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The Training-Wheels Novel

March 21, 2010 1st Draft, Books, Editing, Fiction, Revision, Writing 18 Comments

By Nichole Bernier

I was mid-way through reading an interview with Amy Bloom in The Guardian when I ran into a line that stopped me short. I had to read it twice.

“She was in her mid-30s when she started to write, her 20s having been spent raising three children and working fulltime. She would write late at night and first produced a mystery novel, which, after it was accepted for publication, she bought back because she didn’t think it was good enough.”

Let me repeat that in case you didn’t catch it the first time, either. She bought it back. From the publisher. Because she didn’t think it was good enough.

I dug a little deeper into this anecdote, and might have even tried to interview Amy Bloom myself if I were not raising children and writing and, let’s be honest, if this were a paying article.

Instead, I googled for an earlier interview that might mention this bought-back book. I found one in 2000, in the literary magazine identitytheory.com. The book she’d yanked back had been a mystery novel, titled Them There Eyes.

She had this to say about it: “It was my warm-up … It wasn’t anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed. But it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print.”

This fascinates me.

So many writers talk about the proverbial novel in the drawer, but like many clichés, it’s there for a reason. It seems everyone has a novel in the drawer.

When I first started writing fiction and heard writers talk about the one that got (put) away, I couldn’t imagine it: all that creative energy, the characters trained to say just the right thing, the heartache and carpal tunnel syndrome, moldering somewhere in a computer file and chalked up to experience. Those years of late nights and middle of the nights and early mornings, all just training wheels for the big ride to come some other day.

Those are the phrases I hear to describe these first novels: Warm-up exercises. Limbering stretches. Training wheels.

Just the other day, I was talking to my husband about this from the slough of revisions of my own first novel, which my agent plans to sell soon. I was comparing it to the bike my daughter rides, pink and white with Dora the Explorer on the side. In a prolonged metaphor that amused only me, I told him I’d tinkered with this manuscript for so long that I’d pushed it to the starting line through the sheer force of my stubbornness. Whether or not it was the soundest vehicle, my Dora bike was now lining up for the Tour de France, its tall plastic flag flapping in the wind and little metal bell going brring-brring-brring all the way.

Is there something wrong with publishing your first novel? Should I have stood up after finishing it, cracked my knuckles a few times, then sat down to write something darker and more exotic—something that resembled more closely the novels I find most transporting to read, set in other cultures, countries, times? I hadn’t done it consciously, but I’d followed the old adage that you should write what you know. For me, that was the terrain of motherhood and marriage, honesty and facades, security in an uncertain post-September 11th world. I’ve heard Amy MacKinnon talk about her own training-wheels novel of motherhood; she sent hers down to the drawer, and began work on what would become her hauntingly beautiful work about an undertaker, called Tethered.

All writers want to come out of the gate with their strongest work. So I suppose the real question is, how do you know when you’re doing your best work, and since that’s an ever-changing benchmark, can you embrace yourself as a work in progress? I once read about a well-known author, someone quite old and established, who said he never went back and read his old work because the desire to change it was too strong.

We are all so critical of ourselves, we writers. Though it seems to me the greater danger would be to keep pulling back, always measuring your work against some elusive voice you dream someday to express, which may not in fact be your own.

At times when I’m spinning my wheels, I wonder to what extent it’s possible ever to be completely satisfied with your work. To hand it over with a confident Fini!, and maintain that certainty all the way to publication and beyond.

And I wonder too if Amy Bloom ever reads her old work and hears a little brring-brring-brring herself, and can love it anyway.

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Currently there are "18 comments" on this Article:

  1. Chris Abouzeid says:

    My training-wheels novel was a novella, which is kind of like the Teletubbies 3-wheel scooter of novel-writing. Luckily, nobody liked it, so I didn’t have any trouble putting it in a drawer. But this may explain why my first true novel was a little wobbly.

  2. Sharon Bially says:

    Nichole, this strikes a chord. I have two unpublished novels in a drawer. In part this is because I myself moved on from loving them to the point of wanting to keep pushing them out into the world. And I sure learned from the writing process, and improved. That said, there ultimately must come a point when we stop stuffing drawers and accept that, ok, this one is ‘good enough.’ Having an agent’s support can help tremendously. Besides, what’s ever really ‘perfect?’

    I do admire Amy Bloom’s self-imposed stellar standards. (Without double-checking this, I believe Arthur Golden has done something similar.) On the other hand, we all need to draw the line between what to file away and what’s good enough to publish for ourselves, and why. After all, we are the CEOs of our own writing careers.

  3. Dell S says:

    Great post Nichole. Amy Bloom sounds very much in the minority; I can’t think of any other writer with the poise, foreknowledge, and balls to do what she did. I couldn’t.

    There’s no reason to think your novel is not the stuff of a worthy first novel. My first novel is in a drawer, training wheels rusted. We writers will never be able to run from our critical minds, and that’s probably a good thing. I try to embrace it, because it moves me to be a better writer.

    Perhaps the greatest danger writers face is to be hyper aware of the outside influences of publishing trends, agent needs, and the fickle, ever changing needs of book buyers. You’ve written the novel you wanted to write. That’s never a bad thing.

