Tuesday, July 17, 2012

First Loves and First Books


“In writing, nothing is wasted but the paper.”
—Sid Fleischman

The day before I got married, I went and got a pedicure, as many brides do. The lucky lady working on my ugly feet immediately told me all about her own bridal bliss. She told me she had been married for nearly thirty years to her “lifelong sweetheart.” They had been together since they were fourteen, never even dated another person. “It was just meant to be,” she said as she scraped dead skin off my feet. 

I told her how wonderful I thought that was, but I remember feeling this mixture of annoyance and jealousy, partly wishing I had such a sweet story, and also viciously wishing her marriage would fall apart so she’d know that she wasn’t any better than the rest of us.

Likewise, I tend to feel just a touch of animosity toward those authors whose first books apparently came singing out of their fingertips, as though divinely inspired, and then the book sold in a six-figure deal and went on to be a raging success. Seriously? Shouldn't it have to hurt just a little?

The reality is, sometimes people marry their first love and stay happy forever, and sometimes people publish their first novel and it’s a wild success. It just didn’t work out that way for me—neither with my first love, nor my first novel. Some of us have to trip a few times before we stumble through the right doorway. Not only is this okay, it can be beneficial in many ways.

In junior high I was obsessed with a boy whom I’ll refer to as Johnny. Johnny was the boy of my dreams. Literally. I dreamt about him. Fantasized about him. I wrote L+J=TLA all over my journal, and every journal entry was about him. I was going marry him. My first novel was more or less the same. I got this idea and I obsessed over it. I dreamt about my characters day and night. I was convinced I had been divinely inspired with this idea, and that all I had to do was write it down and the literary gods would sing and land me on the Bestseller list.

I didn’t marry Johnny, in case you were wondering, but I pined away for him for over a year before I woke up and realized he was kind of a jerk* and I had better things to do with my time and energy. As for the book, I certainly wrote it. I wrote its guts out. I revised and revised and polished. I tore it apart and wrote it again. I spent two years on this novel, and even though I was no longer sure if any kind of force had ever inspired me at any point in this project, I refused to give up. I was not a quitter. Quitting was for pathetic losers.

At some point while working on this novel, I attended a conference where Gail Carson Levine was the keynote speaker. I adore Gail Carson Levine and soaked up everything she said, until she told me something I didn’t want to hear. “Sometimes you have to face the fact that something isn’t working and move on.”

Gasp! Surely not! Surely you can always make something work. Giving up is never an option!

I went back to work on my novel with renewed passion and dedication. I would not fail! Conquer or die! But all the while I had the echo of Gail Carson Levine’s sweet little voice in my ear—Move on. Move on. It would be another six months before I heeded Ms. Levine’s advice, and even when I did set aside my manuscript, I wasn’t sure I was making the right decision. I was scared I really was giving up on something wonderful, and what if I never wrote anything better? It felt like a giant leap of faith to leave that story behind and believe that there could be more, but at least I was able to convince myself that I wasn’t giving up, just moving on. They are two different things.

I started on a new book, something completely different, and a year later I signed a contract with Knopf for my first middle-grade novel. Also, years after I forgot about Johnny, I met this amazing guy, and we got married and had three awesome kids and have been extremely happy for over a decade.

In some ways, I still love that first novel and appreciate the experience it gave me in the same way I appreciate the experience my first “love” (obsession) gave me. Neither experience was a waste. I learned to write on that novel. I learned how to pace, develop character and plot, make smooth transitions, or spring on surprise. I learned about my process, how my ideas go from my brain to the page, and I learned to be patient with that process. I learned that not everything comes at once, and it’s okay to not know where you’re going all the time. I learned how to revise. Through all my hard work and struggle, my writing voice developed, so that when I started my next book, it came singing off the page with more ease than anything I had yet written. Not that I didn’t struggle with that book, but I had more confidence in my ability to make it work.

I am happy for those who get it right the first time, but their journey is different from mine, and I wouldn’t trade my path for any other. It’s my path, specific to my own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, and it’s okay if you have to take a few wrong turns before you figure out where you belong, both with love and writing. They are very similar.  

In short, nothing is wasted but the paper, and these days you might not even have to waste that.

*No offense to Johnny. I’m sure he grew up to be a very nice man, though I never kept track. 

 Liesl Shurtliff is the author of the middle-grade novel RUMP:The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, coming April 2013 from Knopf. You can visit her on Twitter or her blog.


  1. Loved this! And I loved the parallels between first loves and first books :D My experience with each wasn't a fairy tale either, but like you said, I don't think either was a waste. Great post :)

  2. What a lovely post, inspiring! Thank you.

  3. Thank you. I enjoyed reading this. I loved my first ms, but gave up on it too quickly, I think, to write a story that felt more "me". Now it's been over a year, and I'm still revising the "me" ms wondering if this one needs to be let go too. It's a hard decision. I've had full requests on both my first and second manuscripts, but that's as far as they've gone.

    1. Rachel, it's SO hard to know what to do in the moment. I gave up on my first book without ever querying, simply because it just wasn't where I knew it needed to be and I felt I had done everything I could. I needed to step away. But if you're querying, maybe you don't give up until you've exhausted all avenues. Good luck!

  4. Preach it, sister!

    I've recently decided to put to rest novels two and three (May B. is number four. I'm currently working on number five). I've rehashed them for years, trying to improve them. The work I did was good, but not good enough. It's liberating and good to walk away.

  5. Easier said than done, but I suppose everyone's experience is different -- in marriage and in book publishing! I know a few fantastic writers who I can't understand why they haven't gotten a book deal yet; more perplexing is when I read a buzzed about title by a debut author and can hardly understand how they were published! Some of it probably comes down to taste, too.

  6. Great post, Liesl. You are so right--to each her/his own path.

  7. I'm chuckling reading your post, Liesl. Sadly, my first novel which I wrote and thought was so very brilliant will never see the light of day. Your comparison to first loves is perfect.

  8. Interesting post, Liesl. I still love my first novel, although no one else ever has. I like to believe that one day I'll pull it out and make it work. It makes me feel better to think this.