The First Novel I Wrote Will Never See Daylight


I wrote my first fantasy novel from 2009 to 2010.

My mom liked it, my brother-in-law (who reads widely in the genre) was polite but unenthusiastic, friends at school thought it got better as it went along (one said it was “A good first book,” which is a rather nice way of saying, “I’m sure you’ll get better”).

Even my then-girlfriend couldn’t get into it. But I convinced myself it was great for five years.

It was intended to be the first in a projected six book epic fantasy series. It came to around 160,000 words and it followed a young man through tragedy, uncertainty, and war.

(I also wrote the first draft out by hand and had to enter the whole thing in via a combination of speech to text and typing – I don’t recommend that approach for epics.)

For those five years I fiddled with that manuscript: changing a few chapters, polishing the text smooth, sharing it with friends, and wondering how to get it published. Oh, that first book.

It was terrible.

There were plenty of reasons why it was terrible, but at the time I couldn’t see them. Time and reflection can clarify vision.

Let us perform a postmortem, shall we?

My first three notebooks, the first table of contents, the first handwritten draft, and the first printed draft.
The First Page of Notes and the Original ToC, both atop draft stacks.

I Lacked Life Experience

When I was on a flight out of Salt Lake City shortly after drafting it out, I had the opportunity to talk to a woman who owned a cattle ranch. I shared that I had written a book and she asked me to tell her about it.

Somewhere in our conversation, as I expounded on how my young protagonist didn’t know right from wrong, she said, “You haven’t suffered enough.”

At the time I was offended.

Surely my life had its share of suffering. Surely I had overcome enough adversity already to write an authentic tale. Today, I believe she gave me a great and precious gift.

From 2010-2019, I encountered and experienced a good deal of suffering. In that period I also got married and had two children. I had tasted deeply of both the bitter and the sweet.

A lot of things I had never done, I did.

Do I regret writing the novel before I had lived more? No. Do I regret attempting an epic so early? No, I don’t. Instead I now keenly understand something that Damon Knight wrote:

I would almost be tempted to recommend that you leave writing alone until you are in your early thirties, but what if writing is all you want to do? You’re going to have to go the route, frustrations and all, just as I did.

Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction

I wanted to write an epic. This was the impulse, so I did, even if I wasn’t ready. Brandon Sanderson shared about his fear that his books would never sell, that he would have shoeboxes filled with rejected manuscripts stacked away – discovered only after his death.

But he vowed that he would never quit. It would appear that his effort paid off in the end.

So I learned a lot about writing before I knew what to write about. That isn’t such a bad outcome.

I Hadn’t Read Enough

They tell you to read if you want to be a writer. This advice is so ubiquitous that it’s hardly fair to give any one particular author credit for inspiring me. But for starters: Damon Knight, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury got there before anyone else.

I figured that a BA in English and years of reading after my interests would be more than sufficient to meet my needs. Not quite. Though I had a framework to build on.

The thing is, volume really isn’t enough. I had read plenty of pages (some of them multiple times) but my reading remained relatively narrow and shallow. And as an old boss of mine likes to say, “You can have ten years of experience or ten years of the same experience.”

Paradigm: Repetition without reflection risks stagnation.

(There were two areas in my life where I largely learned “by ear” and repetition: writing and violin. Yes, I could read words and music, but I couldn’t tell you what was happening on the page functionally. And there were passages that I could not easily decipher because I did not understand the rules. )

Yet, from 2010 through 2021, my reading interests burgeoned as did my skill at interpreting as I brought critical intentionality into my consumption. (Hopefully the trend hasn’t stopped.)

Part of this breakthrough into becoming a better reader has to do with my discovery of Grammar and Stylistics, beginning in 2012.

Before then, I had not yet fallen in love with what Le Guin calls the “glamorous aspects of writing, the really sexy stuff – punctuation, sentence length, grammar.” (If you haven’t read it yet, see her introduction to Steering the Craft: The 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.)

The carpenter who doesn’t know his tools (another Le Guin illustration) can’t think or talk about his work in any meaningful way. In like vein, if you’re not a naturalist, when you walk through the forest, all you can do is enjoy the beauty and describe what things look like (and even that with all-too-often ill-fitting words).

But a naturalist who walks through the woods, armed with his lexicon of terms and the syntax of his profession, not only can name names and describe with precision, he can see into the deep mysteries of the wood.

Instinct and blind fumbling couldn’t bring me to the heights of any art. I had to learn to read well.

But the wound was deeper still.

I Had To Fall In Love Again

Le Guin notes that the love of language is something that children possess but lose along the way. Her words ring true for me, and, like her, I could cast blame on the people and systems who contributed to the dampening of that ardor – but she does that well enough on her own (that’s another plug for her book, go read it).

So, I had to fall in love again:

A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original…It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.

W.H. Auden, “Writing” in The Dyer’s Hand

Love of language, according to the poet W.H. Auden, precedes devotion to the Muse. This makes sense to me.

If a writer loves words and playing with them, and he knows how to say a lot more of what he wants to say, that will reduce the frustrations he experiences while working with the mechanics of his craft.

He need only supply the inspiration, the substance for the variety of forms he can deploy.

