First manuscripts are a big deal. It's an incredible accomplishment to finish them, it's thrilling to have someone else read something significant that we created, and you never know-- it could turn out you're the next J.K. Rowling. But there are a few things that can be hang-ups for writers.
- First manuscripts can be your first, second, or third novel (or tenth, etc). For the purposes of this post, a first manuscript is the first one you've revised based on comments from knowledgeable writer friends and taken to the querying stage. I have a "practice novel" that I wrote before my first manuscript-- it barely got finished, I never queried it, and I had no idea what I was doing. My next one, I was much more serious about, and I revised and queried it in a way that gave me a chance at getting published. If you want to be published, it's important to push your manuscript past the "practice" stage and into the querying stage, because it will make you a better writer and your story a better book.
- First manuscripts often aren't the ones that end up making an agent offer to represent a writer. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. There are multiple reasons: the story wasn't unique enough, the plot wanders or is too slow, the prose is flat or has voice issues, or the writer wrote in a genre that isn't selling right then. Everyone is still learning when they write their first manuscript (and their fifth, and tenth, and fifteenth...), and sometimes a writer's second manuscript is on a completely different level of quality than their first. The process of writing that first one and getting it out there is invaluable experience and skill development, most of which shows up in later manuscripts. Some second manuscripts I've read were so much stronger than the first, I could hardly believe it was the same writer.
- Just because an agent doesn't sign a writer based on that writer's first MS doesn't mean the story will never be published or it was just for learning. I know several writers who, under the guidance of their agent, went back and rewrote that first manuscript and now have book deals for them. They could see the issues they couldn't see before, and story improved dramatically because they're better writers now.
- It seems like it's fairly common for a writer's first manuscript to be a paranormal or epic fantasy, the first of a series, with a large cast and complex backstory. Mine certainly was. I love stories like this because they're so imaginative, but I also shot myself in the foot. When I didn't really know how to plot a compelling story arc, I saddled myself with a ten-thousand-year backstory and an arc that covered a five-book series. When I struggled with a fresh, unique voice, I gave myself characters who were thousands of years old from multiple cultures. But holy cow, I learned a lot. Writing a book with two main characters and three secondary characters seemed easy. Writing the voice of a modern-day teen in one POV was a relief. While writing that story taught me tons, it also took me two years and did not get me an agent because I saddled myself with a story a new writer could not possibly do well. (There are always exceptions, but 99.9% of the world is not J.K. Rowling, so...) A lot of writers seem to choose a giant, complicated fantasy like that for a first manuscript, and I loved writing mine and learned a lot from it. But here's the problem....
- Since those stories are such a labor of love and demand so much time and effort from us, when we don't sign with an agent based on that story, we often flounder. Do we self-publish? Start the sequel and keep going? Start a new manuscript?
First, wait to start the sequel. Whether you're self-publishing or pursuing small presses or an agent and a traditional book deal, wait to start the sequel. You never know what's going to happen to that first book, and you don't want to spend five or eight or ten years writing a series that isn't going to sell.
Second, your debut as an author is a big deal. Keep that in mind as you decide whether to query a new MS or self-publish. Of course agents sign writers who have self-published, and publishing houses will take on an author who has self-published. But almost everyone is looking for breakout writers and breakout books, and if you self-publish your first manuscript, you have a track record. People will see how your book does, and (sometimes unfairly) project how your future books will perform.
Third, sometimes that's awesome. We all know of a few authors who have been brilliant successes with their self-published book. But it's important to keep in mind that usually a) it wasn't their first manuscript b) they had the guidance and services of an agent and/or industry professionals, and c) they have an existing platform of people who care about who they are and what they do enough to spend their money to buy the book and help promote them.
Fourth, be patient. Waiting rarely hurts. You're done with that first MS and agents aren't offering-- now you have to DO something, right? Not necessarily. Your book isn't going anywhere. You have time to make this decision, and it's not one you want to rush. It's your debut as an author.
Fifth, whether or not you want an agent, even if you planned to self-publish all along and wouldn't take a six-figure deal if it was handed to you, I'd recommend starting a new project that is not the sequel-- ideally while you're querying the first. It will keep your mind off querying, and you'll have a big chunk of it done before you even know how agents are reacting to your first manuscript. Writing something new, with new characters and new themes and new everything, can break all your bad habits and help you discover awesome new things you do fantastically. It will round out your skills and help you avoid burnout on your series.
One of the main reasons I recommend authors wait until they've completed a second manuscript, and not the sequel to that fantasy MS, is because their skills will most likely skyrocket between that first and second MS. My second MS came together so much more easily than my first, and as I wrote it, I kept thinking, "Oh. So that's how you do this thing." As I wrote my second, I had tons of ideas for how to improve my first story. Pacing and voice and emotional punch and suspense made so much more sense-- and I would not have had the chance to go back and improve that first story if I had self-published immediately. I've seen it happen to other writers, too. The process of having written multiple stories sharpens a writer's skills. Of course, you shouldn't wait til you've written ten books before pursuing anything with your first. What I mean is, give that first one a rest, try something new, and then come back to it. After all, it's an awesome story, and you love it, and rich, complicated fantasy is a gorgeous thing. It taught you a lot as you wrote it, and now you're a better writer; that story deserves your best. Go back to it and see if you can't figure out what it needs and why it wasn't succeeding before; I bet you find a few things.
That's why I recommend waiting to make the decision to self-publish a story that isn't getting the attention you want it to have. Your writing will change so much with your next projects, and you'll see things you could have sworn you'd done well, that could still use help. Let it rest while you write something new, and when you come back to it, make it better. Maybe with that next project, you'll sign an agent and that agent will give you guidance on the first MS. Maybe an agent will offer, and you'll turn him or her down, because you still really want to self-publish. Either way, your first manuscript will still be there, and you'll be a better writer, and you'll turn it from your first manuscript into a polished example of your best writing. And that's what you want for your debut, whether you want to self-publish, go with a small press, or pursue a traditional deal.