By J.D. Rhoades
I’m not sure where it
was—which blog or website—that I first saw the term “practice novel.” At first,
the phrase kind of tickled me, because
it seemed like a sort of wry acknowledgement that the person’s first attempt at
a novel really wasn’t all that good, let
alone publishable, that its main value was in providing examples of what didn’t
work (or maybe as fire starters when the supply of pine knots gives out). But
then, when googling for more examples, I discovered that some people apparently
actually did write their first novel purely for practice, that they really
didn’t have any intention of trying to get it published. John Scalzi, for
example, whose brilliant Old Man’s War
is one of the best SF novels I read last year, had this to say:
I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first
that I wasn’t going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a
fun story. That way, if I screwed it up (which was a real possibility), it wasn’t
like I was screwing up the One Story That Mattered To Me. I decided also that
the goal of writing the novel was the actual writing of it — not the selling
of it, which is usually the goal of a novelist. I didn’t want to worry
about whether it was good enough to sell; I just wanted to have the experience
of writing a story over the length of a novel, and see what I thought about it.
Not every writer is a novelist; I wanted to see if I was.
The result was a humorous
SF novel entitled Agent to the Stars, (now available online) which, as Scalzi predicted, didn’t
sell. But he credits the experience with making his “debut” novel (the
aforementioned Old Man’s War) not
only salable, but award-winning. And, he says,
between the writing of this novel and the
publication of that one, five other books slipped out of my brain, due in some
measure to my confidence that I could write
book-length works, be they fiction or non-fiction. In a sense, this novel is
the midwife to every book since.
This idea fascinates me:
the idea that you’d write something as long and demanding as a novel with no
real idea that you were ever going to try to sell it or even have anyone else read it. Not because I believe, as
Dr. Johnson once said, that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote anything except
for money.” I’ve quoted that line before, in jest, but the truth is, the money’s never been that big a driving force for me (which is
fortunate, all things considered). Even if no one paid me for this, I’d
probably keep doing it (but for God’s sake don’t tell my publisher I wrote that. Or my agent).
And I’m also not talking
about writing something just because it might pander to some imagined audience.
It wouldn’t be satisfying, at least to me, to write something that didn’t
please myself first. I can’t see myself spending that much time and skull-sweat and not writing the "One Story That Mattered To Me". That’s one of the most terrifying things about this
business, though, isn’t it…putting something out there that you care about,
not knowing if anyone else is even going to read it, and even if they do,
My own first attempt at a novel, a humorous mystery entitled Rebel Yell, never saw the light of day. And now that I look back on it, I can see the mistakes I made as well as the things I think I did right. My other novels have benefited from the experience, I think, and, like Scalzi, I did find that yes, I could write to novel length, which gave me the courage to attempt The Devil’s Right Hand.
But I wrote Rebel Yell with the intention of seeing it in print. To start off not even caring whether the
book reached an audience, that you wouldn’t really care if no one but you ever
read it…well, you might as well be a tree falling alone in a forest. You’d make
a noise, or you might not, but who the
hell would care?
any of my fellow writers here ever written a “practice novel,” one where you
were just riffing, just playing around? Would any of you aspiring writers
consider doing such a thing? Why or why not? And would having the fixed idea that no one was going to read a particular piece of work cause you to change the way you wrote it?