  4. Becky Tuch 99review says:

    Awesome post, Nichole!

    I love the image of a writer finishing a first novel, standing up, cracking her knuckles and saying, “Well, that’s done. Now for the REAL work.”…Ha!

    What motivates me to edit my work-in-progress is the feeling that I am learning how to write a novel. Saying, “I want to learn this!” has given me much more space and freedom than telling myself, “I must sell this!”

    Thanks for the great post.

  5. Henriette Lazaridis Power Henriette says:

    Putting that novel in the drawer is like a massive act of murdering your darlings. It’s possibly a whole book of darlings–at least in your besotted writerly eyes. I think the danger is to cling too long to a manuscript that really just doesn’t have it. And even, god forbid, to send one out into the world without realizing that it’s actually the manuscript that should be occupying space in the drawer on top of broken pencils and rusty paperclips!

  6. Nina says:

    Great post! And what an interesting thing to know about Amy Bloom. I’ve put two novels in a drawer–one that even went back and forth with a few agents who gave me some solid encouragement (but no signing). Ultimately, I didn’t think I could give the book what it needed to succeed . . . I envisioned myself being stuck on it for years and years so I forced myself to stop sending queries and begin researching and outlining a new book. I look at those two novels as the graduate school I never had a chance to attend. But I was a true beginner when I started. YOUR first novel would not have landed an agent if it wasn’t ready. No second guessing!

  7. I’m querying my first novel now. I’m proud of it. I love it. I’ll even be proud and in love with it if I eventually tuck it under my mattress. I’m not ready to stop trying — but as I’m writing number two I’m finding there’s a new and better rhythm, a level of confidence. I might be unlikely to sell a first novel — but if you don’t write it — you can’t write the second one!!

  8. cynthia says:

    My first will always be my first,even though it’s currently in a drawer. I have hopes of selling it later, as my second or third. I think first novels have a place in our writing lives. So congratulations on getting yours published. Enjoy it.

  9. pam says:

    I’m not a novelist, I’m an essayist, and I don’t have publisher, I have a blog. Context.

    I installed a plugin called Archivist that pulls old stuff to my home page. Every 24 hours something appears from the dusty old archives, the virtual drawer, right there in sunshine where everyone can see it.

    Sometimes I think, GOOD LORD, that is AWFUL, and I delete it. Other times, I just leave it alone because I think, well, whaddaya know, I do not suck as a writer, not so bad, really.

    Training wheels. Student work. It’s amazing to me that Amy Bloom had the presence to know what was not her best work so soon. It’s taken me years to recognize what ought to gather dust and what belongs in daylight.

  10. JJ says:

    True words Nichole- damn, are they ever true…and the longer I spend, the worse this problem is compounded, because god forbid new insight becomes sparked about a characters, that’s real trouble…

  11. Necee says:

    Thanks for great post. My first novel is in the drawer too. It had an agent and didn’t sell. After that, I swore I’d never write another, but then these pesky characters filled my head and wouldn’t stop talking…

    Your post makes me wonder–if my 1st novel was published, would I want to buy it back? I think my second is oh-so-much better. But of course, I always am obsessed with what I’m most involved in.

  12. E. B. Moore says:

    When I was a kid I had a horse, no bike no training wheels. My father told me I had to learn to fall, and the way to do it was gallop full tilt, throw yourself off, roll, and get right back in the saddle. I loved riding. Maybe that’s why I like writing, it’s the same masochistic experience.

  13. Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

    Great post, Nichole. Wondering whether your work is your best is, indeed, a big question. But sometimes you’re just so close to it — even when you’ve pushed it into a drawer — that you can’t see any flaws at all.

  14. A fun option now is to self-publish a print-on-demand book, hand it out (or even sell it) to family and friends, and feel satisfied enough with that to move on to a serious try at producing a traditionally published book. It’s all in the process, and the process continues to change.

  15. delialloyd says:

    Hi Nicole

    This totally resonated for me. I have my training wheels novel too. and while I periodically haul it out to try and lure in an agent, somewhere deep inside I wonder if I should just write a second one -really far away from my own experiences-and maybe I’ll do better. I remember Anne Lamott saying that she could always tell first time novelists b/c they basically write about themselves (guilty as charged.) She did it too (hard laughter.) But then they grow out of this and write something different. I’m hoping that’s true for me, too!

    Delia Lloyd
    http://www.realdelia.com

  16. [...] Bernier, Beyond The Margins, reveals that Amy Bloom yanked back a novel which was accepted for publication, admitting in an [...]

  17. [...] Bernier, Beyond The Margins, reveals that Amy Bloom yanked back a novel which was accepted for publication, admitting in an [...]

  18. Suzanne says:

    I like the image of you lining up on your Dora bike, all earnest and ready for battle.

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Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (Crown/Random House, June 2012), which was a finalist for the 2012 New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, Nichole was previously on staff as an editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She received her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she received the school's annual award for long-form literary journalism, and has written for publications including Psychology Today, Elle, Boston Magazine, Salon, The Millions, and Post Road Literary Magazine. Nichole lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children, and can be found online at nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier. Read Full

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