Monday, 5 December 2011

What makes a debut a debut?

Well, duh, Crabbit fool. Surely a debut is just a first book, different from your second only by virtue of being first. No, not necessarily so. And if you think like that, you may never write one. Or rather, it may never be published, which makes it not a debut.

I recently wrote a blog post for Catherine Ryan Howard about debuts - on the subject of Mondays are Red having been my debut, although also not my debut. Do head over and read it and then come back and ask me a question or say what you think.

I think it may help you in your struggle with that awful agent response, "I like it but I don't love it enough." This phrase doesn't necessarily mean that your writing isn't good enough or that there's anything you can do to that novel to make it lovable-enough. It may "just" not feel like an idea or execution which is going to set the sales and marketing team alight sufficiently for them to take it.

Which, frankly, is very gah-inducing.


liz fenwick said...

Thanks for that post Nicola. Very timely as my d├ębut is about to be launched on the world in May. During the 7 years it took me to hone my skills and learn about the industry one question stuck with me. Helen Corner asked me...what is the book to launch you? I answered The Cornish House. I'm not sure if I knew then the reasons why it was but my gut said it was....and your post and my increasing understanding of the industry still think it the right answer...fingers crossed.


catdownunder said...

I had a sort of "I like it but I don't love it enough" response - but the agent then went on to say of trying elsewhere "indeed I would encourage you to do so". I still do not know whether she was the wrong agent or I have written the wrong book. (I have taken her advice and am trying elsewhere but it is the sort of puzzle that leaves me more confused than ever!)

Dan Holloway said...

I think I understand (and how I understand it, it makes perfect sense). A debut (like a launch party as opposed to various events at which you've read from your work previously) is a vanishing point for your authorial indentity. It's the thing what goes before all led up to, and the thing everything (in that version of you) that comes later will point back to. Hence it has to have a certain "mass" to it (gravity in the literal sense of having the mass necessary to exert sufficient pull in both directions). Whilst books that come later can be equally punchy, they need not be, and are not reuired *per se* to have the punch of a debut, because they don't do the same job. Which means a book may be splendiferously spiffing but not a suitable debut.

Two and a half years ago when I was last querying, I had several rejections of the type you mention, one whih stood out in particular, after my "dream agent" had read the full caboodle. I think I can quote the whole shebang witout breaching anonymity:

"I've had a read - I love the writing: it's fresh and original and true. And there is a wonderful atmosphere here that almost convinced me to give this a shot. But I'm afraid there's just not enough energy and narrative driving it forward to convince me that I'd be able to get you a deal for it in this climate.

I would love love to know what you are working on next and to have a look at that. While I don't want to encourage you to give up on this one completely, I do feel it would be a tough novel to make a big splash with to launch your career. And that's what you really need these days as a first novelist."

It says pretty much exactly what you're saying about debuts (the "While I don't..." sentence was particularly useful - the not-so-subtext being *do* put this aside and start the next thing). It was incredibly useful in telling me what I needed to keep doing, and what I needed to do differently if I was going to have a successful debut (it was also useful because those things aren't something I really want to do, which made my mind up about self-publishing).

My question is this. What you are referring to as a debut sounds very much like what would have been called a breakthrough novel. Do you think the breakthrough novel is still possible? As I understand it, what came before the breakthrough novel was an essential part of making that what it could be, but if that big hit now has to come with published book one, that means, it would see to me, that writers have to get the same learning experience from their unpublished works as they would have done from their early published ones - but without the guiding hand of an editor to help them go from one to the other. If that's true, what's the best way for them to fill that void of support? It doesn't feel as though an editorial service, which is project-specific, could do quite the same as being under the tutelage of an in-house editor who is more interested in the overall career.

Katalin Havasi said...

I think the key phrase in Dan's comment is "big splash." A good debut makes a big splash. Excellent writing is not enough. Our stuff needs to be unique and powerful enough to have an impact on agents/readers.

Nicola's first novel had an impact because the topic was quite unique. Synaesthesia is not something you read about every day.

We need to keep trying until we have a truly original idea.

Question: Nicola, how did you learn about synaesthesia and what made you write a novel based on this phenomenon?

Nicola Morgan said...

Liz - I hope so! Sounds as though you've got it nailed. Good luck!

Cat - the agent could have meant exactly that. But she might simply have meant to point out that being turned down by one agent should never mean you don't try elsewhere. No agent would want to be the only person you ever tried.

Dan - your rejecting agent's comments sound exactly like what I'm talking about, yes. You are right that a breakthrough novel is one we may not have the opporunity to write nowadays, but that's only the case if the first ones did significantly poorly. You can write a few moderately successful ones and then write a breakthrough one. I think in essence we all have to succeed earlier than was the case long ago. However, I question whether you learn more from your early published books than your earlier unpublished ones - each can teach you. Many writers, once published, stagnate and learn nothing new. They may lose the hunger to grow. So, I don't see quite the problem you suggest.

Katalin - thanks very much for your comments. But the topic of synaesthesia was not unique or even very rare. In fact, another YA novel came out the following month, also about a 14-year-old boy called Luke with synaesthesia! It was (as always with novels) the treatment and voice which made it different. As to how I got the idea and why I knew about synaesthesia, I wrote about that in the back of the ebook edition :))

Katalin Havasi said...

Thanks for reflecting on my comment.

Nicola, I've learned from Amazon's free sample of 'Mondays are Red' that you know someone who has synaesthesia and you think that having this condition helps an artist see and express the world in an unusually rich way.

I'd love to read the eBook version of 'Mondays are Red' but I have two issues: first, I'm totally a nonfiction person. I don't even remember when I was able to finish reading a novel. If I don't stop after the first page I'll surely stop at the middle of the book. Somehow fiction cannot grab me.

Secondly, even if I tried again to read a novel I'd definitely read a physical book. It's easier on my eyes and I need the touch and "feel" of a real book.

Sorry for these...

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoy every word in your blog. This is the best writing-related site I've ever seen.

Sue Ford said...

Ooh, I've gotten the "I don't love it enough" response several times on one novel, so am going back to rewriting.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

Also very timely for me, as my debut novel is coming out in April, with an independent publisher so that means I am very involved in promotion. I am looking at this part as a job I have taken on, and the book as a work I want to flog. I don't know about making a splash but I will be in there with bells and whistles.
ciao cat