Combine a love of words with an understanding of grammar and syntax: Now you’re cooking with gas.

Thus consistent investment into technique and vocabulary is of triple value:

  1. You get the skills
  2. You spend less time learning to write while story-telling
  3. You reclaim the joy of words and their play

But how? How did I personally reclaim my love of language?

Reading beautiful writing, specifically poetry. This is a solid practice that comes out of the “read all the time” school of thinking.

Roger Zelazny read poetry every day (he and I both love W.S. Merwin), so did Ray Bradbury (it’s what he credits for his famed lyricism – if you have access to it, see his Paris Review Interview or open up his Zen in the Art of Writing, you’ll stumble on the sentiment pretty quickly).

So I read poetry every day and I keep a folio of my favorite poems (also bits of Shakespeare) that I handwrite out and return to.

Or to allude – gruesomely – to Gene Wolfe: I eat the brains of my favorite authors.

Yet, as if with any craft, understanding the materials and tools isn’t sufficient to become proficient.

You have to put in the time.

I Had to Write A Lot More

True ease in writing comes from Art, not Chance,

As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.

Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”

There is no escaping the other truism of becoming a writer. You have to write. A lot. How much? I’m a fan of consistently writing, even if it’s trash, every day.

Sanderson says write 2000 to 3000 words a week for 10 years (a novel a year) and you will have a chance of having this writing thing pan out.

King writes 2000 words/day, every day, but he encourages beginners to aim for 1000 words/day.

For my latest novel, I had to write consistently for two years before I began to feel I was really getting somewhere – at my best writing between 500 to 1000 words/day.

At the time I finished my first novel, I didn’t have anything like a consistent writing schedule. All I had was a small quiver of short stories and another abandoned novel (40,000 words seems to be the norm for my abandoned, unfinished novels).

It wasn’t enough for me.

But that failed novel actually gave me plenty to chew on.

For one, writing a novel established that I could write a novel (or at least the mass of one). That’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome. Maybe it was misshapen, maybe it was full of tropes, maybe the prose was amateurish – but it was still a long story that I had written.

Completing that book gave me time to reflect: What worked? What didn’t? Why did I make a world that I wasn’t really that interested in? How could I improve my craft? Worldbuilding? Characterization? Storytelling?

I did plenty of reflection.

Maybe sharing a little about the book itself would be illuminating:

Inspiration, how did it arise? Well, my first book started as a parody of World of Warcraft (this appealed to my love of James Thurber). Two of my friends came to me one night and asked if I wanted to be a part of a creative project.

I agreed to come on as an “advisor.” (Oh my, the pretension!)

There was lots of talk, hours and hours of talk with notes and arguments and eureka moments (airships and magic systems and cultural histories and so forth).

But for a long time, nothing ever got written beyond the notes. Not until one night I decided that I wanted to pursue a point of inspiration from our talks. The parody elements were quickly shed and a new story was born.

But it was still a generic fantasy. Some 160,000 words of generic fantasy that I wasn’t interested in trying to sell.

The first page of notes. It contains no spoilers.
The first page of notes from when the first book was going to be an animated web comic.

I Needed More Inspiration

Here at last we come to the Muse. The Boys in the Basement as Stephen King says. Fred as Damon Knight names it.

Consistent inspiration is fueled by a process of discovery that cultivates growing familiarity.

Familiarity encompasses what has been, what can be, and how you might explore further – all of which shape your perception of the possible, what could be made from everything you’ve filled yourself with.

To pick a simple example: It’s easy to believe that just because you’ve read dozens of Medieval fantasy novels that you’re ready to write one.

But the fact is, the details that genuinely masterful writers deploy don’t translate smoothly into an actionable vocabulary for the aspiring writer.

You have to internalize and practice, moving beyond the cliches and tropes of your chosen genre to make the text feel real.

Philip K. Dick dove deep into his research to create the small, but powerful Man in the High Castle.

The highlights include: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer (a thick and meaty read that I just haven’t quite finished), Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, The Goebbels Diaries, and the I Ching (very interesting approach to this last one, look it up some time).

He went beyond the surface level understanding of how the culture thinks about Nazis and acquired a depth that he couldn’t bring himself to return to for the sake of a sequel. Staring into the abyss has its risks.

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books (I’ve been stuck on book 12 for a while) are a masterful example of careful study applied to the art of creating a compelling historical fiction world (and he’s a wonderful stylist too!).

I have found that discovering inspirations involves keeping aware of what interests me, what I’m enthusiastic about understanding. Indeed, the most fulfilling approach I have discovered is to be a keen and curious observer of life.

Bradbury says it best:

By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse.

Ray Bradbury, “How to Feed and Keep a Muse”

Beauty From The Ruins

Awareness of the importance of my own life experience, more and better reading, a love of language and its machineries of joy, a consistent writing ethic, cultivating inspiration, and a life of patient observation – these are the lessons that arose from the work of my first, failed novel.

(And I discovered, through my learning that they are not lessons that I alone can benefit from – may they enrich you as well, Dear Reader.)

From the ashes of that first work, only one chapter survived in any form to provide the seeds for future prose. But the fruit that has come from the ruins has been rich indeed.

I’d say it was worth it.

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By Bryan E Rye

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