Things Not To Do In Your Debut Novel


“To sit down to read a novel is a mere fraction of the commitment required to write one, but in both cases the commitment must be made, and it needs to be driven by something very deep: What is essential about this story?

Why does it need to be told, other than to begin the career of a new writer? 

Lesson: To be sure, there are no new stories or new truths, but if we are going to revisit certain ones time and time again, it seems absolutely necessary – at least to this writer and reader – that it’s a story that needs to see the light of day, a story without which we’d be somehow poorer.”

Elegant Variation presents us with a very helpful, if occasionally frustrating summary of mistakes that debut novels make.

As something of a prospective debut novelist myself, I search high and low for advice on creating all the myriad components that make up a novel. Eventually, after reading through both About Writing and Writing Fiction for the endless time (both of which are indispensable), this becomes crippling and every sentence I put down appears guilty of violating at least one learned person’s “golden rule.”

I know already what my novel-in-progress is most “guilty” of, at least according to the Elegant Variation: taking on too much. Except that it’s not taking on nearly as much as what  my second novel will take on. And so on and so on until I feel like I’ve shared what needed to be shared. And which still wasn’t enough.

And if the first novel isn’t allowed to take on too much, then what is? At the risk of uttering a bold statement, the novel might be the only aesthetic construct that can viably take on “too much.” And it still won’t be enough.

I have no intention of sitting down and watching a ten hour movie that purports to include everything of import,  but I’ll gladly sit down and tackle a novel that has the audacity to stuff the whole world’s invigorating paradoxes within its pages, even if it is a debut. Maybe especially if it’s a debut.

The novel is ideally suited to excess because you can read it over however long you choose; you can pace the excess; you can re-examine, endlessly, the excess until it feels less excessive and more necessary.  It’s incredibly hard to do that with other artistic mediums.

Admittedly,  I’m guilty of something else though: loving the mega-novel, those “baggy monsters” to paraphrase Bolaño, a preference which might have deeply Freudian implications.

Anyway, I wish I could just skip the debut novel and go straight to the third or fourth novel.

But failing that I’ll instead go ahead and write the first novel, throw it out there, roughshod but passionate, absolutely lurid with writer’s mistakes, and then distract my hypothetical reading public with a book of lyric essays or illustrated prose poems at the same time as the novel so people will not be certain what came first.

Hell, if I had four blogs going too when my novel dropped, then everybody would feel thoroughly confused about my creative time-line.

To escape the curse of the debut, have at least six irons in the fire, that’s what I say.

But of coure that’s open to interpretation.

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →