, I managed to end up with a pretty clean book grammatically, and some of the prose wasn't half bad. What I did NOT end up with... was a great book. I didn't know this at the time.
I didn't know any other writers, had never heard of a critique partner or critique group, and was completely unfamiliar with the publishing industry. But I began the task of learning about it. It took a lot of research just to understand how the publishing process works. I learned about agents and decided I needed to get one. That led me to a charity auction where bidders could win the chance to have literary agents critique their work, usually the first three chapters and synopsis. I was hoping to win an auction and have the agent fall in love with my story and offer me representation. That did not happen.
I did win TWO critiques (accidentally) but neither agent offered me rep. What they offered was something far more valuable-- they told me my story wasn't perfect and where to start to make it better. It was hard to hear at first, as many "truths" are. But I believed they knew far more about it than I did. And they were representatives of the very group I needed to impress. Their peers were likely to find the same faults in my writing. And so the work began.
Some of the terms the agents used in their critique were unfamiliar to me-- GMC, story arc. I Googled them and found some incredible author's blogs that shared writing tips in terms I could understand. I started a (never-ending) homeschooling process and applied what I learned to my little work-in-progress. Over time it improved. I learned where a story should start (and threw out my whole first chapter.) I learned my main character should WANT something in every scene, and I gave her goals. I entered RWA writing contests and gained valuable feedback on what worked and what didn't for readers. I attended writing conferences and found critique partners who gave me honest feedback and pointed me to helpful writing craft books. I kept working.
And then my book became a Golden Heart finalist. It's a huge honor, and many of my peers were surprised I'd achieved it with my first book. But that "first book" had already undergone so many changes from its very first incarnation. It was the culmination of all the lessons I'd learned... up to that point.
I was sure the nomination would lead to agent representation if not a book deal. That didn't happen.
I did get a lot of requests from my queries. I also got a lot of rejections-- maybe not as many as some-- I have friends who've racked up hundreds of R's on their way to representation and sales. I didn't send as many queries, I guess, because I kept hearing the same sorts of things-- they liked it but didn't love it, it was original and well-written but *something* was missing. It was also a fantasy during a time when agents were seeking contemporary stories and anything fantasy/paranormal was making editors "run the other way." But that wasn't the main problem.
I loved that story with all my heart, but something wasn't right. It wasn't ready. And I wasn't ready. I wasn't a good enough writer yet to know how to fix it. So I put it away, and I moved on to the next story that had invaded my heart and my head.
This one was much, much easier to write because now I had some tools in my belt. From the outset I had a plan for the characters and a plot to add to all that passion for telling the story. That was the story that got me an agent.
Since that first book, I've written six novels. With each one I've learned. My first love was always in my heart, waiting for the time to be right, waiting for me to learn enough to return to it and know what it needed from me. I always knew I'd go back.
And a few months ago when I got to a stopping point in my other work, I picked it back up again and read it from start to finish. And I knew what to do. I dived back into that world and re-wrote the book, using all I've learned. It was a sort of high, working on it again. I was filled with energy, excited in a way I haven't been in a long time. I had the proper distance from it to see it as it was, to fix its flaws and make it the best it could be.
And it's ready. Nothing is missing.
If I'd kept sending it out as it was, I believe I would have continued hitting brick walls, becoming bruised and eventually broken, losing heart in the whole publishing process and doubting myself as a writer. In this case, it was wiser to wait, to let the book and myself marinate and mature. I had heard from other writers about the importance of writing the next book. But I couldn't understand it truly until I'd been through it myself. If I could go back and give advice to newbie-writer me, I'd say, "Don't rush it. Just keep going and learning. Your first love will wait for you, and when the time is right, you'll both be ready."
Or to borrow a quote from Maya Angelou-- "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."